An Email Concerning Value Statements

Dear (Friend),

I find your comment immensely interesting. And I want to thank you both for it and for reading the article. What you are touching on is the ethics of making value statements, the ethics of value beliefs and value claims, but especially with reference to literary works. I think that I agree with Y’s statement in a general and sweeping sense, though probably not in an absolute sense. I have at least two students which I would say have the capacity and in some cases the warrant to make value statements about authors. So, in short, I think that it’s very perceptive of you to observe that.

Whether you are interested or not, I’ll explain a bit more about my own thoughts on value statements (for my own benefit as much as anything). I think the difficulty of a word like “master” is that it carries with it an implication of cultural contingency. I mean this: “master” usually implies the context of a guild, that is a group of people who are working toward excellence at the same craft. As such, the rules of the craft and the definitions about what it might mean to be “good at it” are shaped by the discourse of those within the guild. I think that “master” is typically used in this context. The trouble is, as the realism began to be challenged by nominalism (that is a rejection of universals), the idea that a “master” of any sort of craft is really better in a significant sense than others began to be replaced by the idea that a “master” is simply someone doing something new or arresting (interesting). The implication is, that an artist is not good in so far as he does “artistry” better than others, but rather that he is important in his guild for bringing about something fresh. I rebel against that idea (obviously).

The other significant problem is, the reason that universals began to be looked at with suspicion is that there is difficulty making universal statements of value. In other words, it’s easy for me to make a universal statement about color (for instance), but much more difficult for me to make a universal statement about beauty (for instance). The difficulty in knowing a value oriented universal like beauty led to a denial of the reality of such a universal.

Now that said, your wife is probably denying students the right to make these statement for a far more trivial reason: the fact is they are not qualified to make such a universal statement. This is especially true given the (admitted) difficulty of making such value statements. One must be a master to recognize one (or at least well advanced in the craft). I have no right to criticize Auden’s poetry, for example.

That said, I’m a bit ambivalent about my own claim that Tolkien is a “master.” On the one hand, I’m still learning what even makes one a “master.” Perhaps I’m not qualified to judge. On the other hand, there are several considerations. First, I want to affirm that even ordinary persons can make assertions about morality for instance. Morality can be just as indeterminate as aesthetics; yet, we allow and even encourage people to make moral claims which may be uninformed. Perhaps there is a place for a person to make a claim (with some degree of uncertainty), and to come to fuller understanding by having that claim challenged? Second, the central thrust of my article is supporting the claim. What I’m trying to do is to demonstrate his mastery in that he so skillfully uses voice to develop his characterizations. So, if only in the sense that this is the claim I’m trying to support, I’ve chosen to try to make it.

But after all this is said, I actually typed those words with some thought concerning what I’ve written above. It did enter my mind, am I even qualified to claim this?

So, that was overkill, but useful at least for me!

Thanks for your criticism, but more seriously for your friendship.


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