A book on ethics and philosophy of values

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Book II/ Prolegomena to axiology

If we want to establish the legitimacy of axiology, we naturally have to answer a certain number of questions: “what is the content of this discipline?”, “what is its point?”, “what is its method?”, “how is it related to other disciplines?”, and above all “what is its result?”. How to get started?

However, the examination of the content of this discipline must be postponed, because we have to consider first the external and accessory features of this discipline, before searching its essential ones. I have called these inessential features the “prolegomena” to axiology (pro legomein: what comes before), and I intend to examine them at present.

For this, firstly it seems relevant to propose a definition, provisional at least, of the concept of value. This will allow us to ask ourselves, in a second stage, if our time may accept the very project of an axiology (as the discipline whose object is the value so defined) – in other words I shall try to provide an axiological panorama of our time. We shall then be able to determine which state of mind is required to understand and accept the results of axiology. This shall enable us finally to imagine what reconfiguration of the knowledge field could be caused by the constitution of axiology, as the science of values.

I/ Provisional definition of value

I have first to define this concept of value, that I will use. But I only give for now a provisional definition of it: all my work is precisely to clarify the meaning of this notion of value, gradually. However, I have to give at least a certain idea of it; what I am going to do now.

It seems to me that the notion of value is to be used in order to formulate a certain intuition, or rather two related ones. The first of these is that there would exist a universal hierarchy of all beings, things, actions, and, to use the most general term, a hierarchy of all entities. According to this intuition, certain behaviors or things have more value than others, are superior or inferior, and so are arranged in a hierarchy, namely the hierarchy of values. It somehow represents the objective character of the notion of value, in the sense that it raises the problem of the relation of hierarchy to the outside world.

The notion of value may also be used to formulate a second intuition, that certain things would be worthy of love. It constitutes the subjective character of the notion of value, the one which appeals to the emotions, more specifically to love.

This may be only a provisional definition, for it is not satisfactory, from a logical point of view: the notion of hierarchy, by which I define value, contains already in itself the notion of value. So we try to understand the notion of value, and for this purpose we use a term which requires itself the comprehension of the concept of value to be understood. In the same way, the notion of “worthy”, used in the expression “worthy of love”, essentially requires that of value to be understood. There is here a logical vicious circle. However, this provisional definition is sufficient for now, because it has the merit of throwing light on the notion of value by these two intuitions, furthering our understanding until we can find a more consistent definition of value.

As imperfect as this definition is, we are now able to ask ourselves the following question: may the project of an axiology find a place in our time? This leads us to try to understand what conception of values specifically characterizes our age.