The Genesis of Values by Hans Joas

After a first foray into the strange unknown land of German social theory, my initial reaction would have to be: dude…what?

This is another one of those academic books where the relative simplicity of the underlying argument is belied by its obtuse prose. Now, I should be a little charitable. First of all, this is translated work, so the original writing style took a hit in the translation process. Second, I am a total novice in social theory and sociology. No doubt that political theory books which I find highly readable would strike others as tedious and turgid. With those disclaimers out of the way, let me return to being uncharitable.

In my opinion, the boundaries between academic disciplines are arbitrary and contrived. Ideas discussed within one academic discourse often exist within other discourses, and yet the terminology used is so different that never the twain shall meet. This opinion was reinforced while reading Hans Joas’ “The Genesis of Values”.

As some of you might know, my own previous research was directed at Confucian role-ethics, specifically with the aim to derive a Confucian inspired concept of freedom. One of the conclusions reached from that research was that meaning is always derived immanently from a social context. That is to say, the meaning of an action is inscribed within the action itself. In contrast to a lot of Western thinking, which emphasises the transcendent nature of values and ethics (think: God, platonic forms, Kantian reason, etc.), Confucians see value as arising spontaneously from social interactions. The value and meaning you get from an intimate relationship, for example, is not determined ahead of time – it arises organically from the relationship itself and follows its own dictates and logic. Knowing how to be a good parent or partner is not derived a priori and then implemented in practice, the knowledge itself emerges through practice.

This idea can also be found in the American philosophical tradition of pragmatism, particularly the pragmatism of William James and John Dewey. Both of these thinkers noted that there is a certain ‘give and take’ between humans and their environment, such that one does not unilaterally determined the other, but rather that both are mutually and co-constitutively determined. This reciprocity doesn’t just obtain between humans and the environment, but also between humans and other humans.

From this observation we can make the claim that our identities are always constructed dialogically. To be a self, you must be in dialogue with other selves. There is no “pre-social self” – we are quite radically the sum total of our social interactions.

Philosopher Charles Taylor takes this one step further and argues that our identity formation not only takes place in dialogue with others, but against the backdrop of certain “moral horizons” which are not chosen by us. For example, choosing to identify as an atheist is only significant if one lives in a society which regards that as a morally significant choice. Taylor’s point is although we have choice, we don’t get to choose which choices matter.

There’s a Heideggerian impulse here – something to which Taylor would admit – we can never completely escape our thrownness; the fact that we exist contingently within a certain time and place. The act of radical self-determination is therefore self-defeating. We cannot really make radical choices about our own identity because what is considered radical is not chosen by us.

There is a point to this philosophical digression, trust me. Joas takes up all of these philosophical observations and applies them to a discourse which is so characteristic of postmodernity: the so-called “collapse of values” thesis. According to conservatives, religious thinkers, Marxists and communitarians alike, our society is stained by moral permissiveness which arises because of an underlying vacuum of meaning. Ever since Nietzsche pronounced that “God is dead”, Western civilisation has been grasping for something else on which to ground a universal conception of the Good. Science has allegedly spelled the death of both God and a priori metaphysics, so no answer is to be found there. Nihilism or a post-modern ethos of radical self-creation are the two competing responses to this dilemma.  

I cannot be certain, but my reading is that Joas rejects both of these responses, for reasons that I am favourably disposed to. Instead of looking for meaning either in some transcendent metaphysics or retreating inwards, we can find it immanently in the nature of social activity. Social means become their own ends. As I have previously written: “There is nothing over and above our actions or relationships – they are ends in themselves. We do not need some transcendent lodestar to orient the course of our moral lives. Instead of looking upwards or inwards, we should look sideways to each other”.

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