an American's Reflections - Stephen Lapeyrouse’s website

“American Values” Evaluated

Sub Specie Scientiatis

It seemed to me of use to make some comments on the piece “American Values” from the article “The Values Americans Live By” by Robert Kohls, which was printed in English, No.48.

It is an interesting piece – hopefully one which Russian readers will find helpful for a better and deeper understanding of the world-influential American society, culture and psychology. Yet, to begin with, it seems to me worthwhile noting that the text itself has a particular character: its scientific, and more specifically, its special “social scientific” style, organization and contents. While the article attempts to address the question of “values” according to which most American people (whether they are consciously aware of these or not) live in its living, moving, changing society; the piece has the “style” of an objective social scientific study, which is especially notable in its list of numbered points (1-13). Presumably its claims are based on some sociological surveys, interviews, and/or other “scientific” studies, which constitute the evidence, the sources, from which the article’s conclusions regarding American “values” are drawn. But “social science” as a discipline is not even as old as the historically-modern USA, and, for example, one might ask when the very first numbered list of ideas or points was used in history in the English language.

When one reads this article, one cannot help but wonder if the list of 13 “values” includes all of the main “values” in the complexity of American society and life. Or might the author, intentionally or unintentionally, have omitted some other essential “values” – one might ask? And, whatever a reader might know or have experienced of the USA and its people, does all of it fit into the author’s 13 points? It is hard immediately to say! Also, the “abstract” contents, and the numerical list of the piece (numbers continue ad infinitum), leaves one with an uncertain feeling about the answers to such questions.

So that the mentality of the piece is, definitively, sub specie scientiatis (“under the sight of science”) – written from the scientific point of view. This is of course quite to be expected in our time; even though such a perspective and style, as this piece reveals, is not so very old in human intellectual history. This particular piece could also itself have been grouped according to quite different categories (“values”) – and fifty years before, or fifty years later, the scientific analysis could easily have categorized “values” in quite other ways. Indeed, in the future, it surely shall. So that the piece itself is a manifestation of a certain mentality and “values” at a certain period of historical time in the history of Western culture, science, intellect, and social science. In other words, it itself is provisional both in its contents (US society is more than two centuries old, and its complexity is living and changing), and character (the changing “values” categories). The piece does give real insight into the life, world and psychology of American society today – just as it itself is also a definite manifestation of a phase in the intellectual history of mankind. The omnipresence today of its somewhat abstract, intellectual, scientific way of thinking and writing makes this important fact tend to be forgotten.

As to the contents of the piece . . . well, they could – interesting though they are – also have been listed in a quite different order. The “13 values”, as they are presented, seem to me to have no special, or clear, hierarchy. Had the author chosen to list the “values” alphabetically, they would perhaps have seemed just as well organized as his list is. Perhaps the piece itself, and the particular order of the categories (“values”) show the personal perspective and values of the author (social scientist? or his school of sociology?) – though there is, for example, no “value” listed, of the undeniable importance and presence of science (and social science) to American society and its shared mentality. The list of 13 “values” also, for example, shows little sense or recognition of the historical rise of the various listed “values” in American society. One might also ask where is the “value” of “representative democracy”, which historically defined the United States of America from England in 1776. Had the author given greater value to history, or religion, or philosophy, or literature, his list might have had very different contents.

Conformity as a “Value”

One “value” category which was inside of the text, yet not listed, was the psychological fact of Americans wanting and needing to agree with each other – it could be called American “nationalism”. Though “Americans may think of themselves as being more varied and unpredictable than they really are,” and “Americans credit themselves with being more individualistic than they really are” – in fact not only do many periods in American social history clearly show profound social conformity to social patterns, but the idea of “mass culture” is not a contradictory expression in the USA. Any moderately attentive social observer can note not only the pervasive common social traits among Americans, in spite of their claimed “variety” and “individualism”, but that many Americans value other Americans “being real, loyal Americans” – with all of the national patterns that this implies. Indeed, many Americans expect conformity to American “values” – which itself is a strong “value” in the USA!

Man the Duck?

It is unfortunate that the author did not present much information as to when the various “values” first surfaced in American history, for they were certainly not all there in the beginning, not with the Puritan Fathers, nor with the “Founding Fathers” of the USA.

Yet I would like to develop a bit more the very first point – unnumbered! – that the author makes: “Most Americans would have a difficult time telling international visitors, specifically, which values they live by. They probably have never given the matter any thought,” and (in “value” 12) “Americans pride themselves in not being very philosophically or theoretically oriented.” This is, to my view, very crucial for understanding American psychology – its consciousness, its mentality. There is a saying which, translated from the German (where I first learned it) goes: He who only understands one language, does not understand it either. While it is clear from nineteenth-century American “Letters”, that the educated classes at least, had a clear sense of how Americans differed from the peoples and cultures of Europe’s various nationalities, for the past several decades (especially with mass American education and tourism), Americans overseas have long been seen to be mentally unable, or unwilling, to recognize, or appreciate, other cultures – with their different mentalities and “values”. When Americans, at times in past history, considered themselves culturally and even civilizationally inferior, or younger, than Europeans (or perhaps at other times on a par with them), then this was one attitude towards other cultures, mentalities, traditions, “values”. But when Americans consider themselves superior to other nations – Europeans or otherwise – the relationship to other cultures and their differing “values” is quite other. The “ugly American” was an expression used to describe among other things this smug sense of superiority towards others. (I personally have at times seen American travelers over the years treating the people and culture they traveled as tourists to see as culturally inferior. “American” and “America” were best, and all else was less or worse somehow or other.)

In fact, individualistic though they claim to be, it can easily be supported that Americans are really rather passively determined by the society, the culture in which “they live and move and have their being” (to crudely adapt St. Paul’s famous Biblical expression). As Richard Kohl hints, they, Americans, may not even be able to articulate – nor have they perhaps reflected on it! – the ideas (such as those of “all men are created equal” and “the pursuit of happiness” in the “American Creed” by Thomas Jefferson) and “values” according to which they are living. If man, which is allegedly the thinking creature (the root of the word man being the Indo-European mens- to think, in Russian appearing in мудрость), then what kind of nation of mankind lives by “values” it has seldom reflected upon? (Certainly not “Man Thinking”, to cite Ralph Waldo Emerson’s famous intellectual challenge to America at Harvard in 1837 in his “American Scholar Address”!) Being “proud” of “not being very philosophically or theoretically oriented” is a strange disposition (“value”?) for a creature understood and defined as distinct from the animals by its thought and language! Heretical though it be, it is, after twenty-five years of observation, my firm, confident conclusion – unpopular though it be to Americans’ imagination of their own identity (“what they may think of themselves” – Kohls) – that most Americans are, in life, thought, and even in their emotions, mostly determined by the society and culture around them. (Could a “proudly” unreflective people be otherwise?) And that few have the “philosophical or theoretical orientation”, through conscious knowledge and understanding of the history of mankind’s ideas, to be exemplars to mankind – which can only be gained by giving life and world-deep and serious thought, i. e., by becoming ‘philosophically oriented’ to American society, its place in history, its “values”, etc. One philosopher said that the human being which attends preponderantly to its mere physical existence, needs and comforts, without also really using its mind (from mens) for higher intellectual and spiritual concerns and questions, lives a life less than that of a duck, because the duck provides for itself and its family by mere instinct, and doesn’t have – but not use – a needless, essential, and yet definitive, higher mentality (also from mens).

The majority of Americans in fact are carried along by American culture and its “values” on which they – to cite Kohl – proudly have seldom reflected. They either assume – in a mass, national provinciality – that the rest of the world (and history!) “thinks” or lives like Americans, or that it should – or would if it could. Many Russians – scholars included – have in the past years experienced this unreflective American mentality, also at times with American scholars. What is perhaps somewhat less noted is that the Americans themselves are very often unconscious and unaware of the cultural and historical “provinciality” of their own “American” mentality, attitudes to life, society, world, “values”, etc. They tend to think, generally unreflectively, that the world does or should think like Americans do, even though, as Kohls rightly states it, they may themselves not have given the matter much of any thought. Of course, as in any society and generalization, there are exceptions – but Kohl’s comments are accurate perceptions of US society.

If a Russian wants to understand the “values” and mentality of American society today, and how they have changed over time, or remained the same, he or she should for example read the deeply-thoughtful, ‘philosophically-oriented’, 1854 book Walden by Henry David Thoreau – a very deep sociological analysis of American society, and its “values”. This would be a great text for comparison with Kohl’s more modest piece “The Values Americans Live By”. Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (volume 2) should also be closely studied by those who wish to evaluate and understand American society in history and today.

Thoreau evaluated the life and world around him in mid-nineteenth century USA – this was to some degree even the intent of his experiment at Walden Pond – in relationship to the idea and search for the noblest aspects (“values”) of the life of humanity. He tried to understand American mankind in regards to the deepest spiritual questions of mankind, not the more passing, abstract, numbered categories of social science! Since American mentality and “values” are – fortunately or unfortunately – spreading all over the globe, it is perhaps not at all unimportant for “philosophical or theoretically oriented” Russians, to clearly and consciously understand “the values Americans live by.” Indeed, American Reflections is in part dedicated to promoting such an awareness, recognition and understanding in Russia.

First published in the magazine English, #1, January 1998, p. 15.