The Ultimate Foundation of Economic Science
Ludwig von Mises
Roots of Monism
4. The Case of the Sciences of Human Action
However, this essay does not deal with theology or metaphysics and the rejection of their doctrines by positivism. It deals with positivism's attack upon the sciences of human action.
The fundamental doctrine of positivism is the thesis that the experimental procedures of the natural sciences are the only method to be applied in the search for knowledge. As the positivists see it, the natural sciences, entirely absorbed by the more urgent task of elucidating the problems of physics and chemistry, have in the past neglected and may also in the near future neglect to pay attention to the problems of human action. But, they add, there cannot be any doubt that once the men imbued with a scientific outlook and trained in the exact methods of laboratory work have the leisure to turn toward the study of such "minor" issues as human behavior, they will substitute authentic knowledge of all these matters for the worthless palaver that is now in vogue. "Unified science" will solve all the problems involved and will inaugurate a blissful age of "social engineering" in which all human affairs will be handled in the same satisfactory way in which modern technology supplies electric current.
Some rather significant steps on the way to this result, pretend the less cautious harbingers of this creed, have already been made by behaviorism (or, as Neurath preferred to call it, behavioristics). They point to the discovery of tropisms and to that of conditioned reflexes. Progressing further with the aid of the methods that brought about these achievements, science will one day be able to make good all the promises of positivism. It is a vain conceit of man to presume that his conduct is not entirely determined by the same impulses that determine the behavior of plants and of dogs.
Against all this impassioned talk we have to stress the hard fact that the natural sciences have no intellectual tool to deal with ideas and with finality.
An assured positivist may hope that one day physiologists may succeed in describing in terms of physics and chemistry all the events that resulted in the production of definite individuals and in modifying their inborn substance during their lives. We may neglect raising the question whether such knowledge would be sufficient to explain fully the behavior of animals in any situation they may have to face. But it cannot be doubted that it would not enable the student to deal with the way in which a man reacts to external stimuli. For this human reaction is determined by ideas, a phenomenon the description of which is beyond the reach of physics, chemistry, and physiology. There is no explanation in terms of the natural sciences of what causes hosts of people to remain faithful to the religious creed in which they were brought up and others to change their faith, why people join or desert political parties, why there are different schools of philosophy and different opinions concerning a multiplicity of problems.
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