Charges of abandoned standards issue from government offices; laments for the loss of the best that has been thought and said resound through university corridors. While revisionists are perplexed by questions of value, critical theory—haunted by the heresy of relativism—remains captive to classical formulas. Barbara Herrnstein Smith’s book confronts the conceptual problems and sociopolitical conflicts at the heart of these issues and raises their discussion to a new level of sophistication.
Polemical without being rancorous, Contingencies of Value mounts a powerful critique of traditional conceptions of value, taste, judgment, and justification. Through incisive discussions of works by, among others, David Hume, Immanuel Kant, Northrop Frye, Georges Bataille, Jacques Derrida, Richard Rorty, and Jürgen Habermas, Smith develops an illuminating alternative framework for the explanation of these topics.
All value, she argues, is radically contingent. Neither an objective property of things nor merely a subjective response to them, it is the variable effect of numerous interacting economies that is, systems of apportionment and circulation of “goods.” Aesthetic value, moral value, and the truth-value of judgments are no exceptions, though traditional critical theory, ethics, and philosophy of language have always tried to prove otherwise.
Smith deals in an original way with a wide variety of contemporary issues—from the relation between popular and high culture to the conflicting conception of human motives and actions in economic theory and classical humanism. In an important final chapter, she addresses directly the crucial problem of relativism and explains why a denial of the objectivity of value does not—as commonly feared and charged—produce either a fatuous egalitarianism or moral and political paralysis.
Contingencies of Value is unquestionably a work of major importance that lives up to and indeed enhances its author’s distinguished reputation… It addresses a problem that every literary critic must necessarily be concerned with, since all of us engage in various acts of evaluation all the time, whether we explicitly recognize them as such or not. Everyone seriously interested in literature should read this book.
This remarkable work by Barbara Herrnstein Smith must be read in order to initiate a critical evaluation of aesthetic evaluation.
Smith’s book argues, very lucidly and persuasively, for a Deweyan conception of value. The idea is that value is neither an ‘intrinsic’ property of a thing nor ‘in the eye of the beholder,’ but a function of an infinitely large set of contingent, constantly changing, relations between things. Contingencies of Value is a very useful contribution to the philosophical literature on the topic.
Barbara Herrnstein Smith has written a critique of objectivism and absolutism in the theory of value—a critique addressed so directly to our own experience and sustained with such lucidity and wit that it will force even those it outrages to think again about their position. Given our contingencies, this is a book of enormous value.
A pleasure to read… It is impossible to imagine anybody daring to write about the subject without giving this book close consideration.
One of our most brilliant thinkers about literature confronts one of the most recalcitrant problems about literature. The results are compelling, original, and altogether astonishing.
- 240 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
From this author
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