The question “Is this all there is?” is intended, presumably, to explore our hankerings for (or our phobias against) a richer (more bloated) ontology than is allowed by our contemporary intellectual assumptions.

Measures and assessments of more and less are familiar to us from the weighing scale of the grocer and the foot rule of the land surveyor. They are familiar to us too—in a more abstract form—from the economist’s analyses of costs and benefits. But they attain a level of abstraction that is quite rarefied when in the hands of philosophers and theologians. I will restrict myself to philosophy, though what I say may have an implicit generality that reaches to concerns of theology.

In a certain kind of philosopher, more prevalent in the European than in the English-speaking tradition, there is a tendency to think, “There is more here than meets the eye”—what came to be called “the hermeneutics of suspicion,” unearthing the will to power in hitherto unexpected places, as in Nietzsche’s genealogical method. This then became the font of inspiration for post-structuralist accounts a century later, though perhaps it was really Marx and Freud who dug deepest to unearth notions of the unconscious and the contradictions of class under the surface of individual and social behavior. This is all apparently too deep for many philosophers in the analytical tradition: legend has it that Sidney Morgenbesser, that sly fox and facilitator of analytic philosophy at Columbia University, set a question in an exam, “It is said that Marx and Freud went too far; how far would you go?” Such philosophers have frequently tended to the opposite, to the deflationary slogan, “There is less here than meets the eye.”

I want to focus once again in The Immanent Frame on a criticism I have made of this sort of philosopher’s lessening of what meets the eye, one I wrote in sympathetic exchanges with Charles Taylor and Jane Bennett some years ago.1 The topic in question is the nature of value, more specifically the place of value in the world (including nature) that we inhabit. I had called the lessening I was concerned with a “superstition” of modernity, where by superstition I mean that we have no idea when it was proved nor how it helps us to live better. The superstition I had in mind was the familiar thought that nature does not contain any properties that are not countenanced by the natural sciences.

We think, without any strain or artifice, that nature is filled with value properties when we unselfconsciously deploy value-suffused vocabulary to describe it, for instance (as in the example I had given in those earlier blog posts) to describe a meteorological phenomenon on the coast of Bangladesh as a “threat.” But by the lights of the superstition, assuming that the natural sciences do not study value (that is, they study meteorological phenomena but do not study threats), this has the effect of making this evaluative use of language to describe nature in some way either false or metaphorical, or true only, as it were, by courtesy. In short, the superstition evacuates the world, including nature, of all value properties. Values and evaluatively described phenomena (such as the threats on the Bangladeshi shoreline’s horizon) are not properties of nature, they are merely subjective states of mind such as—sticking with our example of the threat—our (the Bangladeshi fisherman’s) feelings of vulnerability projected illicitly onto the world. Nature, in this example, only contains the meteorological phenomena, no threats. That is the lessening I was inveighing against in those early exchanges, a lessening that has been very interestingly opposed in recent years by the philosopher John McDowell, who invokes Aristotle’s understanding of value as the view that is most explicitly repudiated by this evacuation.2

In that earlier discussion I did not actually present an argument against this “lessening” outlook on nature, nor an argument in favor of the Aristotelian view that there is more in the world, including nature, than the superstition allows, in particular that nature contains value properties. I only tried to elaborate some of the implications for practical reason and some of the political implications of this Aristotelian view. In the little space I have, I would now like to present a very quick argument for it, taking other occasions in the future to elaborate and fortify what I too briskly say here.

The argument turns on the close, indeed essential, link between value and agency.

Consider my thought: “X is valued by me.”
And consider my thought: “X is valuable.”
How do they differ?

It is a remarkable fact about the former that, when I think it, my state of mind (the valuing) has no motivational power for me. Why? Because I have a completely disengaged relation to it. It is the object of a detached understanding of myself and the state of mind I possess. My angle on myself might as well be an angle on someone else. I treat myself as an object. But now contrast this with the latter thought. Nothing like this deadening of motivational power of the relevant state of mind, by a detached gaze on it, occurs when I think, “X is valuable.” Why? Because I am not looking at myself from the outside in, as a detached observer, and passively reporting a state of mind. I am finding something in the world (X) valuable, I am perceiving (or contemplating) a value or valuable property in X and, given the nature of such properties, this, prima facie, motivates me to pursue X. (I say “prima facie” for the obvious reason that I may not, in fact, pursue it for one or other reason—such as that I am too busy or too tired or that I find Y more valuable at the moment). Of course, if I think X is disvaluable (as in the case of a threat), I, prima facie, avoid it—the general point being that only judgments or thoughts of this latter kind (“X is valuable or disvaluable” rather than “X is valued or disvalued by me”) bestow on the relevant states of mind the motivational power that prompts our agency—our acts of pursuit or avoidance of X.

If this is right, then something very interesting follows. It seems that my relationship to my states of mind of valuing are generative of my being motivated to act only if they do not take the form of my observing them in myself directly (as in “X is valued by me”) but when I have access to them indirectly via the perception of value properties (the perception in this case of X) in the world. It is only our apprehension of value properties in the world without that allows our states of mind within as being motivating, as agency or action-inducing. If value were only given to us as being within us, we would only relate to it in the mode of “x is valued by me” and would have thus abdicated our (practical) agency.3

Now, the subscriber to our superstition, someone who wants to say that there is less in the world, including nature, than meets the eye (i.e., someone who says there are only meteorological phenomena in the world, no threats) may view this entire battlefield of philosophical argument in the Alamo mode and bite the bullet to say: “Since all there is in nature is what the natural sciences study, we have not only evacuated it of value but we have also evacuated ourselves of agency. We ourselves, and our behavior, are nothing but more tendencies of nature. So, nothing in your argument changes things at all.”

Against such a philosopher, who is prepared to take the “lessening” of all there is to its logical end, even ad absurdum, I must admit I have no argument (except, perhaps, to say, “Come off it”). So, the argument I have presented is modest in scope. It presupposes that we are agents and argues for how, given that we are agents, we must think of the world, including nature, as containing value properties. All it shows is that if we accept the superstition I am recoiling from, we would not only have to give up on values inhabiting the world, but also on the assumption that we are agents. We should embrace this modesty unblushingly. The fact is that that is, in any case, the best philosophy can do. It cannot take on all comers in its arguments. It can, at best, reveal connections, saying: if you give up on something we, in our unselfconscious speech and thought, take for granted (value properties being in the world, including nature), see how much else you have to give up that we take for granted (our being agents).

  1. See Bilgrami, “What Is Enchantment?” in Varieties of Secularism in a Secular Age, to which Jane Bennett’s Immanent Frame piece is a response, followed by my reply to her (linked above).

  2. John McDowell, “Virtue and Reason,” The Monist 62, no. 3 (1979): 331–350.

  3. I have added the qualifier “practical” in parentheses for the obvious reason that we do not cease to be agents altogether when we have a detached understanding of ourselves (as with the thought “X is valued by me”) or for that matter of nature (as when we are doing natural science). But when we take such a detached angle on ourselves or on nature, though we are agents, we are merely theoretical agents, viewing them as objects of explanation and prediction. Throughout this brief essay, whenever I use the word agency I mean practical agency, not the agency that goes into disengaged, theoretical understanding. Thus the Bangladeshi fisherman is being a practical agent if he responds to the “threat” on the horizon by fleeing with his family. He is being a merely theoretical agent if he disengagedly studies what is on the horizon as a meteorological phenomenon.