Some thoughts on Barbara Herrnstein Smith’s Contingencies of Value

  The sceptic still continues to reason and believe, even tho’ he asserts that he cannot defend his reason by reason. (David Hume)

One of the best accounts of post-modern epistemology that I’ve read comes from Barbara Herrnstein Smith’s Contingencies of Value*. She provides a plausible and thorough explanation of what a “post-axiological” epistemology would look like, and offers a series of effective rebuttals to what the objectivists decry as “relativism”.

I place “relativism” in quotation marks because Smith emphasizes that what her critics consider to be relativism is not how she views the concept. Indeed, much of the book revolves around the contested notion of relativism, and providing a new conception that, by definition, does not fall victim to the supposed self-referential contradiction of the “relativist” position. For Smith, the failure of the objectivists to take the post-modern conception seriously means their critique is nothing more than a straw man attack, though they are so wedded to their own perspective that they’re probably unaware of the operating fallacy.

For Smith, value – moral, aesthetic, literary, social – does not have a timeless essence. Every time we point to one or more apparently objective truths, we can find contrary values at some other place and time. (Initially, at least, she builds on the skepticism of thinkers like Hume.) Values, and the judgments that follow, are the outcomes of a complex and interdependent set of interlocking positions, positions which change over time and space. Such values and judgments are contingent on social, psychological, economic, cultural and historical factors, and are not relative as the objectivists choose to see it:

“… value is “relative” in the sense of contingent (that is, a changing function of multiple variables) rather than subjective (that is, personally whimsical, locked into the consciousness of individual subjects and/or without interest or value for other people)(11).

To Smith, her conception of knowledge does not mean “anything goes” (in Paul Feyerabend‘s poorly understood phrase (217)). What we consider to be “truth” is anchored in a concrete reality, but a reality, for Smith, that is complex and shifting and impossible to objectify. It is from these positions that we make truth claims, but not truth claims as understood by objectivists. The claims made by post-moderns are provisional rather than a priori or foundational. If this analysis is correct, then Smith is positing a perspectivist account of truth, rather than a subjectivist or objectivist account. It also appears closely aligned with what is now called critical realism. We can make good arguments to defend our position or refute our opponents, but at no time do we (or should we) believe in their ultimate, timeless objectiveness. Therefore, making a provisional truth claim about the impossibility of objective truth claims is not contradictory. From this vantage point, truth seeking is always open, revisable and modest. Smith goes on to argue, specifically against Habermas, that

“… there’s no such thing as an honest opinion: no judgment, that is, totally unaffected by the particular social, institutional, and other conditions of its production or totally immune to the (assumed) interests and desires of its (assumed) audience… [these judgments are] the conditions under which all verbal transactions take place and which give them – or are, precisely, the conditions of possibility for – whatever value they do have for those actually involved in them” (102).

She also addresses one of the central charges against her post-modern stance: that her perspective renders her unable to produce coherent judgments, and thus leads to quietism. Such a charge, Smith replies, is an example of the Egalitarian Fallacy, which she characterizes in the following way: “unless one judgment can be said or shown to be more ‘valid’ than another, then all judgments must be ‘equal’ or ‘equally valid'” (98). In response, she says that (from her position) “it does not follow that all value judgments are equally valid. On the contrary, what does follow is that the concept of ‘validity’ in that [objectivist] sense is unavailable as a parameter by which to measure or compare judgments”. In other words, value judgments must be “understood, evaluated, and compared” by “something other than ‘truth-value’ or ‘validity’ in the objectivist, essentialist sense” (ibid).

It would interesting to actually see how she evaluates something in a manner “other than ‘truth-value’ or ‘validity’ in the objectivist, essentialist sense”. Smith comes tantalizingly close when she “answer[s] the Nazi” (154). If she were to act against the fascist, Smith says, “I would look for the fastest and surest way to escape his power; under yet other conditions, I would do what I could, no doubt with others, to destroy him” (ibid). The question that immediately springs to mind is, why? Why would she fight the Nazi? Why is he wrong? To this, Smith provides no answer, but argues that “‘answering the Nazi’ with axiologically grounded arguments will do nothing at all to prevent or destroy his power” (155). That’s true, but questions of “Why?’ are not meant to be functional or programmatic. In this context, “why” is an intrinsically normative concern. I suspect she would want to respond with concepts like freedom, autonomy and respect. The problem, of course, is that these words are universalistic in nature.


And this leads me to my biggest concern with Smith’s general argument: she appears to conflate the act of making a truth claim (through speech or text) with the logical or objective truthfulness that the claim aims to reveal. In doing so, she counsels against any axiological or objective claims because they are grounded in the domination of “asymmetric epistemology”, a domination that appears to ensnare even the Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School (173 to 175).

This leads to a problem. Smith herself cannot but help make (unlike the Nazi example above) a series of claims that, at the level of communication itself, appear to imply an objective character. For example, she states that

“There are no transcendental guarantees, and also no objective truths of History, Experience, Science, or Logic, and also no theoretical analyses, whether economic, anthropological, historical, political, or other, that can expose a state of affairs as objectively (that is, empirically, mathematically, or transcendentally) unjust or wrong, and thereby, justify objectively (that is, independent of our particular identities and perspectives) our desire that it be otherwise” (175).

At most times during her essay, she qualifies her statements, but in many important instances like above – where she wants to draw together her premises into clear points – she does not. Does this refute her own argument? I don’t believe so, but it does point to something that I believe she’s missed.

Is it possible for people to continually qualify their statements, particularly when they make some judgment as to wrong and right, or good and bad? Can they say, with every written or spoken sentence, “I believe…” or “To be sure…” or “From this point of view…”? It seems to me that this is exhausting and self-defeating. Not only do you get tired from language that steers you away from your original point, but its repetitiveness attacks your own sense of coherency and the confidence that your speech partner or reader has in the legitimacy of your claim.

And it may go deeper than that. Following cognitive psychology**, if we conceive human beings as creatures who seek to make meaning of their lives (in an abstract, moral sense), then these meaning-bearing creatures must seek consistency, not the “multiplicity of play”. To make sense of the world requires that we find a coherent and stable set of beliefs and doctrines. Such stability requires language that seeks stasis rather than flux. But let me be clear: what I’m positing is a human need to make truth claims as if they are objective claims, but this in no way necessitates – contra Habermas – an objective world of Rational norms. In this manner, I am postulating a psychological premise where “objective” truth is sought because we seek coherency with our basic moral and value perspectives; this position seems close to Rawls’ theory of justice as derived from a reflective equilibrium, and is something I will continue to investigate.

So how is this a problem for Smith? I believe that she ignores the necessary performative requirement to communicate as truth tellers, and that our language and human requirements make it impossible to live in the communicative world she recommends. It’s just too exhausting and confusing and cognitively painful. She may be correct – indeed, I believe she is correct – in the essentially contingent nature of moral and social truths, but that doesn’t mean people can always think and communicate like that.

As such, radical pluralists like Smith should not dismiss Habermas so readily. He might be wrong; but then again, as skepticists should always admit, Habermas could be correct. But even if he isn’t (or if he is not as objectivist as Smith believes), why do thinkers continue to seek standards of truth and reason? Is it intellectual imperialism, or is it an ingrained need (however futile) to make sense of our world? If it’s the latter, then maybe the all-or-nothing position she detects in her critics also drives her own theory into a corner.

Perhaps a more modest and provisional neo-Rawlsian/Habermasian project is in order.


* Smith, Barbara Herrnstein. Contingencies of Value. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988.

** See, for example, Jesse Bering (August 2003), “Towards a cognitive theory of existential meaning.” New Ideas in Psychology, Vol. 21, Issue 2: 101-120.


Posted by Colin Welch at 6:33 PM
Edited on: Monday, August 31, 2009 4:36 PM
Categories: In a Philosophical Mood, Language


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