Further thoughts on the tyranny of values

Note: Updated to reflect the actual name of the author of the piece, with apologies for the error.

In a recent review of some of Leo Strauss’s books at The Public Discourse, Matthew Franck summarizes an argument from Strauss’s Natural Right and History. He tells us that Strauss explained how “[t]he ideas that the truth about the human condition is radically contingent on history (historicism) and that we can speak rationally only about facts and not at all about ‘values’ or moral principles (positivism) lead inexorably to a failure of all conviction, and ultimately to nihilism, which in turn eventuates (in Strauss’s memorable words) in ‘fanatical obscurantism.’” Franck goes on to draw this thread out of later works by Strauss and James W. Ceaser. The historicism and positivism of the academic discipline of political science, he tells us, leads to irrationality and cynicism about political life.

Franck makes this argument in the context of a critique of cancel culture on university campuses. Because political science—and many other disciplines besides—is in the grips of historicism and positivism, political scientists are incapable of talking rationally about one’s preferences. This results in a fanaticism that, he says, finds expression primarily in the illiberal actions he details. Invitations rescinded, professors hounded, careers ended. Professors, he argues, ought to be resisting the radicalism of their students, offering a moderating influence.

I am not an astute observer of professional political science and the debates that are internal to the profession. However, it is impossible to be unaware of cancel culture, even if figures in regime media would deny its existence. And certainly there is something very real about the “fanatical obscurantism” that routinely tries to enforce a particular mode of thought wherever it goes, whether that’s college campuses or large corporations or school boards. One would be hard pressed to call it rational, too. And certainly one suspects that the academic classes are in some significant part responsible for the emergence of a new Jacobin class.

However, I was struck by the observation that values are opposed to positivism, with the implication that if we could return to talking rationally about values we could escape the crisis. Carl Schmitt, following Max Weber and others, explains how that is almost exactly wrong in The Tyranny of Values. (The pamphlet started as a lecture Schmitt delivered in 1959 at a conference in Ebrach, West Germany. He published it privately in 1960, and then again, in a Festschrift, with a lengthy introduction, in 1967.) In The Tyranny of Values, Schmitt demonstrated precisely that values are a “positivistic ersatz for the metaphysical.” In this, he follows Martin Heidegger. To be sure, in this account, values are opposed to the value-free scientific positivism that Franck seems to have in mind. But, Schmitt tells us, even if values are set in opposition to scientific positivism, they do not provide an escape hatch from irrational fanaticism. They do the opposite, in fact. They plunge individuals into the same abyss of nihilism.

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I have written here and elsewhere on other occasions about The Tyranny of Values. It has gotten some attention, too, in publications such as American Affairs. There, Blake Smith argues that The Tyranny of Values is Schmitt’s final reckoning with Leo Strauss’s critique of The Concept of the Political. The Tyranny of Values is one of the essential texts for the present age. The upshot of Political Theology, an extended meditation on a remark by Donoso Cortés, is obvious to anyone with eyes: political concepts are secularized theological concepts. And they are becoming less and less secularized. Likewise, the friend-enemy distinction discussed in The Concept of the Political plays itself out on small states and large stages alike on an almost hourly basis. Yet in comparison to these texts, The Tyranny of Values, no less powerful in its insight, is relatively obscure.

The positivism of values in Schmitt’s account is, perhaps, where the trouble really begins. Perhaps that is not the most precise way of putting it. Values were a response, and it was by and large a 19th century response, to “causal-legal and, therefore, value-free science” that threatened, according to Schmitt, human freedom and responsibility. How then to maintain that human freedom and responsibility? Schmitt turns from Martin Heidegger to Max Weber here. The perfectly free individual sets values with his decisions about those values. This certainly maintains the free and responsible human being in the face of inexorable causality. But this pure subjectivity leads to the crisis that preoccupies Schmitt for the remainder of the essay, however.

The crisis becomes manifest in the consequences Schmitt draws out of the concept of values. One startling one is that values are only place-values in a value system, assessed from a given standpoint. Even the highest value—Schmitt here uses God as an example, but one can imagine many others—is still a value and has only the value that the system gives it. What matters for the logic of values on Schmitt’s account is that the value is a value first and foremost and only secondarily the highest value. But once something becomes a value and indeed a place-value it is subject to revaluation and readjustment from different standpoints, at different points of attack.

Value logic is an inherently aggressive thing. This is the second important consequence of a philosophy of values. Schmitt begins The Tyranny of Values by observing that “value is not, rather it holds.” Now we know also that a value “only ever hold[s] for something or for someone.” I am lying—to you, to myself, to anyone—if I say that I hold a given value without making it valid, without imposing it on someone or something. More than this, when I set a value, I necessarily devalue, raise in value, declare nonvalues, and valuize. “The compulsion to validity of value is irresistible, and the strife of those who value, de-value, raise in value, and valuize, is unavoidable.” Value logic is, therefore, the “eternal battle of values and of worldviews, a war of all against all . . . .” Values must always and everywhere be made valid, they must be imposed—on someone or on something. Each individual, in perfect freedom and subjectivity, sets values and imposes them.

We have not, with a turn to values and the inevitable war of all against all that the turn entails, escaped scientific nihilism. Schmitt notes that even assertions of objectivity of values do nothing but stoke the conflict. Indeed, Schmitt argues that the promise of tolerance, of subjectivity, of neutrality made by value philosophy converts, immediately, with the flip of a switch, into enmity, and all the vertiginous horror that enmity implies, as soon as the question of making values valid is raised concretely. And it is always raised concretely. The nihilism opposed to human freedom and responsibility emerges where we least expected it—indeed, in the fortress we built against its invasion.

Unsurprisingly Schmitt finds little hope in all this. That is, the philosophy of value was brought to bear as a defense against a scientific positivism, but it is unlikely to achieve that goal. In the 1967 introduction, Schmitt wryly remarks that the “theologians, philosophers, and jurists” who had seen in values “the salvation of their existence as theologians, philosophers, and jurists, namely salvation from an irresistible advancing natural scientificity” would be disappointed. The transformation of the bases of these disciplines, Schmitt holds, into values merely hastens what he calls the general neutralization.

The power of Schmitt’s insight in The Tyranny of Values is precisely his explanation of value logic and his clear-eyed view of the consequences. In the introduction, Schmitt explains that philosophy of values was attractive to jurists, especially in the postwar era, because it was modern and scientific, especially in comparison to the Thomistic and neo-Thomistic natural law jurisprudence that Schmitt identifies as its explicit competitor. Yet it was a “calamitous error” to assume that “goods and interests, goals and ideals” could be saved from “value-free natural scientificity.” Schmitt tells us that “values and value theories are not capable of founding any legitimacy; they can only ever valuize.”

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Values, therefore, are not really the way out of the nihilistic campus conflicts Franck identifies. For one thing, value theories “can only ever valuize” and once something becomes a value, the logic of values takes over. That is to say that the “fanatical obscurantism” that Franck decries is perfectly at home in a system of values. Indeed, it is already at the point of attack, devaluing and revaluing even the highest values. It is already prepared to make its values valid, to impose those values on someone. Schmitt tells us that values open onto the appalling vista of a war of all against all. The question is whether anyone is capable of restraining the unmediated enforcement of values.

One might even ask whether what is happening on college campuses and in large corporations (and in a thousand other places) is not already taking place in a system of values. Every standpoint has a highest value and therefore a highest non-value, and every point of attack strips away the pretended neutrality and relativism of a system of values. The “fanatical obscurantism” might be perfectly at home in a system of values precisely because it is already taking place in a system of values. Insisting on another ranking of values is simply following the logic of values in another direction; it is not, however, escaping that logic. The war of all against all grinds on. Another year, another offensive, everyone stuck in the same stinking trenches.

Perhaps there is another solution, though, which Schmitt hinted at when he identified the Thomistic and neo-Thomistic natural law jurisprudence as the primary competitor to a value jurisprudence. If values are, as Heidegger and Schmitt have it, a positivistic ersatz for the metaphysical, surely a return to Thomism and the natural law (rightly understood) would break out of the crisis. Schmitt tells us, in a roundabout way, that the actions of the Thomistic account are altogether separate from value theory: “[v]irtues one exercises; norms one applies; commands are fulfilled; but values are set down and imposed.” Thomism and the natural law, therefore, break out of the trap set by value philosophy.