Saturday, July 24, 2010

Mises on History

Ludwig von Mises' magnum opus Human Action is a must for anyone who wants an experience that will rework one's entire way of thinking over.

A section on history is characteristic of Mises' uncanny knack for dissecting intellectual convention to expose fallacies and malpractice.

The Scope and the Specific Method of History
The study of all the data of experience concerning human action is the scope of history. The historian collects and critically sifts all available documents. On the ground of this evidence he approaches his genuine task. It has been asserted that the task of history is to show how events actually happened, without imposing presuppositions and values (wertfrei, i.e., neutral with regard to all value judgments). The historian's report should be a faithful image of the past, an intellectual photograph, as it were, giving a complete and unbiased description of all facts. It should reproduce before our intellectual eye the past with all its features.

Now, a real reproduction of the past would require a duplication not humanly possible. History is not an intellectual reproduction, but a condensed representation of the past in conceptual terms. The historian does not simply let the events speak for themselves. He arranges them from the aspect of the ideas underlying the formation of the general notions he uses in their presentation. He does not report facts as they happened, but only relevant facts. He does not approach the documents without presuppositions, but equipped with the whole apparatus of his age's scientific knowledge, that is, with all the teachings of contemporary logic, mathematics, praxeology, and natural science.

It is obvious that the historian must not be biased by any prejudices and party tenets. Those writers who consider historical events as an arsenal of weapons for the conduct of their party feuds are not historians but propagandists and apologists. They are not eager to acquire knowledge but to justify the program of their parties. They are fighting for the dogmas of a metaphysical, religious, national, political or social doctrine. They usurp the name of history for their writings as a blind in order to deceive the credulous.

A historian must first of all aim at cognition. He must free himself from any partiality. He must in this sense be neutral with regard to any value judgments. [...]

The course of history is determined by the actions of individuals and by the effects of these actions. The actions are determined by the value judgments of the acting individuals, i.e., the ends which they were eager to attain, and by the means which they applied for the attainment of these ends. The choice of the means is an outcome of the whole body of technological knowledge of the acting individuals. [...]

The specific task of history for which it uses a specific method is the study of these value judgments and of the effects of the actions as far as they cannot be analyzed by the teachings of all other branches of knowledge. [End quote]

I cannot do his analysis justice in this short a space, but Mises reintroduces humanity into the scientific study of praxeology (human action) in a systematic and very illuminating way. He demolishes many myths on his way to sharpening man's ultimate tool of survival - reason. It is a tragedy not every scholar knows who Mises even is.

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