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Axiology 101: The Elusive Nature of Value


For many of us, a feature of our globalized and multicultural society is a growing disinterest in value systems. Talk of systemic corruption, and a barrage of news articles about the evils brought about by this or that faction, this or that ideology, have given us a skeptical outlook on values. We wonder what is good or bad amidst so many conflicting narratives. This series of Axiology 101 articles aims to stir the reader to examine the validity of value systems by providing an introduction to the branch of philosophy that seeks to map out their nature.

The series will be divided into the following chapters:

  1. Axiology 101: The Elusive Nature of Value

  2. Axiology 101: The Good, the Bad and the Ethical

  3. Axiology 101: A Doubt About Aesthetical Certitude

  4. Axiology 101: The Divine Hypothesis

  5. Axiology 101: The Metaethical Subversions

  6. Axiology 101: A Proposed Solution

The Elusive Nature of Value

There is something about being self-aware that haunts us, or so it sometimes seems. More often than not, the vast majority of people live in the lull of daily life, awoken intermittently by a flash of existential wonder that is pregnant with clarity. It is in these moments that assertiveness drives decision, when we are not simply led as passive recipients of external forces and innate suggestions and appetites. Those periods of self-reflection are often accompanied by an intriguing wonder about ourselves, about what we do and why we do it. The focus inwards prompted by self-reflection causes us to shift our gaze outwards to ponder the why of our existence.

Victor Frankl famously said, "Those who have a 'why' to live, can bear with almost any 'how'" (p. 12). Perhaps this is the reason for such musings. When suddenly the question of "why we are living how we are" seems to necessitate a stronger reason than a simple "because we must", the mind turns to what we value, what we hope for, and where we find meaning to continue our daily pursuits.

In a sense, the "why" of human life has been the fuel that has propelled psychology, birthed philosophy, and provided the primeval matter for art and culture. From a macroscopic perspective, this all seems very clear. Humanity wonders about itself, and, as vague as that sounds, this wonder has generated myriad books and studies on every possible minutia of human experience that has been put forth as a plausible explanation for the meaning of our collective existence.

Figure 1: The Macroscopic Perspective…

However, the macroscopic is, as already mentioned, vague. To achieve clarity, the pondering of values and the questioning of the reason for our existence should be primarily microscopic. Every individual cell in the colossal organism that we call humanity contributes to an answer to that most essential of questions: "Why do I do what I do?" This is a question that can ultimately be translated into a two-pronged interrogation. On the one hand, "What do I, as an individual, deem good and therefore pursue?"; And on the other, "what do I, as an individual, deem bad and therefore reject?"

These questions, together with the foundational justification for the views of good and evil contained within them, are essentially what all value systems must respond to in order to build and expand, adding layer upon layer of value and meaning. This is, properly speaking, the enduring task of axiological research. Axiology refers precisely to the study of meaning.

A popular model of reality put forward by many commentators, in both popular culture and some academic circles, is one based on a version of Plato's famous Cave simile. To summarise, Plato claims we are chained to a false version of the cosmos, condemned to watch shadows and the productions of puppeteers instead of the de facto reality existing outside of this limited vision. Reinterpreted for modernity, we find ourselves complacently living in the Matrix or immersed in a false world of actors and scripted futures, all the while believing it to be real, like the eponymous hero of The Truman Show. Some philosophers have even posited that perhaps we are but brains in a vat, incapable of realizing that our existence is a simulation produced by technologically superior beings.

Figure 2: “You take the red pill… you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.”

As interesting as it would be to wake up and realize there is a reality more real than that which we have experienced throughout our entire lives, there is an even more radical "red pill" with which to escape the figurative Matrix that binds us: the philosophical examination of the value systems that have up to now provided us with meaning. Furthermore, like the characters in The Thirteenth Floor who escape a simulation of their own creation only to discover that they have actually always been within a further simulation, we are required to examine not only our value systems but also the nature of the very values that make up these systems - what they are and what justifies their existence.

The examination of values is an honest attempt to escape from the cognitive bias that may be inevitably ingrained in us since our earliest memories. However, this honest philosophical analysis is the minimum required to make sure that the values that have shaped our lives may become the values that we assertively choose to shape our future with, rather than values we passively allow to govern our otherwise unexamined existence. To borrow from Plato, the unexamined life is truly not worth living. So where do we commence this much-needed examination?

In some philosophical spheres, it has been argued that being is to essence what intentionality is to value. In other words, the more that people direct themselves towards a particular value system, the more value that system garners. It would seem then, on this view, that value is ultimately generated by the attention people bestow on it.

Imagine a work of art by a contemporary artist who by combining some bits of wood and applying some paint has created what, according to certain people, is a valuable object, both in artistic and monetary terms. Who says it is art? Who decides it should be placed some steps away from a work by Mark Chagall or in a room adjacent to a painting by Gustav Klimt? Ultimately, it is people who intentionally classify it as art and decide that it is worthy of a place in a museum. Furthermore, its value is reinforced every time an individual walks by and gazes upon it, all the while mentally ascribing to it the status of art.

Figure 3: The Kiss by Gustav Klimt

However, value is generated not only in a quantitative sense, as in the attention paid to it, but also in a qualitative sense. Take a classical work of art, for example, one that is not very popular in terms of views, likes, and retweets, such as Mozart's Magic Flute. It is probably nowhere near the top box office film of the year in terms of viewing numbers, and yet, wouldn't we value it culturally and artistically higher than last year's summer blockbuster? However, it cannot be denied that the blockbuster film also holds some value, and could perhaps be considered higher on a value ranking - for entertainment, for example.

What does this say about value? In a sense, we can begin to glimpse that there are elements intrinsic to a thing that give it value, but, at the same time, we cannot dismiss the possibility that the intensity of said value depends on the attention it draws and the following it garners. So how do the two principles -let us call them intrinsic and extrinsic value - work together?

Subjective evaluations of such elements of value as goodness, beauty, and truth have a place, and they can become societally significant if many people come together to enjoy something deemed beautiful or promote something perceived to be good. However, there are also objective standards on which these subjective perceptions are based. We derive value concepts because we perceive them as objectively present. In ethics, for example, we judge actions as good or bad, not because we all agree on what constitutes good or bad, but because we all agree on the necessity of a metric system of sorts to measure the degree of value.

Yet, the question remains: where do these objective degrees of value come from? In the following articles of this series, the origin of values will be examined with reference to axiology's closest relatives: ethics, aesthetics, and philosophy of religion. Furthermore, an intriguing theory that undermines axiological objectivity by means of psychology will be discussed. The series will conclude with a revisiting of the questions raised in this first installment in order to assess if the elusive nature of value can be discerned.


  • Frankl, V. E. Man’s Search for Meaning. Rider Books, 2020.

  • Thoreau, H. D. Walden. 1854. London, Vintage, 2017.

  • Mcdowell, J. Mind, Value, and Reality. Harvard University Press, 2008.

  • McKinsey, M. “Skepticism and Content Externalism." Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2018.

  • Olson J, Iwao Hirose, Editors, Oxford Handbook of Value Theory. Oxford University Press, 2018.

  • Peterson, J. Maps of Meaning : The Architecture of Belief. Routledge, 1999.

  • Schroeder, M. “Value Theory." Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2008.

Films Referenced

  • Wachowski, L., Lilly Wachowski (Directors) The Matrix. [Film] Warner Bros. Pictures, 1999.

  • Rusnak, J. (Director) The Thirteenth Floor. [Film] Columbia Pictures, 1999.

  • Weir, P. (Director) The Truman Show. [Film] Paramount Pictures, 1998.

Image Sources

Author Photo

Emmanuel Flores

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