What is ‘Social’—What Does It Mean?

“What is ‘Social’—What Does It Mean?” Translated in an unauthorized English translation in Freedom and Serfdom (ed. A. Hunold), Dordrecht, 1961.


“Except in the fields of philology and logic, there are probably few cases in which one would be justified in devoting a whole article to the meaning of a single word. Sometimes, however, such a little word not only throws light upon the process of the evolution of ideas and of the story of human error, but often also exercises an irrational power which becomes apparent only when, by analysis, we lay bare its true meaning. I doubt whether there exists a better example of the little understood influence that may be exercised by a single word than that afforded by the role which for hundred years the word “social” has played in the whole sphere of political problems—and is still playing. We are so familiar with it, we accept it so much as a matter of course, that we are hardly conscious of any problem regarding its meaning. We have accepted it for so long as the natural description of good behavior and sincere thinking, that it seems almost sacrilege to ask what this word really means which so many men consider as the guiding star of their moral aspirations. Indeed, I rather suspect that the majority of my readers, though they may not be quite sure what “social” means, nevertheless have little doubt that it does indicate an ideal by which all good men should regulate their conduct, and that they will hope I shall now tell them exactly what it does mean. Let me say at once that in this respect I shall support them; for the primary conclusion to which a meticulous scrutiny of the word and its meaning  has led me is that even so exceptionally potent a word as this can be incredibly empty of meaning and offer us no answer to our question.”

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