Axel Hägerström and His Early Version of Error Theory



In 1910–11 Axel Hägerström introduced an emotive theory of ethics asserting moral propositions and valuations in general to be neither true nor false. However, it is less well known that he modified his theory in the following year, now making a distinction between what he called primary and secondary valuations. From 1912 onwards, he restricted his emotive theory to primary valuations only, and applied an error theory to secondary ones. According to Hägerström, secondary valuations state that objects have special value properties, that we believe we become acquainted with in primary valuations. But, in fact, we do not have any such acquaintance. There are no, and cannot be any such, properties in objects. What we take to be a property is a projection of a feeling. Therefore, all secondary valuations are false. In 1917 he developed his theory further and distinguished between different types of secondary valuations with different structures. Yet he argued that they all are false. Hägerström's discussion is interesting because, among other reasons, it is historically a very early version of error theory in ethics. In a way it can also be said to be a precursor to later versions, e.g., John Mackie's (1946 and 1977). There are obvious resemblances between their accounts. Mackie's discussion is, of course, independent of Hägerström's.