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Axiology, according to its Greek etymology, means "theory of values." The term was introduced at the beginning of the twentieth century when it became a recognized part of philosophy. As a discipline distinct from science, axiology was sometimes even equated with the whole of philosophy, especially in Germany. The first books containing this expression are Paul Lapie's Logique de la volonté (1902); Eduard von Hartmann's Grundriss der Axiologie (1908); and Wilbur Marshal Urban's Valuation (1909).

The Concept of Value

This new branch of philosophy emerged as the concept of value, after having been treated almost exclusively in a technical sense in economics, began to be used in the plural (values) and to be an issue in philosophy. In response to the cultural imperialism of the sciences (including the so-called "human sciences"), philosophers defended their discipline and stressed that the "domain of values" was precisely a field that no science was able or entitled to treat, and was thus the exclusive responsibility of philosophy. Moreover, several philosophers argued that it was in the interest of science not to admit consideration of values into its own discourse. They advocated a neat separation of science and values, one that could be traced back to the famous clear-cut distinction between "being" and "ought to be" (sein and sollen) of Immanuel Kant: The realm of what is real is described by the sciences and has nothing to do with the realm of what ought to be, of what is worthy, which is determined by ethics. However, unlike Kant, these philosophers did not imply any rejection of a scientific—that is, rigorous and objective—treatment of the domain of values. Indeed, the neologism axiology indicated an intention to develop just such a treatment and to promote a more advanced and technically specific approach than the reflections on particular values that had been part of philosophy in the past.

In a very general sense, a value is whatever is positively appreciated; the concept usually indicates that positive characteristic for which something is appreciated, as well as the thing that carries this characteristic. Axiology considers only the first sense of value, conceived as an ideal object capable of exact study. The idea of positive appreciation can be made more precise by saying that a certain value attributed to something expresses the desirability of that thing by a certain subject: The value has the nature of a relation between an object and a desiring subject. This explains the early psychological trend in the theory of values, although this was soon superseded by those who maintained the objectivity of values (Franz Brentano, Max Scheler, Nicolai Hartmann, Wilhelm Windelband, Heinrich Rickert, and others). Therefore, not only does a value subsist independently of the fact of being or not being recognized, but it is possible to propose lists and classifications of values, on the basis of a specific access—typically an emotional intuition, according to Scheler.

However, axiology is nothing emotional; instead it aspires to be a strict logic. Edmund Husserl pointed out that it is possible to make a formal treatment of mental acts that are different from theoretical judgments, and "this has great significance, because it opens up the possibility of broadening the idea of formal logic to include a formal axiology and a formal theory of practice. Accordingly there arises what might be called a 'formal logic' of concrete values [der werte] and a formal logic of practical goods" (1969, p. 136). This approach allowed for a distinction between axiology and ethics that was not present in Kant. Indeed, as thinkers such as Hartmann and Scheler argued, although a value entails a duty in the moral sphere (i.e., the moral duty of the individual to satisfy the value), in a more general sense it implies norms that are not necessarily moral in character. Rickert, for example, argues that truth is also a value, because it imposes norms to be followed by those who are trying to attain it. The logic of values therefore includes only as a part the logic of truth, because there are not just epistemic and moral values, but also others such as aesthetic and religious values. Along this path it was natural to argue, with Scheler, that axiology is a logic and, as such, distinct from ethics, which is a theory of action. As a consequence, Scheler elaborated a formal theory of values, distinct from a formal theory of value-attitudes, and proposed an axiomatic treatment according to principles already outlined by Brentano. Axiology thus presented itself as a kind of rigorous discipline capable of meeting the requirements of exactness and even of formal rigor advanced by the sciences, though remaining within the realm of philosophy.

Axiology and the Social Sciences

Reference to values appeared as a specific characteristic of the epistemological structure of the historical and social sciences during the late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century debates that opposed them to the natural sciences. Values were seen as indispensable to understanding human actions in the social sciences, and as a necessary framework for historical and social scientific explanations. The most influential proponent of this view was Max Weber, who argued that although "reference to values" is indispensable in the social sciences, the social sciences must also be "value-free" (wertfrei), not only because values cannot be objectively affirmed, but also because there is a fundamental difference between ascertaining facts and evaluating how they "ought to be" according to a normative criterion:

What is important from the methodological point of view is that the validity of a practical imperative as a norm, on the one hand, and the truth claims of a statement of empirical fact, on the other, create problems at totally different levels, and that the specific value of each of them will be diminished if this is not recognized and if the attempt is made to force them into the same category. (1978, p. 79)

This difference of levels entails

the appreciation, quite simply, of the possibility that ultimate values might diverge, in principle and irreconcilably. For neither is it the case that 'to understand all' means 'to forgive all,' nor is there in general any path leading from mere understanding of someone else's point of view to approval of it. Rather it leads, at least as easily and often with much greater reliability, to an awareness of the impossibility of agreement, and of the reasons why and the respects in which this is so. (1978, p. 81)

Weber's argument may be clarified as follows. In order to understand and explain the conduct of human agents, the historian or social scientist must hypothesize that certain typical values inspired or guided their actions. This hypothesis can be reinforced or modified by critical analyses of the objective evidence found in documents or other related empirical sources. Therefore, reference to values is not incompatible with objectivity. Nevertheless, historians and social scientists must refrain from expressing their own value judgments on the actions under consideration, that is, from making assessments of objectively recognized facts from the point of view of any value, because this would inevitably be a subjective assessment, which might even distort the objective representation of facts.

For example, a sociologist might objectively ascertain that vendetta is a value imposing certain norms of conduct within a given community, but the sociologist must refrain from expressing a judgment of approval or rejection regarding this value. This need becomes particularly clear when ideological or political values are involved in the understanding-explanation of historical or social events, because the personal value-options of the social scientist can easily induce an offer of a positive or negative portrayal of the objective situation by forcing its interpretation according to social scientist's sympathy with or hostility to the values actually followed by the people acting in this situation. This separation of objective, factual knowledge and value judgments is therefore an issue of intellectual integrity that also demands that scientists should not take advantage of objective results in their research to support their own (very legitimate) values, simply because these values are not a matter of objective knowledge. It is clear that this position is far from seeing axiology as a scientific assessment of values.

Challenges to Axiological Neutrality in Science

Weber's doctrine was widely accepted for decades: Science must be value-free, no mixture of science and values is legitimate, and the two spheres defend their legitimacies precisely by remaining clearly distinct. An initial challenge to this position occurred shortly after the middle of the twentieth century in disputes about the neutrality of science, or the extent to which science should and could properly remain independent from supposedly external powers and influences that might jeopardize its objectivity. Values, especially moral and political values, were included in this discussion, so that science was sometimes spoken of as "axiologically neutral." Advocates of neutrality admitted that it is often difficult to grant this requirement for science, but affirmed that it could and must be defended so as not to lose the most fundamental good of science—that is, objectivity. Others argued that the neutrality of science was impossible and not even desirable, and that so-called objectivity was only a fictitious mask placed on science for ideological and political purposes.

This debate may be adjudicated by noting that science is a complex phenomenon. Science as a system of knowledge must be distinguished from science as a system of human activities. Objectivity is the most fundamental feature of scientific knowledge, but several other motivations and values correctly concern the doing of science. Therefore, the real and challenging problem is that of not giving up scientific objectivity while at the same time recognizing that the scientific enterprise has to satisfy other values as well. For instance, society has much concern and expectation regarding the possibility of defeating AIDS, lending great support to biomedical and pharmaceutical research in this direction. Society's interest could not justify, however, inflating the objective purport of partial results obtained in AIDS research in order to respond to public expectation or to obtain more financial support. In another example, opposite parties in the ecological debate often force the interpretation of available scientific knowledge and information in order to make it subservient to their position, whereas a more appropriate attitude would be one of respect for the objectivity of scientific knowledge, using it as a basis for finding an equitable balance between the values of respect for the environment and technological progress.

A first admission of the presence of values in science occurred in a rather ambiguous form, in the discussion of the issue of theory comparison. Because neither empirical adequacy nor logical consistency are often decisive criteria for choosing between two rival scientific theories, a reasonable choice occurs by taking into account other criteria, such as simplicity, precision, generality, elegance, causal connection, fertility in predictions, and so on. These "virtues" (McMullin 1983) actually give rise to certain value judgments and in this sense it is said that one cannot dispense with values in science. It must be noted, however, that these values (and similar ones that have been discussed by Thomas Kuhn, Hilary Putnam, Larry Laudan, and others) are still related to the cognitive aspect of science. They are epistemic values and, as such, do not really respond to the question of whether non-cognitive values also have the right to be of concern in science.

The answer to this last question became irresistibly affirmative around the turn of the twenty-first century, owing to the increasing intensity and latitude of the debates regarding ethical and social problems posed by the development of technology and also of science, to the extent that these became inextricably nested and were called technoscience. The consideration of such non cognitive values is appropriate because it regards science and technology from the point of view of action. It has become clear that a broader range of values actually concerns the doing of technoscience, imposing a serious consideration of its axiological contexts that deserves to be included in the philosophy of science (formerly limited to a logico-methodological analysis of science), and even more significantly in a philosophy of technology. All this has implied a criticism of Weber's doctrine of value-free science that was developed especially by the Frankfurt School and also by several authors of different philosophical orientations (see, for example, Robert Proctor 1991).

In connection with its application to technoscience, axiology is finding again a rather broad circulation, not in the sense of a technically robust version of the philosophical theory of values, but in the more colloquial sense of a discourse concerned with values, a sense that is often better expressed in the forms of the adjective "axiological" or the adverb "axiologically" that do not strictly refer to a precise discipline. However, an in-depth discussion on values, their ontology, their logical relations, and their possible coordination is having an important revival, in particular in relation to science and technology, especially because one cannot escape the problem of making compatible the mutual respect of all such values. This discussion has given rise to certain technically-elaborated proposals, such as that of making use of the conceptual and formal tools of general systems theory (Agazzi 2004), or of a logical interpretation of values as non-saturated functions similar to the Fregean predicates (Echeverrìa 2002). This means that an axiology conceived as a rigorous theory of values, sensitive to applications to concrete issues, is among the intellectual needs of the twenty-first century, especially because this is deeply influenced by the presence of advanced science and technology.


SEE ALSO Fact/Value Dichotomy;Husserl, Edmund;Italian Perspectives;Values and Valuing;Weber, Max.


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