McGilchrist on Scheler – The Importance of Value in Constituting Reality

The following paragraphs are a quote from Iain McGilchrist’s book, ‘The Master and his Emissary’, chapter 4, titled ‘The Nature of the Two Worlds’:

‘I need also to say something about Heidegger’s lesser known contemporary, colleague and friend, Max Scheler, who died young, but was the only person Heidegger believed truly understood him. Heidegger went so far, in fact, as to call Scheler ‘the strongest philosophical force in Germany today, nay, in contemporary Europe, and even in contemporary philosophy as such’. Scheler progressed further than Heidegger in certain philosophical directions, particularly the exploration of value and feeling, not as epiphenomena, but as constitutive of the phenomenological world.

According to Scheler, values are not themselves feelings, though they reach us through the realm of feeling, much as colours reach us through the realm of sight. Scheler, like other phenomenological philosophers, emphasised the interpersonal nature of experience, particularly the nature of emotion, which he thought transcended the individual, and belonged to a realm in which such boundaries no longer applied. According to Scheler’s phenomenology in The Nature of Sympathy, which he supported by an examination of child development and linguistics, and which has been corroborated by research since his death in 1928, our early experience of the world is intersubjective and does not include an awareness of self as distinct from other. There is, instead, ‘an immediate flow of experiences, undifferentiated as between mine and thine, which actually contains both our own and others’ experiences intermingled and without distinction from one another’.

Scheler’s view that emotion is irreducible, and plays a grounding role in experience, relates to what has been called the primacy of affect (I will deal with this in the next chapter). In this, as Scheler’s translator Manfred Frings notes, he followed Pascal, who, mathematician that he was, famously asserted that the heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing. But, for Scheler, it was not just any affect, however, that was primary, but that of love itself. For him, man is essentially ens amans, a being that loves. In Scheler’s paradigm, this attractive power (in the literal sense of the word) is as mysterious and fundamental as the attractive power of gravity in the physical universe.

Value, for Scheler, is a pre-cognitive aspect of the existing world, which is neither purely subjective (i.e. ‘whatever I take it to be’) nor purely consensual (i.e. ‘whatever we agree it to be’). It is not, he asserts, something which we derive, or put together from some other kind of information, any more than we derive a colour, or come to a conclusion about it, by making a calculation. It comes to us in its own right, prior to any such calculation being made. This position is importantly related to two right-hemisphere themes which we have encountered already: the importance of context and of the whole. For example, the same act carried out by two different people may carry an entirely different value, which is why morality can never be a matter of actions or consequences taken out of context, whether that be the broader context or that of the mental world of the individual involved (the weakness of a too rigidly codified judicial system). Hence we judge some things that would out of context be considered weaknesses to be part of what is valuable or attractive in the context of a particular person’s character; we do not arrive at a judgment on a person by summing the totality of their characteristics or acts, but judge their characteristics or acts by the ‘whole’ that we know to be that person. (That is not to deny that there might build up so many incongruent ‘parts’ that one was no longer able to resist the judgment they invited, with a resulting revolution in the nature of the whole. It’s like making mayonnaise: add too much oil too fast and the suspension breaks down.)

Value is not a flavour that is added for some socially useful purpose; it is not a function or consequence of something else, but a primary fact. Scheler referred to the capacity for appreciating value as Wertnehmung, a concept which has been translated into the rather less accommodating English language as ‘value-ception’. For him this value-ception governs the type of attention that we pay to anything, and by which we learn more about it. Our value-ceptive knowledge of the whole governs our understanding of the parts, rather than the reverse. It is, in fact, one way of breaking into Escher’s circle of hands, with which this chapter began.

Scheler also held that values form a hierarchy. Of course one may or may not agree with him here – these are matters of judgment and intuition, rather than argument – but what seems to me significant is that, without knowing anything about hemisphere differences, he perfectly illustrates the polarity of value systems of the two hemispheres. The right hemisphere sees the lower values as deriving their power from the higher ones which they serve; the left hemisphere is reductionist, and accounts for higher values by reference to lower values, its governing values of use and pleasure. Scheler’s hierarchy begins with the lowest level, of what he calls sinnliche Werte, or values of the senses – whether something is pleasant or unpleasant. Values of utility (or uselessness) are on the same level as those of the senses, since ‘nothing can meaningfully be called useful except as a means to pleasure; utility … in reality has no value except as a means to pleasure.’ The next level is that of Lebenswerte, ‘values of life’, or vitality: what is noble or admirable, such as courage, bravery, readiness to sacrifice, daring, magnanimity, loyalty, humility, and so on; or, on the contrary, what is mean (gemein), such as cowardice, pusillanimity, self-seeking, small-mindedness, treachery and arrogance. Then comes the realm of the geistige Werte, values of the intellect or spirit – principally justice, beauty and truth, with their opposites. The final realm is that of das Heilige, the holy. See Figure 4.2.

It is relevant to the thesis of this book that there are important qualities which happen to be instrumentally useful, and therefore should be pursued on utilitarian grounds, but that doing so makes no sense, since they cannot be grasped by an effort of will, and the attempt to do so merely drives them further away. This is a point made with great subtlety and elegance by the philosopher Jon Elster, in his brilliant book Sour Grapes: as typical of such values he mentions wisdom, humility, virtue, courage, love, sympathy, admiration, faith and understanding. It is yet another Gödelian point of weakness in rationalism (his book is subtitled Studies in the Subversion of Rationality). If pursued for their utility, they vanish into nothing. All such values belong to the higher levels of Scheler’s hierarchy. The values of the useful and pleasurable, those of the lowest rank, are the only ones to which left-hemisphere modes of operation are applicable – and even these are often self-defeating to pursue (as the paradox of hedonism demonstrates). As things are re-presented in the left hemisphere, it is their use-value that is salient. In the world it brings into being, everything is either reduced to utility or rejected with considerable vehemence, a vehemence that appears to be born of frustration, and the affront to its ‘will to power’. The higher values in Scheler’s hierarchy, all of which require affective or moral engagement with the world, depend on the right hemisphere.

It is said that the meaning of the Hebrew words translated as ‘good and evil’, in the Genesis myth of Adam and Eve eating the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, ‘mean precisely the useful and the useless, in other words, what is useful for survival and what is not’.

If a left-hemisphere process consistently seems to run up against the limits of its own method and needs to transcend them, that is convincing evidence that the reality it is trying to describe is something Other. The fact that in the twentieth century philosophers, like physicists, increasingly arrived at conclusions that are at variance with their own left-hemisphere methodology, and suggest the primacy of the world as the right hemisphere would deliver it, tells us something important.’

McGilchrist – Attention is a Moral Act
McGilchrist – The Master Betrayed


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