Liberty Matters

How Important Are Ideas?


In my initial essay, I suggested that one should not take as a priori true the contention that ideas are the prime mover of history. In particular, the extent to which the ideas of classical-liberal thinkers have brought about classical-liberal policies is an empirical issue. In their contributions to the conversation, both David Hart and Stephen Davies have very helpful comments on the role of ideas in history, and I should like to address what they have to say.
Hart calls to our attention an important insight of Mises. “According to this view, the economic, political, and other interests which people pursue (whether ordinary people or ruling elites) depend upon the ideas they have about what their interests are.” If this is so, one cannot properly speak of interests as a separate force that produces ideas. As Mises puts the point, “Ideas tell a man what his interests are.”
Mises’s view of interests seems to me correct, but it does not quite speak to the issue I wished to raise in my essay. (To say this need not be a criticism of Hart, as he may not have intended what he says to be a response to me.) That issue, once more, was that the influence of classical-liberal theorists on classical-liberal policies is an empirical question, not one to be settled by a priori reasoning.
Suppose someone held, as I certainly do not, that the great classical-liberal theorists had no influence at all on actual policies. That position, wrongheaded though I think it is, would be entirely consistent with Mises’s point about interests.  Perhaps, one might think, if intellectuals aren’t influential, then what is the alternative? It must be that material interests determine history. But Mises’s point about interests shows that interests aren’t independent of ideas. Therefore, the ideas of intellectuals are influential.
The argument just mentioned misses the mark. To deny that the views of classical-liberal intellectuals were influential entails nothing about the role in history of material interests or people’s perceptions of these interests. Someone who denies the importance of theoretical ideas may hold any of a number of positions about the forces that influence history or, for that matter, have no general theory of history at all. “Ideas matter,” taken to mean that philosophical ideas exercise a determining influence on history, and the view that material interests, entirely apart from ideas, determine history, are far from the only alternatives. I was not concerned to deny the former theory, quite the contrary. I meant only to suggest, once more, that the view cannot be established by a priori arguments, e.g., by the bad one just canvassed.
Stephen Davies points out two problems with the theory that “it was material changes and changes in the structure of production that led to intellectual, social, and political change.” The first problem is that the position “could lead to a kind of fatalism in which there was no point in activism, as you might as well just let material historical evolution take its course.” Here I suggest one needs to draw a distinction. Is the question before us whether the theory that material changes and changes in the structure of production cause changes in ideas implies that activism is futile? Or is it, rather, whether believing this theory leads to the belief that activism is futile?  
If the question is taken the first way, why does the theory imply that activism is futile? Perhaps the thought underlying the contention is this: If material changes determine the course of history, then it doesn’t matter what people think or do. The material forces  will determine what happens.
A moment’s thought suffices to show that this is nonsense.  If “it was material changes and changes in the structure of production that led to intellectual, social, and political change,” then material changes caused people to think and act in certain ways. That is an altogether different notion from the view that, regardless of what people thought or did, the material changes would have brought about the same historical events.  A fatalistic view of this kind is altogether different from a determinist view, and I take the material change theory to be a view of the latter kind.
As to the effect of belief in the material-change theory on people’s activism, it is by no means the case that accepting the theory has to lead to political quietism. It may or may not do so: one just has to look at individual cases.  Suppose, though, that accepting the theory did lead to a decline in activism; and suppose further that one deemed this a matter for regret. That would not be an argument against the truth of the theory. Whether believing something has bad consequences and whether what one believes is true are separate questions.
Davies finds a “more serious problem” with the material-change theory. The problem is that  "this makes ideas an epiphenomenon and denies them autonomy.” By referring to ideas as an “epiphenomenon,” I take Davies to mean that ideas, on this theory, exert no causal influence. They are simply “there” but are irrelevant to how history develops.
Davies holds that the view of ideas as epiphenomenal can be shown to be false. “[T]here is actually a two-way causal relationship in which ideas are articulated in response to physical change but then shape how that change is understood and then in turn lead to purposive action that leads to further changes or directs the spontaneous changes in one direction rather than another.”
Davies seems entirely right that ideas shape how change is understood, but this is consistent with the view that material changes cause changes in ideas.  If material changes cause changes in ideas, it does not follow that the altered ideas have no effects. Rather, the contention is that no causal chain has as its first member an idea uncaused by a material change.  If A causes B and B causes C, it does not follow that A is the “real” cause of C and that B drops out of the causal chain.  A supporter of the material-change view could readily adopt Davies’s account, given just above, of the two-way causal relationship.  In sum, the contention that ideas aren’t first causes does not imply that ideas have no effects.