Front Page Titles (by Subject) 1.: The Scope and Limitations of History - Omnipotent Government: The Rise of the Total State and Total War
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1.: The Scope and Limitations of History - Ludwig von Mises, Omnipotent Government: The Rise of the Total State and Total War 
Omnipotent Government: The Rise of the Total State and Total War, edited with a Foreword by Bettina Bien Greaves (Indianapolis: Indiana, 2011).
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The Scope and Limitations of History
It is the function of historical research to trace historical events back to their sources. The historian has to demonstrate how any historical situation developed out of previously existing—natural and social—conditions and how the actions of men and occurrences beyond human control transformed any previous state of affairs into the subsequent state of affairs. This analytical retrospection cannot be carried out indefinitely. Soon or late history reaches a point at which its methods of interpretation are of no further use. Then the historian can do nothing more than establish that a factor was operative which brought to pass what resulted. The usual way of putting this into words is to speak of individuality or uniqueness.
The same is essentially true of the natural sciences. They too inevitably sooner or later reach a point which they must simply take as a datum of experience, as the “given.” Their scope is to interpret (or, as people once preferred to say, to explain) occurring changes as the outcome of forces working throughout the universe. They trace one fact back to previous facts; they show us that the a, the b, and the n are the outcome of the x. But there are x’s which, at least in our day, cannot be traced back to other sources. Coming generations may succeed in pushing the limits of our knowledge further back. But there cannot be any doubt that there will always remain some items which cannot be traced back to others.
The human mind is not even capable of consistently grasping the meaning of such a concept as the ultimate cause of all things. Natural science will never go further than the establishment of some ultimate factors which cannot be analyzed and traced back to their sources, springs, or causes.
The term individuality as used by the historians means: here we are confronted with a factor which cannot be traced back to other factors. It does not provide an interpretation or explanation. It establishes, on the contrary, that we have to deal with an inexplicable datum of historical experience. Why did Caesar cross the Rubicon? The historians can provide us with various motives which might have influenced Caesar’s decision, but they cannot deny that another decision would have been possible. Perhaps Cicero or Brutus, faced with a similar situation, would have behaved differently. The only correct answer is: he crossed the Rubicon because he was Caesar.
It is misleading to explain a man’s or a group’s behavior by referring to their character. The concept of character is tantamount to the concept of individuality. What we call a man’s or a group’s character is the totality of our knowledge about their conduct. If they had behaved otherwise than as they actually did, our notions of their character would be different. It is a mistake to explain the fact that Napoleon made himself emperor and tried in a rather foolish way to break into the circle of the old European dynasties as a result of his character. If he had not substituted emperorship for his lifelong consular dignity, and had not married an archduchess, we would, in the same way, have had to say that this was a peculiar mark of his character. The reference to character explains no more than does the famous explanation of the soporific effect of opium by its virtus dormitiva qui facit sensus assupire.
Therefore it is vain to expect any help from psychology, whether individual or mass psychology. Psychology does not lead us beyond the limits fixed in the concept of individuality. It does not explain why being crossed in love turns some people toward dipsomania, others to suicide, others to writing clumsy verses, while it inspired Petrarch and Goethe to immortal poems and Beethoven to divine music. The classification of men into various character types is not a very profitable expedient. Men are classified according to their conduct, and then people believe they have provided an explanation in deducing conduct from their classification. Moreover, every individual or group has traits which do not fit into the Procrustean bed of classification.
Neither can physiology solve the problem. Physiology cannot explain how external facts and circumstances bring about definite ideas and actions within human consciousness. Even if we were to know everything about the operation of brain cells and nerves, we should be at a loss to explain—otherwise than by referring to individuality—why identical environmental facts result with different individuals, and with the same individuals at various times, in diverse ideas and actions. The sight of a falling apple led Newton to the laws of gravitation; why not other people before him? Why does one man succeed in the correct solution of an equation whereas other people do not? In what does the physiological process resulting in the mathematically correct solution of a problem differ from that leading to an incorrect solution? Why did the same problems of locomotion in snow-covered mountains lead the Norwegians to the invention of skiing, while the inhabitants of the Alps did not have this inspiration?
No historical research can avoid reference to the concept of individuality. Neither biography, dealing with the life of only one personality, nor the history of peoples and nations can push its analysis further than a point where the last statement is: individuality.