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What is Valueception?
And why do I keep talking about it?
What truly matters?
Every culture, every society, every person has their own braid of answers to the question — but where do those answers come from? Did you just absorb your answers from your parents and teachers? Are your culture’s answers mostly a cynical construction, pulled together to keep everyone focused on the task at hand without asking too many questions or getting too uppity?
If you could ask the soil, the sea, or consciousness itself what truly matters — what answers do you imagine you’d hear? (I didn’t ask what you think the answers would be; imagine the answers, feel them in your chest, in your gut.)
To sense what matters most, rather than just looking for someone else to give you an answer: that’s the idea behind valueception. To look for yourself, and find that the answer is wordlessly obvious to you, regardless of what you’ve been told.
The word valueception is a clumsy English rendition of a German portmanteau invented by a philosopher in the early 1900s.
Yeah, this starts messy.
As Iain McGilchrist explains in The Matter with Things,
In German the word for ‘perception’ is Wahrnehmung, literally truth-taking: Scheler introduced the word Wertnehmung, literally value-taking, as a parallel.
So in the same way that “perception” refers to our ability to directly sense the world around us through our sense organs (eyes, ears, etc), “valueception” refers to our ability to directly sense Value; that is, to sense what matters most.
Values evoke a response in us and call us to some end. They are what give meaning to life: such things as beauty, goodness, truth – and purpose.
So far, this might sound anywhere in the range of lightly interesting to entirely obvious, but there’s a subtle point hiding in here that raises the stakes. It all hinges on our answer to the question:
What Are Values?
There are a handful of popular answers to this question, but those answers don’t really lend themselves to a frame of directly perceiving values.
For example, if you think values are a social invention, then sensing values is little more than listening to the cop in your head — or the priest in your head, the boss in your head, etc. You aren’t sensing values per se, just social norms and mores.
Another example: if you think that values are an evolutionary inheritance — something biology drilled into us to spark emotional reactions that would drive us into acting in the interest of the group — you’re not perceiving values, you’re perceiving your emotional reactions.
To talk about valueception, we must posit a world where we can perceive values themselves, not just their correlates, stand-ins, or secondary effects.
You look at the color blue and feel confident that you are perceiving some real quality of the world. Your view of this quality may be incomplete, it may be mediated by imperfect sense organs, it may suffer interference and interpretation — but you are perceiving some quality of reality. In the same way, you can sense beauty, goodness, truth, purpose, and other values, and feel confident that you are perceiving some real quality of the world, not just a knot of arbitrary socio-biological emotional-intellectual rorschach blots.
If we follow this train of thought deeper, we reach a realm where we have to have a serious discussion about how we as a society treat subjective experience, stripping it of any meaningful ontology — but I’ll leave that to others for now.
Here, I want to follow a different white rabbit: if we posit such a world, where we directly perceive value — where we all have the capacity to to deftly recognize and subtly navigate What Matters Most — what does that look like?
The first step is to refresh and tinker with language. The word “Value” feels a bit stodgy and full of preconceptions; things like “democratic values” and “family values” and “christian values.” These phrases all come with a lot of baggage — specific virtues and vices and expectations; a series of impressions and norms that try to lay claim on The Correct Moral Fiber.
Letting go of any of those pre-fabricated ideas of virtue and vice, I would very simply define value as “What Matters Most”; what truly matters, whether or not your society, your family, even your own thoughts and emotional responses agree.
These values move in a complex interchange of subjective and objective. While it’s true that “What Matters Most” to you doesn’t really matter to everyone, that doesn’t mean that it’s all relative. It means that each of us has a different role in the world. Just like your body might thrive in one environment and languish in another, or like some people have a natural talent for music and others for athletics; just like some minds are shaped for speed and others for endurance — some people are instinctively attuned to Beauty while others are attuned to Forgiveness or Valor or Clarity.
Each of us has a natural affinity for certain values — more than that, each of us will find the most meaningful and purposeful moments of our life only when we’re acting from the values that are native to our soul.
This goes deep into the core of human experience, where words do little more than gesture at flickering shapes in the fog — but while we’re down here, I’ll share some of the words I use to gesture at this idea — “values” — but to different people, in different situations, for different purposes. The “values that are native to your soul” can also be seen as:
the gods you belong to
the vow you made before you were born
your deepest inner narrative
autochthonous mythopoetic currents
the drives at the secret core of your life
“unfathomable mystery of pre-existential choice” (Corbin)
It’s quite a gallery there, from gods and archetypes to vows and narratives and drives. But all of these point at the direct experience of value for me.
Henry Corbin once talked about “unfathomable mystery of pre-existential choice,” a choice that seemed to be somehow mysteriously made for each person even before they were born. He believed each person is born with the set of values and beliefs that they will grow into during their life.
Looking back at my own life, and the lives of people I’ve known since childhood, it’s hard to avoid coming to similar conclusions. People do seem to become who they are. We are drawn to certain ways of being, and repulsed by others — and there seems to be very little we can do to change these natural affinities.
Me, for example: I went through a hardcore atheist-materialist phase for a few years, and even then, my own deepest inner values were shining through. On the front page of one of my journals from the time, I drew a big colorful mural around the phrase “My soul is from elsewhere / and I intend to end up there.” Looking back at that journal, even with all its cynicism and pain, I can’t help but smile. I was still in there somewhere.
Valueception, to re-summarize after taking a little journey, is the direct perception of What Matters Most.
That may sound simple, but in my experience it is a grueling, harrowing (and immensely rewarding) journey — a journey that has no end in sight, from where I stand.
To begin on the road to valueception, I had to get some perspective and distance from the values I’d taken in from my family, my home culture, my childhood religion, and all those books and movies I absorbed as a kid.
I had to get some perspective and distance from my own emotional reactions to things, the ways my own past and experiences and casual traumas had left smudges on the inner lens.
I had to clarify my perception, deepen into somatic awareness, explore Jungian and shamanic dreamwork and generally get a handle on the narrative and mythopoetic foundations of mind — and now… now I’m basically at the beginning, just getting a handle on what valueception means to me, and how to interact with it actively, rather than discovering its presence passively.
And yet: is has been present the whole time. Looking back at your life, I’d wager that if you compare it to some other people you know, you’ll realize you’ve held a couple of remarkably consistent values (resonated with a couple remarkably consistent archetypes, lived by a couple remarkably consistent narratives, been devoted to a couple remarkably consistent deities, etc). Once you recognize the road that you’ve already been on most of your life, it gets much easier to see where to go from here.
Coda: Values, Named & Unnamed
When you name something, its form becomes more solid. When you define that name clearly, it becomes more solid still. This can be a good thing or a bad one when it comes to values.
If you stick to calling them “values,” you might notice yourself trying to find and describe your own dearest values from the words that already exist: honor, grace, beauty, intelligence, etc.
But by picking any of those words, you’re drawing lines. You’re cutting a shape. Doing this too early does actually tend to do damage — it solidifies your own half-formed ideas of the powers that guide your life.
Same thing if you prefer to use the frame of “gods” rather than values: if you start off by saying to yourself “my soul seems to serve Hermes and Freyja — I value expression and translation and the value of a life lived magically”, you are again solidifying a subtle sense that is likely not ready to take form yet.
If you’re looking for tips, I like a kind of foggy triangulation approach. There’s something of vital importance to me that sits somewhere in the neighborhood of the god Mercury, the value of Authenticity, and a general sense of flowing congruently with the Tao. I hold all those terms really lightly, and I like to laugh at myself for using them at all — it helps me to get a lock on the area of the value I sense, but without allowing any of the boundaries to fall into place until they’re actually good and ready.
(More generally, with almost everything I talk about, from valueception to mythopoetics to the imaginal and somatic meditation: it’s a good idea to approach words as being woefully inadequate but helpful if held lightly. I like to think of language as grains of sand that I can drop into the wind of Reality. We still can’t see the wind, but we can get a sense of some of its patterns and direction.)