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Chapter I: The Definition of Value in Terms of Interest

One can generally tell a man's special field of investigation by the words which he uses carefully and the words he uses carelessly. The physicist now uses the word ‘atom’ carefully; that is, he is prepared to say what he means by it. The geneticist is careful with such words as ‘heredity’ and ‘environment’; the theologian with the word ‘god’; the logician with ‘proposition’ and ‘implication’; the mathematician with the word ‘number’; the economist with the words ‘price’ and ‘demand’; the political scientist with the word ‘sovereignty.’ Everyone except the specialist uses these words carelessly. The philosopher who is engaged in that branch of philosophy now known as “theory of value” is distinguished by the fact that the word which he is most careful about is the word ‘value.’

Everyone else uses this word carelessly. There is a usage of common sense, as when it is said that men lose sight of “higher values” when they practice power politics, or lose sight of “values” altogether in the machine age; or when it is said that it is the task of a humanistic education to make students aware of the “values” of life. ‘Value’ is now a favorite word among the sociologists, psychologists, and psychiatrists. The word is scattered through the text, and even mentioned in the index; but it is used like ‘and,’ ‘but,’ and the nouns and adjectives of everyday speech, as though its meaning were so well understood as to require no examination. The theorist of value, on the other hand, is one who asks, of himself and of others, “Precisely what is meant by ‘value’?” It is his business to have an answer to that question. In other words, ‘value’ is his careful word.

The question, “What does ‘value’ mean?” is not the same as the question “What things have value?” Though the two questions are often confused, the difference is evident when attention is called to it. The statement that “a sphere is a body of space bounded by one surface all points of which are equally distant from a point within called its center” is different from the statement that “the earth is (or is not) a sphere.” The statement that peace is a condition in which societies abstain from the use of violence in settling their disputes, is different from the statement that the world is (or is not) now at peace. And similarly, a statement, such as is proposed below, of what value is, differs from the statement that peace is valuable.

If the second of each of these pairs of statements is to be definitive and accurate it is clearly advisable to have in mind the first. If, in other words, one is to know whether peace is or is not valuable, it is well to know what ‘valuable’ is: in other words, to know what it is that is stated about peace when it is stated that it is valuable. But while the question raised by the second statement depends on an answer to the question raised by the first, the two questions are not the same question. And it is the first question with which the present inquiry is primarily concerned. In other words, theory of value ascribes value to things only in the light of what ‘value’ means.

Some philosophers, unfortunately, put the question concerning value in the form “What is meant by ‘value’?” or “What does one mean by ‘value’?” as though that meaning were already determined, and it was only necessary to call attention to it. Those who approach the matter in this way are accustomed to challenge a proposed definition of value by saying, “But this is not what is meant by ‘value’” or “This is not what one means by ‘value.’” The fact is, however, that there is no such established and universal meaning. Different people mean different things in different contexts. The problem is not to discover a present meaning — there are only too many meanings.

The problem is not solved, however, by simply enumerating these many meanings. This job is already done by the unabridged dictionaries which list, in fine print, all the varieties of meaning which appear in literature and ordinary speech. Theory of value is in search of a preferred meaning. The problem is to define, that is, give a meaning to the term, either by selecting from its existing meanings, or by creating a new meaning.

But one must not then leap to the conclusion that this giving of a meaning to the term ‘value’ is an arbitrary matter, dictated by the caprice, or mere personal convenience, of the author. One can, it is true, make the term mean “anything one likes,” but this would not advance knowledge, or be of the slightest importance, or be capable either of proof or of disproof. The man who said “When I say ‘value’ I mean a purple cow” would not even be listened to, unless by a psychiatrist or a kindergarten teacher. There must, in other words, be a control or set of criteria, by which the definition is justified or rejected.

According to the definition of value here proposed, a thing — any thing — has value, or is valuable, in the original and generic sense when it is the object of an interest — any interest. Or, whatever is object of interest is ipso facto valuable. Thus the valuableness of peace is the characteristic conferred on peace by the interest which is taken in it, for what it is, or for any of its attributes, effects, or implications.

Value is thus defined in terms of interest, and its meaning thus depends on another definition, namely, a definition of interest. The following is here proposed: interest is a train of events determined by expectation of its outcome. Or, a thing is an object of interest when its being expected induces actions looking to its realization or non-realization. Thus peace is an object of interest when acts believed to be conducive to peace, or preventive of peace, are performed on that account, or when events are selected or rejected because peace is expected of them.

Both of these definitions require clarification and elaboration; but these summary statements will suffice for the present purpose of indicating the criterion by which the definitions are to be justified. These criteria are three in number, namely, linguistic, formal, and empirical. When the definition is challenged it must defend itself on three grounds: its use of words; the clarity, definiteness, tenability, and fruitfulness of the concepts which it employs; and its capacity to describe certain facts of life, to which it refers, and by which it is verified. The definition is designed, in other words, to be at one and the same time, a nominal definition, an abstract or a priori definition, and a “real” definition.


In the first place, then, definition names, or affixes a verbal label; and in thus creating a verbal usage it has to take account of existing verbal usage. The fundamental purpose of naming is “ostensive”; that is to say, it identifies some object (thing, quality, act, relation, region, event) so that it may be subsequently recovered, and referred to in communication with others. It serves the purpose of directing the attention of several minds, or of the same mind at different times, to the same locus in the mind's environment.

Pure naming is conventional, that is, no account need be taken of any antecedent ostensive meaning, but only of brevity, euphony, and duplication. But naming is rarely, if ever, pure. In order that it should be pure the name would have to be new, that is, an arbitrary symbol invented on the spot. Verbal names, however, are usually secondhand; that is, the name has an antecedent usage, which renders its present usage appropriate or inappropriate. Even proper names, such as ‘Rose’ and ‘Violet,’ are commonly secondhand names. It is true that their use as proper names may become wholly, or almost wholly, divested of their original meanings; so that it would be absurd to dispute their application to a given person on the ground that she was in fact not rose or violet in color, but white or brown. But there is nevertheless a suggestion of flowerlike fragility which would render it inappropriate to give the name of ‘Rose’ or ‘Violet,’ except in an ironic sense, to a heavyweight prize fighter. Place names — of mountains, rivers, cities, and countries — arise from mixed motives. They are not merely labels by which the place is marked on the map for future reference, but, like ‘Rocky Mountains,’ ascribe to it the characteristics already designated by some common name; or, like ‘America,’ they say something about its history by borrowing the antecedent name of its supposed discoverer.

The words ‘value’ and ‘interest’ which are used in the present definition are secondhand names. Although they are here given a sharper meaning, to be consistently maintained, their appropriateness must be judged by their history and suggestiveness. In the light of existing usage do they serve well as pointers to focus the discussion on a certain region of inquiry?

In the present writer's early Harvard days the word ‘value’ was first beginning to become current in American philosophy, largely through the influence of Hugo Münsterberg, who, in addition to being a psychologist, was also a follower of the neo-Fichtean school of Windelband and Rickert. In fact, since Münsterberg learned to speak English fluently before he learned to pronounce it correctly, his students heard of “walues” before they heard of “values.” Münsterberg would be scandalized by the liberties which have been taken with the word since his day. For with Münsterberg and his school, “values” possessed an exalted dignity transcending both nature and sense-perception. They have since become completely secularized, mingling with the affairs of everyday life, and consorting intimately with the vulgar facts of sense-experience. They have even been desecrated by psychologists, in violation of that Anti-Psychologismus which was once with German philosophers a sort of Oath of Hippocrates.

Before the word ‘value’ could acquire that generality of meaning required for a philosophical theory of value, it was necessary to overrule the economists who had become accustomed to claim its exclusive use. But Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill had distinguished “value in use” from “value in exchange,” and, in so using the same word twice, had already broadened its meaning to apply to a field of which economic value was only a circumscribed part.

Since the beginning of the present century, the word ‘value’ has acquired a popular use which has eclipsed its transcendental use by neo-Fichtean philosophers and its technical use by economists. The conscious employment of propaganda has called attention to the diversity of creeds and codes by which different human societies are governed, and these are frequently referred to as different beliefs concerning what has “value,” or “supreme value.” At the same time the word ‘ideology’ has acquired vogue as the name for a set of ideas which concern “values” as distinguished from matters of fact. The signal failure of natural science to save mankind from war and its destructive effects is often attributed to the fact that science ignores “values”; and the world looks to religion or liberal education to restore them.

The word ‘value’ is, then, a good name, because its history suggests that there is something common to duty and piety, price and utility, ideals and codes. At the same time it points toward that aspect of human life for which it is customary to employ the eulogistic-dyslogistic vocabulary. It points to other pointers, and borrows the ostensive meaning of such adjectives as ‘good,’ ‘best,’ ‘right,’ ‘ought,’ ‘worthy,’ ‘beautiful,’ ‘sacred,’ ‘just,’ and such nouns as ‘happiness,’ ‘well-being,’ and ‘civilization.’ As a common name for what these words name, it suggests a common meaning, or the attempt to find a common meaning. Of the words which already have such ostensive meaning, and which will therefore serve as guideposts, ‘value’ best combines specific reference with breadth and flexibility.

The word ‘value’ has also a grammatical convenience, in that it possesses substantive, adjectival, and verbal variants. We can speak of “values,” of “valuable,” and of the act of “valuing.” This is, however, a dubious advantage, since it has given rise to serious ambiguities. Thus a value, in the substantive sense, may mean either that which has value, such as gold or justice; or a kind of value which it has, such as economic or moral. These distinctions are analogous to those between the determinable ‘color,’ the determinant ‘red,’ and the instance, such as ‘the rose.’

‘Valuable’ like ‘value’ suffers from the defect that it is sometimes taken to refer only to what is “good,” “right,” etc., and to exclude the opposites, ‘bad,’ ‘wrong,’ etc., which clearly belong to the same field of discourse. There is no way of escaping this difficulty except by the awkward expedient of distinguishing the “positively” and “negatively,” or “eulogistically” and “dyslogistically,” valuable, thus giving a broader meaning to the unmodified adjective when it refers to both.

Most insidious and disastrous of all is the ambiguity attaching to the verb ‘to value,’ which may mean making valuable, or judging to be valuable. Similarly, to “value a thing highly” may mean either to care greatly for it, and thus to give it great value, as when one loves money; or it may mean to ascribe great value to it in some scale of comparative magnitude, as when one judges money to be more precious than sleep. And sometimes ‘to value,’ or ‘to evaluate,’ means to assign value to an object for reasons, that is, because it possesses certain characteristics, as when one values money for what it will buy. These differences must not be over-looked as a result of economy of speech.


The second of the words employed in the proposed definition of value is the word ‘interest.’ Here, again, the word selected is an old word, already used as a name, but selected because of all the old words it seems the best word to substitute for a class of words — ‘liking,’ ‘desiring,’ ‘willing,’ ‘loving,’ ‘hoping,’ etc., and their opposites; and to suggest a common ostensive meaning as distinguished from that of another class of words embracing ‘sensing,’ ‘perceiving,’ ‘thinking,’ ‘judging,’ etc. If the word is to be used in this sense, however, it is necessary to exclude certain senses which are either too broad or too narrow.

In its broader use ‘interest’ is a synonym of attention; and the adjective ‘interesting’ is applied to any object or topic which attracts attention or excites curiosity, such as the sudden, novel, surprising, or contrasting. In this sense, a noise breaking into silence, or one's own name unexpectedly pronounced, immediately draws attention to itself and alerts the hearer. No doubt interest in this sense is commonly associated with feeling, desire, etc., but there is a difference nonetheless between sheer attentiveness — the turn of the head, shift of the eye, or focusing of consciousness — and the liking, desiring, etc., by which this may be conditioned, accompanied, or followed. This broader reference being eliminated, the word ‘interest’ points to attitudes of for and against, or what are sometimes called “motor-affective” attitudes, as when one says, “I am interested in the outcome,” or “all interested parties should be excluded.”

But here we encounter a sense of the word that is excessively narrow, its reference, namely, to self-interest or selfishness, which is a special case of interest. We need a use of the word such that the nurse's interest in her patient's recovery or relief from pain is as much an interest as her interest in gainful employment. The latter, or selfish, meaning is reflected in the use of the word ‘disinterestedness’ to signify interest directed to others. This word involves a flagrant ambiguity. There is a crucial difference between the absence or subordination of self-interest, and that state of apathy in which there is no interest at all. It is unfortunate that the word ‘disinterested,’ as when we speak of the disinterested judge, is used to mean breadth and inclusiveness of interest. It would be less misleading to say ‘all-interested.’

A second excessively narrow use of the word ‘interest’ is that in which it refers to the collective, and more or less permanent, interest of a social group, as when one speaks of “the interest of labor” or “the interest of the consumer.” The expression ‘the interests,’ used in a political context, suggests interest that is both selfish and collective or permanent. But if the word is to be used in these restricted senses, then there is need of another and broader use which makes it possible to speak of interests which are generous, or fleeting and individual.

Despite these ambiguities, the word ‘interest’ is the least misleading name for a certain class of acts or states which have the common characteristic of being for or against. The expressions ‘motor-affective attitudes’ or ‘attitudes of favor and disfavor’ serve as its best paraphrases. ‘Caring’ and ‘concern’ are also convenient synonyms. The absence of interest is indifference, as when one says, “It makes no difference to me,” “I do not care,” or “It is of no concern to me.” Indifference is to be distinguished from negative interest. Thus one speaks of not caring, or of its making no difference “one way or the other,” implying that interest embraces both ways. It is especially significant to note that the words for which ‘interest’ is substituted come in pairs of opposites, which are not related simply as grammatical positives and negatives.

‘Interest,’ then, is to be taken as a class name for such names as ‘liking’-‘disliking,’ ‘loving’-‘hating,’ ‘hoping’-‘fearing,’ ‘desiring’-‘avoiding,’ and countless other kindred names. What they all ostensibly mean is what it ostensibly means. It invites attention to that to which they in their severalty and community already invite our attention. It will occasionally, for reasons of diction, be convenient to use some one of these more restricted names to stand for the rest. But if the term ‘interest’ is used with reasonable consistency to stand for them all then these richer words can be used as names for the different species of the genus which will be introduced in the further elaboration of the subject.


Definition does not merely name, it also conceives. It fixes upon an intelligible meaning. It may put together old meanings, so as to create new meanings. Although the mind may conceive freely — that is, may conceive or not, and may conceive an infinite variety of abstract or ideal objects — when it does conceive, and whatever it conceives, it is subject to certain requirements which are inherent in the nature of conceiving. These may be referred to as the “formal” requirements of a definition. They are the conditions which a theory must satisfy qua theory; that is, in advance of being verified. Are the concepts here employed “intelligible?” How are statements about interest as here conceived to be translated into statements about value? Does such a translation result in contradiction, confusion, and sterility? Is it fruitful and illuminating? Does it violate any fundamental logical or epistemological requirement? But at this point it is appropriate to introduce certain objections which, if valid, would save the trouble of proceeding further.

It has been objected, in the first place, that all or most of the words of the class here represented by the word ‘value’ (words such as ‘good,’ ‘bad,’ etc.) have no conceptual meaning, but only a so-called “emotive” meaning.1 In other words, statements in which such words appear as predicates are not statements at all, but utterances. They have no objectivity, and are neither true nor false; but merely express the attitude of the person who makes them, and his desire to convert others to the same attitude. They are communicative and persuasive, but they are not cognitive and informative. Thus it is held that the word ‘good’ in the judgment that “Francis of Assisi was good,” refers to no Franciscan characteristic, actual or alleged, but merely reflects the fact that the maker of the judgment esteems Saint Francis, and desires that others shall also esteem him.

There is no doubt of the fact that words are commonly used with an expressive, commendatory, or disparaging intent. A love poem or a political diatribe is not the same thing as a mathematical theorem or scientific statement. Words such as ‘fascist’ and ‘red’ lose their conceptual meaning and degenerate into smear words; “the land of the free and the home of the brave” may serve only to express and arouse a love of country. Most verbal statements, however, have both an objective and an emotive meaning. The mixture of meanings appears in the fact that either of two retorts is appropriate. Thus if a man is called a “red” in a community in which this word is offensive, he may either become angry, or affirm his belief in capitalism. Ordinarily he will do both: that is, angrily affirm his belief in capitalism. If a man is called a “reactionary” he is no doubt condemned; but he is also conceived as wedded to the past. He can defend himself either by retaliating upon his accuser with the word ‘radical,’ or by pointing to his interest in the future.

A word having only an emotive meaning like the word ‘fie!’ is the extreme opposite of a word having only a conceptual meaning, like the word ‘ellipse.’ The great body of human discourse, however, lies between these extremes. If verbal usage were to be so amended as to leave only exclamations, exhortations, compliments, and insults, on the one hand, and rigorous scientific concepts, on the other hand, most persons all of the time, and all persons, including scientists, most of the time, would have to remain mute. Statements which employ such terms as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ may, and usually do, convey objectively meaningful concepts, either expressly or by implication. Thus when Saint Francis is judged to be good, the fact that he fed the birds, and thus manifested loving-kindness to living things, is taken as constituting his goodness. Or, suppose that A, addressing himself to B, states that Lincoln was a “good” man in that he hated war, felt compassion for soldiers, and emancipated the slaves. A is not simply expressing his admiration for the kind of man Lincoln was, and his desire that B shall feel likewise. He is identifying the concept of good with the concept of humanity, and ascribing it to Lincoln on the objective evidence of Lincoln's behavior.

The fact is that what force the argument has arises not from the absence of objective conceptual meanings, but from their abundance and variety. The argument reduces, then, to this: that there are no invariable objective meanings attaching to such terms as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ in common usage. Sometimes they mean one thing, sometimes another. Well, what of it? It is the business of theory of value to define such an invariable meaning. It is unlikely that because the word ‘matter’ has no common objective meaning as currently used it therefore has only a subjective or social meaning. Similarly, there is not the slightest reason why theory of value should be limited to ready-made meanings; should, in other words, be content to be a contemporary history of ideas, instead of undertaking that systematization of concepts which is the essential task of theory of value, of physical and chemical theory, in short, of all theory.

To reject the extravagances of the emotivist theory does not imply that judgments employing value terms are not peculiarly likely to be imbued with emotive meaning; nor does it forbid the supposition that judgments employing these terms may, in certain contexts, be wholly, or almost wholly expressive and persuasive in their intent.


It may be objected, secondly, that while the word ‘value’ does have an objective, conceptual meaning, that meaning is indefinable. According to one variety of this view, value, or some equivalent, such as good or right, is a specific, irreducible, “non-natural” characteristic.2 Its being “non-natural” means that it is neither physical nor mental, and therefore can not be empirically observed. It can, however, so it is alleged, be seen by the eye of the mind, and, when so seen, it is seen to be unique and unanalyzable.

Although volumes have been written for and against this contention, it should require no argument whatever. If unanalyzable value is there within the range of intellectual vision, it should be possible, after a reasonable amount of effort, to bring it into focus. He who fails to find it cannot but conclude that there is no such thing; especially when the authors of the doctrine do not agree among themselves on what they find.

According to another variety of the view, value is an indefinable empirical quality, or a class of indefinable qualities such as pleasant, enticing, fascinating, awesome, revolting, etc.3 These qualities are in some way connected with feelings — either they consist in feeling, or are apprehended through feeling — hence they may be designated “affective qualities.” Since, like the “secondary qualities” color and sound, they have a prima facie objectivity, they are sometimes called “tertiary qualities.”

This is not the place to examine the merits of this view, except as concerns the question of analyzability. As sensation blends with sensation to create a new quality (such as a fused tone or color), so sensation blended with feeling possesses an integral character which is distinguishable from the characters of its constituents. But this can scarcely be cited as evidence against analyzability since it is a statement of precisely what, in the field of sense-perception, analysis is. The problem presented is the problem presented by all analysis. There is a sense in which nothing is analyzable — namely, if it is assumed that analysis must leave things precisely as it finds them. Analysis here as elsewhere destroys beyond recovery the first blush of the immediately presented. But if all this be true, and if it applies to value, it is already too late to speak of value as unanalyzable or indefinable.4

The history of human knowledge creates a presumption against indefinables. At the outset of any inquiry its subject matter is, as yet, undefined; nothing is, as yet, said about it; it possesses the character of a questionable vagueness located in a certain indefinitely bounded quarter of the field. When the definition takes place, this pseudo-simplicity of ignorance is superseded by articulate complexity. There is always something which escapes the final knowledge of a given subject matter, namely, the antecedent phases of ignorance. But to allow this to deter us from definition would be a cognitive defeatism. Self, activity, causality, substance, matter, force, heat, have all appeared in the role of indefinables only to prove definable. The history of thought is strewn with abandoned indefinables; and it seems highly probable that the value-indefinable will shortly come to rest among these relies of man's unfinished business.

There is a further meaning of ‘indefinability’ which can, for present purposes, be eliminated. Logic and mathematics employ so-called indefinables in a sense which is relative to their own systematic procedures. Certain terms are taken as indefinable. The choice of the word ‘indefinable’ in this sense is unfortunate, since it appears to say that the concepts in question can not be defined, when it really means only that they are not defined. Their selection as indefinables within the system is quite independent of definable meanings which they may or may not have outside the system.

The final proof that a conceptual definition of value is possible is to provide such a definition. The definition here proposed must satisfy two sets of requirements. In the end it will appear that it must be descriptive, that is, must fit a certain selected body of facts. But in advance of this empirical test the definition must satisfy certain formal, that is, logical and epistemological, requirements. These requirements have to do with the framing of the theory — with its internal structure. It must be “theoretically” acceptable. The concepts which it employs must not only be clear and intelligible, but must lend themselves to judgments which are capable of systematization and elaboration. More specifically, the present definition must be capable of defending itself against charges of circularity, self-contradiction, and sceptical relativism.


The charge that the definition is circular consists in pointing out that when a thing is affirmed to be good because it is an object of positive interest, it is always possible to raise the question of the goodness of the interest. Thus it is generally agreed that the goodness of drugs is questionable despite the intense craving of the addict; and it is usually concluded that the drug is bad because the craving is bad. It would seem to follow that in order that a thing shall be good it must be the object of a good interest, in which case ‘good’ is defined in terms of good.

But this objection loses its force altogether when it is recognized that an interest may itself possess value, positive or negative, by the application of the same definition as that which is applied to its object. While the craving does invest its object with positive value, the craving may be invested with negative value from the standpoint of other interests; and this second value may be considered as overruling the positive value owing to its taking the higher ground of health or morals. The appetitive goodness of the drug does not include or imply the hygienic or moral goodness of the appetite. There are two goods, one of which is, in some sense yet to be examined, superior to the other. In other words, the definition does not state that a thing is good only when it is the object of a good interest, but when it is the object of any interest, good or bad. When the interest is good, its object is thereby enhanced, but there is no circularity.

But in escaping circularity does one not fall into contradiction? Is it not contradictory to affirm that the same object is both good and bad? The charge of contradiction is lightly made and, as a rule, superficially examined. The important thing is to discover just what propositions would, and what propositions would not, be contradictory. It is sometimes supposed that the expression ‘one man's meat is another man's poison’ involves a contradiction. But there would be a contradiction only provided the same proposition was both affirmed and denied. Thus is would be contradictory to say that one man's meat was not that man's meat, or that another man's poison was not his poison. Meat to one man and poison to another are not contradictories, but are two different and consistent propositions.

By a kind of grammatical license the term ‘contradiction’ is sometimes applied to interests. Strictly speaking, interests do not contradict, but conflict. Only propositions contradict. But interests are sometimes allowed to borrow the contradictoriness or consistency of their objects when these are stated as propositions. Thus the interests in preserving and in destroying the life of the same individual are said to be contradictory, because the will of one can be expressed by the resolve “he shall live” and the will of the other by the resolve “he shall not live.” But to speak of interests themselves as contradictory is confusing and misleading. Two contradictories cannot both be true, but two conflicting forces can coexist.

To assert of the same object that it is good and that it is bad seems to be contradictory, because the two assertions are elliptical, that is, because of the omission of the axis of reference. It may seem to be contradictory to assert of the same body that it is “above” and “below” when one fails to specify what it is above and below. Similarly, it seems to be contradictory to say of the same thing that it is both good and bad when one omits to specify the interests from which it derives its goodness and badness. The interests being specified, there is no contradiction whatever in asserting that the same object is practically useful and aesthetically ugly, or that the same act is selfishly beneficent and socially injurious.

But is not contradiction escaped only by falling into relativism? Well, if one may be permitted a vulgarism, and so what? The word ‘relativism’ has a bad sound; even the word ‘relativity,’ despite its association with the latest physics, conveys a suggestion of philosophical untenability. But suppose that one substitute the more colorless word ‘relational’ and, instead of rejecting it as a fault, boldly affirm it as a merit; since it provides not only for value, but for ambivalence and multi-valence.

Many of the most familiar characteristics of things are relational. There is no disputing the fact that brother and son are relational characteristics. In other words, when one describes a man as a brother or a son, one states his relation to another human being. For any man, there is someone to whom he is related: “God gives us relations.” So, according to the theory here proposed, when one describes a thing as good or bad one describes it in terms of its relation, direct or indirect, to a second thing, namely, an interest.

This, be it noted, is not the same as to say that one value is definable only by its relation to another value, which may or may not be the case. There is nothing in the relational view which forbids a thing's being conceived as absolutely valuable; that is, valuable regardless of the value of anything else.

There is only one kind of relativism which is epistemologically objectionable, and which is commonly known as “vicious relativism.” The viciousness lies in its scepticism. It consists in the doctrine that all statements are elliptical unless they are introduced by the words “it seems to me at this moment.” Were this the case I should not even be stating what I am saying now. I should say, “it seems to me that it seems to me that it seems to me,” etc. ad infinitum; in which case I would never get to what seems to me, and I might as well have saved myself the trouble of making any statement at all.

Suffice it to say that the theory of value here proposed is no more relativistic in this vicious sense than any other theory, whether of value or of any other matter. The supposition that a relational theory of value is peculiarly vicious in its relativism rests on a confusion. It is mistakenly supposed that because objects derive their value, positive and negative, from interest it is implied that the interest from which they derive value is the interest of the knower or judge. This would mean that if I am to judge that an object possesses positive value to me I must like, desire, will, or love it. When, however, value is defined in terms of interest, then any interest will satisfy the definition; and if I observe that anyone else likes, desires, loves or wills a thing, then I am bound by the definition to judge it good. The evidence of its goodness or badness is the observable fact of interest, which is just as objective, and just as open to agreement, as any other fact of life or history.


The present definition of value is proposed not only as a nominal and conceptual, but as a “real” or “descriptive,” definition.5 Its justification requires that the names which it employs shall be well selected in the light of verbal usage; and that its concepts shall yield judgments which are free from circularity, contradiction, and sceptical relativism. But these are only preliminary considerations. A descriptive definition, in short, is an hypothesis. Its crucial test is its bringing to light the systematic structure of some realm of fact — some state of affairs of which it is true. As will appear more clearly in the sequel, this does not imply any fundamental antithesis between the descriptive and the normative, but rather that norms themselves are also describable.

As here conceived, theory of value refers to a peculiarly pervasive feature of human existence and history, namely, the emergence of interests having objects; in which interests combine, wax, wane, and disappear; in which certain things are qualified to become objects of interests; and in which there are things and events which promote or defeat objects of interest. It does not deal, except for purposes of illustration, with particular historic societies and epochs, but with general types and structures of interest.

But while the field of personal and social events, like that of physical events, is inexhaustible, it is proper to select major events, or certain human enterprises and pursuits that have a claim to special attention because of their universality or importance. Referring to these as “pursuits,” “enterprises,” or “institutions,” one may then test the theory by its providing a systematic description of morality, conscience, politics, law, economy, art, science, education, and religion. When the master concept of such a description is given the name of ‘value,’ then these major realms of human life are specifically describable as realms of value. In their aggregate these realms constitute what may properly be given the name of ‘civilization,’ that total human adventure whose rising and declining fortunes give significance to human life upon this planet.

Theory of value so conceived is a bold and far-flung program which cannot be undertaken without a humble awareness of its immense complexity. It requires the philosopher to enter fields in which specialists have already staked their special claims, and where the philosopher finds himself an amateur among professionals. He cannot hope to do their special work better than they do it, but only to incorporate their results and add items and relationships. The philosopher is accustomed to this somewhat shameless role. He does not, however, undertake the task arrogantly or overconfidently. For it is the philosopher who, having undertaken the task, is most acutely aware of its difficulty.

Before turning to the description of the major human pursuits which constitute civilization, it is necessary to amplify the definition of interest which has thus far been only abstractly formulated. It is necessary to relate this concept to the findings of psychology, taken as a description of human nature. This phase of the inquiry will serve to clarify what is meant by an object of interest, and will reveal certain general modes of interest, which will be employed in the ensuing description of civilization and its several realms.

  • 1.

    Cf. C. L. Stevenson, Ethics and Language, 1948, passim. Much of the ethical controversy which this book has excited would have been avoided if the book had held strictly to its title. It would then have been treated like a book on “physics and language” — interesting, but not physics.

  • 2.

    This is the position taken by G. E. Moore, W. D. Ross and others of the so-called “Cambridge” or “Intuitionist” school.

  • 3.

    This view is to be found in G. Santayana, Sense of Beauty, 1899; and in J. Laird, Study in Realism, 1920.

  • 4.

    The Author has discussed this question in “Value as Simply Value,” Journal of Philosophy, 28 (1931), pp. 522–6.

  • 5.

    Cf. S. C. Pepper, “The Descriptive Definition,” Journal of Philosophy, 43 (1946); A. Kaplan, “Definition and Specification of Meaning,” ibid., 43 (1946); M. Weitz, “Analysis and Real Definition,” Philosophical Studies, 1 (1950).

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