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The Chimera of the Group Mind

Mises Daily: Wednesday, September 29, 2010 by

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[Excerpted from chapter 9 of Theory and History. An audio version of this article, excerpted from the forthcoming audiobook version, read by John Pruden, is available as a free MP3 download.]

In their eagerness to eliminate from history any reference to individuals and individual events, collectivist authors resorted to a chimerical construction, the group mind or social mind.

At the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries, German philologists began to study German medieval poetry, which had long since fallen into oblivion. Most of the epics they edited from old manuscripts were imitations of French works. The names of their authors — most of them knightly warriors in the service of dukes or counts — were known. These epics were not much to boast of. But there were two epics of a quite different character, genuinely original works of high literary value, far surpassing the conventional products of the courtiers: the Nibelungenlied and the Gudrun. The former is one of the great books of world literature and undoubtedly the outstanding poem Germany produced before the days of Goethe and Schiller. The names of the authors of these masterpieces were not handed down to posterity. Perhaps the poets belonged to the class of professional entertainers (Spielleute), who not only were snubbed by the nobility but had to endure mortifying legal disabilities. Perhaps they were heretical or Jewish, and the clergy was eager to make people forget them.

At any rate the philologists called these two works "people's epics" (Volksepen). This term suggested to naive minds the idea that they were written not by individual authors but by the "people." The same mythical authorship was attributed to popular songs (Volkslieder) whose authors were unknown.

Again in Germany, in the years following the Napoleonic wars, the problem of comprehensive legislative codification was brought up for discussion. In this controversy the historical school of jurisprudence, led by Savigny, denied the competence of any age and any persons to write legislation. Like the Volksepen and the Volkslieder, a nation's laws, they declared, are a spontaneous emanation of the Volksgeist, the nation's spirit and peculiar character. Genuine laws are not arbitrarily written by legislators; they spring up and thrive organically from the Volksgeist.

This Volksgeist doctrine was devised in Germany as a conscious reaction against the ideas of natural law and the "un-German" spirit of the French Revolution. But it was further developed and elevated to the dignity of a comprehensive social doctrine by the French positivists, many of whom not only were committed to the principles of the most radical among the revolutionary leaders but aimed at completing the "unfinished revolution" by a violent overthrow of the capitalistic mode of production. Emile Durkheim and his school deal with the group mind as if it were a real phenomenon, a distinct agency, thinking and acting. As they see it, not individuals but the group is the subject of history.

As a corrective of these fancies the truism must be stressed that only individuals think and act. In dealing with the thoughts and actions of individuals the historian establishes the fact that some individuals influence one another in their thinking and acting more strongly than they influence and are influenced by other individuals. He observes that cooperation and division of labor exist among some, while existing to a lesser extent or not at all among others. He employs the term "group" to signify an aggregation of individuals who cooperate together more closely. However, the distinction of groups is optional. The group is not an ontological entity like the biological species. The various group concepts intersect one another.

The historian chooses, according to the special plan of his studies, the features and attributes that determine the classification of individuals into various groups. The grouping may integrate people speaking the same language, or professing the same religion, or practicing the same vocation or occupation, or descended from the same ancestry. The group concept of Gobineau was different from that of Marx. In short, the group concept is an ideal type and as such is derived from the historian's understanding of the historical forces and events.

"Only individuals think and act."

Only individuals think and act. Each individual's thinking and acting is influenced by his fellows' thinking and acting. These influences are variegated. The individual American's thoughts and conduct cannot be interpreted if one assigns him to a single group. He is not only an American but a member of a definite religious group or an agnostic or an atheist; he has a job, he belongs to a political party, he is affected by traditions inherited from his ancestors and conveyed to him by his upbringing, by the family, the school, the neighborhood, by the ideas prevailing in his town, state, and country. It is an enormous simplification to speak of the American mind. Every American has his own mind. It is absurd to ascribe any achievements and virtues or any misdeeds and vices of individual Americans to America as such.

Most people are common men. They do not have thoughts of their own; they are only receptive. They do not create new ideas; they repeat what they have heard and imitate what they have seen. If the world were peopled only by such as these, there would not be any change and any history. What produces change is new ideas and actions guided by them. What distinguishes one group from another is the effect of such innovations. These innovations are not accomplished by a group mind; they are always the achievements of individuals. What makes the American people different from any other people is the joint effect produced by the thoughts and actions of innumerable uncommon Americans.

We know the names of the men who invented and step by step perfected the motorcar. A historian can write a detailed history of the evolution of the automobile. We do not know the names of the men who, in the beginnings of civilization, made the greatest inventions — for example, lighting a fire. But this ignorance does not permit us to ascribe this fundamental invention to a group mind. It is always an individual who starts a new method of doing things, and then other people imitate his example. Customs and fashions have always been inaugurated by individuals and spread through imitation by other people.

While the group-mind school tried to eliminate the individual by ascribing activity to the mythical Volksgeist, the Marxians were intent on the one hand upon depreciating the individual's contribution and on the other hand upon crediting innovations to common men. Thus Marx observed that a critical history of technology would demonstrate that none of the 18th century's inventions was the achievement of a single individual.[1] What does this prove? Nobody denies that technological progress is a gradual process, a chain of successive steps performed by long lines of men, each of whom adds something to the accomplishments of his predecessors.

The history of every technological contrivance, when completely told, leads back to the most primitive inventions made by cave dwellers in the earliest ages of mankind. To choose any later starting point is an arbitrary restriction of the whole tale. One may begin a history of wireless telegraphy with Maxwell and Hertz, but one may as well go back to the first experiments with electricity or to any previous technological feats that had necessarily to precede the construction of a radio network. All this does not in the least affect the truth that each step forward was made by an individual and not by some mythical impersonal agency. It does not detract from the contributions of Maxwell, Hertz, and Marconi to admit that they could be made only because others had previously made other contributions.

To illustrate the difference between the innovator and the dull crowd of routinists who cannot even imagine that any improvement is possible, we need only refer to a passage in Engels' most famous book.[2] Here, in 1878, Engels apodictically announced that military weapons are "now so perfected that no further progress of any revolutionizing influence is any longer possible." Henceforth "all further [technological] progress is by and large indifferent for land warfare. The age of evolution is in this regard essentially closed."[3] This complacent conclusion shows in what the achievement of the innovator consists: he accomplishes what other people believe to be unthinkable and unfeasible.

Engels, who considered himself an expert in the art of warfare, liked to exemplify his doctrines by referring to strategy and tactics. Changes in military tactics, he declared, are not brought about by ingenious army leaders. They are achievements of privates who are usually cleverer than their officers. The privates invent them by dint of their instincts (instinktmässig) and put them into operation in spite of the reluctance of their commanders.[4]

Every doctrine denying to the "single paltry individual"[5] any role in history must finally ascribe changes and improvements to the operation of instincts. As those upholding such doctrines see it, man is an animal that has the instinct to produce poems, cathedrals, and airplanes. Civilization is the result of an unconscious and unpremeditated reaction of man to external stimuli. Each achievement is the automatic creation of an instinct with which man has been endowed especially for this purpose. There are as many instincts as there are human achievements. It is needless to enter into a critical examination of this fable invented by impotent people for slighting the achievements of better men and appealing to the resentment of the dull. Even on the basis of this makeshift doctrine one cannot negate the distinction between the man who had the instinct to write the book On the Origin of Species and those who lacked this instinct.

Notes

[1] Das Kapital, 1, 335, n. 89.

[2] Herrn Eugen Diihrings Umwälzung der Wissenschaft, 7th ed. Stuttgart, 1910.

[3] Ibid., pp. 176–7.

[4] Ibid., pp. 172–6.

[5] Engels, Der Ursprung der Familie, des Privateigentums und des Staates (6th ed. Stuttgart, 1894), p. 186.