Friday, May 16, 2014

Inherent or Ascribed? A False Dilemma

                One of the distinctions we made in class when discussing gems was the difference between inherent and ascribed properties; that is, properties of the stones themselves, as compared to those which are assigned to them by people. For instance, we claimed that jewels are inherently shiny, rare, and of pure color; on the other hand, we claimed that they were ascribed aesthetics and value (since they have no particular use). But what if this distinction is not really meaningful and we are engaging in a false dichotomy?  The distinction between ascribed and inherent characteristics is not quite as well defined as we would want, which may help explain why the city of God uses the gems.
            One of the ways in which the ascribed characteristics were described is “arbitrary;” that is, qualities such as value and the associated social status of gemstones are simply invented by people. However, this argument also applies, to a certain extent, to the list of inherent characteristics. The inherent characteristics that we mentioned and choose to focus on are also arbitrary—for example, no one mentioned that gemstones tend to be small. Some gems have uses (diamond drills, quartz watches) because of their physical or chemical properties, but those were not mentioned either. We focused on their color and the fact that they sparkle and shine, but this choice is just as arbitrary as the choice to ascribe aesthetics or value to the gems (and perhaps less so, as we shall see).
            The second way in which the two concepts are blurred is the way in which ascribed characteristics are derived from inherent ones. Perhaps the most demonstrative example is the assigning of value to gemstones which seem to serve no practical purpose; they look nice, and nothing else. But gemstones are in fact useful, as a medium of exchange; compare them, for instance, to paper money. Paper (or digital) money does not derive value from the quality and use of the paper, but from the fact that it is accepted as payment. Gemstones are practical as a medium of exchange because they are durable and easy to transport, since a small gemstone can be very valuable. Like money, they are (or at least were, at one time) accepted in a large variety of places, at least partially because they tend to be rare (an inherent equality) everywhere. So the question of whether the value of gemstones inherent or ascribed is at least partially circular or indeterminate—people ascribe value to them because they do, but also because gems are practical as a medium of exchange, but they are practical partially because of the ascribed value and partially because of the inherent qualities (size, durability). Another example would be the notion, as described by Marbodes, that certain gemstones possess certain magical properties; if this were true, it would be an inherent characteristics, but in reality they are not magic and the myth of magical power is an ascribed characteristic.
To further confuse the issue, all value is (arguably) subjective. Although many objective theories of “value” have been proposed, one of the most common being the labor theory of value which is the backbone of Marxist thought, most modern economists reject these formulations as meaningless. Instead, all value is subjective, or what we would term “ascribed.” In class, the question was asked whether we would want food or gems in an apocalypse, but that is a contrived example which demonstrates nothing. That food is more valuable than gems does not mean gems are not valuable (if you are not convinced, ask yourself whether you would have food or water, or perhaps food or air, in such a situation), and moreover, an apocalypse is one of the least likely scenarios I can imagine (to answer the actual question, I would rather have a small, almost indestructible, easily hidden way to perhaps barter for anything I want, since I am capable of finding food; maybe I could even convince someone the gem is magic!). Finally, how does one exactly determine the objective value of something? For example, warm clothing would be very useful in a cold environment but pointless in a hot one; peanut butter is a great food for outdoor activities, unless you’re allergic. It would seem that value is highly context dependent—that is, subjective. A deeper look into the nuances of value has revealed that our simple dichotomy between inherent and ascribed properties is too simple.
            Aesthetics would seem be entirely ascribed, almost by definition; aesthetics are by definition subjective, and not a characteristic of the gems themselves. This notion raises the question, though, of why they are held in high aesthetic esteem across a great diversity of cultures and civilizations throughout history. Perhaps there is at least to some extent a shared human sense of aesthetics, in which the aesthetics of an object (or of certain objects, such as jewels) are actually determined by the properties of the object in question. That is, given an object, if we want to know whether it is aesthetically pleasing or not, we look not to the reactions of people to the object, but to the object itself, from which we can derive the likely reaction and therefore the aesthetic status of the object. So aesthetics occupy a middle ground between our two categories, further blurring the distinction we tried to make in class.  

            We can continue analyzing aesthetics by bringing in a few other characteristics mentioned in class. For instance, the fact that gems usually sparkly and refract or reflect light. This behavior contributes to their aesthetic appeal; perhaps it falls into the category I mentioned above, where people have a natural inclination to shiny things and so shining and sparkling help determine aesthetics in general. The argument is further supported by the description of the City of God given in Revelation, in which gemstones play a key role in decorating the City. Jesus is referred to as “the light of the world” (John 8:12) and we are told that “God is light; in him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). The jewels in the City of God help to reflect and enhance the bright light of heaven, so in some sense one could even argue that the aesthetics of sparkly things, such as gemstones, are totally inherent. This idea should make it less confusing that the City of God uses a symbol of Earthly wealth so prominently: gemstones are what they are, and what people do with them or how we think about them is irrelevant. 

Alex Zavoluk


  1. "Gemstones are what they are, and what people do with them or how we think about them is irrelevant." Except they aren't: they are only sparkly and "filled" with light if people work them, which supports your argument that we need to think about their intrinsic and ascribed value as intertwined. How does this perspective help us understand their role in Tolkien's legendarium? RLFB

  2. I think you bring up an interesting point, but believe that the distinction still stands. As you have pointed out value is completely subjective, which wind indicate that value in and of itself is an entirely ascribed quality. You are right to point out that we choose to highlight specific qualities of an object, often disregarding or failing to recall many others that the item might possess. I think that this is an inherent reflection of how we perceive the item, or potentially use the item. Since we most associate gems with their ascribed quality of value we highlight those intrinsic qualities which ascribe the gem its value. If we were thinking about Gem as tool we might say that the gem is hard, unbreakable, or perhaps sharp. This is a reflection of the fact that our us of language is to put to words our own view points and perspectives, which are thus necessarily limiting. It is extremely difficult for any one person to fully comprehend all of the intrinsic and ascribed qualities of gems, so they choose to highlight those which they mot immediately perceive. As to whether or not this distinction carries value, I think it does in so far as we desire to precisely understand and know an object. If we do not care about the subtle distinctions then differentiating between the two types of qualities is meaningless. However if we desire to fully comprehend something these distinctions becomes very important in understanding what something really is, how it is used, and how it is perceived and how all these qualities combine to create the idea of the object which is behind its physical form.

    -Blake Alex

  3. I am unconvinced that ascribed and intrinsic value are as intertwined as you claim. Certainly, an object can possess both types of value simultaneously; even a completely abstract quality can possess both types of value. But this does not mean that the values are not different. For example, a gemstone's durability is intrinsically valuable because said durability will persist regardless of its market valuation. The same durability can, however, also possess ascribed value in that we assign it worth independent of what durability itself means. Saying that the gemstone has value because it can be turned into a drill is ascribed value. Saying that the gemstone is worth $100 is ascribed value. The ascribed value may be derived in part from the quality of durability, but the ascribed value is not the same as the intrinsic value that durability possesses.

    Also, it is true that we only notice certain qualities of a gemstone and not all of them, but this has more to do with the specific historical and ideological circumstances of our past experience affecting our present understanding, than I believe it does with valuation. To that end, I suppose you could say that what we notice says something about how we ascribe values. For example, we may notice that the gem is shiny because we like shiny things, and therefore we give the gem a greater market price. However, as ascribed value is assigned independent of intrinsic value, our personal observations still cannot affect the latter.

    I would thus disagree that the use of gemstones can be justified on the basis that the distinction between ascribed and intrinsic value is blurred; quite the contrary.

    Carol Ann Tan