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.

The Creative Genius: Mises’s “Christology”

Mises’s figure of the “creative genius” has a number of historical antecedents (Hegel’s world-historical figure and Nietzsche’s Dionysian übermensch, for example, come to mind), but I’m particularly intrigued by the (secularized) prophetic, christological, and soteriological (perhaps even apocalyptic) function he seems to serve in Mises’s economic theory:

Far above the millions that come and pass away tower the pioneers, the men whose deeds and ideas cut out new paths for mankind. For the pioneering genius to create is the essence of life. To live means for him to create.

The activities of these prodigious men cannot be fully subsumed under the praxeological concept of labor. They are not labor because they are for the genius not means, but ends in themselves. He lives in creating and inventing. For him there is no leisure, only intermissions of temporary sterility and frustration. His incentive is not the desire to bring about the result, but the act of producing it. The accomplishment gratifies him neither mediately nor immediately. It does not gratify him mediately because his fellow men at best are unconcerned about it, more often even greet it with taunts, sneers, and persecution. Many a genius could have used his gifts to render his life agreeable and joyful; he did not even consider such a possibility and chose the thorny path without hesitation. The genius wants to accomplish what he considers his mission, even if he knows that he moves toward his own disaster.

Neither does the genius derive immediate gratification from his creative activities. Creating is for him agony and torment, a ceaseless excruciating struggle against internal and external obstacles; it consumes and crushes him…. Such agonies are phenomena which have nothing in common with the connotations generally attached to the notions of work and labor, production and success, breadwinning and enjoyment of life….

The creative accomplishment of the genius is an ultimate fact for praxeology. It comes to pass in history as a free gift of destiny. It is by no means the result of production in the sense in which economics uses this term. (Human Action, 139-40)

In sum, in Mises’s “pioneering genius” we have a transcendent (at least relative to the science of human action and economics) “grace” intervening in the affairs and actions of men, taking the form of a self-emptying, “suffering servant,” a man “who for the joy set before him endures” tribulation, “despising the shame.”

Augustine contra Mises on “(dis)ordered loves”

Mises observes that “It is customary to say that acting man has a scale of wants or values in his mind when he arranges his actions. On the basis of such a scale he satisfies what is of higher value, i.e., his more urgent wants, and leaves unsatisfied what is of lower value, i.e., what is a less urgent want” (Human Action 94). And as a general principle of human behavior, I think the statement accurate enough. But Mises actually thinks the statement isn’t rigid enough, writing that

one must not forget that the scale of values or wants manifests itself only in the reality of action. These scales have no independent existence apart from the actual behavior of individuals. The only source from which our knowledge concerning these scales is derived is the observation of a man’s actions. Every action is always in perfect agreement with the scale of values or wants because these scales are nothing but an instrument for the interpretation of a man’s acting. (95)

For Mises, in other words, it is no mere general principle, but an inexorable law admitting of no exceptions, that human action is arranged in a hierarchical scale in which the higher wants are satisfied in advance of lower ones.

A couple of responses, the first of which is that this conflation of human wants or values to actual human action (which Mises defines as “purposeful human behavior”) seems to be guilty of the very kind of reductionism that Mises faults the behaviorists (Skinner, et al.) for when they reduce human action to mere behavior, apart from the subjective, purposive, teleological, or goal-oriented aspect that Mises makes central to his analysis.

My second response is related to the first but is inspired by Augustine, which is that this seems like an awfully naive and overly optimistic understanding of man, in that it assumes an unrealistic degree of self-transparency involved in human wants or desires (or what Augustine would call “loves”). Is it really the case, after all, that what we really want or love is always so obvious or clear to us, such that there is, in Mises’s words, a “perfect agreement” between our scale of values on the one hand and our actions on the other? This seems highly unlikely, if not manifestly false. For Augustine, who was deeply impressed by the effects of sin, both original and otherwise, on human reasoning, believed that the human soul was a virtual rats’ nest of affections, proclivities, aversions, motives, prejudices, biases, and so forth, a web of lusts, in short, so complicated that only God had the wisdom to possibly sort it all out. What is more, Augustine believed that, for all his fallenness, man’s deepest desire remains the desire for communion with the God in whose image he has been made: “our hearts are restless till they find their rest in Thee.” This is all to say that, in an important sense, apart from the redemption had in Christ, in and through whom alone our disordered  loves may become rightly ordered ones, man never acts so as to satisfy what is of “highest value” first.

Man as Plant: von Mises on Nihilism

In his magnum opusHuman Action, Ludwig von Mises analyzes the nihilism of “Indian philosophies, especially of Buddhism, and Schopenhaur,” in the following terms:

Some philosophies advise man to seek as the ultimate end of conduct the complete renunciation of any action. They look upon life as an absolute evil full of pain, suffering, and anguish, and apodictically deny that any purposeful human effort can render it tolerable. Happiness can be attained only by complete extinction of consciousness, volition, and life. The only way toward bliss and salvation is to become perfectly passive, indifferent, and inert like the plant. The sovereign good is the abandonment of thinking and acting.

Mises contrasts this nihilistic outlook with that of “praxeology,” or the study of human action, which

is not concerned with human beings who have succeeded in suppressing altogether everything that characterizes man as man: will, desire, thought, and the striving after ends. It deals with acting man, not with man transformed into a plant and reduced to a mere vegetative existence.

Acting man (homo agens) vs. “man as plant”–that’s an intriguing analysis of eastern and modern nihilism. In its exhortation to the renunciation of human will, the latter reduces man not so much to the level of an animal as it does to the level of a vegetable.

Which leads us to a somewhat unique biblical and historical perspective on nihilism. In Romans chapter one, the Apostle Paul famously criticizes the paganism of the ancient Gentiles in terms of God having “given them over” in their unbelief so that they “changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and fourfooted beasts, and creeping things…. Who changed the truth of God into a lie, and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator…” Given this basic framework, secular nihilism, as a post-Christian phenomenon and, relative to pre-Christian paganism, even more radical form of spiritual decadence, represents a reversion or retrograde to an even earlier day of the creation week, exchanging the glory of man, made on the sixth day in the image of an acting, creating God, for an image of that which had been prepared for man on the third day as a means for his dominion, namely the “herb yielding seed” and “the tree yielding fruit” (Gen. 1). This reminds me, finally, of Conor Cunningham’s thesis (Genealogy of Nihilism) that there is an authentic form of nihilism (defined broadly as any philosophical attempt to have “nothing as something”) latent within the Christian faith, since it teaches that God literally created everything that exists from nothing. If so, there is something symbolic about secular nihilism’s attempt to reduce man to a plant: it is figuratively attempting to renounce God’s own acts of will throughout the creation week.