commentary - Knowledge/Value



“Questions of Value, Matters of Taste” by Barbara Herrnstein Smith

Judith Farquhar

It is very appropriate and helpful to begin the Chicago series of Knowledge/ Value workshops with Barbara Smith’s clear thinking on questions of value and knowledge. I am personally grateful that she has been willing to continue for us her long-standing contribution to making philosophical sense and to asking genuinely empirical questions about axiology-at-work. For me, this contribution began with

Contingencies of Value,

which I read in the early 1990s on the beach in Ocracoke, North Carolina. (You’d have to go to Ocracoke to understand why this is completely plausible.) My excitement then about


made me feel privileged to be living a life in which the occasional vacations could be filled with learning to think afresh, discovering both clarity and complexity where there had been murk.

When, a few years later, I served together with Barbara on a Ph.D. committee, I learned much in practice from her readings of ethnographic realism. She showed Stacey

Langwick (the ethnographer) and me how better to locate, and take responsibility for, all the value-mongering we were doing: she has a keen eye for the operations of taste and affiliation in topic construction and fact selection, the axiological orientations toward contingent friends and enemies, the non-symmetrical comparisons between processes of knowledge production, the rampant nostalgia of ethnography, the colonial and anticolonial bias of our terms and fields, and so on.

The essay she has given us this Spring, while mobilizing just as incisive a reading, makes it utterly clear that a recognition of contingencies of value can be no simple turn toward one term or the other of the hoary fact/value dichotomy. We ethnographers are neither pure empiricists nor pure polemicists, and too often we are not careful enough about how we work through (or past) the muddle in the middle. In the phrasing of the argument in “Questions of Value, Matters of Taste,” from the very beginning, again and again we find the fact/value couple alive and well, however unstable. From page one we find an irreducibly dual orientation in play: factual knowledge




have bearing on value judgments; the idea of a fact/value distinction




be challenged,




be ignored; even the pair of interests, the “social


and epistemic


of value judgments” suggests on the one hand an open-ended empirical investigation, an inquiry into practice, and on the other an openly-avowed process of making judgments, settling on values – collectively.

And, of course, Smith reads for us a wonderful case of adjudging values and facts in practice, Judith Jarvis Thomson’s influential declarations that there could be such a thing as a “normative fact” that is “objectively true.” In these gestures Smith remixes the is and the ought, while always challenging their purity and interrogating the complex weave through which both positions continue to configure our worldviews and actions.

And the anthropologists among us should note that she does this in a careful reading that takes Thomson’s language seriously, a form of research that considers always the effectiveness of the text and its dependence on historical conditions. Examples are MIT

classrooms, objectivist-rationalist value theorists,

Fodor’s Guide


Consumer Report

, and the class-based “we” that excludes so many beyond those who might be called

“conscious human beings” or who wouldn’t enjoy strawberry Kool-Aid.

In keeping with the refreshing empirical engagement this paper brings to the life of the fact/value divide, then, in what follows I want to push a few specifically anthropological agenda: value construction as a practice; fact and value in ethnographic realism; and a comparative anthropology of the relativism/ objectivism “problem.” These issues seem to be invited by the way in which Smith’s paper has cleared the philosophical ground.

Value construction

Sociocultural anthropology has long directed its attention to the many ways in which societies construct, discern, and maintain differential values. We have investigated all kinds of value creation: Economic value in relation to labor processes and markets, symbolic and ideological value in relation to semiotic systems, class hierarchies expressed in everything from earning power to regional speech styles, gendered performances and racialized habitus, even the values attached to kinds of knowledge such as mythologies, forms of healing, and agricultural or hunting expertise – these have been our preferred terrain for generations. Some of the best work we have seen – I am thinking at the moment of Nancy Munn’s

The Fame of Gawa

– has also usefully examined value destruction, excavating a cultural unconscious of “witchery” that forms the secretive nightmare behind and beneath a very public and licit – i.e. highly valued – ritual circulation managed by male leaders. As a result, the anthropological archive is rich in insights about value, both explicit and socially occluded. We have many ways of reading practice that can tease out even those contingent value hierarchies that “native informants” are unwilling to articulate or claim as (only) their own.

Along these lines, it is almost too easy to see the contingencies of value – one could even say, the provincialism of values – in Judith Jarvis Thomson’s strange notions about “normative facts.” These kinds of home truths are unproblematic, or true, only for a “specific set of subjects” who feel at home with them. Thomson’s example of a normative fact, “it is wrong to infringe other people’s rights,” simply raises questions for the relativizing reader: What “rights” do “people” [naturally] have? Where would one draw the line between “infringement” of individually owned rights and shared use of a commons? “Wrong” for whom, everybody but the infringer, perhaps? Surely Thomson is aware that she claims superior understanding when she takes the normative (a social and historical quality) and objectifies it as fact and, after a process of highly contingent

“reasoning,” universalizes it as a foundation of “truth.” This is not a populist or fully egalitarian philosophy, clearly. It even seeks to preach to MIT students and other academic Demon Relativists.

If Thomson’s MIT philosophy students are reluctant to join her in universalizing their “personal values” as if they were facts, we anthropologists often find our students are reluctant to join us in relativizing or historicizing values by seeing processes of evaluation as (mere) facts. There is a general queasiness that seems to accompany the teaching of cultural anthropology in its comparative mode: if people somewhere and somewhen have been committed to arranged marriage or slavery or genital surgery or eating grubs, and our readings of their “cultures” demonstrate the reasonableness of such

value commitments, aren’t we comparativists being profoundly immoral? Isn’t a refusal to see a value judgment as true or false a betrayal of the Right and True, not to mention an infringement of “other people’s rights”? Of course we anthropology teachers are not such thoroughgoing relativists as our students sometimes fear; as individuals we all have our preferences and our politics, our tastes and alliances. These are reflected willy nilly in our writing. As teachers of anthropology or anthropologists of food, probably few of us would stand up for the goodness of strawberry Kool-Aid. More important, though we seldom turn around and acknowledge it as such, we mostly have a firm commitment to

the value of the factual

. Not really empiricists, we are nevertheless empirical about our interest in value regimes, cultural evaluations, contingencies of judgment.

To conclude this point: our disciplinary heritage has shown us to be pretty strongly committed to factuality and even concerned with capital-T Truth. In our close examinations of how people claim that their contingent tastes have broad social value (in places as diverse as MIT classrooms and the Trobriand Islands, where Gawa is), we try to produce influential facts. In continuing a commitment to scholarly investigation – whether it is close reading or participant-observation – we continue to play games of truth even as we relativize both fact and value.


But these games in anthropology lead us to the recognition that not everybody in the world shares any version of the idea of Truth with us.


In fact I wonder if I can actually understand how even Judith Jarvis Thomson thinks about truth – for me, her normatively saturated “truth” forms a little mystery at the heart of Smith’s discussion. Perhaps I value too highly a correspondence theory of truth.

Ethnographic Realism

Having now confessed an anthropological taste for factuality, I want to highlight the kind of writing we do, the tacit claims on both realist representation and collective value our styles of work actually make. Contemporary anthropology is well-known as the field where everyone writes ethnography and hardly anyone (voluntarily) reads it.

Publishers tell us that ethnography and history still sell (while literary criticism and critical theory flounder in the marketplace), but this is surely because of an institutional classroom-based demand. And it is a situation that may be changing fast.

Nevertheless, we take our particular fact/value dilemma in anthropology seriously, and we keep tinkering with it through ethnographic writing that has, in some ways, converged with science studies. Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar in 1979 made an ethnographic turn that lodged the sociology of science irreversibly in reflexivity. The


Somewhere Stephen Toulmin made the argument that the very word truth is dual in relation to fact and value. Derived from “troth” (as in “betrothed”), it once spoke more of a social relationship of trust and long-term commitment among subjects than it evoked the problem of correct or objective representation of things with words.


The word for truth in modern Chinese,


, is a sort of colonial compound, literally translatable as “actual reality.” It is not a term that lends itself to epistemologies that rely on a correspondence or language philosophy theory of truth; nor does it make a strong reference to materiality against ideality.

prose of

Laboratory Life

both satirized and performed “the ethnographer” while observing well and recording carefully the empirical situation of a laboratory. At the same time it refused to adopt the rather glorified self-images of some of the other workers in the lab, a distancing that was perceived well by Jonas Salk as he wrote his semi-snarky


This now-classic ethnography focused a great deal on the role of inscription practices in making things what they were. And as such it could hardly fail to draw attention to its own scientific inscriptions, even as it encouraged the next generation of

STS writers to get into labs and clinics, read texts and practices, and write. Latour, of course, went on to further develop an interest in writing, with his idea of texts as immutable mobiles, and knowledge networks as including the agency of various forms of inscription.

As the author of a book and some articles that have been translated into Chinese, far from immutably, I am interested in what efficacies can be imagined for ethnographic writing as it travels, both into US classrooms and into the libraries of China’s many readers. How will my little empirical polemics about post-socialism and variations of embodiment “go over” in various sites of reading? How will my motivated violations of chronology and my forced commensurations of alien practices affect widespread perceptions of me, of China, of anthropology? Does a crafted and interested realism claiming to be about how knowledge is produced (even when it is knowledge that many consider to be superstition) alter anyone’s understanding of what the world contains?

Classically in cultural anthropology we have sought to redress historical asymmetries in the ongoing translation of viewpoints in an unfair world. (Talal Asad’s article on cultural translation is the locus classicus on this point.) As Barbara Smith pointed out to Stacey Langwick and me a while back, however, ethnography seldom achieves symmetry in itself. Latour and Woolgar (among others, and in their own ethnography) did much to develop the idea of symmetrical depiction of scientific practices, challenging the superstition-truth and belief-knowledge divides characteristic of modernist empiricism. But they did not aim at a bland post-political neutrality of language. Symmetry is not a matter of denying all value to everything (and becoming terminally impersonal and boring in some kind of Benthamite nominalism). On the other hand, the ideal of symmetry would be incoherent if we were to declare all statements to be nothing more than value judgments, abandoning all efforts to honestly accept the pedagogy of the real.

Rather, the early ethnographies of science joined with anthropological ethnography to seek a standpoint outside the implicit ideologies of particular natural sciences, outside the explicit polemics of Science and Humanism (facts and values, objectivism and subjectivism). By showing (as Barbara Smith also has) that science is not value-free, ethnographies of the contemporary have allowed our own little science, the art of ethnography, to make a space for the crafting of facts, to direct the attention of readers

– mainly students? – to worlds they had not noticed, even to find interlocutors who might add to the lively network of relativists who would be “glad of a bit of company.”



Contingencies of Value

, 1988: 184.

And speaking of interlocutors…

So I want to conclude these comments by mentioning a few of the companions who have rewarded my ethnographic-comparativist-relativist curiosity and made it more natural for me to interrogate the “evaluative hierarchies” of modernist Western philosophies. I do this by way of suggesting that a project that interrogates, variably sustains, and re-mixes “the fact/value divide” could break further out of the claustrophobic conceptual space of our elite classrooms and come to terms with genuinely different worlds. Of course, critique can draw endlessly on the heterogeneity and contradictoriness of discourses and practices even in Cambridge laboratories or

Chicago corporate boardrooms. But perhaps in science studies we should try harder to expand the pool of the factual and the valuable, at least as part of an effort to understand the contingency of what we can see, what we can conceptualize, and what we think we know.

The residents of Beijing alongside whom I have walked and danced and sung, and with whom I’ve talked about the arts of nurturing life, have spent no time in elite classrooms. None of them are scientists, but everyone living in modern Beijing is bombarded with popularized scientific information in the form of public health propaganda, environmental problems, consumer product information, and news of information technologies. People on the street are quite happy to educate each other about blood sugar or the electric grid, biological evolution or the Big Bang. (In fact, I think science literacy is better achieved in China than it is here.) But when it comes to knowledge that should be used in everyday life, people are skeptical or, rather, agnostic.

I see this agnosticism particularly in talk about health. Many don’t acknowledge that smoking causes lung cancer, many argue that their fatty salty diet is good for their cardiovascular systems. Further, plenty of them know that it is stagnant


causing their indigestion and that seminal essence (


) must be actively managed if a long healthy life is to be hoped for.

I often asked interviewees what kinds of knowledge they most trusted, since they so often distanced themselves from science propaganda. They spoke then of collecting the experience of their family, friends, and neighbors – and they were happy to collect experience from me, for that matter. Many argued that the best approach (the most reliable, the most valuable, and the most truthful) was to find others who were going through life as they themselves were, learn from their experience, and put it together with their own experience. Needless to say, the very process of collecting and adding up bits of knowledge had a healthful sociability about it.

My Beijing street friends’ attitude to consequential truths reminded me of a muchquoted remark of Chairman Mao’s: “Absolute truth is nothing other than the sum of all relative truths.” The very notion of a relative truth is interesting in the modern Chinese context. Mao spoke as the heir and long-term leader of complex modernization efforts in

East Asia. He had been much influenced by the colonizing march of “Mr. Science” and

“Mr. Democracy” through the discourses and institutions of the emerging Chinese nationstate, and he was advancing a very experimental sort of revolution. Suspecting that modern facts were always inflected by political interests, and officially populist about the wisdom of the workers, he was nothing if not a constructivist. Hence his formula insisting that there is no truth that is not relative to some contingencies, and – in very

Chinese rhetorical fashion – remaining silent about who or what might be adding up the relativities to make any claim of absoluteness, objectivity, or universality.

Mao is long dead, but many of those I talked with are old enough to have been schooled in Mao Zedong Thought. There is lurking in what they say, and in the idea of relative truths, a theory of experience, taken as direct and understandable, experience seen as a situated engagement with the contingencies that play through the construction of facts. Experience has a lot of authority in Chinese common sense; it is not an illusory or deceiving appearance that veils a more objective hidden Truth. Note, for example, that empiricism in Chinese (


is literally “experience-ism,” and that the term for experience (


has a connotative resonance with the very similar term for experiment (



). Further, I argued at length in

Knowing Practice

that clinical perception in traditional Chinese medicine addresses not the body’s hidden interiors but its manifest expressions. Clinical logic assembles the symptomatic experience of the patient and the superficial examinations of the doctor to analyze not a deep structure invisible to the layperson but rather a pattern of the manifest that can be correlated with previously recorded clinical “experience.”


I have no space to explore the deeper metaphysics and history of Chinese medicine’s self-fashioning as a field in any period, ancient or modern, nor to elaborate on

Maoist efforts to recast the very meaning of fact in science and history. These are complicated stories and the Maoist parts include aspects of the greatest scandals in the history of the People’s Republic of China, and so must be handled carefully. Sigrid

Schmalzer has done this beautifully with regard to paleontology, with

The People’s

Peking Man

, and she is now turning to entomology and agricultural science in the context of the Chinese Communist Party’s “Away With All Pests” campaigns of the 1950s and

1960s. When the processes of adding up relative truths to produce, at best, authoritative truth are closely examined, as Schmalzer has done, as laboratory ethnography and the best recent history of science have done, it is the field of the authoritative – not the objectively true or the universal value -- that must be expanded.

Now, not cowed by the specter of the MIT classroom (as I’m sure Thomson’s students were not), and working as researchers, we have much work in front of us. We can ask, for example, how authoritative truths are in fact produced across a whole range from expert production to practical use; we can learn how people in many places (not just in the educated strata of the Anglophone world) claim and build moral and epistemological authority for their considered actions; we can challenge the puritanical

“normative facts” that seem to rationally discipline our ethical options; we can enjoy venturing beyond the easy axiology of denouncing the unscientific; and we can reexamine the methods and disciplines that limit the kinds of knowledge we see as valuable, meaningful, or consequential.


See Barry Saunders,

CT Suite

, for reflections on the logic of diagnosis

(“knowing apart”) and the centrality of the lesion in biomedical radiology.