For What or Who I Am - Fact or Value?


Rabbi with Torah, Hyman Bloom, 1955

by Alan Montefiore

The origins of A Philosophical Retrospective – Facts, Values and Jewish Identity lie in a much more ambitious project, one of looking back on all that I have written over the years on the topics which have been of most concern to me with a view to seeing how far I do or do not still agree with myself, and if not, why not. However, I was persuaded by the very sensible advice given to me by Akeel Bilgrami (in whose series with Columbia University Press A Philosophical Retrospective has now appeared), that not only was this project likely to result in something indigestibly heterogeneous, but that it was in fact only too likely that I should end up without having been able ever to complete it. So why not, he suggested to me, concentrate on just one or two of those issues which had always been of particular importance to me, while simply indicating, wherever appropriate, in what ways those of less immediately central relevance might nevertheless have a bearing upon them. So this is what in the end I set myself to do. 

My main concern, then, in A Philosophical Retrospective was to look back on the long-running debate as to whether values (including obligations and responsibilities) have the status of facts. To put it another way, whether value judgments are or are not properly derivable from statements of fact; and in particular to see how far I would now agree with my own past views on these matters. This debate has, of course, been central to moral (and political) philosophy as such, and indeed in one form or another it still is. But the issues at stake are also of great importance to the ways in which people may conceive of the obligations and responsibilities of their own lives and of the lives of their fellows. For, to put it very briefly, the facts of one’s situation simply have to be recognised as given and accepted for what they are. One may wish that they were other than what they are; but the possibility of any effective effort to bring about a change in them depends on an accurate prior recognition of the facts that one does wish to change. 

This holds just as much for the facts of one’s own present tastes and desires as it does for any other: Addicts who are in denial about their own addiction are in no position to beat it. So if values confront one as facts or are logically inseparable from them, they too have to be recognised and accepted for what they are. If on the other hand, no accumulation of whatever the facts that may be brought to one’s attention, no matter how extensive an accumulation it may be, can in strict logic commit one to any particular evaluation of them, one is left free, and whether one likes it or not, to evaluate them as one sees fit – and by further implication, moreover, responsible for determining one’s own stance so far as one’s overall value commitments are concerned. So the assumption that has often –and not very accurately – been summed up in the slogan “No ‘Ought’ from an ‘is’” is fundamental to what may be called individual value autonomy. 

The thought that I explore in the book is that the concept of identity, as understood in different ways by different people, and especially by people belonging to different cultures and/or to different generations, may for some of them function as a logical bridge, as it were, linking fact and value in such a way as to bind values of obligation and responsibility into the very facts of a person’s identity. While for others, the conceptual gap may present itself so definitively as to leave those matters firmly within the field of individual self-determination; and that this difference may lie at the heart of certain major disputes and of much intractable misunderstanding. In order to illustrate some of the ways in which these problems may make themselves felt, I take the example with which I myself am, naturally enough, most familiar, namely that of Jewish identity. In an attempt to illustrate as effectively as possible the nature of the misunderstandings in which one may become entangled, and in so doing to illustrate at the same time just why the issues involved are far from being ‘purely academic’, I refer (somewhat schematically) to certain episodes from my own life. 

It cannot be denied that in this book I allow my concern with the complexities of a Jewish identity to somewhat outgrow the status of a ‘mere’ example. I have, quite certainly, no pretensions whatsoever to Jewish scholarship as such. But my discussion of some of the many issues bound up in this question of Jewish identity does admittedly tend to take on a certain momentum of its own. Perhaps this only goes to show just how naturally a concern with essentially philosophical debates concerning the relations between concepts such as those of ‘fact’, ‘value’ and ‘identity’ may lead on into debates of an apparently quite different order. At any rate, in looking just a little more closely at some of the problems that may face those who would identify themselves or be identified by others as Jewish, I try to show something of the complications, both theoretical and practical, that may arise from the wide diversity of views held both by Jews themselves of often widely differing traditions and convictions as well as by different members and parties of the non-Jewish world. In particular, I found myself led to raising the question of whether the long-run persistence of an avowedly purely secular Jewish identity may depend – in the Diaspora at any rate – on its being able to preserve some sort of living relationship to the continuing existence of a (perhaps very much a minority but nevertheless) religiously wholly committed and actively practising Jewish community. 

One of the hardly avoidable, and arguably most important, sub-themes of any discussion of Jewish identity, and of the part that Judaism as the Jewish religion may (or may not) play in its establishment, must surely be that of the tension between the universal pretensions of Judaism’s vision of God and of the claims of that vision to recognition by the whole of mankind and the virtually equal emphasis that it places, paradoxically as it might seem, on its being the religion of the Jews as a particular people or nation with its own evidently particular history. I do indeed devote a whole chapter of A Philosophical Retrospective to some of the many complexities involved in this characteristically Jewish tension, while suggesting, almost in passing, that it may perhaps be best understood as only the Jewish version of a paradox and a tension underlying the human situation as such. In fact this is a suggestion that I should hope to be able to explore at greater, more serious and less Jewish-oriented length in a subsequent study. 

There are also, a certain number of other interconnected sub-themes to the book. These include, most notably, that of the philosophically important inter-connectedness of so many prima facie rather different philosophical issues themselves. But if the complexity and importance of the concepts of value, fact and identity and of their inter-relations do undeniably occupy the central focus of my book, the most important sub-theme for me is undoubtedly that of the ways in which issues of major philosophical debate may at the same time be seen as issues of ‘real life’ concern, about which everyone may need to think more clearly if they are to understand better themselves and those others with whom they may disagree but with whose lives their own too are bound up. 


About the Author: 


Alan Montefiore was a Fellow and Tutor in Philosophy at Balliol College, Oxford for 30 years, and is currently Visiting Professor at the Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy at Middlesex University. He has worked and published on a wide diversity of topics, including moral and political philosophy, contemporary French philosophy, philosophy of education and, more specifically, on issues of identity and responsibility. His current book is A Philosophical Retrospective: Facts, Values, and Jewish Identity.