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Chapter 5: On Some Popular Errors Concerning the Scope and Method of Economics

4. The Pitfalls of Hypostatization

The worst enemy of clear thinking is the propensity to hypostatize, i.e., to ascribe substance or real existence to mental constructs or concepts.

In the sciences of human action the most conspicuous instance of this fallacy is the way in which the term society is employed by various schools of pseudo science. There is no harm in employing the term to signify the cooperation of individuals united in endeavors to attain definite ends. It is a definite aspect of various individuals' actions that constitutes what is called society or the "great society." But society itself is neither a substance, nor a power, nor an acting being. Only individuals act. Some of the individuals' actions are directed by the intention to cooperate with others. Cooperation of individuals brings about a state of affairs which the concept of society describes. Society does not exist apart from the thoughts and actions of people. It does not have "interests" and does not aim at anything. The same is valid for all other collectives.

Hypostatization is not merely an epistemological fallacy and not only misleads the search for knowledge. In the so-called social sciences it more often than not serves definite political aspirations in claiming for the collective as such a higher dignity than for the individual or even ascribing real existence only to the collective and denying the existence of the individual, calling it a mere abstraction.

The collectivists themselves disagree with one another in the appreciation of the various collectivistic constructs. They claim a higher reality and moral dignity for one collective than for others or, in a more radical way, even deny both real existence and dignity to the collectivistic constructs of other people. Thus, nationalists consider the "nation" as the only true collective, to which alone all individuals they consider as conationals owe allegiance, and stigmatize all other collectives—e.g., the religious communities—as of minor rank. However, epistemology does not have to deal with the political controversies implied.

In denying perseity, i.e., independent existence of their own, to the collectives, one does not in the least deny the reality of the effects brought about by the cooperation of individuals. One merely establishes the fact that the collectives come into being by the thoughts and actions of individuals and that they disappear when the individuals adopt a different way of thinking and acting. The thoughts and actions of a definite individual are instrumental in the emergence not only of one, but of various collectives. Thus, e.g., the same individual's various attitudes may serve to constitute the collectives nation, religious community, political party, and so on. On the other hand, a man may, without discontinuing entirely his belonging to a definite collective, occasionally or even regularly in some of his actions proceed in a way that is incompatible with the preservation of his membership. Thus, e.g., it happened in the recent history of various nations that practicing Catholics cast their votes in favor of candidates who openly avowed their hostility to the political aspirations of the Church and spurned its dogmas as fables. In dealing with collectives, the historian must pay attention to the degree to which the various ideas of cooperation determine the thinking and the actions of their members. Thus, in dealing with the history of the Italian Risorgimento, he has to investigate to what extent and in what manner the idea of an Italian national state and to what extent and in what manner the idea of a secular papal state influenced the attitudes of the various individuals and groups whose conduct is the subject of his studies.

The political and ideological conditions of the Germany of his day induced Marx to employ, in the announcement of his program of nationalization of the means of production, the term "society" instead of the term "state" (Staat), which is the German equivalent of the English term "nation." The socialist propaganda endowed the term "society" and the adjective "social" with an aura of sanctity that is manifested by the quasi-religious esteem that what is called "social work," i.e., the management of the distribution of alms and similar activities, enjoys.