Where do values come from?

From About Those Self-Evident Truths. . . ..

In contrast with science’s confident certitude, if you asked an English professor how he knew that his interpretation of Hamlet was true, or why we should care about Henry James’s overprivileged characters in The Portrait of a Lady, he had no convincing answer, not even to himself, having not reflected much on why he loved literature or what use it had. The right answer is that the humanities embody a different kind of knowledge from that of science. They inhabit the realm of value, not fact; of judgment, not proof. They contain centuries of insightful meditations—based on observation and experience—on what human nature is, what gives life meaning, what the best kind of life is, what distinguishes good from evil and noble from base. They dramatize how experience shapes us and how our character and our choices shape our experience. They examine the nature of family, friendship, love, community, society, civility, freedom, obligation, character, and contingency. Literature shows us the churn of individual consciousness from inside—the stew of reason, passion, knowledge, belief, superstition, hope, and denial through which we all try to make sense of ourselves and our world—and the play of consciousness against consciousness, often so different in perception and intention, often distorted by dissimulation and self-deception. Philosophy asks such questions of value and judgment from a more abstract viewpoint (tellingly, Cambridge University used to call its British philosophy course “The English Moralists”), while history asks them from a more panoramic vista, trying to understand why things happened as they did and to judge the motives that produced them and the consequences that flowed from them—though trying to determine what actually happened is itself often a matter of judgment, since even primary sources are rarely as unequivocal as equations or formulas.

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