These notes are from the lecture Apriorism and Positivism in the Social Sciences, given at the Mises University. Any errors are mine, feel free to point them out so that I can correct them. This lecture was given by Prof Long.
Positivists and Semi-Positivists
- Auguste Comte
- Logical Positivists (Vienna Circle)
- Karl Popper
- Milton Friedman — Methodology of Positivist Economics.
- Got their good ideas from Wittgenstein:
- Unless you can apply/recognize ideas in practice, you don’t understand them.
- Positivists altered this to the verification theory of meaning — you need to verify it; they think that the only meaning in a sentence is its predictive power, otherwise you haven’t said anything at all.
- To say that god exists or doesn’t exist is meaningless; you have just expressed a “feeling”, but nothing else. It is no different than saying “ooh” or “ahh” or “blah blah blah”.
- Statements have to be falsifiable, because you can never prove something. Later, he changed this to criticisable.
- Popper allowed for the existence of the a priori, but just thought that it wasn’t scientific.
- Popper adopted the rationality principle, that people seem to choose the means best for their ends:
- Not a priori true.
- A posteriori false — sometimes people don’t. Yet, Popper still thought that this was generally/normally true.
- Methodology of Positivist Economics.
- Hayek said he regretted not criticizing this piece.
- Devoted to the dispute between the Austrian and Neoclassical economics on the necessity of realistic assumptions.
- Austrians say that he assumes away explaining factors.
- Friedman says a realistic model is impossible, because it is impossible to use all of the details.
- Friedman also said that the point of the model is to give us predictions that work: whether or not the model is approximately true doesn’t matter, because prediction is all that matters.
- Friedman says that if we have a dispute about a priori principles, we have no way to resolve it, “without resorting to blows”. Positivists, however, can resort to facts.
Austrian Response to Friedman
- Positivists are ignoring something important — themselves. The fact that action exists is something we know a priori, because denying such is an action.
- We know that action exists, and that it applies to the real world.
- We don’t have to do empirical tests to know that you act and know that you exist.
- The idea that we can’t resolve disputes about a priori truths (e.g., axioms) without violence is absurd. You don’t see Austrians bashing eachother’s brains in.
- Friedan is confusing the issue. He refers to axiomatic truths as if they are internal revelations.
- Psychologism — the idea that when talking about logic, we are really talking about the psychological.
- The realm of logic is more public than the possibility of observation.
- Types of abstraction: We need to distinguish between failing to specify something vs. specifying its absence:
- Precisive abstraction — specify the absense of something, “idealize”.
- Non-precisive abstraction — fail to specify something.
- Austrians object to the neoclassical specification of things that are flatly flase: e.g., perfect information.
- Friedman’s mistake is that he sees all abstraction as an idealization; however, this is wrong.
- If you don’t see the difference between the logical and the psychological, you may think that if the idea in your head is incomplete, so is the thing that you’re describing.
- Mises criticizes the idea that economics has to deal with ideal types; early Austrians made that mistake too.
- Mises rejects ideal types: the laws of reality apply to reality just as they are; this also applies to the laws of physics — you need non-precivise abstraction.
- Economic laws are counter-factual in nature, as are the laws of physics.
“A counterfactual law relates an observable fact to a counterfactual alternative, it is immaterial which other facts exist besides the one under consideration, how these other facts are modified throughout time, and how they influence the course of events.” — Huelsmann.