1. Skip to navigation
  2. Skip to content
  3. Skip to sidebar
Source link: http://archive.mises.org/8051/misess-apriorism-against-relativism-in-economics/

Mises’s Apriorism Against Relativism in Economics

April 25, 2008 by

Mises’s work on the logical status of the science of economics needs to be brought back to public attention: his work actually forms the intellectual bulwark against the degeneration of the free societal order. The positivist-empiricist doctrine, which forms the core of today’s mainstream economics, is not only an intellectual failure; it also encourages — actually provokes — social relativism, thereby opening the door to anti-free-market policies, which, once set into motion, are difficult to reign in. In that sense, positivism is, if put into practice, an anti-capitalist doctrine. FULL ARTICLE

{ 37 comments }

Danny April 25, 2008 at 4:11 pm

Great article. I will pass this along to everyone I know.

Miklos Hollender April 25, 2008 at 4:35 pm

Thorsten,

congratulations – this the best and most imporant article I’ve read so this year.

You know I’m coming from the direction of Oakeshott, Burke, Voegelin, Kekes, which is usually described as Pluralistic Conservativism. We have always fought about empiricism in social sciences, because it violates the principle of the free will, which is very important part of the Christian-Classical tradition. But our criticism of it has always been based on tradition, common sense and historical experience: empirical methods DID lead to non-pluralistic i.e. non-free systems of political thought.

What is amazing about Praxeology is that whatever we realized through common sense and historical experience, Praxeology can discover more or less the same but via a strict, provable scientific method.

This is important, because it restores one’s trust in reasoning.

Our view has always been that scientific methods are simply not sufficient, one also needs practical knowledge. This has also influenced some Praxeologists, see: Hayek – The Counter-Revolution of Science. (Hayek was influenced by Oakeshott at the LSE.) Practical knowledge is something you cannot learn from a book, only from experience f.e. cooking. This basically sets a limit for human reason.

The reason I’m so impressed with Praxeology is that it proves that the problem is not the scientific approach, but the empirical one – an aprioristic scientific approach can work, and it restores my trust in human reason.

Though, obviously, what this aprioristic science does, is, ultimately, that it points to the practical knowledge too: aprioristic science proves that no social science can tell the actor how should he act, he must learn it from experience or any way he sees fit. So, ultimately, apropristic science too sets a limit for human reason: one man cannot plan instead of everbody else, but they must plan for themselves. However, in aprioristic science it is human reason itself that discovers the limits of human reason, and that’s a very powerful idea.

In a sense, it’s nothing but becoming fully human. If we do think about it, a rational actor with a free will if he is truly rational must discover the limits of his reasoning and rationality, cannot really think it is limitless, because then he would have no free will.

Anonymous Coward April 25, 2008 at 5:30 pm

Very nice article indeed, thank you.

Allow me one small doubt though.

It’s true we cannot prove or falsify Pythagorean theorem by observation or experience, and mostly so because the theorem concerns entities in an ideal mathematical world. Similar thing is for example the theorem about the sum of angles in a triangle to be equal to 180 degrees.

What we can do, however, is to take something of the real world, that resembles a triangle, and measure that up. The measurement tells us something about the real world. If the triangle theorem holds for our specimen, we know the world is flat. If our angles add up to more than 180 deg, then the world we live in has some curvature.

Both the flat and curved worlds are equally logical and consistent. To find out in which of them we’re really living, one just must go and have a look.

Another thing, “empiricism does not allow rejecting the [failed] hypothesis as wrong”.

Well, not sure about what empiricism allows or not. But science, as defined by Karl Popper, has got it clear: scientific theory can be either proven as in mathematics, or left open to falsification as in natural sciences. And all that’s needed to falsify a theory is one repeatable experiment that’s not aligned with it.

Whoever denies failure of such theory, be it due to empiricism or whatever, has wandered off the area of science. The criticism of such denial is just and correct, but it is no longer criticism of a scientific method, but criticism of human irrationality.

In light of these thoughts, the rants at methods of natural sciences are perhaps carried further than necessary.

Kristian April 25, 2008 at 6:28 pm

One quibble; I know the author is defining rationalism in Kantian terms, but I’ve found it useful to speak of it instead in a way that defines it as that epistemological viewpoint which allows for the existence of truths that are synthetic a priori, i.e. necessary truths. These, whilst they can be known empirically cannot be falisified so without falling into self-contradiction. This leaves the question of whether it is the mind that structures reality open, as well as being more intuitive.

André Dorais April 25, 2008 at 9:47 pm

Again, an excellent article. I tend to agree with Miklos Hollender, this is one of the best article of the year, and maybe more. Profound and clear. Thank You.

shinoyan April 26, 2008 at 6:20 am

A site is the wonderful site that I looked at. Please link with me mutually. http: //161633.blogspot.com/

Brent Wheeler April 26, 2008 at 7:12 am

Thank you for this great piece. I learned a lot. It is very clear and provides excellent explanations for many concepts I use all the time – there are no costs without action, try to compare imperfect worlds, avoid greener fields fallacies, only individuals act (and can act)… and so on.

To know that one’s beliefs cannot necessarily be invalidated by the first piece of rank empiricism which happens along is a great comfort!

fundamentalist April 26, 2008 at 8:07 am

Miklos,
I had faced similar issues in theology for many years before discovering Austrian econ. Historically, I think the first onslaught of pure empiricism was against theology in the mid-late 1900′s in Germany with the search for the “historical” Jesus. Christian intellectuals, especially GK Chesterton, CS Lewis and in the 1960′s Francis Schaeffer, and I think Karl Barth, all fought the battle of epistemology against empiricism in theology and for a priori reasoning which had been central to theology at least since Aquinas. In fact, the term fundamentalist referred to those theologians who fought the battle for a priori reasoning in theology, although that term wasn’t used. Modern theology, as taught at the Ivy League schools, is almost all empiricist.

I think that is the reason that after earning a masters degree in keynesian econ, I felt so comfortable in Austrian econ. Austrian epistemology is very similar to traditional Christian epistemology.

fundamentalist April 26, 2008 at 8:13 am

Anonymous: “In light of these thoughts, the rants at methods of natural sciences are perhaps carried further than necessary.”

I hope you don’t take Mises’s epistemology as an attack on natural sciences. He had enormous respect for those sciences. He primary argument was that you can’t apply those techniques to economics or history, that’s all. An emphasis empiricism is absolutely necessary in the natural sciences, but deadly in the social sciences.

fundamentalist April 26, 2008 at 8:30 am

PS, After reading Hulsmann’s biography of Mises, one thing I found very interesting was that Mises came to admire Barth after he had been in the US for a while and had met Christians who supported him financially. Mises had a very negative attitude toward Christianity the first half of his life that seems to have softened in after coming to the US, though Hulsmann doesn’t give a lot of detail.

Danoteles April 26, 2008 at 4:46 pm

Let’s investigate the statement “Humans act”. How does one know the meaning of expressions like “humans” and “act”? I know what “humans” are from experience, and so for “acting” I only qualify to know what it means by being able to identify it in, well, action. More, I recall reading (prof. Boettke’s blog?) about I.Kirzner saying that even Mises himself had been, in private conversation, ready to admit this much.

Inquisitor April 26, 2008 at 5:57 pm

Danoteles, what makes it a priori is not how it is known, but whether it can be refuted without falling into contradiction.

Axel Riemer April 26, 2008 at 8:28 pm

For a mathematical example of empirical methods failing to discover the impossibility of their attempt is in solving the quintic equation. (all I know of this comes from Mario Livio’s book ‘Symmetry’) Essentially, mathematicians struggled, but eventually found solutions for up to the fourth order polynomial equations based on their coeffiencients, a la the quadratic equation to solve a second order polynomial that all high school students eventually come up against, which is a reformulation of the general solution based on the coefficients of the equation. However, no one could discover a general solution for the quintic that was always true; each new equation would be eventually found false for some new combination.

Finally, some genius (whose name I have forgotten, but who died young I recall) stumbled upon symmetry groups and used them to prove that it was impossible to solve a quintic with its coefficients. Some special cases of quintics, say y=x^5 or other such examples where a coefficient is zero, may be solved with the coefficient, but there is no general solution.

Just thought I’d give a non-economic example of a “real-world” empiric vs logical reasoning example :)

Michael A. Clem April 26, 2008 at 10:02 pm

I guess what bothers me most about the a priori idea is the implication that one could logically and rationally construct systems merely by sitting down and thinking about them, and they will have value and use in the real world. In fact, all logical systems require empirical “inputs” or premises to be useful and apply to the real world. Mises couldn’t have come up with his axiom “humans act” if he hadn’t observed humans acting in the real world.
Now by saying all that, I’m not saying saying that “empiricism” is necessary or sufficient for the social sciences, merely that some valid empirical data is necessary as a starting point. Wrong premises will result in wrong conclusions no matter how valid the logic itself is.

Inquisitor April 27, 2008 at 4:44 am

Hence my response to Danoteles, Michael. The Kantian framework is a bit more sophisticated than that, but normally when the term a priori is evoked what is being spoken of is how it’s refuted, not how it’s discovered.

fundamentalist April 27, 2008 at 6:00 pm

Michael: “I guess what bothers me most about the a priori idea is the implication that one could logically and rationally construct systems merely by sitting down and thinking about them, and they will have value and use in the real world.”

My understanding of it is that economics is founded upon a priori reasoning, but as Mises points out, those a priori statements don’t tell us very much. Observation builds on the a priori. Without the a priori, we can’t make sense of what we observe, especially of history.

gene berman April 28, 2008 at 6:05 am

Michael:

I don’t think “fundamentalist” has answered your essential question–or at least, very well.

Nor is Mises in any way unclear on the matter.

The fact is that all who are characteristically among those we’d recognize as human come “fully equipped” with a physical/mental “reasoning”
ability (or “module” or whatever you’d want to call it) functioning according to an identical pattern we call “logic.” One could say that we, like other animals, have instinctual or programmed responses to various external stimuli: what we feel, see, smell, touch, or taste; one of those responses is that we “think” about the others and about the stimuli themselves, and our “thought,” following its own, nature-impressed, inescapable pattern, divides the things we think about into two fundamental groups which are related in a peculiar way. These we call “cause” and “effect,” the original “categories” of thought, to use Mises’ term. Without these naturally-given “categories,” what we call “experience” would make no more “sense” than the very same external stimuli would on rocks, water, air, etc.

“Logic,” the human “mind,” and “thinking” are all the same thing–just different words. Nor is there any fundamental dichotomy or superior/inferior relationship between what are called apriorism and empiricism; indeed, as Mises was at some pains to point out and stress carefully, the latter and its embodiment–the “scientific method” (including
statistical analyses)–are nothing more than a particular embodiment or use of the former.

I do not know to what extent Mises’ statements on the matter were in any way “original”; but they are so clear, unambiguous, all-encompassing, and so completely impervious to question or refutation that I find it strange that such questions come up here from time to time among followers of Misesian thought (especially as they are treated quite early in HUMAN ACTION: reread as necessary).

Inquisitor April 28, 2008 at 6:17 am

In addition to this article (and Mr Karlsson’s), the following two are useful to get a hold of key concepts of both Kantian and Aristotelian Austrian methodological views:

http://mises.org/apriorism.asp

http://www.veritasnoctis.net/docs/aristotelianapriorism.pdf

Per-Olof Samuelsson April 28, 2008 at 11:27 am

Thanks for those links, Inquisitor!

I actually read Barry Smith’s essay a couple of years ago, but I wasn’t entirely happy with it. I agree, of course, with his rejection of “impositionist” (i.e. Kantian) apriorism, but I think there is a problem with “reflexionist” apriorism, too. (I even wrote a short critique of Smith’s essays, but unfortunately it is in Swedish, and I don’t have the time to translate it.)

I will certainly take a look on the other essay (have just skimmed the beginning so far; it was news to me that the terms “a priori” and “a posteriori” were introduced by St. Thomas.)

Per-Olof Samuelsson April 28, 2008 at 11:41 am

Sorry about my atrocious English! “A look at”, of course, not “a look on”.

Per-Olof Samuelsson April 28, 2008 at 12:08 pm

PS. Actually, I think I can state my objection to “reflexional apriorism” in fairly simple terms.

The idea is that certain fundamental truths about reality are reflected in the human mind, and thus are “a priori” and “come before” other less fundamental truths. But then Smith take Menger’s famous “four conditions” as an example of this.

I ask myself: how and why are those four conditions reflected in the human mind? Well, they are reflected in my mind, because I have read Menger (and seen the logic of his reasoning).

But then, how come they were first reflected in Carl Menger’s mind and not in anybody’s mind before him? If “reflective apriorism” were true, they would have been known to everyone since time immemorial!

In fact, Menger’s “four conditions” (and all his other insights) were the end result of an intensive study of actual market conditions (you may have read Hayek’s introduction to “Principles of Economics”). Thus I would certainly call them “a posteriori”, simply because they came after (and were the result of) this study.

fundamentalist April 28, 2008 at 12:12 pm

Per-Olof Samuelsson, don’t worry about your English as long as your meaning is clear. Your English is far better than most American’s ability in Swedish!

fundamentalist April 28, 2008 at 12:14 pm

Michael, maybe this will help. Here is a quote from Mises on a priori reasoning:
“A limitation similar to that which the experimentally tested theories enjoin upon the attempts to interpret and elucidate individual physical, chemical, and physiological events is provided by praxeology in the field of human history. Praxeology is a theoretical and systematic, not a historical, science. Its scope is human action as such, irrespective of all environmental, accidental, and individual circumstances of the concrete acts. Its cognition is purely formal and general without reference to the material content and the particular features of the actual case. It aims at knowledge valid for all instances in which the conditions exactly correspond to those implied in its assumptions and inferences. Its statements and propositions are not derived from experience. They are, like those of logic and mathematics, a priori. They are not subject to verification or falsification on the ground of
experience and facts. They are both logically and temporally antecedent to any comprehension of historical facts. They are a necessary requirement of any intellectual grasp of historical events. Without them we should not be able to see in the course of events anything else than kaleidoscopic change and chaotic muddle.” Human Action page 32.

Before this paragraph, Mises had mentioned than in the natural sciences, no theory is allowed that contradicts experimental results. The experiment reigns supreme as the chief method of discovery and guide to theory in natural sciences, because since gravity, velocity, mass, etc., always act the same way under the same circumstances. But with humanity, controlled experiments are almost impossible. The number of variables needing to be controlled are to numerous and we often don’t even know what they are, and the circumstances are never exactly identical as they are in a controlled experiment. As a result, any theory, no matter how ridiculous can find support in history. Mises includes statistical data as history since it reports on past events. In addition, no one can use historical data to prove any theory wrong because the proponents will claim that the critic used the wrong data or didn’t analyze it correctly. That’s why modern macro is such a muddle.

This was hard for me to grasp, coming from an education in econ in which the empiricism was dogma, even though mainstream econ is no where near as empirical as it claims. For example, neo-classical econ assume equilibrium at all times regardless of the evidence which clearly contradicts that assumption. But learning statistics helped move me closer to Austrian a priori thinking. In statistics classes, they emphasize the necessity of having a hypothesis before doing analysis and using the analysis to support or not the hypothesis. Anything found by accident is suspect and not grounds for establishing theory. That’s why real statisticians objected very strongly to data mining. In data mining, a large mass of data is put through a statistical grinder and the miner waits to see what relationships develop, mainly correlations. But many people have been fooled, and a lot of money lost, by spurious correlations, especially in hedge funds. The statistical rule of thumb is that if you can’t support a surprising correlation with sound theory, it’s probably spurious. Of course, there are statistical tests for spurious correlations but few people apply them. Why I don’t know. But if you apply them, they eliminate most spurious correlations and most statistical data that contradict sound theory. If you show me data that contradict Austrian econ, I can usually show you the statistical mistakes that the author made which when corrected, verify Austrian theory. The most common mistakes are spurious correlations, misspecification and reversing cause and effect.

A simple example might help. I was analyzing trucking rates for a company a few years ago and found that in my initial models price hikes caused demand to increase (the sign of the price coefficient was positive). I explained to a co-worker that I would need to add other variables, and maybe do some transformations in order to uncover the true price/demand relationship. He argued that if I did those things, I would be guilty of finding what I was looking for instead of letting the data speak for itself. I explained that simple econ theory makes it impossible for higher prices to increase demand. If the data suggests that, then we’ve done something wrong in the analysis. By adding seasonality and other variables, I uncovered the real relationship between price and demand and found it to be pretty small, and it changed with the state of the economy. Leaving out important variables is called misspecification in statistics and is one of the most common errors analysts make.

So where does empirical research contribute value in the Austrian paradigm? As Mises wrote a priori reasoning “aims at knowledge valid for all instances in which the conditions exactly correspond to those implied in its assumptions and inferences.” In other words, it strives for general principles. Those principles guide us in our evaluation of history and data via statistical analysis. With the a priori principles, we can better understand and explain specific events in the data. So a priori principles provide the paradigm; empirical research guided by those principles explains specific, concrete events. Statistics can’t prove relationships between factors; they can only put numbers to those relationships.

I think empirical research is important in applying reason to economic analysis as we apply that reasoning to specific events. It’s easy to make leaps in logic and use unwarranted assumptions that could lead reason astray. In that case, it’s important to check the conclusions of logic against history. For example, the ABCT arose, to a large degree, because Austrians noticed that the major swings in profits and employment occurred in the producer goods industries, that is, empirical research. If conclusions deviate too much from history, then we should examine our assumptions to determine if they are sound, and the logic to see is if you have made an unwarranted leap somewhere.

Also, Austrians aren’t in total agreement about many details. I think judicious use of statistical analysis might help resolve some of those issues as well as help convince mainstream economists of their error. Finally, the major framework has been built and rests on solid foundations. New discoveries will involve filling in the details.

Rafe April 29, 2008 at 6:42 am

This is a very interesting piece in a number of ways. The good part is the concise account of some important principles of praxeology. The perplexing part is the reference to Karl Popper as a positivist/empiricist while the link to the Popper reference material explains “Popper coined the term critical rationalism to describe his philosophy. The term indicates his rejection of classical empiricism, and of the observationalist-inductivist account of science that had grown out of it.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karl_Popper
In the text of the article there are no references to books by Popper and I wonder if Thorsten has actually read enough of Popper’s work to have an informed opinion on his alleged “quasi-nihilistic reasoning”. It seems that he has uncritically accepted a view of Popper that owes more to some interpretations that have been put on his work by bitter opponents than to a close reading of the books.

In my opinion Mises and Popper are the two most important classical liberal thinkers in the 20th century and the divide between the followers of these two titans is potentially disastrous for the future of the principles that both camps share. For example they both identified positivism and historicism as the two major intellectual problems in the social sciences.

The following items may help to explain where I am coming from with these remarks.
http://www.the-rathouse.com/RC_PopperPaper.html
http://www.the-rathouse.com/2008/Poverty-of-Historicism.html
http://www.the-rathouse.com/shortreviews/Mises-Epistemological-Problems.html

Per-Olof Samuelsson April 29, 2008 at 9:36 am

Fundamentist: Well, I get angry with myself when I catch myself writing “angry on myself” instead of “angry at myself”. I’m supposed to be perfect, so I ought to know better!

(Not exactly on topic, but I wanted to say it.)

LF April 29, 2008 at 3:43 pm

Rafe,

I approached classical liberalism reading Popper, several years ago, then I finally switched to Mises. Mises is my favourite thinker and I think that Mises’s theoretical system is lacking in no more than a handful of aspects: (1) he neglected the idea of the state (better Rothbard), (2) he neglected international relations (unsettled problem of classical liberalism and libertarianism), (3) he neglected jurisprudence (better Leoni), (4) he neglected the importance of domestic balance of power (better Jouvenel), (5) he neglected integralism and fanaticism (not completely, more on this in the following).

All these limitations he shared with Popper. But Popper had some more.

Popper made no attempt to distinguish between democracy and freedom: he only distinguished progressive social engineering and totalitarian social revolution.

Mises had the former distinction clear, as he believed that government ought not to do more than enforcing laws and defending boundaries: Popper proposed no effective limitations in the scope of government intervention.

For what concerns the latter distinction, which is the core of Popper’s political philosophy, Popper was only concerned that politicians could have had fanatical goals (compare for instance Talmon’s totalitarian democracy, a history of French philosophy before, during and immediately after the Revolution), but whatever the majority’s choice, Popper has nothing to oppose except common sense (that’s not exactly the more abundant virtue in politics). In other words, Popper’s thought is one-dimensional, moderately socialist and more or less disconnected with the themes of classical economics.

In a sense, one of the five limitations of Mises has been partially addressed by Popper: his common sense. Surely not because Mises lacked it, but Popper’s “obvious” political thought is a good therapy against fanaticism.

Popper has been one of the many, possibly one of the first, thinkers who understood the importance of fanaticism in the political tragedies of his time, together with, for instance, Hoffer, Hayek and Talmon, at his time, and Glucksmann, more recently. Apart from this, I find his political philosophy rather uninteresting, and its conception of freedom dangerously close to that of that special brand of gulag-less socialists called, in the US, “liberals”. Most people may confuse ideological differences with theoretical differences, but I won’t: I’m just perplexed by Popper from both points of view.

Finally, Mises was a moral relativist, so was Popper, and so am I. For a relativist, a moral system cannot be defended on purely rational grounds, notwithstanding the importance of this defense (the “moral conundrum”, although there is nothing mysterious about it). Mises understood the importance of widespread acceptance of some moral/legal rules by part of the majority, to have a stable social order. My impression is that Popper believed that contemporary unlimited democracy was under all aspects good, and found nothing strange in the incredible concentration of power in the hands of our “representatives”: the reasoning being, most likely, that he thought he could find a way out of the “moral conundrum” in the will of the majority. In the end he found no fault in contemporary democracies, where the state has the widest role in every aspect of our lives. Something impermissible, in the XX century, although understandable, after gulags and lagers…

Popper may be good to save someone from Marx, provided that someone so fool to believe in Marx can be saved at all. Popper may be good in saving someone from positivism (and you are wholly right claiming he wa no positivist), and I could make the same irony about the chances of saving them. I believe his thought to be of no avail for more complicated tasks.

lf April 29, 2008 at 3:47 pm

Rafe,

I approached classical liberalism reading Popper, several years ago, then I finally switched to Mises. Mises is my favourite thinker and I think that Mises’s theoretical system is lacking in no more than a handful of aspects: (1) he neglected the idea of the state (better Rothbard), (2) he neglected international relations (unsettled problem of classical liberalism and libertarianism), (3) he neglected jurisprudence (better Leoni), (4) he neglected the importance of domestic balance of power (better Jouvenel), (5) he neglected integralism and fanaticism (not completely, more on this in the following).

All these limitations he shared with Popper. But Popper had some more.

Popper made no attempt to distinguish between democracy and freedom: he only distinguished progressive social engineering and totalitarian social revolution.

Mises had the former distinction clear, as he believed that government ought not to do more than enforcing laws and defending boundaries: Popper proposed no effective limitations in the scope of government intervention.

For what concerns the latter distinction, which is the core of Popper’s political philosophy, Popper was only concerned that politicians could have had fanatical goals (compare for instance Talmon’s totalitarian democracy, a history of French philosophy before, during and immediately after the Revolution), but whatever the majority’s choice, Popper has nothing to oppose except common sense (that’s not exactly the more abundant virtue in politics). In other words, Popper’s thought is one-dimensional, moderately socialist and more or less disconnected with the themes of classical economics.

In a sense, one of the five limitations of Mises has been partially addressed by Popper: his common sense. Surely not because Mises lacked it, but Popper’s “obvious” political thought is a good therapy against fanaticism.

Popper has been one of the many, possibly one of the first, thinkers who understood the importance of fanaticism in the political tragedies of his time, together with, for instance, Hoffer, Hayek and Talmon, at his time, and Glucksmann, more recently. Apart from this, I find his political philosophy rather uninteresting, and its conception of freedom dangerously close to that of that special brand of gulag-less socialists called, in the US, “liberals”. Most people may confuse ideological differences with theoretical differences, but I won’t: I’m just perplexed by Popper from both points of view.

Finally, Mises was a moral relativist, so was Popper, and so am I. For a relativist, a moral system cannot be defended on purely rational grounds, notwithstanding the importance of this defense (the “moral conundrum”, although there is nothing mysterious about it). Mises understood the importance of widespread acceptance of some moral/legal rules by part of the majority, to have a stable social order. My impression is that Popper believed that contemporary unlimited democracy was under all aspects good, and found nothing strange in the incredible concentration of power in the hands of our “representatives”: the reasoning being, most likely, that he thought he could find a way out of the “moral conundrum” in the will of the majority. In the end he found no fault in contemporary democracies, where the state has the widest role in every aspect of our lives. Something impermissible, in the XX century, although understandable, after gulags and lagers…

Popper may be good to save someone from Marx, provided that someone so fool to believe in Marx can be saved at all. Popper may be good in saving someone from positivism (and you are wholly right claiming he wa no positivist), and I could make the same irony about the chances of saving them. I believe his thought to be of no avail for more complicated tasks.

Bryan April 29, 2008 at 11:53 pm

I think anyone can appreciate what Kant accomplished in his philosophy. Reading Kant is a fantastic experience. But, I have to say that I find it amazing that Kant is still being utilized after the devastating critiques that came thereafter, especially in language philosophy. Even fellow Frankfurter, and Kantian sympathizer, Jurgen Habermas took these critiques into account in his foundationalist philosophy. The fact that the Austrian school is still stuck in the Kantian paradigm tells me all I need to know about its dogmatic support of free market economics.

Inquisitor April 30, 2008 at 7:48 am

So Bryan, do tell which Austrian works on epistemology you’ve read (maybe Mises? Hoppe? Long? Smith? Plauche?), then, as well as which works on economics, and explain how the dogmatic support of neoclassical economists for “corrective” government intervention differs (especially given the criticisms by both Austrians and public choicers of it.) Dismissing the Austrian School’s economics based on Mises’ neo-Kantian foundation is not going to get you anywhere.

Bryan April 30, 2008 at 1:26 pm

Inquisitor, fair enough, my rhetoric was too strong. It is quite unscholarly to dismiss a school of thought without a fair survey of its thinkers. My shock got the better of me. I was just a bit surprised to see such glowing reviews of this article and Mises without any mention of the epistemological problems associated with Kantian rationalism. I guess essentialism is still in vogue for some. Does my Austrian reading list (you kindly provided above) have more essentialism in store for me?

Inquisitor April 30, 2008 at 5:39 pm

Well, you’re not alone in having problems with the Kantian framework (see Karlsson’s The Real Problem with Austrian Economics, which he put up the other day.)

Hoppe largely follows (and improves upon Mises), whilst Long, Plauche and Smith argue from an Aristotelian vantage point. There’s two other epistemological traditions within Austrianism, one being the later Hayek’s (which whilst not empiricist strictly speaking, is close enough; e.g. http://blog.mises.org/archives/008056.asp) and the other Lachmann’s subjectivist framework. I think Plauche’s is the best paper on methodology (,http://www.veritasnoctis.net/docs/aristotelianapriorism.pdf) though it is definitely essentialist in the neo-Aristotelian sense.

What should be striking is not so much Mises’ neo-Kantianism, which is an attempt to address problems Kant poses, but rather that logical positivism is still favoured by contemporary economists, with little done on their part to remedy its faults, or abandon it altogether.

Inquisitor April 30, 2008 at 5:46 pm

Ah, the second link I posted it wrong – should’ve been: http://opus.zbw-kiel.de/volltexte/2004/2218/pdf/04_3bw.pdf

Inquisitor April 30, 2008 at 5:47 pm

Also, here’s the link to Karlsson’s article (The Real Problem with non-Austrian economics): http://blog.mises.org/archives/008056.asp

Michael A. Clem April 30, 2008 at 6:53 pm

But with humanity, controlled experiments are almost impossible. The number of variables needing to be controlled are to numerous and we often don’t even know what they are, and the circumstances are never exactly identical as they are in a controlled experiment.
Sure, I recognize that, and that’s exactly why the social sciences can’t work like the hard sciences, although I’m not sure if the complexity is merely one of degree that could theoretically be resolved (all variables known and accounted for), or if there’s some fundamental complexity that would make it impossible to overcome.

Rafe May 5, 2008 at 3:37 am

Thanks to LF for a helpful accont of some perceived problems with the social and poliitcal philosophy of Karl Popper. It is helpful to indicate some aspects where a better grasp of Popper’s ideas will enable libertarians to gain more benefit from his work and build synergy between the work of Popper and the other Austrians.

It is most unfortunate that Popper’s closest colleague while he wrote The Open Society was Colin Simkin, soon to be a professor of economics, during his Keynesian and social democrat phase. Later he became an admirer of Hayek and Margaret Thatcher, although he never came to terms with the Misean a priori or the strong version of libertarianism.

If someone like Bill Hutt or Hayek had claimed Popper’s undivided attention for a few minutes he should have learned that unemployment and monopolies (two major evils in his eyes), are caused by interference with the market and with that insight in place he would have been more helpful. Still, even in 1945 he was not in favour of redistribution or central planning and the more he saw of the postwar welfare state the less he liked it.

“Popper made no attempt to distinguish between democracy and freedom…My impression is that Popper believed that contemporary unlimited democracy was under all aspects good, and found nothing strange in the incredible concentration of power in the hands of our “representatives”: the reasoning being, most likely, that he thought he could find a way out of the “moral conundrum” in the will of the majority.”

I don’t know where the idea arose that he thought unlimited is benign because in the OSE chapter on leadership he demonstrated that all theories of sovereignty are paradoxical (what if the majority turn to a dictator?) and democracy has to be sought in some other direction than the will of the majority in order to maintain freedom. Like Hayek he saw that unlimited democracy was no better than any other kind of tyranny. Like Mises he saw that the idea of majority rule (with elected representatives) is not a deep philosophical answer or a failsafe to protect freedom, it is just a procedure for changing the leadership without violence.
http://www.the-rathouse.com/OpenSocietyOnLIne/Chapter-7-Leadership.html

As to his attitude to the concentration of power, he considered that all concentrations of power are dangerous and they all need to be limited, monitored, balanced in all ways possible. His Mont Pelerin paper on the dangers of public opinion (an irresponsible form of power) is interesting, it contains his statement of liberal principles which should be reassuring; “the state is a necessary evil” for example.
http://www.the-rathouse.com/CRPublicOpinion17.html

He always warned that any extention of state activity is a potential threat to freedom and should be limited to the minimum. Admittedly that is subject to broad interpretation, the leaders of the EU might claim that “we are all minimum staters now” but they just believe in a big minimum.

He also demanded evaluation of the effects of all policies so that errors can be detected early in the piece. Application of that principle would have seen off socialism and interventionism a long time ago.

More could be said but that should be enough to indicate that there is more for libertarians in the works of Popper than most people appreciate, especially those followers of Popper who are social democrats. That especially applies to Malalchi Hacohen who hoped that his magesterial biography might enable the left to reclaim Popper as their own. In this review I have argued that Hacohen’s hope is doomed to fail!

http://www.quadrant.org.au/php/article_view.php?article_id=369

Inquisitor May 5, 2008 at 3:56 am

Rafe, the last link you posted doesn’t seem to work.

Rafe May 5, 2008 at 8:48 am

In case that link does not work for other people, here is my review of the same book for the Mises daily articles.
http://mises.org/article.aspx?Id=689&month=32

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: