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Contingencies of Value: Alternative Perspectives for Critical Theory / Edition 1

Contingencies of Value: Alternative Perspectives for Critical Theory / Edition 1

by Barbara Herrnstein Smith


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Charges of abandoned standards issue from government offices; laments for the loss of the best that has been thought and said resound through university corridors. While revisionists are perplexed by questions of value, critical theory—haunted by the heresy of relativism—remains captive to classical formulas. Barbara Herrnstein Smith’s book confronts the conceptual problems and sociopolitical conflicts at the heart of these issues and raises their discussion to a new level of sophistication.

Polemical without being rancorous, Contingencies of Value mounts a powerful critique of traditional conceptions of value, taste, judgment, and justification. Through incisive discussions of works by, among others, David Hume, Immanuel Kant, Northrop Frye, Georges Bataille, Jacques Derrida, Richard Rorty, and Jürgen Habermas, Smith develops an illuminating alternative framework for the explanation of these topics.

All value, she argues, is radically contingent. Neither an objective property of things nor merely a subjective response to them, it is the variable effect of numerous interacting economies that is, systems of apportionment and circulation of “goods.” Aesthetic value, moral value, and the truth-value of judgments are no exceptions, though traditional critical theory, ethics, and philosophy of language have always tried to prove otherwise.

Smith deals in an original way with a wide variety of contemporary issues—from the relation between popular and high culture to the conflicting conception of human motives and actions in economic theory and classical humanism. In an important final chapter, she addresses directly the crucial problem of relativism and explains why a denial of the objectivity of value does not—as commonly feared and charged—produce either a fatuous egalitarianism or moral and political paralysis.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780674167865
Publisher: Harvard
Publication date: 04/01/1991
Series: Alternative Perspectives for Critical Theory
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 240
Product dimensions: 6.12(w) x 9.25(h) x (d)

About the Author

Barbara Herrnstein Smith is Braxton Craven Professor Emerita of Comparative Literature and English at Duke University.

Table of Contents

1. Fixed Marks and Variable Constancies: A Parable of Value

Evaluating Shakespeare's Sonnets

Critical Problematics

2. The Exile of Evaluation

Fact and Value in the Literary Academy

The Politics of Evaluative Criticism

An Alternative Project

3. Contingencies of Value

Contingency and Interdependence

Matters of Taste

Processes of Evaluation

The Dynamics of Endurance

4. Axiologic Logic

Hume's Natural Standard

Kant's Pure Judgments

Logical Tastes and The Other's Poison

Three Postaxiological Postscripts

5. Truth/Value

Judgment Typology and Maclntyre's Fall

Value without Truth-Value

Changing Places: Truth, Error, and Deconstruction

6. The Critiques of Utility

Humanism, Anti-Utilitarianism, and the Double Discourse of Value

Bataille's Expenditure

Endless (Ex)Change

7. Matters of Consequence

Critiques and Charges: The Objectivist Generation of "Relativism"

Quietism and the Active Relativist

Community, Solidarity, and the Pragmatist's Dilemma

Politics and Justification

Conceptual Tastes and Practical Consequences



What People are Saying About This

Michael Walzer

Barbara Herrnstein Smith has written a critique of objectivism and absolutism in the theory of value--a critique addressed so directly to our own experience and sustained with such lucidity and wit that it will force even those it outrages to think again about their position. Given our contingencies, this is a book of enormous value.

Richard Rorty

Smith's book argues, very lucidly and persuasively, for a Deweyan conception of value. The idea is that value is neither an 'intrinsic' property of a thing nor 'in the eye of the beholder,' but a function of an infinitely large set of contingent, constantly changing, relations between things. Contingencies of Value is a very useful contribution to the philosophical literature on the topic.

Pierre Bourdieu

This remarkable work by Barbara Herrnstein Smith must be read in order to initiate a critical evaluation of aesthetic evaluation.

Frank Kermode

A pleasure to read ... It is impossible to imagine anybody daring to write about the subject without giving this book close consideration.

Catherine R. Stimpson

One of our most brilliant thinkers about literature confronts one of the most recalcitrant problems about literature. The results are compelling, original, and altogether astonishing.

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