Value, Theory of

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Value, Theory of


also axiology, the philosophical study of the nature of values, their function in the real world, and the structure of value systems—that is, the interrelatedness of different values, social and cultural factors, and the structure of the personality.

The problem of values, in the broadest possible sense of the word, is one that inevitably emerged during periods marked by the devaluation of cultural traditions and the discrediting of the ideological foundations of society. The crisis of Athenian democracy led Socrates to first pose the question “What is good?” This is the basic issue in a general theory of value. In classical and medieval philosophy, the very concept of reality and the true meaning of existence were defined in terms of ethical, aesthetic, and religious values. In the entire tradition of idealist rationalism, from Plato to Hegel and B. Croce, ontology is inseparable from axiology, and existence from value. The theory of value emerges as an independent field of philosophical inquiry at the point where the concept of existence is broken down into two separate elements: reality is distinguished from value, which is defined as the object of all the various human desires and aspirations.

The principal task of the theory of value is to show how value can be a part of the total structure of existence and how it is related to the “facts” of reality. Various types of value theories can be distinguished, corresponding to various schools of thought— namely, naturalistic psychologism, transcendentalism, personalistic ontologism, cultural-historical relativism, and sociologism.

A. von Meinong, R. B. Perry, J. Dewey, and C. I. Lewis are among those who approach value from the point of view of naturalistic psychologism. It is commonly asserted in this school of thought that values arise from man’s needs interpreted biopsychologically and that values may be empirically described as specific facts of observed reality. Thus S. Alexander regarded value as a kind of “tertiary quality” (as compared with primary and secondary qualities). An important concept in axiological psychologism is the standardization of values on the basis of “utility,” or “instrumentality”—a very imprecisely understood concept. On the other hand, the interpretation of value as an empirically ascertainable phenomenon signifies, in essence, the reduction of value to fact—that is, the confusion of value with objective reality.

In the axiological transcendentalism developed by the Baden school of neo-Kantianism (as represented by W. Windelband and H. Rickert), value is an ideal being or the being of a norm that corresponds not to empirical consciousness but rather to a “pure,” transcendental, or “normative” consciousness (normalbewusstsein). Values, if interpreted as ideal objects, do not depend on human needs and desires; what, then, is the ontological nature of “normative consciousness”? Ideal being must be founded in real being—a proposition that entails two possible alternatives: one can return to that subjective empirical consciousness out of which, in fact, pure normativeness arises through idealizing abstraction, or one can maintain the position of pure spiritualism that postulates a superhuman “logos.” The latter solution was chosen by the school of personalistic ontologism, as most notably represented by M. Scheler. In Scheler’s view, the reality of the world of values is guaranteed by a “timeless axiological series in god,” which is imperfectly reflected in the structure of the human personality. Personality types are determined by the hierarchy of values operating in each case; value hierarchies form the ontological basis of the personality. N. Hartmann, who attempted to free axiology of religious premises, was then faced once more with the problem of the independent existence of a realm of values.

Cultural-historical relativism, which originated with W. Dilthey, is characterized by axiological pluralism, or the idea that all value systems are equally valid and can be identified by means of the historical method. In essence, this represents a criticism of the very program of the general theory of value seen as an abstraction from the cultural-historical context and an arbitrary perpetuation of some single “true” system of values. Many of Dil-they’s followers (for example, O. Spengler, A. Toynbee, and P. Sorokin) treated cultural value systems in intuitivist terms. M. Weber’s sociology, with its central concept of “understanding” (Verstehen), borrowed the neo-Kantian notion of value as a norm that exists through its meaningfulness to the subject; Weber applied this interpretation of value in his approach to social action and social knowledge.

Subsequently the concept of value was given a generalized methodological meaning by F. Znaniecki and especially by adherents to T. Parsons’ school of structural-functional analysis: value is regarded as a means of revealing social relationships and the functioning of social institutions, on the assumption that in any social system, whether large or small, certain universal values are shared by all. This approach ignores the existence of social conflicts and exaggerates the role of value systems as regulators of human activity.

Historical materialism considers values as conditioned by sociohistorical, economic, and class factors. The analysis of values is extensively applied in Marxist studies of the history of culture, science, social consciousness, and personality.


Bakradze, K. S. Ocherki po istorii noveishei i sovremennoi burzhuaznoi filosofii. Tbilisi, 1960.
Chukhina, L. A. “Fenomenologicheskaia aksiologiia M. Shelera.” In the collection Problema tsennosti v filosofii. Moscow-Leningrad, 1966.
Laird, J. The Idea of Value. Cambridge, 1929.
Kraus, O. Die Werttheorien: Geschichte und Kritik. Brno, 1937.
Becker, H. Through Values to Social Interpretation. Durham, 1950.
Les Sciences humaines et le problème des valeurs. The Hague, 1972.
Rintelen, F. J. von. Values in European Thought. Pamplona, 1972.
Sauer, E. Axiologie. Göttingen-Zürich, 1973.
See also references under .


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.