Sunday, March 14, 2010

Got Geisteswissenschaft?

Daniel Muffinburg couldn't find something, so he asked his friend Zach the Lizard for help. (No this article isn't a children's story; Daniel and Zach are the handles of two Mises Community members.)

What Daniel couldn't find was the phrase, "Tu ne cede malis sed contra audentior ito", the motto of Ludwig von Mises and the Mises Institute, in an English translation of Virgil's Aeneid. Zach informed Daniel that the problem was that the phrase is not always translated as it is in Austrian circles: "do not give in to evil but proceed ever more boldly against it." According to Zach, in one translation, it reads: "The more thy fortune frowns, the more oppose."

To me, this made perfect sense, given Mises' philosophical outlook. I wrote:

"Misfortune" would be less confusing than "evil".  The "evil" in the quote is not "evil" in the moral sense.  It's more like the definition of "evil" that runs: "something that is harmful or undesirable".

This is Mises telling of it:

"It is a matter of temperament how we shape our lives in the knowledge of an inescapable catastrophe. In high school I had chosen a verse by Virgil as my motto: Tu ne cede malis sed contra audentior ito. "Do not give in to evil but proceed ever more boldly against it." In the darkest hours of the war, I recalled this dictum. Again and again I faced situations from which rational deliberations could find no escape. But then something unexpected occurred that brought deliverance." Notes and Recollections, p. 70

The "evil" he was proceeding boldly against was "catastrophe": not crime or sin.  Thus his motto, interpreted rightly, in no way at variance with his utilitarianism.

This didn't sit well with my friend "nirgrahamuk" (aka "nir"), who responded

if 'crime' and 'sin' were catastrophes then that would not oppose his utilitarianism either, in fact, that's what commonly marks out utilitarians

just sayin'

These opening maneuvers initiated an all-out debate between nir and myself over the nature of Mises' utilitarianism.

Then Community member "wilderness" came in on nir's side and the debate evolved into a more general controversy over whether Mises accepted the notions of normative science and scientific "oughts" (nir and wilderness claim he did; I insist he did not), which spilled over into a new thread, in which I became even more outnumbered as Conza88 weighed in on the "Mises-as-moralist" side.

It was Misesian (myself) vs. Rothbardians (nir, wilderness, and Conza), and it got rocky a few times. But tempers cooled, concessions were made, compliments were passed, common ground was discovered, and new ways of looking at the issue were found by both sides. Altogether, I think the debate was indicative how Misesians, Rothbardians, and Hayekians (as delimited in Jeffrey Tucker's fantastic piece Avoiding Austro-Flamewars) can, in the spirit of the "Rizzo peace," forge new intellectual tools in the crucible of contrary opinion.

I'd like to think vigorous, but civil and productive discussions like this can happen even with people outside of the Austrian school, and beyond. John Papola has demonstrated how it is possible to do that without compromising your position, in the way his brilliant rap video demolishes Keynes, but does so in such an even-handed way, that even the Keynes biographer Lord Robert Skidelsky commented that the video was “absolutely fair" and "seems to be completely right.”

See the video of Papola's speech at the Austrian Scholars Conference on the making of the video. He also has some really inspiring words about his pedagogical philosophy regarding spreading sound economics and his plans to spend the rest of his life doing so via creative projects. (This speech confirmed a suspicion I voiced on the Mises forum, back in January: "This guy is really cool." And the Austrian school is so lucky to have him.)

So what's your take on our debate? Who do you think won the day? What exactly did Mises understand his motto to mean? Was Mises a utilitarian in the way that word is commonly understood today? Did Mises believe in a science of "oughts"? Sign up for a free account in the Mises Community and weigh in!

After all, in how many other communities will you find passionate discussion over the meaning of Geisteswissenschaft?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Muffinbuuuurg :D