Gian Piero de Bellis

Magic words and the fallacy of hypostatization

(August 2013)



Any productive action, in whatever field of human endeavour (communication included), requires clear thinking on the part of the person acting.

In The Ultimate Foundations of Economic Science (1962) Ludwig von Mises remarked that

“[t]he worst enemy of clear thinking is the propensity to hypostatize, i.e. to ascribe substance or real existence to mental constructs or concepts.”

“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 fallacy of hypostatization, however, is not practiced just by people holding collectivist thinking but also by those who stress the importance of the individual and of personal freedom.

If the so-called collectivists fall in the fallacy of hypostatization by the use of the magic word society (it's the fault of society, society will intervene, etc.), the so-called individualists betray the same fallacy when they use the equally magic word market.

When these terms are employed we are faced with an overarching almighty entity that has a life of its own, is supposed to do everything, to redress any tort, to administer justice, to produce well-being on earth and to lead everybody to the promised land under the form of communism or liberalism or something else.

In doing so, “collectivists” and “individualists” not only are betraying the basic tenets of science, based on empirical realities and not on fictional entities, but are also ignoring the advice of those to whom they pretend to refer to as the source of their ideas. As we have seen, hypostatization is unequivocally condemned by von Mises, and liberal-libertarians should take notice.

As for the collectivists, it is worth mentioning what Karl Marx had to say about the term society:

It is above all necessary to avoid postulating 'society' once more as an abstraction confronting the individual." (Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844)

Hypostatizations should then be carefully avoided because they are:

  • Unreal : they are devoid of a proper empirical foundation that could clarify, with a certain exactitude, the precise features and sphere of reference of the hypostatization;

  • Ambiguous : they signify different things to different people so that conflicting meanings could be attributed to the same hypostatization;

  • Divisive : they are used by politicians in order to invent fake agents and fake enemies that become the convenient scapegoats of all those who are in power (e.g. the fault of the market).

The continuous use of hypostatizations by many individuals is also making those who would like to exit political subordination to an external power (the state) to appear similar to those in power. In fact, it is arduous to convince someone that replacing the entity society with the entity market will make any difference for the individuals. Perceptive critical minds already see behind society the almighty state and behind the market the almighty corporations. And they remain aloof.

Possible solutions to this problem of unclear thinking and muddy communication might be:

The Orwell proposal (concretize)

In his Politics and the English Language (1946), George Orwell, after having dealt at length with the interconnection between sloppy language and sloppy thinking, remarks that “The whole tendency of modern prose is away from concreteness.”

And he suggest that it would be “better to put off using words as long as possible and get one's meaning as clear as one can through pictures or sensations. Afterwards one can choose ... the phrases that will best cover the meaning … . This last effort of the mind cuts out all stale or mixed images, all prefabricated phrases, needless repetitions, and humbug and vagueness generally.”

The Bridgman proposal (operationalize)

In The Logic of Modern Physics (1927), P. W. Bridgman suggests to operationalize scientific concepts, that is to describe the operations that transform them into empirical measures and actions. This would eliminate ambiguities and possible misunderstandings. For Bridgman “... the true meaning of a term is to be found by observing what a man does with it, not by what he says about it.”

In the specific case of the word market, we could:

a) replace it with the concrete expression free exchanges;

b) operationalize it by measuring the effective level of freedom (accessibility, universality, etc.) or constraints (tariffs, quotas, etc.) of concrete exchanges.

In the last decades, technology has been changing social relations in a much deeper way than what has been accomplished by well-intentioned social scientists and social activists.

I suspect the reason is because the people involved in technological projects had clearer ideas and clearer communication tools for implementing those ideas.

Perhaps it is high time for the individuals engaged in personal and social projects to do the same.


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