Thursday, June 28, 2007

Von Hildebrand and the Definition of Value

Share/Bookmark Dear Mr. Romero,

I read recently on your blog that Dietrich von Hildebrand never defined value. He actually does so in his Christian Ethics, at least to some extent in that he lists different categories of values and gives examples of certain types. I believe Chapter 12 and some of the chapters immediately before or after it deal with this issue.

I am not saying this in defence of his thought. To be honest his understanding of value in these chapters demonstrates metaphysical confusion of the highest order. If he had left value undefined, his thought might be less disturbing than in the way he has defined it. I am working on a paper which will critique von Hildebrand's metaphysics of value from a Thomistic perspective...

In Christ,

-Dear James,

Thanks for the citation. I meant that Von Hildebrand does not define "value" by way of genus plus specific difference--the most precise way of defining a term.

First, he does not give the genus of "value." Is "value" a substance? Is it an accident? If an accident, is it a quality? If a quality, is it a habit? If a habit, is it an entitative habit?

Second, he does not give the differentia (specific difference) that sets apart the species "value" from other species within the same genus. In other words, if "value" is an x, i.e., a member of a broader group or genus called "x" (I call it "x" because Von Hildebrand does not tell us what it is), then what sets apart "value" from other x's (i.e., from other members of the genus x)?

Or, perhaps "value" is not something that can be defined. If that's the case, then it would be good if he told us so. But he doesn't. Thomists, for example, don't think it is definable. And they give good reasons why it is not definable.

(They don't call it "value," because that term connotes a certain subjectivity, as if the value of something depended on a person that "values" that something. And although Von Hildebrand would definitely deny that values are "subjective," nonetheless the term in itself does have that subjectivist connotation and if one adopts that terminology one constantly has to remind--or, rather, convince--oneself, and especially one's students, that there is no subjective subjectivist connotation. Thomists rather prefer the term "the good." Things are just "good"--regardless of a person who "values" those things.)

The "good" is not always an accident or a substance, but a transcendental--that is, a term that transcends all 10 categories (or genera), because it is found in all the categories. So, "good" is undefinable, because it is not bound by any genus (or category). In fact, as Aquinas likes to say, ens et bonum convertuntur: that is, good is coextensive, and therefore convertible, with being--which is also undefinable, for the same reason.

In Domino,


Don Paco said...

I forgot to mention: if he offers a "definition," it is what modern philosophers call an "extensional" definition. An extensional definition of "value" would be one that consists in giving the different KINDS of value, or at least different instances of value. Von Hildebrand often says that this sort of "definition" is better than the Thomistic sort of definition (via genus + difference) because it gives the intellect a better idea of what the term defined means.

Thomists would not disagree with the claim that a so-called "extensional definition" is easier to grasp for the intellect, but they would claim that only an essential definition via genus plus difference can give the most intimate logical essence of a concept. The so-called "extensional definition" is more superficial, and that is why it is easier to grasp.

For example, you can define "extensionally" the concept of "dog" by saying that "dog" is either a Golden Retriever, or a Pitbull, or Beagle, or a Chihuahua, or Rotweiler, or even an mutt. And that is easier to grasp at first than the definition "domesticable canine." But saying that a dog is either a Pitbull or a Beagle, etc., tells you very little of what the nature of dog really is, essentially.

In fact, Thomists won't even call "extensional definitions" definitions at all. We call them "divisions." When you "define" a concept, you give its genus. When you "divide" a concept, you give its species. So when you define "dog" you say "canine" or "mamal" or "animal" or "substance." When you divide "dog" you say "Beagles, Golden Retrievers, Pitbulls, etc." or "wild dogs, and pet dogs" or even just "big dogs and small dogs."

In that sense--now, correct me if I'm wrong--Von Hildebrand had not "defined" the concept of value, but only "divided" it.


Anonymous said...

From Testem Benevolentiae Nostrae:

"This overesteem of natural virtue finds a method of expression in assuming to divide all virtues in active and passive, and it is alleged that whereas passive virtues found better place in past times, our age is to be characterized by the active. That such a division and distinction cannot be maintained is patent-for there is not, nor can there be, merely passive virtue. "Virtue," says St. Thomas Aquinas, "designates the perfection of some faculty, but end of such faculty is an act, and an act of virtue is naught else than the good use of free will," acting, that is to say, under the grace of God if the act be one of supernatural virtue."

Sanctus Belle said...

I'm looking on your blog for your email address as you invite others to email you a question. I'm missing something :)

Don Paco said...

My email is:

(It's on the sidebar.)

Look forward to your email!