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Comptes rendus de lecture

Andrew ABBOTT, Faits et valeurs

Ivan Ermakoff
p. 251-255
Référence(s) :

Andrew ABBOTT, 2020, Faits et valeurs, Paris, Éditions du Collège de France, 120 p.

Texte intégral

1Based on four lectures delivered by Andrew Abbott at the Collège de France in spring 2019, Faits et valeurs weaves two threads together. One is a critical review of how different social-scientific frameworks address the relationship, or lack thereof, between facts and values. This critical review proceeds through successive contrasts: Émile Durkheim vis-à-vis Emmanuel Kant (lecture 1), economic theories of choice and theories of natural rights versus historicism (lecture 2), and Max Weber on politics contra Max Weber on science (lecture 3). Taking stock of the analytical failings and dead ends of these frameworks, the second thread elaborates a processual approach (lecture 4).

2Since Durkheim’s and Weber’s stances on knowledge and morality dialogue with Kant’s oeuvre, Faits et valeurs opens with an outline of how we might appraise the relationship between facts and values through the prism of Kant’s three Critiques. Knowledge, not values, is the primary subject matter of The Critique of Pure Reason (1781). Yet, in conceptualizing the idea of freedom as an “antinomy of pure reason,” Kant set the stepping stone for the reflection on ethics. While we cannot rule out the possibility that self-determined acts—free acts—generate causal chains, we cannot for sure distinguish effects generated by such acts from effects that are not. In other words, while we can think the idea of freedom, we cannot make it an object of knowledge. From a transcendental standpoint, i.e., from the standpoint of a priori logical requirements, the idea of freedom remains an open question.

3Delving into the requirements of moral acts and the possibility of freedom is the task proper of the Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals (1785) and the Critique of Practical Reason (1788). Obligations cannot be deemed moral if they are made relative to an epoch, a situation, or a locality. Their validity resides in their formal structure and universal significance. Moreover, we cannot envision such obligations as moral acts unless we postulate the freedom of the will: the idea of freedom is a necessary condition of morality from the (transcendental) standpoint of pure practical reason. In this intellectual architecture, objective knowledge (facts) and morality (values) belong to two separate transcendental universes. The Critique of the Power of Judgement (1790) examines how individuals, as they experience the world in its concrete variety, seek to overcome the separation between theoretical reason and practical reason by assigning finality and function to the objects of their experience.

4Whether the issue under consideration is freedom or the foundation of morals, Durkheim’s arguments reproduce the formal logic of Kant’s reasonings. Hence, the book on Moral Education (1925 posthumous) depicts freedom as commensurate with the experience of moral commands. Substituting the societal level to the transcendental one, The Division of Labor in Society (1893) theorizes society as the transcendent foundation of morals. Suicide (1897) shores up this conception by relating cross-national variation in suicide rates to variation in societal integration. The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912) hypostasizes further society by tracing categories of knowledge to collective representations. The Durkheimian framework thus makes collective consciousness the absolute yardstick of morality and knowledge. The challenge this framework faces then lies in explaining how an absolute foundation can be subject to change (p.35).

5Adepts of an historicist understanding of social phenomena—chief among them Karl Marx—have no problem bypassing this difficulty. From a historicist perspective, broad societal entities (e.g., class, nation, Volk) embody principles of universality. These entities furthermore follow their own logic of development. Universality is therefore historically situated. However promising the historicist framework may seem at first, it generates its own set of difficulties. For one thing, the narrative form of exposition adopted by historicist accounts presumes subjects and entities that throughout time remain identical to themselves. This presumption is at odds with observations documenting the temporal reconfigurations of these entities. In addition, historicist accounts assume too quickly that large-scale social realities constrain historical change. Finally, in making the present the end state of the past, these accounts endorse a teleological conception of causality while depriving themselves of the ability to adequately think the future.

6From a diametrically opposite perspective, theories of natural rights—exemplified by the work of Leo Strauss and Karl Popper—reject the relativistic understandings of morals implied by a historicist framework. In the natural right framework, contractual relationships ground social and political arrangements while moral truths are cut in the cloth of eternal truths. The frailty of this approach is threefold. First, in giving precedence to a contract-based understanding of social relations, the natural right framework ignores the wide diversity of conditions and resources experienced by historical actors. By way of consequence, this framework overlooks the significance of structural constraints. Second, this approach propounds a narrow conception of causality restricted to either efficient causes, under the guise of preceding actions, or final causes, under the guise of motivating goals. Third, the claim that there are eternal moral truths is left unsubstantiated (p.43).

7Economic theories of choice—epitomized by Alfred Marshall’s Principles of Economics (1890)—share with theories of natural rights a conception of the social world grounded on contracts and the institutions that make them possible. As portrayed through the lens of these theories, individuals are nothing more than a bundle of resources, preferences and options. History from this perspective amounts to an account of the types and amounts of resources available to actors. The temporality at work is nothing more than the temporality of the market. Resorbed in the present of choice making and the immediate future of expected consequences, economic theories are unable to acknowledge the differential impacts of individual trajectories, and the changing nature of preferences.

8The fourth intellectual framework reviewed by Faits et valeurs is centered on Max Weber’s lectures on science (November 1917) and politics (January 1919). Observing that science’s domain of investigation enjoys no limit and is ever growing, the lecture on science acknowledges the disenchantment resulting from the expansion of scientific approaches. In addition, this lecture makes the case for academic engagements freed from the warping influence of value-laden reasoning. The lecture on politics, on the other hand, affirms the centrality of values as vectors of political engagement. Weber’s stance on ethics is thus beset by a twofold contradiction. First, in advocating value neutrality, the lecture on science states the value of excluding all values from the proceedings of science. Second, the “romantic” (p.72) call for a responsible commitment to political causes propounded in the lecture on politics contradicts the rejection of values expounded in the lecture of science.

9Each one of these critical appraisals points to the tasks ahead and the ways to go. Overcoming the difficulties in which the Durkheimian framework finds itself embroiled requires drawing the full implications of an understanding of morality as historically situated. On this score, the discrepant representations of temporality displayed by historicist, economic and natural right approaches motivate a conception that acknowledges the ontological centrality of the present. Finally, Weber’s contradictory stances on knowledge and values underlines the need for a theorization of the social process.

10These leads in turn set the stage for an alternative and comprehensive framework grounded in several claims.

1) “Every action and every mechanism relevant to causality take place in the present time” (p.50). Hence, nothing exists beyond the present (p.50-51). Past and future are to be imagined as “a succession of present moments” (p.51).

2) The notion that perennial entities compose the present is an illusion (p.69). Events actually make up the present (p.50). Change, not stability, is the “natural state” of the social world (p.50).

3) Continuities then should be viewed as resulting from a “certain lineage of events” (p.50): “some event sequences align with one another in ways that are more or less perceptible” (p.51). By extension, individuals and social structures should also be viewed as “lineages of events” (p.57).

4) The present time of experience is “always a local present” (p.75) “encompassing a high number of remanent effects” (p.54). It is also “thick” (p.54-55, 74, 88), in the sense that it “lasts” (“se prolonge,” p.15) its thickness varying with the type of action being considered.

5) The corollary of this last point is that causes operate in a local fashion and are not synchronous with their effects (p.53-54).

6) A further corollary is that apprehended as temporal phenomena “explaining and choosing necessarily overlap” (p.80, 83, 89). They are grounded in the present and embedded in local and specific activities (p.84), i.e., present times connected to one another.

7) Facts and values pertain to the same objects but on different temporal planes (p.73). Facts bear upon the past and are amenable to explanations. Values point to the future and orient the act of choosing (p.73). Being “two dimensions of the same process,” separating them is “impossible” (p.84).

11A battery of concepts undergirds these claims. “Encoding” describes “how actions at time t model and remodel the response to the following question:” “who is going to interact with whom and about which subject?” (p.57). While “historicality” denotes “the ways in which the past gets continuously inscribed” in the present (p.57, 93), “anticipation” is the encoding of the future into the present (p.93). “Sedimentation” depicts the “transformation of values into facts” (p.93). “Factualization” designates the process of producing stable social structures (p.101), and of seeking to “solidify things” (p.102). Channeling “the flow of the present towards options and possibilities” (p.102), “valorization” is the process whereby “things that can change” get “identified” (p.101).

12It would be difficult to overstate the rich density of this short book. A priori the tenets of a processual approach have little to do with a problematic centered on how to address the relationship, or lack thereof, between facts and values. Yet, the book artfully interlaces these two threads together. Each lecture / chapter combines critical considerations outlining the limits, failings, or contradictions of one or several approaches with analytical observations intended at once to overcome the drawbacks previously identified, and to provide the stations of a processual framework. The reader thus is offered the opportunity to observe a processual understanding taking shape.

13This intellectual feat notwithstanding, the book raises two main questions. One relates to the empirical demarcation of “facts” and “values.” Multiple statements in the book establish equivalences between these two categories and other classes of referents (e.g., p.11, 15, 23, 62, 72-73, 83-84, 90). Witness the two following sentences. “Whether our attention bears upon facts or values – or, to put it otherwise, whether we seek to explain phenomena or to provide ourselves with means to choose—we constantly situate ourselves in the present” (p.62; my emphasis). “The perimeter of values in reality coincides with the perimeter of possible choices, that is, the future” (p.90). The two sets of equivalences thus established in the book are the following:

Facts – the act of explaining – empirical knowledge – orientation to the past – theoretical reason (Kant);

Values – the act of choosing – morality – orientation to the future – practical reason (Kant).

14While the book points to analytical justifications for such correspondences, this argumentative motif has the peculiar effect of diluting the empirical content of “facts” and “values” by making their meaning in part derived from the reference to other phenomenal realms. The fourth lecture, which analyzes facts and values as processes, contributes further to this dilution. Abbott might reply that the whole point of the book is precisely to deconstruct categories that we may too easily be tempted to abstract from the experience of time. The flip side of this empirical dilution, however, is that it creates considerable tension within an argument that still invokes “facts” and “values” as central categories of analysis.

15A consonant questioning concerns the claim that facts and values “cannot be made separate” (p.73, 84). The two sets of equivalences mentioned above run in parallel. As such, they give credence to the notion that they designate different experiential realms. The same observation applies when we pay attention to processes of “factualization” and “valorization” as defined earlier. These processes serve different finalities, they pertain to different objects (p.100), and they imply different temporal orientations (p.15, 73). Their phenomenology therefore is contrasted. In what sense then shall we say that “facts and values cannot be made separate”? Abbott might reply that separating them is impossible because actors in their thick present constantly engage in factual and normative “imputations” (p.97). Still, do not “facts” and “values” denote distinct modes of experience? If so, what prevents us from identifying them as different moments in the experience of the present? Faits et valeurs sets forth formulations that leave these questions open: it portrays facts and values as “two dimensions of the same process” (p.84), but also characterizes them as “processes of different types” (p.93).

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Ivan Ermakoff, « Andrew ABBOTT, Faits et valeurs »Revue européenne des sciences sociales, 60-1 | 2022, 251-255.

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Ivan Ermakoff, « Andrew ABBOTT, Faits et valeurs »Revue européenne des sciences sociales [En ligne], 60-1 | 2022, mis en ligne le 06 mai 2022, consulté le 26 février 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Ivan Ermakoff

Department of Sociology, University of Wisconsin – Madison

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