Revisiting Values and Institutional Order

October 2, 2019

With the recent passing of Harris Hyman, I found myself thinking about another mentor, College of the Atlantic Professor Richard Davis. In my second semester at COA (1979), I took a class with Dick called Values and Institutional Order.

The course was to be an exploration in social value theory with the class constituting as a "think tank" with each person contributing his or her skills and related personal research.

Some background of being in college in 1979 -

  • No desktop computers - typewriters only. Here is Dick's original summary of the class in his typical single-paged, Ginsbergesque stream-of-consciousness philosophy-speak.
  • I wish I could remember the other (7?) class participants but the details have faded with time. Anyway, there were enough of us that we filled the small "learning center" on the second floor of the old building. Hard to imagine such a thing happening today but the College's insurance policy prohibited the use of "classrooms" (let that sink in a minute) so classrooms were rebranded as "learning centers".
  • No internet. Research often entailed a 75 minute trip to University of Maine - Orono's main library. Once there, a typical article search involving the Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature might take 30 minutes (if UMO had it) - more if it was on microfilm or microfiche. The time spent driving to UMO with Dick (or other professors) was often as enlightening as any class.

We were supposed to start from a base of available theories of value and extend it. However, it turned out that the available theories were useless for what we were attempting as they were really just inventories of values. With the foundations of the class destroyed, we were left to engage in what became an exercise in Whitehead-ian "Process" philosophy whereby we developed our own Theory of Value. Dick was a Whitehead scholar which we were decidedly not, so to mangle a metaphor somewhat, he not only had to lead our horse asses to water, he had to teach us how to drink as well. By the way, a copy of Dick's PhD thesis, "Whitehead's Moral Philosophy", is here.

It was a ludicrously ambitious activity.

I remember the class was committed to putting in the time and effort to come up with a result and class discussions were as intense as I was to ever encounter in any classroom setting.

In the end, we came up with something though it took Dick's summary to put it all in context (scroll down to skip):


( I am putting this in the form of a review so that Rich (Borden) can use it to get a sense of where we have been.)

This course was originally conceived as an exploration in social value theory (normative) to complement Humans in Nature, which focuses on the individual. Last spring, however, interest was expressed in trying to incorporate experimental examination of some of the claims made about the influence of institutional structure on human values by such as Schumacher, Marcuse, neo-Marxists, etc.,. In general, there seemed to be an interest in exploring characteristics of systemic structure as expressed in experience. The resolution was the proposal for a class which would attempt to combine normative and descriptive approaches, would constitute itself as a "think tank" with each person contributing his or her skills and related personal research, and would attempt to generate a general theoretic framework working from a base of available theory. Unfortunately, in reviewing the literature to prepare for this course, it became apparent that the bulk of what was available had been done by organizational systems people in industrial management. Apart from marginal applicability to the interests which originated the course, their work seemed to be loaded with the biases of profitable management. However since the primary thrust of the course had become methodological -- i.e. to learn what we could about institutional order but primarily to concentrate upon the creative experience of attempting to generate large scale hypotheses, develop means of formally modeling values (other than simple scalar indices), and sufficient empirical testing to indicate whether the exercise had been wholly speculative or whether further efforts would be in order--- it seemed desirable not to assume any theoretic base and to generate the hypothetical framework from the intuitive (more or less informed) perspective of the group members. Also it became rapidly apparent that, though one can find a million studies surveying the values people happen to have, very little had been written (or well warranted) to indicate why. Thus at the very outset, the class decided that it wished to attempt and develop a dynamic theory. Beginning with the attempt to define value as we experience it, we rapidly agreed that values were "motivating factors in experience", that we would call anything which made a difference in conscious experience a "value" (positive or negative.) No distinction would be drawn for "attitudes, beliefs, etc. as opposed to values, though they might be components of values or types of valuation.


Contrary to Rokeach (and others), values are neither properties of objects nor entities "held" by subjects. Rather they are activities of relationship whereby the present center of experience is related to something other than itself. Introspectively, however, these objects are contained within experience. (Thus while reflective experience might reveal a "self", or subject, opposed to "others", or objects, the point of view of the reflection itself is not so divided.
Thus, while from a detached or second person viewpoint, we might distinguish a subject and the forces acting upon it, all of the elements "first person" experience are contained within itself. (Or to use another metaphor experience is being treated as a dynamic field arising from the components of its origins and embracing those components within the total field.)

2.) These components within experience are felt as having a "vector” quality pressing toward formation/transformation of the experience. Presumably this is implicit in the notion that values are relational activities which "make a difference" in experience. Here however, there is an additional point. If the value experienced is an interaction of factors, the "pattern" (character, appearance, whatever) of the interaction may either conserve or transform the patterns of the interacting factors.... it need not resemble them in any sense. While it may clearly be useful at times to speak of values as identifying patterns of equilibration maintained in the environment/experience, any equilibration must be achieved through the transformation of the (potentially) disrupting factors subordinated in pattern maintenance. Thus equilibration can be handled formally as a particular case of transformation -- facilitating eventual modelling.

3.) Presumably at any given time there are a great many more elements contributing to immediate experience than are obvious (certainly the case of an interaction pattern of only two component patterns would be unlikely unless the component patterns themselves expressed the interactions of a much more complex situation. Three inferences followed from this: Conscious valuation (value experience) must have the status of a simplification as the interaction product which embodies the final transformations of a much more complex preconscious array of vectors. (Indeed two members of the group almost immediately suggested use of point sources in a wave tank to model values as interference patterns. This was later extended to encompass the notion that the value as experienced must be a transformation of the interference pattern, analogously to Pribram’s use of transforms of interference patterns in the nervous system to model sensory consciousness.) Secondly, unless some vectors became dominant in determining the character of the final contrasts, the result would be either "muddy" or "chaotic" experience. Thirdly, it seemed to follow from this that every coherent conscious value experience must represent a gradation of components in terms of relative importance.

4.) At this point, the "sense of importance" (of something mattering) seemed to express excellently an essential dimension of all value experience. I.E. Importance itself might comprise a "meta-value" which could be used to understand (and perhaps base normative claims) in specific areas of valuation. Thus we begin speculating on the question "what makes things experientially important?" From this a number of points followed: Some things are felt to be important at a "gut level" -- intuitively, concretely. At the opposite end of a continuum (not a dichotomy) some things were felt to be important as the result of a mediate process of relatively detached experiences (i.e. conscious judgements). Presumably the specific identification of an important factor would be a matter of consonance (resonance?) between patterns which would be mostly overt in consciousness for the latter but increasingly pre-conscious for the former. These pre-conscious components would include both the extra-somatic context of the experience and an inheritance of integrated patterns to interact with the components of this context at various levels. (I.E. Inherited both in the form of persistent vectors derived from personal and cultural experience as well as genetically — the latter would have to comprise the basis for any claims about naturally appropriate institutional structures.

4.)Cont. Interactions could also take place in consciousness between the judgmental "feeling" components, however these were not envisioned as different in kind. Either could involve the almost direct expression of pre-conscious factors, or any extreme of transformed interaction. Finally a list was generated of about twenty - five traits which were held to be characteristic of "important phenomenon."

5.) After a number of discussions all of these traits had either been eliminated as too narrowly specific or reduced to one of three clusters of related terms. Each of these we took to represent a "dimension" of value experience which must be held in some sort of balance with the other dimensions to maximize importance. ( At this point we had some debate, not wholly resolved, over whether we were analyzing what produced a "positive experience" or simply a "powerful experience"--positive or negative. Regardless, we concluded with three ultimate dimensions no one of which could either be omitted or reduced to the other two. These were

Harmony (composition, integration, structure, simplification through organization)
Intensity (an experiential primitive like a strong emotion, a bright light, but possibly analyzable in terms of "force" and "Frequency.")
Character/Complexity (clarity and richness of content, specificity/multiplicity of individual vector identities expressed within the experience, functional significance in details and whole.)

6.) Given these dimensions, it is relatively easy to project either hypotheses dealing with interactions of the three interdependent, or experiments examining the effect on the total quality of an experience under variation of the three. Also it is relatively easy to imagine situations (say using aesthetic target objects) which could also all three dimensions to be measured simultaneously by introspective scalar measures and independent measures in terms of more or less formalized renditions of each dimension.

7.) It had also occurred to us at this point that, given our model thus far, an institution (with respect to its effect on value experience) would be described as a region within the field of experiential activity which was somewhat autonomously ordered as an integration of transformational and self-maintaining vectors. Of course the pattern expressing the identity of each of these vectors might itself be a complex pattern, possibly including the behavior patterns of individuals as components. ( The assumption always being that while an element experienced in consciousness might be a transformation of the interaction of other components, these complexes - if persistent would reveal a relationship modified by the elements related just as the elements were modified by their participation in the relationship. Thus for example a pattern of enduring pIt was a ludicrously ambitious activity.olicy at COA would have arisen out of the interactions of the individuals and situational components which generated it but would, in turn, be exerting a formative influence on the experience of those individuals. Obviously, on the introspective side it would be possible to imagine personality as itself being such an institutional structure -- or structures.

8.) An assortment of other notions of a theoretic nature have come up in the process of trying to determine the most useful approach to experimenting with these notions. One is the importance of keeping in mind the notion that, if we attempt to look at institutional properties usually identified by predicates like "authoritarian" or "free" and apply our dimensions to determine whether they are involved in either the strength of such properties or their positive/negative character, we should keep in mind that we would not be looking for isolated entities but rather complex sets of dynamic conditions under which an individual would feel "free" or "ruled over".... or make judgements to the same effect.

Again, if a value experience is always the pattern of interaction of other factors, and common sense tells us that the number of factors contributing to an experience is vastly greater than its overt content, then we should expect an analysis of the conditions of the experience to require a much more elaborate model than that of the surface structure of the conscious event.

Again if our dimensions apply to an active process/complex in determining how important that experience feels, then it can be applied to components only insofar as they themselves are similar complex processes ----or the structural remains of such process subjected to a genetic reconstruction. Relative to the experience that is happening right this moment, an existing structure will be important in terms of its contribution to the harmony, intensity, etc.,. of the newly forming experience. Thus to describe these conditions of an experience we want to do so by means of expressions of their potentiality for contributing to the immediate process, I.E. harmonizing, compatible, intensifying, enriching, etc.,.......always keeping in mind one of the first assumptions in the course •• that such relational attributes must be specified in terms of the particular patterns (of transformational forces) related. It is always necessary to specify that a particular kind of A is compatible, or intensively additive etc., with a particular kind of B. (also the conditions under which such relations obtain if pertinent). It is worth noting here that whether a significant list of such attributions can be made at a very general level or not--- or how vast a list of particular specifications would be needed-- would all be an extremely elaborate empirical question. Regardless, in regarding components in terms of how they can contribute to the total experience, we have now converted them into extrinsic or instrumental values rather than the intrinsic value experience with which we began, (AS an injection of my own, we have also made a modal shift -- from talking about the actuality of an experience to the potentiality out of which it arises. I suspect we have also made the relationship inescapably teleological - purposive in respect of the functional relationship between the component and the whole.) However if the model is significant, and for example Rokeach’s tests have some sort of validity, we would expect a high level of correlation between pairs of his terminal and instrumental values .. though not necessarily the nominally obvious pairings.

It has also occurred to us that, if we are correct in the notions that each experience incorporates enduring vector complexes at various levels: biotic, cultural, personal, conceptually novel, --- that perhaps other more or less well warranted theories might represent a focus on partial aspects of the situation and a guide to examining the particular components. (I.E. Kohlberg, Piaget, Maslow at a biotic level; Rokeach, etc., social)

Finally, it seems the weakest part of the whole theory/model? at the present -- which has impeded developing real experiments -- is that fact that we have analyzed so much in terms of the dynamics of an immediate moment in experience that we have paid very little intention to the larger -- and presumably more important process of enduring patterns. (Though clearly those conditions of experience mentioned above would include frameworks of expectancy and environmental structure.

The three factors which we decided combined into what made an experience "valuable" - Harmony, Intensity, Character/Complexity still seem, intuitively and in large part, correct.

However, after thirty seven years, I can honestly say the class was a failure.

The process used to arrive at the conclusions we reached was messy and inefficient but nonetheless, it produced a result. That result, in hindsight, was flawed because advances in neurobiology that would have informed our discussions were decades away. We know now that what makes experiences important/valuable is inextricably linked to how our brains work on a biochemical level. To put it another way, we may not be as hardwired as seagulls but we're more hardwired than we think we are, according to the neurobiologists.

In the end, we were no different than Bronze Age shepherds, sans telescopes, looking up at the sky trying to figure out how the heavens worked.

Still, it was the best class I have ever taken.

Dick died just after I graduated in 1982. We had just started work on a book on Problem Solving Methodologies.