Why Ideas Matter: Von Mises and Meaning in History

This blog post will be a bit different, as it’s just a paper that I wrote for my Epistemology class about Ludwig von Mises’ Theory and History. Although von Mises writes from a particularly secular viewpoint, I find his perspective on the preeminence of ideas and thoughts as essential to the good of society a welcome change to our culture’s Hollywood/Entertainment and relying on sound-bites and Twitter as the platform for debate. von Mises may not have the Gospel truth in his arguments, but as ministers of the Gospel, we can sure use his logic and critical thinking skills.

Why Ideas Matter: Von Mises and Meaning in History

Ludwig Von Mises in his work Theory and History establishes that the individual is not only the responsible, but also the necessary causal factor in moving history along and changing its course for valuable and productive purposes. His theory can be understood in three basic factors. First, that individuals are the primary mover of the productive society. Second, that the progress of history establishes the framework by which all men act. And third, as history moves along, individuals have opportunities to act in and redirect history by their own choices and actions which are fostered by ideas. We will see that these three factors must lead us to believe that our thoughts, decisions and actions ultimately do matter and thus provide for us an apologetic defense for the individual’s role in history.

First, that the individual is the preeminent force behind changing society, Von Mises proposes that this accounts for all cases of creation, whether it is the creation of products or policy. Here, he is critical of Marx who thinks of people in terms of classes and promotes the progression of the collectivist mindset, in essence, that society creates society. Von Mises rejects this view, claiming instead that change is introduced by individuals:

Innovations are not accomplished by a group mind; they are always the achievements of individuals. What makes the American people different from any other people is the joint effect produced by the thoughts and actions of innumerable uncommon Americans…it is always an individual who starts a new method of doing things, and then other people imitate his example. Customs and fashions have always been inaugurated by individuals and spread through imitation by other people. (192)

Marx tried to downplay the accomplishments of the individual by ascribing all contributions of society to “common men” and “depreciating the individual’s contribution…thus Marx observed that a critical history of technology would demonstrate that none of the eighteenth century’s inventions was the achievement of a single individual (192).” But Von Mises argues that even though the individual may not make a perfect creation the first time and that over time society may better the creation (i.e. the automobile, language) the individual is still responsible for the creation of the initial idea. “What does this prove?” he says, “Nobody denies that technological progress is a gradual process, a chain of successive steps performed by long lines of men each of whom adds something to the accomplishments of his predecessors. The history of every technological contrivance, when completely told, leads back to the most primitive inventions made by cave dwellers in the earliest ages of mankind (193).”

Second, though the individual is the creator, he must benefit in some way from the historical time that he operates in. For instance, following the automobile analogy, an automaker in the 1980’s who designed cars and car motors had the benefit of being able to apply diesel fuel injection technology – a process that he did not himself create, but thus he could use in order to create something new in his own right: a gasoline powered, fuel injected automobile. Society did not create the fuel injection process, but it’s development over time allows it, in fact forces it to improve and grow. Von Mises argues that though individuals are the responsible creators, they can be successful only if they can bring their ideas to the forefront in the fullness of time:

Every man, whether great or small, lives and acts within the frame of his age’s historical circumstances. These circumstances are determined by all the ideas and events of the preceding ages as well as by those of his own age. The Titan may outweigh each of his contemporaries; he is no match for the united forces of the dwarfs. A statesman can succeed only insofar as his plans are adjusted to the climate of opinion of his time, that is to the ideas that have good hold of his fellows’ minds. (186-187)

Building off of the idea that history’s constant movement can itself provide opportunity for individuals, some could argue that this view of the world is potentially fatalistic, or even in line with Marxist thought. As Von Mises says himself, “Looking backward upon the past, the historian must say that, all conditions having been as they were, everything that happened was inevitable (185).” Surely then, we might conclude that Marx is right to say that collectivist societies are the real makers of products and ideas if the individual needs the prime societal condition to produce the full desired effect of his creation. But Von Mises again obliterates this idea, claiming that individuals need historical circumstances to promote change just as much as historical circumstances need individuals to change them. This leads into our final point.

Third, as we’ve seen that it is the individual and not societies that create change and that change is promoted and implemented by societies, we now see the emphasis of Von Mises’ argument: the personal responsibility of individuals as members of society is necessary for making effective improvements and innovation possible. Though they are real things, ideas themselves do not think or breathe; rather it is the individual who gives them life. The responsible person must make the necessary action to implement the desired idea or invention into everyday life and it is our “thoughts and ideas” that motivate us to action. “Thoughts and ideas are not phantoms. Although intangible and immaterial, they are factors in bringing about changes in the realm, of tangible and material things (95).” Circling back around to the individual, Von Mises argues that thoughts and ideas are the consummate factors behind individual decisions and actions further the development of society, or to correct it when it runs off course:

History is made by men. The conscious intentional actions of individuals, great and small, determine the course of events insofar as it is the result of interaction of all men. But the historical process is not designed by individuals. It is the composite outcome of the intentional actions of all individuals. No man can plan history. All he can plan and try to put into effect is his own actions which, jointly with the actions of other men, constitute the historical process. The Pilgrim Fathers did not plan to found the United States. (195-196)

Von Mises’ view is an ultimately positive one and one that lends credence to those of us who believe that the discussion of ideas is not only important, but ultimately necessary for us and our society to prosper.

By promoting Von Mises’ view of the individual and by conversing with other individuals about thoughts and ideas, we can find meaning in history to better our future. His whole view is one that doesn’t view our past history as a negative or useless pastime. History has shaped who we are, and with proper application, it can also shape who we will become. “History looks backward into the past, but the lesson it teaches concerns things to come (294).”

Von Mises’ theory however should make us cautious about how we treat history, at least in one sense. Our participation in the discussion of ideas is vital for survival, both of our ideas and ourselves. If we do not take advantage of our opportunities to discuss these “thoughts and ideas” or if we fail to determine the appropriate decisions that we must make, and in some cases, that we must not make, our society is in danger of falling prey to the kind of man who wishes to plan history according to his own view in the hope of creating a utopian society and in the process, silencing all others. Von Mises brings this future to light when he asks rhetorically, “The essential question is: Will all men be prepared to yield to the dictator? Will nobody have the ambition to contest his supremacy? Will nobody develop ideas at variance with those underlying the dictator’s plan? Will all men, after thousands of years of “anarchy” in thinking and acting, tacitly submit to the tyranny of one or a few despots (197)?” The questions remains: but are we up to the challenge?


About Micah Lovell

Once I ate four brussell sprouts just to say that I could actually do it. O.K. I lied. I only managed to eat two.
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