Mises on Historicism and the World Soul

Dan Sanchez
Jul 28, 2017 · 2 min read

In Human Action, Ludwig von Mises writes:

“Philosophers had long since been eager to ascertain the ends which God or Nature was trying to realize in the course of human history. They searched for the law of mankind’s destiny and evolution.”

Here, Mises refers to the school of thought known as “historicism,” whose chief figure was German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.

“But even those thinkers whose inquiry was free from any theological tendency failed utterly in these endeavors because they were committed to a faulty method. They dealt with humanity as a whole or with other holistic concepts like nation, race, or church.”

This is especially applicable to the collectivistic tendency of historicist and Hegelian thought. To Mises’s list of holistic concepts, Mises might have added “class,” which is the collective that Karl Marx, a member of the “young Hegelian” school of thought, considered paramount.

“They set up quite arbitrarily the ends to which the behavior of such wholes is bound to lead. But they could not satisfactorily answer the question regarding what factors compelled the various acting individuals to behave in such a way that the goal aimed at by the whole’s inexorable evolution was attained.”

Here Mises refers to the rejection of “methodological individualism,” which recognizes that only individuals, and not collectives, have ends and act.

“They had recourse to desperate shifts: miraculous interference of the Deity either by revelation or by the delegation of God-sent prophets and consecrated leaders, preestablished harmony, predestination, or the operation of a mystic and fabulous “world soul” or “national soul.” Others spoke of a “cunning of nature” which implanted in man impulses driving him unwittingly along precisely the path Nature wanted him to take.”

Here again Mises refers to Hegel, who spoke of a weltgeist (world soul), considered himself its “prophet,” and once even identified it with a particular “consecrated leader.”

In Wikipedia, we read:

“Hegel was putting the finishing touches to [his book Phenomenology] as Napoleon engaged Prussian troops on October 14, 1806, in the Battle of Jena on a plateau outside the city. On the day before the battle, Napoleon entered the city of Jena. Hegel recounted his impressions in a letter to his friend Friedrich Immanuel Niethammer:

‘I saw the Emperor — this world-soul — riding out of the city on reconnaissance. It is indeed a wonderful sensation to see such an individual, who, concentrated here at a single point, astride a horse, reaches out over the world and masters it . . . this extraordinary man, whom it is impossible not to admire.’”

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