Existentialism collapses the fact-value distinction. Building on a philosophy called phenomenology, existential philosophers, led by Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre in the twentieth century, argued that facts cannot be distinguished from moral values or moral values from facts in an absolute way. Facts are always saturated with values; indeed, they are inseparable.
The existentialists attack the fact-value distinction from several directions. First, arguing as phenomenologists, they claim that all knowledge we possess, whether of facts, values, or anything else, is contained within consciousness as structured by intentionality. We can have no knowledge derived from any other source. We cannot step outside our consciousness to compare our ideas with anything else. We cannot experience our consciousness independently of intentionality. Second, they claim that the consciousness of each of person is situated, rather than existing independently. A situation is a intentional act (or action) taken by a person in her relationship with other persons and in the midst of nature, as she experiences them. Third, the existentialists maintain that our understanding of our situation is embedded in conversational language. We are continually engaged in discussions or dialogues with other persons - what they call called "discourse". When we say that something "makes sense", making sense derives from our participation in dialogues.
A fact and a value do not arise separately within our experience. Fact and value arise together. (Indeed, they arise together with a lot of other contents of our mind.) They assume each other and shape each other. They are relative to the situations we are in and to the language we know and use to talk about our experience. For instance, we never experience the killing of one person by another person simply as a "fact". We see it occur, recognize that it takes place, organize our observations of it in our totality of experience, and take action regarding it, because we have values about killing. In addition to values as moral standards, we have feelings, commitments, and disinclinations that automatically put us in a posture of approval, disapproval, or temporary neutrality, or some other attitude, as the event occurs. If we experience a killing as "an objective, value-free observation", it is because of the situation we are in, not because the killing actually has an objective, value-free existence. When, for example, a sociologist studies killings through the instrument of statistical surveys, the value-free objectivity experienced by the sociologist is simply a pose constructed by the situation of being a scientist in the computer lab. When that same person is home with her family and sees a killing occur outside her home, she condemns it, is angry toward the killer, is roused to physical action, and quickly moves to protect her family from the killer. In this situation, she is no longer a "social scientist"; she is a "mother" and "wife" and the fact of killing is not value-free, to say the least! A different way of stating this point is that, in the phenomenological-existentialist tradition, there are no "facts"; everything is values.
It is possible, by and large, to ignore the technical arguments of philosophers, as long as their arguments stay within the professional province of academic philosophy. We can get along in ordinary life with common sense without knowing anything that philosophers say. Even when philosophy gets picked up by literature and the arts, which have wider audiences than philosophy, it is still possible in ordinary life to ignore philosophical ideas. In this case, however, the phenomenologist-existentialist assault on the fact-value distinction did not stay within its technical professional province. It made its way into academic history and philosophy of science, a dry and arcane study. Reaching out from the history and philosophy of science, it profoundly influenced general conceptions of the nature of science. Since science is the most pervasive and important intellectual activity of the West, the changing conception of science had a large general impact on Western thought and society.
The American historian and philosopher of science, Thomas Kuhn, in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,* brought the phenomenological understanding of fact and value to our understanding of science. Kuhn claimed that scientists work within social-intellectual communities. Each community is built on the scientists' acceptance of an approach to doing scientific work that he called a paradigm. Controversially, Kuhn asserted that scientists are committed to their paradigm in a way that it cannot be disproved for them. Scientific paradigms are consigned to the dustbin of history only when outside scientists, who are not committed to a paradigm, believe the tests disproving it, socially organize themselves to get rid of it, and create a new paradigm to replace it.
Kuhn's theory of how science works is controversial, because he claimed that scientists are ultimately ruled by their values, that is, by their commitments. Their values are so strong that they will not even recognize disproof of their theory when it happens. We can restate this claim in terms of the fact-value discussion we have been having. The scientists' values shape their facts.
For the opponents of Kuhn, it seems as if Kuhn subjected science to politics, political ideology, and subjective emotions. By erasing the fact-value distinction as a large framework within which science takes place, Kuhn destroyed the objectivity of science as objectivity was traditionally understood. In a certain sense, the critics are correct. I have only briefly characterized Kuhn's work, however. I have not explained how (according to Kuhn) paradigms works and how paradigm replacement occurs intellectually. Kuhn recovers objectivity within the paradigm (unlikely as that sounds, given what I have said above) and in the shift from one paradigm to another. It is beyond the purpose of this discussion to explain how he makes this recovery; but limited objectivity and a limited applicability of the fact-value distinction is obtained within the paradigm. Within the paradigm, science looks a lot like it was traditionally supposed to look.
Today at the outset of the twenty-first century, the collapse of the fact-value distinction stands and the implications of the collapse grow. Post-modern advocates of the phenomenological-existentialist philosophy are pushing to reinterpret other areas of Western thought, such as law, in terms of it. Certainly, the collapse has affected political and foreign policy discussions in the U.S., where its consequences for how we view our nation's friends and enemies seem momentous. If the fact-value distinction is to be resurrected, if values are to be set in their own intellectual realm, much work needs to be done.
- 1. Introduction
- 2. Definitions Not Used
- 3. Popular Definition
- 4. Social Science Definitions
- 5. Philosophical Definition: Existentialism
- 6. Cultural Relativism
- 7. The Fact-Value Distinction
- 8. Collapsing the Fact-Value Distinction
* Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962;revised 1970). A useful opposing view, focusing on values, is provided by Larry Laudan, Science and Values: The Aims of Science and Their Role in Scientific Debate (1984).