Fact and Value Revisited

The modernism which shaped the culture of the twentieth century can be traced to the philosophy of G.E. Moore, with its characteristic separation of fact and value. This already assumes a separation of subject and object, so loosing both the conditions of freedom and the mind’s way to reality.

As the rising star of philosophy at Cambridge in the era of Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein, G.E. Moore became an architect of modernism. He is memorable and still influential for a characteristic emphasis on objectivity, realism, individualism, and the fictional nature of much that occupies our thoughts and language. Embedded in this common sense of modernism is Moore’s famous distinction between questions of value and questions of fact, with a fatal flaw.

If goodness as an object is real to us in highly individual ways, such a reality is scarcely distinguishable from fiction. Indeed, in the Bloomsbury set where Moore’s influence was most keenly felt and appreciated, value was pursued in fiction and fine art: if need be, at the expense of conventional morality, and any wider sense of purpose. The Great Society celebrated in this spirit, including such luminaries as John Maynard Keynes and Virginia Woolf, easily appeared as arrogant and brittle as the Empire with which it passed.

My argument here is simply that value specifically can least of all be secured within this complex of ideas. Value defined in contradistinction to fact bears no relation to how we speak of it, and a value apprehended only in individuality cannot be valuable in the social sense. In fact we speak easily of a bad harvest or good health, and more readily than of good ideas or evil intent. Ironically, in the light of modernism, Christ reminded us of the essential beauty of the lilies of the valley, and urged us to examine ourselves before judging each other.

Modernism in this way marked the dissolution of Christian consensus in Europe, and yet later in the century mingled uneasily with the faith in the inner cities and sprawling suburbs of the US. There the cynical realism of Richard Rorty matched Ayn Rand’s fascination with the objectivity of power, so that individualism readily seemed an end in itself, the value of it all. In a further irony, Kant in the Enlightenment had already taken freedom or moral agency in this way, and dared to ask how it can be objectively possible.

In this light it is starkly clear that Moore required for his position an irrevocable separation of human awareness and motivation from objective circumstances. This fractured reality can but leave one clueless in asking after sound judgment or clear vision, as valued in leaders, and in the pursuit of knowledge; or again, in seeking a healthy environment, or conditions for a good harvest. The crisis of modernism is now upon us with a hundred thousand acres of farmland lost to mutant weeds through rash use of genetically engineered crops; and the Wall Street Journal ranks the great cities of the free by the foulness of their air.

It remains to ask how we can think without assuming and irrevocable separation of the subjective and objective. As foul air enters the lungs and bloodstream, it comes to act behind the scenes of consciousness, dulling thought and depressing one’s outlook. On reflection only subjectivity so truly immersed in circumstance can be expected to adapt and make the best of it.

At the same time one must admit that what is discovered as fact is always apprehended in the light of human purposes. There are rocks in the New World every bit as old as those found in Asia, and the name records how the place appeared as the last frontier of human settlement. If we are now asked to face facts and accept China as the rising power, that has much to do with what is expected of it, and can never make of the place a New World in the same sense.

2 comments to Fact and Value Revisited

  • Orwin O'Dowd

    Protection is an understated value in politics: the British, ever at the mercy of the weather, have a reflex respect for it, and Cromwell assumed the title of Lord Protector. Today disaster management is perhaps the most creative force in politics: millions of people in desperately poor places are experiencing a minimum of security that has no precedent in modern times. Facing the power of Nature humbles us, and as we learn to reckon the powers of volcanoes, lightning storms and tornadoes, it becomes clear how much we still have to learn about energy and climate.

    But Descartes, I must protest, remains bitterly misunderstood. He abandoned his System of the World when he heard that Galileo was persecuted by the Inquisition, so we don’t have the full record of his philosophy. When he published Passions de l’ame at the end of his life, the Queen of Sweden complained bitterly that she did not find it upholding the dualism of mind and body we still call Cartestian!

    Descartes had placed the visual imagination as a function of the body, enlightened by the mind’s rational grasp of space. With imagination he placed the passions of the soul, and hence all the lived values we experience as passions. Strangely, he also thought animals incapable of feeling, which justified his use of vivisection, and that’s not an easy position to understand.

    It seems to me that Descartes took feeling as the light of reason upon the passions of life, in the sense of illumination or enlightenment. The human soul may then be saved by this light, perhaps for that immortality which Aristotle could only grant to reason itself, and no individual being. Descartes himself was not a Cartesian, and upheld a popular Christianity never recognized by the Church, whether Roman or Reformed.

    It was, I think, thought to be tainted by self-interest, and lived on as the “enlightened self-interest” of old-school Liberals and moderates! Gordon is again correct in seeing German academia turning against this current: Kant saw the tragedy unfold in “the strife of the faculties,” and posted his manifesto on world peace in protest.

    Here I learned something interesting from Stephen Palmquist at the Baptist University of Hong Kong. Kant had a thoroughly traditional education directed by Pietists, and set out earnestly to piece together human knowledge taking semantics as his guide, only to find it at the end riven, as if some article of faith, mystical insight or intuition were missing.

    Kant himself was evidently not a Pietist, and seems to have been missing something that Descartes intended to communicate of still older tradition, but dared not. If any marker survives, it is in the idea of stewardship of the land, of humanity as the custodians of the Earth, but can that ever work without some current of fellow-feeling or sympathy among living creatures, what Heraclitus called “the common”?

    When Ralph Waldo Emerson took his inspiration from the mystics and Neoplatonists, he assumed an evolution of the soul that is back with us in the discourse of the New Age, with Buddhist, Hindu, Confucian and Spiritualist takes on “the gap”, as Palmquist calls it. Emerson’s own journey took him to the classics of Asia, but he never found a voice for his inspiration.

    Theosophy then took up the challenge, and lent the British Empire a certain legitimacy on the understanding that colonies could “evolve” through Dominion status to sovereignty. Obama now carries that legacy, but it remains intent on propagating values from above and mobilizing the masses, failing to find values in experience or the spontaneity of life.

  • Gordon Anderson

    The split in fact and value can at least be traced to the founder of Modern Philosophy, Descartes, even though G.E. Moore’s articulation seemed definitive to his philosophical peers. One can see this split in Nietzsche who articulated a form of cynical realism before Rorty and Rand. Yet, I must lay much of the blame for Christian acceptance—even promotion—of the separation of religion and science at the hands of Friedrich Schleiermacher, who sought to formulate Christian Theology in a way that protected it from the onslaught of science by isolating it in its own domain, and thus insulating it from the world much as the post-modernists have attempt to confine values to the arts.

    You are right in the end that value is related to purpose. The value of a refrigerator is the same as its purpose, to keep food cold. And, human and social values can be related to human and social purposes. The real rub comes when human and social purposes attempt to defy “natural law”–purposes embedded by the nature of existence.

    We saw the collapse of communism after the human purpose of economic equality attempted to defy the natural law of supply and demand. And today we witness Washington attempting to defy mathematical laws in their disregard for a balanced budget, thus killing the economy and enslaving America’s children to incalculable debt. The separation of fact and value has become so great that common sense fades into a haze in the rhetoric of national leaders in politics and the press.

    We hear politicians saying we must do “x” because times are desperate, but “x” inevitably defies a natural law that anyone who grew up on a farm easily understands. Yet, news reporters seldom challenge such assumptions. Our urban life, insulated from nature, contributes to this growing loss of connection to the physical environment on which human beings depend. Cities, like Schleiermacher’s theology, allow large groups of people to hide from the laws of nature, much as parents can hide their young children from the harsher realities of life in a protective home. But today, we ask those people who lived under such protection–whether in a church or a modern city–to provide leadership. Inevitably “leaders” born and raised in such environments are like children leading children, our national leaders become like the boys in “Lord of the Flies.”

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