Philosophy of Education: Essays and Commentaries

By Hobert W. Burns; Charles J. Brauner | Go to book overview

OVERVIEW
It is very fashionable in philosophic circles today to insist that factual and normative propositions are of clearly different kinds, that normative propositions cannot be grounded in fact, and consequently that an "empirical theory of value" is at best a contradiction in terms or at worst an impossibility. Dewey, however, considers this dualism just one more manifestation of the philosophic dragon that requires slaying. In his attempt to demonstrate that values can be, or are, grounded in experience he makes a very simple argument:
1. People do in fact prize, desire, or value certain existential situations; these can be said to constitute (under certain conditions) ends in view.
2. Ends in view serve as plans or guides to behavior so that prized existential situations (ends) can be realized; ends in view are thus means to ends.
3. Propositions about values are thus propositions about existential means and ends; they are "if-then" in nature and, being hypothetical in nature, are no less susceptible to the empirical test than any scientific "if-then" generalization.

It may be objected that, given this formulation of a theory of value, value propositions can never be completely or finally verified -- thus we are cast adrift in a sea of moral relativity with no firm, immovable star to guide us. Quite so, Dewey would have to say. But be not dismayed; rather he would point out that all empirical science (and for Dewey there is no other kind) is relative and contingent, that no scientific proposition can ever be completely or finally verified. In values as in science, he would insist, there is no final word -- there is only the latest word.


Theory of Valuation

John Dewey*

. . . Because valuations in the sense of prizing and caring for occur only when it is necessary to bring something into existence which is lacking, or to conserve in existence something which is menaced by outside conditions, valuation involves desiring. The latter is to be distinguished from mere wishing in the sense in which wishes occur in the absence of effort. . . .

If 'valuation' is defined in terms of desire as something initial and complete in itself, there is nothing by which to discriminate one desire from another and hence no way in which to measure

____________________
*
Reprinted by permission from Theory of Valuation ( Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1939).

-208-

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