Adam Kirsch:

In his poem “Little Gidding,” written during World War II, T. S. Eliot wrote that the Cavaliers and Puritans who fought in England’s Civil War, in the 17th century, now “are folded in a single party.” The same already seems true of Vendler and Perloff. Today college students are fleeing humanities majors, and English departments are desperately trying to lure them back by promoting the ephemera of pop culture as worthy subjects of study. (Vendler’s own Harvard English department has been getting a great deal of attention for offering a class on Taylor Swift.) Both Vendler and Perloff, by contrast, rejected the idea that poetry had to earn its place in the curriculum, or in the culture at large, by being “relevant.” Nor did it have to be defended on the grounds that it makes us more virtuous citizens or more employable technicians of reading and writing.

Rather, they believed that studying poetry was valuable in and of itself.

I like this essay, but I’m mentioning it here because Kirsch makes use of a common phrase that has always puzzled me: “valuable in and of itself.” Variants: “intrinsically valuable” and “valuable for its own sake.” I have never known what that means — or even could mean. Because: if you ask people to say more about valuing something for its own sake, they end up saying that it gives them pleasure or delights them or fascinates them. But to pursue something because it delights or fascinates you is not pursuing it for its own sake — it’s pursuing it for the sake of the delight or fascination.

When people say that something is “valuable in and of itself,” I think what they mean is simply that it has no economic or social value — note Kirsch’s contrast between intrinsic value and something valued because it “makes us more virtuous citizens or more employable technicians of reading and writing.” Someone might say that when we say some artifact or experience is intrinsically valuable we’re saying that it does not have any instrumental value — but isn’t a song that delights me instrumental to that delight? And isn’t that okay? 

So I think that when we describe something as having intrinsic value, what we really mean is that the value it provides is higher than or nobler than any furthering of crassly economic or social ambitions. We’re indirectly and somewhat sloppily appealing to a hierarchy of goods. And maybe — especially in the context of debates about liberal education, which is at least partly the context of Kirsch’s essay — we should be more explicit about that, and conscious of what our hierarchy is and why we affirm it.