A book on ethics and philosophy of values

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B/ In the subject?


1/ Definition and presentation of the two kinds of subjectivism


I call “axiological subjectivism” the doctrine which holds that value does not belong to things (contrary to the assertion of objectivism), but that it is man who gives it to them. From this definition, two kinds of subjectivism can be distinguished, depending on the exact meaning that we attribute to the term “give”, in the expression “man gives a value to things”.

According to the first kind of subjectivism, “give” should be understood as the idea that value, being created by man, or rather by his desire, stays in him, and consists only in a fiction a mere concept which does not concern the real world.
So “man gives a value to things” merely means that man considers that world has some values which it does not really have; these are only human values, concerning only human beings, and having a meaning only for them. We can call ‘subjectivism’ this axiological position, since it consists in the idea that values lie in the self, and not in the world, and therefore have no objectivity at all, but are merely subjective.

The second kind of subjectivism is its exact opposite, and it is a bit awkward to give the same word to two positions which are so different. This second axiological position considers that when man gives values to the world, he is not content with imagining them, but really creates them, viz. value is as real as the thing to which value is assigned. Man creates value, as the carver creates a sculpture or the painter a picture; but, since this value, though real or objective, is created by man, we can consider this doctrine as a kind of subjectivism.
I propose to call “creative subjectivism” this second axiological position, to differentiate it from the first one that I call “classical subjectivism” (rather than “sterile subjectivism”, an expression which has too many negative connotations to do justice to this doctrine).

Let us try to understand the meaning and legitimacy of this doctrine –in its double aspect.


a) The prehistory of subjectivism : Protagoras

As above defined, the axiological subjectivism seems to consist in a particular application, in the domain of values, of the famous sentence of Protagoras: man is the measure of all things. If it is true, this doctrine would be as old as the opposite one –objectivism- and we could think that it corresponds to a way of apprehending the world that some people instinctively adopt, whatever the period. In other words: there would be no priority naturally given to objectivism, in history.
We ignore what Protagoras has meant by defining man as the “measure of all things”: perhaps it was not such and such particular man, but the human species, of which he spoke – in that case it would be a kind of “speciesism”.

In fact, I do not particularly want to examine the time of the birth of subjectivism, but rather the epoch in which subjectivism has developed itself in a consistent axiological doctrine (and not as a mere enigmatic sentence like that of Protagoras): the 17th century.