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Epistemological Problems of Economics
Ludwig von Mises

The Task and Scope of
the Science of Human Action

III. Science and Value

4. The Experience of a Whole and Scientific Cognition

Science, which is dependent both on discursive reasoning and on experience, does not present us with a unified picture of the world. It reduces phenomena to a number of concepts and propositions that we must accept as ultimate, without being able to establish a connection between them. It proves incapable of closing the gap that exists between the system of the sciences of human thought and action and the system of the sciences of physical nature. It does not know how to find a bridge between sentience and motion or between consciousness and matter. What life and death are eludes its grasp.

But what reason and the experience of the natural sciences have denied us is given to us by personal experience, though in a different manner from that of science. We are unable to fathom life through reason, nor can we experience it through science. Reason and science deal only with isolated fragments detached from the living whole and thereby killed. They never refer to life as it is lived and never to life as a whole. But we experience life in living, and in living our life we live life as such: we experience the unity and indissoluble congenerousness of all life. We are unable to grasp the whole by reasoning, but we can experience it in living.

This personal experience of wholeness, unity, and infinity is the loftiest peak of human existence. It is the awakening to a higher humanity. It alone transforms everyday living into true living. It is not vouchsafed to us daily or at all places. The occasions on which we are brought closer to the world spirit must await a propitious hour. Such moments occur only seldom, but they are a thousand fold rewarding, and reflection upon them illumines the passing days, weeks, months, and years.

What we experience in these moments of exaltation fills our deepest and most personal thoughts and feelings. They are so private and personal that we are unable to communicate them to anyone else. They are so deep within us that they cannot make a clear impression on our own consciousness. Whoever in the presence of his beloved or in the contemplation of an aspect of nature or in the stirring of his own strength has experienced the power of the infinite finds it impossible to tell either himself or others what it is that moves him and how it moves him. The whole remains ineffable because reason and language are unable to enter here.

Art is nothing more than a faltering and inadequate attempt to express what has been thus experienced and to give some form to its content. The work of art captures not the experience, but only what its creator has been able to express of the experience. Missing are the content, the color, and the vitality of the experience, which come entirely from within. Of course, the work of art can kindle a new personal experience if one allows oneself to be affected by it. However, the experience that the work of art evokes is not adequate to what its creator wanted to express. The artist gives the work tone, melody, color, words, and form, but not personal experience. Yet we derive more from it than the mere sensation of tone, melody, color, words, and form: we experience it. And this personal experience is another and a new experience of a different kind. The same is true of all forms of mysticism and metaphysics. We grasp the words, but we ourselves must add the meaning, the personal experience. For our means of expression and of thought do not touch life in its fullness and wholeness. As the ancient Brahmin sages said, it is that "which words and thoughts seek without finding."[5]

That is why there can be no progress or evolution in metaphysics, mysticism, and art. The accuracy with which a work renders the likeness of the external world can be enhanced, but not what is essential, not what is artistic in it. The most primitive work of art also can express the strongest experience, and it speaks to us, if only we let it, and leads us into depths that science can never make accessible.

Again and again those who want to obliterate the boundary between scientific knowledge and mystical intuition in personal experience reproach science for stopping at the surface of things and not penetrating into the depths. One has to recognize that science is not metaphysics, and certainly not mysticism; it can never bring us the illumination and the satisfaction experienced by one enraptured in ecstasy. Science is sobriety and clarity of conception, not intoxicated vision.

It is true, as Bergson has seen with unsurpassed clarity, that between reality and the knowledge that science can convey to us there is an unbridgeable gulf.[6] Science cannot grasp life directly. What it captures in its system of concepts is always of a different character from the living whole.[7] One may therefore, if one wishes, even call it dead, because what is not life is death. But if one thinks that one has thereby pronounced an unfavorable judgment on science, one is mistaken. One can call science dead, but one cannot say that it is not useful. It is indispensable in a double sense: first, as the sole means that can lead us to whatever measure of knowledge we can attain at all; and then, as the only foundation for an action that brings us closer to the ends at which we aim. Whether we see the greatest value in wisdom or in action, in neither case may we scorn science. It alone shows us the way both to knowledge and to action. Without it our existence would be only vegetative.


[5] Cf. Deussen, Ved?nta, Platon und Kant (Vienna, 1917), p. 67.

[6] Cf. Bergson, L'?volution cr?atrice (7th ed.; Paris, 1911), pp. I ff.

[7] This has never been denied, not even by the empiricism of the natural sciences, Erasmus Darwin wrote: "Following life, in creatures we dissect,/ We lose it, in the moment we detect." Quoted by J. S. Mill in his System der deductiven und inductiven Logik, trans. by von Gomperz (Leipzig, 1872), 11, p. 163.

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