Two factors make value an especially challenging word in modern English. One is that, during periods of social crisis or upheaval, ‘values’ tend to be vigorously asserted (and attacks made on the presumed values of others). The other is that disagreements over value are exacerbated by accentuated contrast between ‘relativity of values’ (e.g. in perceptions of postmodernism), claims to authority based on so-called ‘traditional values’ (e.g. in religion), and unresolved arguments over value freedom (e.g. relation to science). Difficulties with value inevitably run beyond the word itself into its tangled relations with questions of objectivity and subjectivity, intrinsic and extrinsic worth, and authority of interpretation. What makes value both distinctive and confusing, however, is the set of connections, as well as slippage, that the word facilitates between radically different kinds of social thinking.
The noun value comes into English from OF value (13c), the feminine past participle of valoir, ‘to be of worth’ (cf. L. valere. and med.L. valua ). In a variety of spellings, value is illustrated in OED from early 14c. The noun starts off in English close to what we now think of as adjectival ‘valued’. The verb form value, meaning to estimate or appraise as being worth a specified sum or amount, is attested from roughly a century later; and adjective valuable, which indicates a condition of having material or monetary value or being useful, is reported from early 17c.
Across these related forms are found a cluster of senses. Principally there is the sense of an amount of some commodity which is considered an equivalent for something else, or a fair or adequate return. Typically the standard of estimation or exchange applied is that of material or monetary worth. This ‘amount’, or ‘equivalent material worth’ sense in the noun is accompanied by the sense conveyed by the verb of a process of assigning worth: a practice of evaluation. To ‘value’ is to set an estimate of worth on something, to judge it at a specified rate, or more generally to set store by it or rate it highly.
Historical developments from this cluster of early senses are shaped by a transfer of meaning that takes place from a reified process involving judgement or relation (‘x is worth or equivalent to y’) to designation of the object of such a judgement: the thing worth having.
One line of development in value extends the relation or calculation of equivalence between respective fields. Translation between two currencies is variable, hence the need for estimation; it is also implicitly negotiable, if only because some statement of relation is necessary. This sense of ‘worth within a formal system of some kind’ has affinities with the mathematical sense of value, as a figure or number representing a precise amount (e.g. ‘the value of the root’ or ‘the values of these angles’). Use of this kind states ‘value’ but typically serves to calculate transformations of value or analyse the place of a given value in a series or pattern. Formal characterisation of value also extends to ranking cards and chess pieces according to conventions of games they are used in, and to music, where value signifies relative duration of a note. In early 20c, the same schema of equivalence within a formal system was proposed as explanation of how value varies in money, in George Simmel’s Philosophy of Money; it also serves as a basis for linguistic value, as functional identity dependent on differentiation within an overall system, in Saussure’s characterisation of language.
The other line of development in value focuses on the object of worth rather than on the process of estimation. It designates something as being valuable on account of its relative status according to some real or supposed usefulness, importance, or other criterion of esteem. The distance between this sense and the other sense can be seen in the number of arguments associated with value: from three-argument ‘we value x at y’ or ‘we value x as y’ (a subjective attribution of value), through two-argument ‘we value x’ (i.e. with relation left implicit), to ‘x is a value’ or x is ‘valuable’ in the sense that it could be, has been or might be judged to be of worth, or is inherently or intrinsically of worth.
Many objects have ‘value’, if worth is viewed in this combination of ways. There are instrumental and specialized values, including entertainment value, emotional value, nutritional value, and news value. Value can also be associated with mental or immaterial objects, including ethical and spiritual principles. In such an extended meaning, value denotes anything considered to be of profound importance or significance. Examples include family values, democratic values, religious values and the value of poetry, as well as transcendent and ultimate values, the last of which may appear not just different from but contradictory with the sense of socially constructed equivalence.
What is most interesting about the historical development of value, however, is how, during 18c and 19c, senses of the word were linked to evolving arguments about the ends and worth of individual and social life: the summum bonum and its basis in the good, the true, or the beautiful. Increasingly influential assertions were made of utility as a fourth possible domain of value alongside ethics, politics and aesthetics, a new source of value often formulated as usefulness to the largest number of people in Utilitarianism. Such arguments affected the word’s later development, in that 19c notions of utility combined Utilitarian perceptions of happiness, pleasure and usefulness with a market value of usefulness to the purchaser or consumer, to some extent marginalising concern with other, potentially competing values.
From these complex interconnections, positions expressed by value go off in two divergent ways, with the result that value features in two different models of value theory: in axiology, in a philosophical context; and in the (Marxist) labor theory of value, which at its simplest views amount of labor as the currency in which to determine equivalence.
The continuing, classical philosophical debate questions whether ‘value’ and related ideas of the ‘good’ are objective or subjective, or intrinsic, teleological or consequentialist. In contemporary discussion, value is usually replaced by plural values, to reflect critical arguments in anthropology and then sociology (and derived in part from Weberian debates over value freedom). In the other direction, ‘value’ arguments in political economy centred increasingly on the relation analysed by Marx between exchange value and use value, and how value functions in Marx’s theory of surplus value. Following the main Marxist phase of value theory, however, neoliberal economic discussion has narrowed the argument from considering general structures of social exchange to individuals’ cost-benefit calculations: producers or consumers estimating value in isolation from social relations and relying on market efficiency to achieve value for money, or VFM.
A cluster of recent combinations with value take this market emphasis further. Alongside vague expressions like delivering value, there is (from the 1930s onwards) value added meaning an amount by which worth is increased at each stage of a chain of production. There is also (from the late 1980s) value proposition, used to describe the specific factor intended to drive consumer purchase decisions. Such commercial ways of conceiving value may seem imprecise but are subject to value analysis (from the 1950s onwards). Following such analysis, too, market propositions may be revisited with value engineering (from 1973): ‘the systematic application of techniques and principles which aim at cutting production costs’.
If value in these new combinations had no connection with wider issues of worth and esteem, then the word would have come to embody Oscar Wilde's caricature of the cynic as “a person who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing”. What connects between price and value, however, is in some cases the polysemy of value itself, which links the relational, ‘exchange value’ meaning with an implied ‘social good’ or ‘personal well-being’ meaning.