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essays

February 1976

What is Value?

“The idea of value has different meanings as used in different intellectual disciplines, [and] a common meaning…does not exist.”

Axiology, or the general theory of value, is a philosophic discipline of relatively recent origin. Although philisophy, in its quest for the “good,” has long been concerned with specific realms of value, such as ethics and aesthetics, the idea of a discipline that would subsume all usages of value did not arise until the late nineteenth century. Much of the interest in value theory at that time was spurred by economists, such as Menger, who recognized the importance of value theory for their own investigations.

The guiding ideal of axiological theory has been to unify those disciplines that refer to values—philosophy, psychology, economics, and social theory—by identifying a root conception of value that they hold in common.

Risieri Frondizi’s What Is Value? is a well-written and reliable introduction to axiology. While any brief treatment of this complex field is bound to contain sins of omission, Professor Frondizi has done an admirable job in sketching the basic conflicts in value theory and in summarizing the views of major value theorists. In addition, Frondizi offers a credible solution to the problem of whether values are subjective or objective.

Frondizi summarizes a basic question of axiology as follows: “Are things valuable because we desire them, or do we desire them because they are valuable?” If the former is true, if the existence of value depends solely on the psychological states, attitudes, or desires of the valuing subject, then value is subjective. If the latter is true, if value exists independently of a subject, then value is objective.

Both of these approaches, in the author’s view, are flawed. Tracing variants of subjectivism from Meinong and Ehrenfels through Perry, Carnap, Ayer, and others, Frondizi concludes that value subjectivism leads to “axiological chaos.” Although it is true that values and the psychological process of valuation are related, it is a mistake to equate the two.

Frondizi finds value objectivism, in its traditional forms, unacceptable as well. Focusing on the axiological theory of the German philosopher Max Scheler, Frondizi rejects the notion that values are absolute qualities or essences inhering in nature, independent of man. This position leads inevitably to arbitrary value judgments, with an appeal to “intuition”—or some equally mysterious faculty—as the putative means or apprehending value.

Rejecting the subjective-objective antithesis as “the fallacy of false opposition,” Frondizi attempts to show that values have both subjective and objective aspects. Value is a “relationship… between subject and object”; value “is a relational notion requiring both the presence of the subject and the object.”

Developing this position, Frondizi arrives at a theory of value contextualism, where “values have existence and meaning only within a specific situation.” Essential to this theory is the notion of value as a “Gestalt quality.” The value of an object cannot be separated from its empirical qualities, but neither can it be reduced to them. Values emerge from the multitudinous interrelationships of subjective and objective factors, and the concept of value “has meaning only in concrete human situation.”

Frondizi is open to criticism on several counts; but the most significant problem is that, even if we accept his theory of value, it does not qualify as a generic concept applicable to all fields. Frondizi’s concept of value is most notably deficient in economics, where the subjectivist approach is unquestionably correct.

In the final analysis, I think that the axiological quest for a generic concept of value is misguided. The idea of value has different meanings as used in different intellectual disciplines, so to search for a common meaning among the usages of value is to search for something that does not exist.

Nevertheless, if restricted to ethics and aesthetics, Frondizi’s theory of value is suggestive and basically sound. What Is Value? is rewarding reading for those interested in this fascinating area, where there is still much territory to be explored. Reviewed by George H. Smith / Philosophy / Open Court, 1971 / $1.95