We are very pleased to begin our announced Ethics discussion of Erich Hatala Matthes' piece, “History, Value, and Irreplaceability," which can be found open access here. Carolyn Korsmeyer, professor of philosophy at the University of Buffalo (SUNY), will open the discussion with the critical précis below the fold. Here now is Korsmeyer. Thanks to everyone for participating, and here's to a great discussion!
Critical Précis of Erich Hatala Matthes' “History, Value, and Irreplaceability," by Carolyn Korsmeyer
Some philosophers target the property of being irreplaceable as the primary factor involved in the historical value we attribute to old artifacts. Erich Hatala Matthes argues that the chief importance of historical artifacts is not their irreplaceability—which he considers a “merely contingent” feature—but their ability to put us in touch with the past in a way that nothing else can. I am in complete agreement with the sentiment of this conclusion, and I also concur that there is a strong aesthetic element at work in the experience of old things. At the same time, I wonder if irreplaceability can be expunged quite so thoroughly from among the features of objects deemed historically valuable.
Irreplaceability seems to unite keepsakes, heirlooms, artworks, historical documents, national treasures, and relics. With keepsakes and heirlooms, however, the value of an object depends upon its relation to an individual or to a small group of individuals, and it is important to distinguish between (merely) personal value and historical value. We know when something has personal value because it is important to us; therefore, perhaps historical value is grounded on what is important to many. But this can’t be the correct account, because sometimes there is longstanding public neglect of something important, about which everyone ought to care; so historical value is poorly grounded if it only depends on a lot of people regarding objects in a certain way. Hence the claims made for the intrinsic value of an irreplaceable particular, as G.A. Cohen and others have argued. Matthes examines this position and reveals the vulnerabilities of irreplaceability as a defining characteristic of historical value.
Matthes addresses the relationship between irreplaceability and what he calls the “historical mode of evaluation.” He scrutinizes exactly what it means to claim that an object is irreplaceable, noting how frequently that feature is simply assumed rather than demonstrated. He examines in useful detail various versions of “meaningful” irreplaceability and the conditions under which an object “rationally resists” replacement. The strategic progress of his argument builds a case for the weakness of irreplaceability as a criterion for historical value. While one might think that replaceability pertains only to things with instrumental value—nails, milk bottles, engines—Matthes points out that objects are meaningfully replaceable under circumstances that do not always rule out things of historical value, since it may be the case that another thing of the same sort will serve as well. He demonstrates that the notion of irreplaceability is more complex than at first it seems, and he is persuasive that irreplaceability neither tracks historical value nor illuminates historical significance.
Equally compelling is the way that he disentangles the notion of intrinsic value from the value of particulars, a point that provocatively targets Cohen’s thesis about historical value. Matthes observes that even things with intrinsic value, such as beautiful flowers, may be replaceable by others of their kind. One of the most astute features of Matthes’ essay is the way he probes intuitions that previously seemed relatively impervious to challenge, and I find especially persuasive his arguments that undermine the intuitive link between irreplaceability, intrinsic value, and the value of particular objects.
The irreplaceability thesis is additionally problematic, Matthes claims, because in a sense every object has its own unique history and to that (usually trivial) extent is irreplaceable, but not every object is a candidate for historical significance. Properties deemed “historical” are normative features that only things of special and lasting importance possess. Anyone might cherish a keepsake for its singular history, regard it as irreplaceable as such, and at the same time grant that it has no historical value at all. The result is the “proliferation problem,” namely, that there is no way to limit irreplaceability to the zone of objects it is intended to illuminate. Matthes is certainly correct that if we make irreplaceability the key to historical value there is no end to the objects that will pile up.
He concludes that issues involving replaceability are general features of evaluation that do not usefully single out objects for their historical significance. As he sums up this part of his conclusion: “Whether or not you would have good reason to accept a replacement for a valued object is irrelevant to explaining the specific character of objects we value for their histories” (p. 26). He casts that specific character in different terms, positing that at the root of historical value is the ability of an object to connect us with the past in an especially immediate and intimate way. Here is how he evocatively describes the “emotional resonance” of old things that we can touch and hold:
The historical properties of a memento or heirloom allow you to hold the past in your hand. This phenomenon is all the more remarkable when it pushes beyond the boundaries of our own life and allows us to connect with persons and events from the distant past… it can also offer a sense of unity with the significant moments that have shaped both the earth and ourselves (p. 28).
I endorse this idea wholeheartedly. But we may still inquire: Does the ability to put us in intimate touch with the past usefully supplant the notion of irreplaceability as the key to historical value? Matthes seems to grant that the historical properties of objects cannot be “replicated,” but he argues that from that fact the “stronger thesis” of irreplaceability cannot be inferred (pp. 26-27). However, let’s pursue replication further. What sorts of historical properties do we have in mind? Are they (a) the distinctive discernible features of old things? (b) The features that an object originally possessed when it was made? (c) The relational property of having been owned or used by a particular person? (d) The property of having endured a long time? These variations foreground a difference between an object that has historical value and an object that is valued for its history. While it may seem that these two phrases express essentially the same idea, their difference advises reconsideration of irreplaceability and the nonfungible sentiments and affections with which we recognize unique or special objects.
Replacement is the removal of one thing and substitution of another. Sometimes the new thing might be quite different from the old, as with the replacement of an old church with a new apartment building. Replication, however, is an effort to make a second thing that is just like the first, and sometimes replacement with a replica is done in order to preserve an aspect of historical value, namely, features of objects that permit a glimpse of life long ago. Objects of great age are almost never handed down to us intact. They require repair and restoration, which sometimes includes replacement of damaged parts with (ideally) indiscernible replicas in order to restore an object to its (apparent) original condition (as with a and b above). Otherwise, we might not be able even to recognize an object as a thing of its kind. The result is that many of the artifacts that we preserve and value—including those that acquaint us with what life in the past was like—are not exactly as they were at the time of their making. (Indeed, after many repairs the ontological issue of whether the same thing is still extant will eventually arise.) Only one sort of feature is utterly nonreplicable, and that is being the very thing that has that history—having been made at a specific time, having endured sequences of wear and tear, having been touched by its maker and those who followed (c and d above).
As Matthes notes, replaceability varies with the relationship an object bears to those who cherish it. Consider, for example, mourning brooches, which for over a century were popular pieces of memorial jewelry that featured tiny woven mats of the hair of a loved one now departed. Because they are relatively common, usually not costly, and pretty in more or less the same sorts of ways, to a collector of such items today one mourning brooch may be replaceable by another without loss of historical value. But of course to the original owner, such as the widow of a fallen soldier, the only acceptable brooch would have been one that contained the hair of her husband. And the reason for this rather obvious claim is that he and only he was the nonfungible intentional object of her emotional attachment, and nonfungibility transfers to the token of his hair. In other words, valuing objects for their historical properties and valuing objects for the history they embody are not quite the same. The latter are the sort with the strongest claims for irreplaceability, and they are also the objects that most compellingly entice us to hold the past in the ways that Matthes so vividly describes.
(Incidentally, here is an uneasy sidebar for philosophers to ponder: Some psychologists analyze the sort of value summed up in the idea of “holding the past” as rooted in a type of “magical thinking” whereby things once touched indelibly retain the effects of that contact. With such objects, “their history, which may not be represented in their appearance, endows them with important properties.”  This seems to be at work in the distinction between valuing an object for its historical significance, and valuing an object because of the history that it embodies. While I don’t necessarily endorse the diagnosis of magical thinking, we might well query the notion of “rational” replacement that figures in discussions of irreplaceability.)
In elaborating the distinction between things with historical value and those valued for their histories, I have unfortunately reopened the proliferation problem, because the attachments formed with the latter do not screen the significant from the merely personal. What to preserve and what to discard are not only theoretical but also practical problems confronted by anyone cleaning out an attic. The conditions that bestow historical significance on things are circumstantial and sometimes serendipitous, and as such are likely to resist formulating as a general principle. Therefore, I wonder if the proliferation problem has a philosophical solution.
 Paul Rozin and Carol Nemeroff, “Sympathetic Magical Thinking: The Contagion and Similarity ‘Heuristics’,” in Heuristics and Biases: The Psychology of Intuitive Judgment, Thomas Gilovic, Dale, Griffin, and Daniel Kahneman, eds. (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002): 202. See also Paul Bloom, How Pleasure Works (New York: W.W. Norton, 2010) and Matthew Hutson, The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking (London: Penguin, 2012).