Human Action, by von Mises, is a monumental work. It’s the kind of work I dream of producing after I finish plowing through my reading list, The 300. Von Mises starts from primordial man –man just as he is emerging from his foggy, though ignorantly blissful, instinct-dominated existence and is beginning to approach the edges of logical thinking. He then shows how Man uses his logic to form and carry-out plans to make better his life. One of the most important of these conscious choices is the formation of Society. Von Mises then swiftly takes us forward to modern Economic Man, an animal capable of molding the present into the future he wants through more and more efficient use of cooperation, learned skills, and reasoned choice. By taking man as he is, what he wants to be, and what he is capable of at his best– and worst– von Mises is able to present to us the only kind of philosophy that I, personally, respect: a philosophy which helps us to understand and thus better navigate this world in which we’ve awakened from the abyss for a brief moment of consciousness.
Von Mises states that “the present state of the Universe is the product of its past,” and that our planet contains remnants or aspects of all that his come before. Von Mises likens these lingering echoes of the past to memories. “Every living organism conserves the effects of earlier stimulation,” he writes. The world of today has been shaped by the world of the past, and in that way, all eras are linked into one continuum. “The geological structure of our globe conserves the memory of all earlier cosmic changes.” And in the same fashion, “a man’s body is the sedimentation of his ancestors’ and his own destinies and vicisssitudes.”
Assuredly, states von Mises, man’s early ancestors were not fully rational creatures. Nevertheless, “these ancestors were endowed with some POTENTIALITY which in the course of ages of evolution converted them into reasonable beings.”
I am a great believer in this philosophy of Evolutionary Potentiality, that wings and hands and fins are not made by sheer chance combination of elements, but because the potentialities for such developments were already included in the main design of early life-forms. Even now, we may possess inside of us certain potentialities which will one day produce great, currently unimaginable changes in our species.
Von Mises believes that the each individual repeats within his life-cycle the evolution of the entire race, from our tadpole-like in-uterus origins, through our first non-conscious months, and on into adulthood and the achievement of the height of rational thinking in the Universe (so far as we know). Von Mises accepts that there probably existed, during the evolution of mankind, a quasi-logical mode of thinking, and that our current style of logic may give way to an even more advanced form of “post-homo-sapiens” logic which we can not now fully comprehend. The human mind as it exists today is certainly “transitory.”
That said, however, von Mises insists that currently– for every human being on the planet– there is only one, shared form of logical thinking. And he does not accept any Marxist doctrines which would assert that different classes or peoples possess fundamentally different WAYS of thinking of about the world. And importantly for von Mises, human action is the way that the human mind manifests itself.
To say that humankind is a species which thinks logically, is not to say that– in spite of our logic– we cannot still make mistakes. In fact, we often do. “Man is liable to error. If to err were the characteristic feature of mental disability, then everybody should be called mentally disabled.”
What we must realize is that an individual is not a complete Tabula Rasa– a clean tablet to be written on– when he comes into the world. He is born with a certain set of genetic constructions and predispositions. This genetically assigned circumstance limits the tools with which we can reach out and grasp the world— and indeed, which PARTS of the world we can grasp. “Human knowledge is conditioned by the structure of the human mind,” with each individual being the product of a long line of evolutionary events which has shaped his “physiological inheritance.”
And of course, the influences on the development of an individual do not stop at the moment of his conception or birth. A man, says von Mises, “lives not simply as a man in abstracto; he lives as a son of his family, his race, his people, and his age; as a citizen of his country; as a member of a definite social group; as a practitioner of a certain vocation; as a follower of definite religious, metaphysical, philosophical, and political ideas; as a partisan in many feuds and controversies”
An individual… “does not himself create his ideas and standards of value; he borrows them from other people. His ideology is what his environment enjoins upon him. Only very few men have the gift of thinking new and original ideas and of changing the traditional body of creeds and doctrines.”
Von Mises goes on to assert that…
“The innate and inherited biological qualities and all that life has worked upon him make a man what he is at any instant of his pilgrimmage. They are his fate and destiny. His will is not free in the metaphysical sense of this term [whatever that means] it is determined by his background and all the influences to which he himself and his ancestors were exposed. Inheritance and environment direct a man’s actions. They suggest to him both the ends and the means.” In other words, individuals are not free in an absolute sense– the choices we make do not originate completely inside of us… neither what we want nor how we choose to go about getting it is entirely up to us.
Von Mises goes so far as to assert that no man even thinks alone. “Human thoughts and ideas are not the achievement of isolated individuals,” he writes. “Thinking, too, succeeds only through the cooperation of the thinkers. No individual would make headway in his reasoning if he were under the necessity of starting from the beginning. A man can advance in thinking only because his efforts are aided by those of older generations who have formed the TOOLS of thinking, the concepts and the terminologies, and have raised the problems.”
As it turns out, says Von Mises, humankind thinks in a way different from all other animals. No other fish, fowl, or beast uses the reasoning faculty to the degree which Man does. “Reason is Man’s particular and characteristic feature.”
Von Mises contends that humanity has been fractured into opposing camps due to those aspects of our nature which stand in opposition to reason. The hatred of other races or religions is not inborn, he contends, but taught. Indeed, religious wars are especially intractable problems precisely because “dissension with regard to religious creeds cannot be settled by rational methods” and are thus “essentially implacable and irreconcilable.” And when religion becomes intwined with government and with relations among different peoples, then logical cooperation gives way to illogical antagonisms.
Nevetheless, this does not mean that Man is doomed to never-ending religious war. In fact, those cases wherein religion has assumed a political aspect are precisely those cases in which common ground may best be found. This is because, once a religion dons the mantle of a political party, it shows that it is concerned with the well-being of its adherents in THIS world; in this way, the religious party is similar to any other political party and, says von Mises, “all present-day political parties strive after the earthly well-being and prosperity of their supporters.”
A politically active religious group may, indeed, call for “the complete annihilation of other groups” and claim that “their own group cannot prosper except at the expense of other groups”– but when they speak of destroying other groups, these politicized religious factions are thinking in terms of a means to end. The destruction of a rival religious sect is not the ultimate thing the politically active religion is after; they only clamor for such because they believe that their own adherents will be better off once the other group is eliminated.
If, instead, the politicized religion could be convinced that its adherents could be made better off by working with instead of against its perceived rivals, then it would have no need to call for the elimination of competing groups. This is the basis– and indeed, only real hope– of negotiations between rival religions, for in the area of religious beliefs themselves, there is no reasoning.
However, by the very act of becoming “political,” a religious group– however zealous– shows its concern for the well-being of its adherents, and this demonstration of concern for worldly things brings the religion into the realm of the logical… for in the world as it is, it is logic which is man’s best tool for improving his world. And by near universal demonstration and consent, the best logical method for improving Man’s well-being is social cooperation.
Different politicized religions (or religious political parties), in the act of admitting the possibility that each of their groups may be better off cooperating with the other, will also find that they agree on fundamental ends (material well-being, freedom, health, etc), and that only the means to achieving these ends separate them. Otherwise, there would be no need for different parties, for as von Mises says, “the principle which differentiats men and integrates parties is the choice of means”— not ends.
Contending religious factions wise enough to see the importance of social cooperation, will– instead of planning for war– plan for “the most satisfactory organization of society.” Says von Mises… “for all parties committed to pursuit of the people’s earthly welfare and thus approving social cooperation, questions of social organization and the conduct of social action are not problems of ultimate principles” […] “they are technical problems with regard to which some arrangement is always possible. No party would wittingly prefer social disintegration, anarchy, and a return to primitive barbarism.”
Groups still set on conflict and the use of force will be those unable to defend their positions of power by logical methods and by the demonstration that they can provide a way of life without cooperation that is superior to what they could offer by cooperating with the factions it opposes or oppresses. “Those taking recourse to violent oppression,” writes von Mises, “are in their subconsciousness convinced of the untenability of their own doctrines.”
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