Review of General Theory of Value by Ralph Barton Perry
A generation ago idealism held the field in American philosophy, at least so far as the academic alignments were concerned. The pragmatic revolt produced the first schism in the ranks of the orthodox philosophers, and later on other distinct schools came into self-conscious existence. The statement is highly controversial, yet some of us have for a long time believed it, that the neo-Realists arose on account of their misconception of the pragmatic statement, or, what is nearly the same thing, they refused to accept pragmatism on account of the ambiguous formulations of the pragmatists. One of the earliest stages of the controversy was signalized by a platform of principles by six young teachers in the East who were banteringly referred to as "The Six Little Realists," but they did not stay little. They produced a book on neo-Realism and have continued to contribute to philosophical writing. One of the ablest of them all is Professor Perry, who, in this volume, has given us a notable contribution to the understanding of man and the world with such charming good nature, such fairness to his opponents, and such consummate erudition that it must and will be reckoned with by all those who are interested in the philosophic formulations on human life.
The title of the book is A General Theory of Value, and the subtitle shows that he is making interest the explanatory principle, but to speak of interest is for Professor Perry to speak of the origin of interest which leads him into biology, of the experience of interest which leads him into psychology, of. the relation of interest to knowledge which involves the whole theory of cognition, of the relation of the interests of one man to all the rest, which produces chapters on society and social integration; in short, it is like the flower in the crannied wall. The book is voluminous and far from being easy reading, but it surely is a relief to find a book in which the author never has occasion to say "This subject cannot be treated on account of limits of space." When the subject needs treating, Professor Perry treats it, and there is something in this book on every aspect of philosophy, sociology, and psychology.
The book is, of course, philosophical. Perhaps the philosopher is always justified in setting forth his position like a creed; at least they all seem to do so, this one no less than any. Realism is assumed as a principle: "interest" is presented as a synonym of " ‘desire,' 'will,' or 'purpose"; "interest" refers to the characteristic strain in life and mind which characterizes the motor-affective life (p. 27). The author asserts that this particular meaning of interest is new.
The method is perhaps necessarily ideological, and the impression one gets at times is of a reincarnated Greek discussing these matters with Socrates and Protagoras. For instance, the author wishes to know the relation of value to interest. "Now there can be," says he, "only four ways in which they can be related." The first three are stated and in turn rejected, which of course proves that the only true relation it the fourth. Perhaps it will be forever impossible to rid ourselves from the idols of the forum, but if highly educated men would translate their terms into foreign languages often enough, it would have some effect, perhaps, in the certainty of their conclusions. Professor Perry is not only a realist; he is also a behaviorist. One cannot be a psychologist any more, at least not this year; for the best that the student can do is to learn what the psychologies of 1926 are, and choose his partner. Professor Perry chooses behaviorism because it seems to have, and does have, decided affinities with his philosophical approach. He begins with biology, as a good behaviorist should, and devotes some pages to "Interest in the Animals," concluding that Socrates in his prison and the dog who anticipates a beating can be brought under the same formula. "Almost every recent advance in the motor-affective field of mental life has resulted from the more or less complete abandonment of the introspective method. The effort is throughout to be objective." But while Professor Perry protects himself by saying that he is not sure that he is a strict behaviorist and that questions of orthodoxy should not be raised at this stage, yet this reviewer experienced a shock of surprise to find after the foregoing statement an elaborate discussion of hunger and appetite, and feelings of pleasure and pain. The author insists that he is still objective but has not neglected the feeling side since it all fits into the picture. Just how it can possibly fit into the picture where objective observation is the method seems very difficult to formulate. There are three chapters on the classification of interests, "Modes of Interest," where the procedure is to run through the material a series of dichotomous terms such as positive and negative, progressive and recurrent, potential and actual, playful and real, personal and social. On the last page the author says
( 285) of this method, "It tends to be excessively detailed and schematic. . . . . Classifications of this type are too easy to make, and too likely to prove barren when they are made."
The section of most interest to readers of this Journal concerns the relation of society and the individual, the unity of such modes of social interaction, and "Is Society a Person?" Professor Perry agrees with those who regard society as a collection of individuals, but votes with that party who insists that since the members of a group are not fastened together physically, they cannot possibly have any existence save nominally. If it be true that interests arise in a nervous system, and if it can be shown that society has no nervous system, it ought not to be hard to prove that society has no interest. But one is surprised to read the statement that Professor Davy's view that faits sociaux are data precludes all analysis. It almost looks as if we are lacking a universe of discourse. If public opinion or the mores of Professor Sumner, to whom, strangely enough, Professor Perry refers not at all, are data, it does seem impossible to deny that such data could be analyzed. In fact, if we do not analyze our data, what material could ever be subjected to analysis?
The reviewer has found this book profoundly interesting and very valuable. He has read it through twice. Like everyone who reads it, he is indebted to the author. The scholarship is sound and the urbanity of the writer is engaging. The point of view is clear and honestly stated, and the attempt is made to carry it out with what the reviewer finds to be certain inconsistencies, which inconsistencies are perhaps the best proof of the author's open-mindedness and willingness to face the facts. The fundamental criticism which was left after carefully going over the work might be formulated in terms which the author himself would hardly be disposed to accept. Nevertheless, the feeling is clear. Starting out as a behaviorist, the psychological and sociological parts of the work are replete with the customary devices and statements that are inherent in the genetic approach, but there seems to be the greatest difficulty to retain the analytic temper when one starts with the simpler units and traces their development. To begin at the beginning and show how things develop is valuable and necessary, but it cannot be too strongly stated that this is not analysis. Parts of the work do show a masterly handling of concepts analytically treated, but this does not characterize those parts of the argument where the genetic account is central.
A second volume is promised, and those who read this will await its appearance with lively interest, thus constituting it a genuine value.
UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO