Society: a whole no greater than the sum of its parts?

According to Mises, society is a whole that is no greater than the sum of its parts:

The total complex of the mutual relations created by such concerted actions is called society…. But society is nothing but the combination of individuals for cooperative effort. It exists nowhere else than in the actions of individual men. It is a delusion to search for it outside the actions of individuals. To speak of a society’s autonomous and independent existence, of its life, its soul, and its actions is a metaphor which can easily lead to crass errors. (Human Action, 143)

A couple of responses. The first is that Mises seems to posit a false dichotomy between society being nothing more than the aggregation of “individuals for cooperative effort” on the one hand, and, on the other, the supposed alternative of society somehow existing elsewhere “than in the actions of individual men.” (I.e., I submit that there is no contradiction for society to be, contra Mises, more than the combination of individuals for cooperative effort, while at the same time, and consistent with Mises, “exist[ing] nowhere else than in the actions of individual men.”)

Second, is it not rather arbitrary for Mises so willingly to accept mind, reason and their correlate, human action, as “ultimate” givens that are irreducible to the mere material processes of nature (Mises’s “methodological dualism”), while insisting that society, by contrast, is nothing more than and is therefore reducible to the individuals of which it is composed? Mises is an unapologetic dualist in the one case and an incorrigible reductionist in the other. But sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, I say. Human sociality is every bit an irreducible “given” as human rationality.

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2 thoughts on “Society: a whole no greater than the sum of its parts?

  1. Excellent thoughts.

    A couple of additional responses.

    A metaphor itself can’t lead to crass errors, but the use of one can. The use of the metaphor of a society, or a consensus reality of any kind with a “..life, its soul, and its actions,” is useful to the point of understanding society as gestalt, with effects, and an affect, beyond that of ANY of its individual components. This kind of metaphor is especially useful when we consider the effect of a society upon and individual who allows consensus thinking to overrule where the individual’s inner life might guide him or her.

    It is possible not only for society to act on individuals, but for society to act on itself, and for individuals to act on society far beyond the scope of their physical ratio to the whole. In fact, it is possible for society to cripple or transform itself so that its initial intention and purpose is no more.

    Think of a Dremel tool with a gooseneck. Each gear, screw, and motor winding has it’s properties, and the sum of the components is joined in a remarkable tool, which is certainly more than the some of any of the individual parts. And this marvelous machine is capable of drilling a hole in itself, until the hole penetrates to the point where individual important parts are destroyed, and the tool itself is changed to the point where it no longer works, and individual parts, while worthy in their own right, are no longer contributing to a powerful, joined focus of purpose and effectiveness that was the original intent.

    Yes, it is sometimes useful to think of society as an entity unto itself, and that perception is not without some validity. :)

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