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Epistemological Problems of Economics
Ludwig von Mises

The Task and Scope of
the Science of Human Action

IV. Utilitarianism and Rationalism and the Theory of Action

3. The Critique of Rationalism
by Ethnology and Prehistory

Attempts to undermine the "rationalistic" starting point of economic theory by drawing on the research findings of ethnology and the history of primitive peoples also miss the mark.

Eduard Hahn traces the origin of the plow and plow farming back to ancient myths. Tillage with the Plow, he tells us, was originally a ceremony in which the plow represented the phallus of the ox who drew it impregnating mother earth. The wagon, according to him, was not originally an "economic" means of conveyance. On the contrary, it was a sacred implement whose purpose was "to repeat on earth the wanderings of the rulers of fate in heaven." Only later did "the wagon sink to a commonplace implement of farming."[18]

By means of these discoveries, which, to be sure, are by no means uncontested, Hahn thinks he has cut the ground from under the utilitarian position and furnished complete proof of the correctness of his political program, which demands the "re-establishment of an active social aristocracy."[19] "Modern ethnology," Hahn believes,

finds itself again and again and again in the strongest opposition to the current view, which, in the most regrettable contradiction of the facts of the real world, is bent on setting out pure utility as the only operative mainspring of all the economic activity of men, and, indeed, of all historical events in general. Gradually, however, it will have to be recognized that the ideal aspect certainly deserves very great consideration; that it is not true for all ages and peoples, as it is said to be for us, the children of the second half of the nineteenth century, that the result of every activity?whether it is a matter of a sack of potatoes or the greatest discovery in philosophy or physics?can be expressed in marks and pfennigs, or, for that matter, in dollars and cents.[20]

The peoples whose culture Hahn has studied had different ideas of the relationship between cause and effect from those of the men of the nineteenth century. Whereas today we are guided in our conduct by ideas derived from modern chemistry, biology, and physiology, they had notions that we are now accustomed to call beliefs in magic and myths. They were, says Hahn, imbued with the idea that

the life of the vegetable or the animal kingdom could be influenced by efficacious rites.[21]

The oldest agricultural botany, he further maintains, also certainly stemmed from the idea that

before one could demand something of the land, something would have to be done to further the growth of the vegetable kingdom; one had to have first contributed something to it.[22]

Thus, Hahn himself admits that the primitive husbandman practiced their rites because of their supposed utility and their anticipated results. Their customs and magical rites were, according to Hahn's own presentation, actions consciously aiming at ends. When we call their technology "magic" and ours "scientific," all we are saying is that the fundamental orientation of men's conduct is the same in both cases and that the difference is determined by the disparity in their concrete ideas concerning the relationship between cause and effect. These mythological views saw a causal relationship between, for example, the nudity of the plowman and a rich harvest, and between many other customs that are offensive to us today and the fertility of the Soil;[23] and rites were performed in accordance with these ideas in order to ensure the success of agricultural labor. But surely no one can find any support in all this for the statement that men of primitive times differed from us in that the mainspring of their actions was not utility, but idealism. Obviously the result of economic activity could not be computed in marks and pfennigs in an age that was not yet familiar with the use of money. But what the men of primitive times strove for, what they valued alone, and what they sought to attain precisely by means of their rites, religious acts, exorcisms, prayers, and orgies was the satisfaction of the "common" exigencies of life: the need for food, clothing, shelter, health, and safety. For the other things we value today they would have had no understanding?not even for "the greatest discovery in philosophy or physics."

The progress of civilization, Frobenius thinks, derives not from "need" and "uneasiness," but from "ideals." Among other things the history of cultivation with the hoe proves this.

The first step was apparently a gathering of grain that grew wild. Out of thankfulness, and in order to propitiate mother earth, who was wounded by the grain harvest, the custom arose, as an ideal, of again restoring grain to her, the fruits of which flowed back not so much to the profane life, but as holy testimony of sacrifice. Not until a later age did cultivation with the hoe assume a more and more profane and rational character . . . Only when provident causality let ideals atrophy, when sober facts came to dominate the spirit, did the practical, expedient utilization of the "discovery" of cultivation with the hoe appear as profane farming.[24]

It may well be true that cultivation with the hoe and the plow arose as ritual acts out of a technology of magic and mythology and that later, after the inefficacy of the rites was realized, these methods of tillage were retained because their suitability came to be recognized as a result of the knowledge of agricultural botany that had been acquired in the meantime. This discovery may be welcomed as a very interesting contribution to the history of technology and the application of technological knowledge. Yet for the purposes of the subject under discussion it tells us nothing beyond the fact that the technological notions of primitive ages were different from ours. It would be impermissible to infer from this that the action of men of distant times and lands was categorially different from the action of modern men. Berthold Schwarz intended to make gold, and in attempting to do so is said to have discovered the preparation for gunpowder. Columbus set sail to seek a sea route to the Indies and discovered America. Can one therefore maintain that these two men acted in ways fundamentally different from the way we act today? It has never been denied that human action does not always attain the ends it has set for itself and occasionally has results that would have appeared worth aiming at if they had been known earlier.

When the husbandman of remote antiquity sought to increase the produce of their land by means of symbolic rites, their action was based on the prevailing "technological" notions of their time. When today we proceed differently, our action conforms to the technological notions prevailing at the present time. He who considers them erroneous might attempt to uncover their errors and replace a useless theory by a more suitable one. If he is unable to do so, he should not criticize the procedure of those who work for the dissemination of the knowledge of modern agricultural technology. It is futile to criticize statements such as "the shortsighted rationalism of the nineteenth century regarded the acts and dispensations of the old ritual . . . simply as superstition and thought it was to be pushed aside by instruction in the public schools."[25] If one goes through the long list of rites?not very commendable from the standpoint of present?day sentiment that Eduard Hahn has assembled in his writings on the basis of astonishingly extensive research, one finds scarcely any whose elimination would be regretted.[26] For what purpose should the empty forms of a technology whose fruitlessness no one can deny be retained?

In the behavior of men we can distinguish only two basic forms, between which there is a sharp conceptual division: unconscious behavior, or vegetative reaction, and conscious behavior, or action. All action, however, is necessarily in accord with the statements of the a priori theory of human action. Goals change, ideas of technology are transformed, but action always remains action. Action always seeks means to realize ends, and it is in this sense always rational and mindful of utility. It is, in a word, human.


[18] Hahn, Die Entstehung der Pflugkultur (Heidelberg, 1909), pp. 40 ff., 105 ff., 139 ff., 152 ff.; Frobenius, Paideuma, Umrisse einer Kultur und Seelenlehre (Munich, 1921), pp. 72 f.

[19] Hahn, Die Entstehung der wirtschaftlichen Arbeit (Heidelberg, 1909), pp. 102 ff.

[20] Hahn, Die Entstehung der Pflughultur, p. 63.

[21] Ibid., p. 86.

[22] Ibid., p. 87.

[23] Ibid., pp. II 7 ff.

[24] Cf. Frobenius, Paideuma, pp. 70 ff.

[25] Cf. Hahn, Die Entstehung der Pflugkultur, p. 87.

[26] A few examples from a compilation by Hahn (Die Entstehung der Pflugkultur, pp. 118 ff.): sacred prostitution; lewd jokes, especially on the part of women, at agricultural festivals; the singing of licentious songs by the most eminent women of Bautzen; running around the fields naked by Wendish female flax-workers until as late as 1882.

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