The Ultimate Foundation of Economic Science
Ludwig von Mises
On Some Popular Errors
Concerning the Scope and
Method of Economics
8. Misinterpretation of the Climate of Opinion
One does not explain a doctrine and actions engendered by it if one declares that it was generated by the spirit of the age or by the personal or geographical environment of the actors. In resorting to such interpretations one merely stresses the fact that a definite idea was in agreement with other ideas held at the same time and in the same milieu by other people. What is called the spirit of an age, of the members of a collective, or of a certain milieu is precisely the doctrines prevailing among the individuals concerned.
The ideas that change the intellectual climate of a given environment are those unheard of before. For these new ideas there is no other explanation than that there was a man from whose mind they originated.
A new idea is an answer provided by its author to the challenge of natural conditions or of ideas developed before by other people. Looking backward upon the history of ideas—and the actions engendered by them—the historian may discover a definite trend in their succession and may say that "logically" the earlier idea made the emergence of the later idea due. However such hindsight philosophy lacks any rational justification. Its tendency to belittle the contributions of the genius—the hero of intellectual history—and to ascribe his work to the juncture of events makes sense only in the frame of a philosophy of history that pretends to know the hidden plan that God or a superhuman power (such as the material productive forces in the system of Marx) wants to accomplish by directing the actions of all men. From the point of view of such a philosophy all men are puppets bound to behave exactly in the ways the demiurge has assigned to them.
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