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German Idealism

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Ludwig von Mises was, to a large extent, discussing German Idealism when he wrote:
"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. 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. 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. 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."[1]

"Cunning of nature" is a Hegelian interpretation of Immanuel Kant's "plan of nature" doctrine[2] "World soul" and "national soul" refer, respectively, to the concepts of weltgeist and volksgeist, both of which are associated with the philosophical system of G.W.F. Hegel[3] According to Mises, Hegel purported to be a kind of prophet of Geist.[4]

Mises was highly critical of these holistic doctrines, because they posited that "society is an entity living its own life, independent of and separate from the lives of the various individuals, acting on its own behalf and aiming at its own ends which are different from the ends sought by the individuals." Mises argued that only individuals act, and therefore starting "the study of human action from the collective units"[5] is unsound. Instead, Mises adhered to the principle of methodological individualism[6]


  1. Ludwig von Mises "Introduction, 1. Economics and Praxeology", Human Action, online edition, referenced 2010-02-05.
  2. "This expression was originally coined by Eric Weil to suggest a similarity with Hegel’s ‘cunning of reason’", Katerina Deligiorgi, "The Role of the ‘Plan of Nature’ in Kant’s Account of History from a Philosophical Perspective, Footnote 3.
  3. "Spirit, so far as it is the immediate, truth, is the ethical life of a nation:--the individual, which is a world.", G.W.F. Hegel, The Phenomenology of the Mind, [ "Chapter VI" (accessed 02-07-2011).
  4. "Hegel... was laboring under the delusion that Geist, the Absolute, revealed itself through his words. There was nothing in the universe that was hidden to Hegel." Ludwig von Mises, "Chapter III. Economics and the Revolt Against Reason: The Revolt Against Reason", Human Action, online edition, accessed 02-07-2011.
  5. Ludwig von Mises, "Chapter II. The Epistemological Problems of the Sciences of Human Action, 4. The Principle of Methodological Individualism", Human Action, online edition, accessed 02-07-2011.
  6. "First we must realize that all actions are performed by individuals. A collective operates always through the intermediary of one or several individuals whose actions are related to the collective as the secondary source. It is the meaning which the acting individuals and all those who are touched by their action attribute to an action, that determines its character.", Ludwig von Mises, "Chapter II. The Epistemological Problems of the Sciences of Human Action, 4. The Principle of Methodological Individualism", Human Action, online edition, accessed 02-07-2011.

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