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Study Guide to Human Action, Chapter III

June 1, 2007

Tags EducationAustrian Economics OverviewHistory of the Austrian School of Economics

[This Study Guide to Human Action, Chapter III is also available in PDF.]

"ECONOMICS AND THE REVOLT AGAINST REASON

 

Reason is the primary tool for acting man. The modern revolt against reason was not due to exaggerated claims by the rationalist philosophers. What really happened was that the socialist opponents of the classical economists could not defeat their arguments, and so instead challenged reason itself. Once the floodgates had been opened in this sphere, nihilism and skepticism spilled over into other branches of thought.

 

Marxian polylogism claims that the bourgeois mind operates on different principles from the proletarian mind, while racial polylogism ascribes a different logical structure to the minds of various races. These doctrines fall apart in cases where a worker becomes a factory owner, or parents of different races produce mixed offspring.

It was not enough for the Marxists to dismiss the teachings of Ricardo and other classical economists by referring to their bourgeois minds. No, to be consistent Marx and his followers would have had to specify the axioms of proletarian logic versus those of bourgeois logic, and to demonstrate why Ricardian economics was valid in the latter system but not in the former. Obviously no polylogist has ever attempted such a demonstration.

 

Marxists use the term ideology to denote a doctrine that is faulty (using the correct, proletarian logic) but which nevertheless serves the interests of a particular class. Such a stance is untenable, though, for how could it ever be in a class's interest to believe false ideas?

Marx developed polylogism in order to discredit the economists' objections to socialism. Rather than refuting their arguments, he simply stated that their doctrines favored the bourgeoisie. Yet psychological motivations, even if base, do not affect the validity of a theory, which either stands or falls on its own merit.

 

The claim that different races possess different logical structures of the mind overlooks the fact that reason works. If indeed other races possessed minds that could not grasp cause and effect, or which could not recognize a valid deduction, then natural selection would have weeded out those members that relied on their "minds." To the extent that other organisms have risen above the instinctive behavior of animals, they necessarily must share the (successful) logic enjoyed by the white race.

 

A much milder version of polylogism simply asserts that various classes or races share similar value judgments and historical understanding. Yet even this weaker claim ignores the heterogeneity within classes and races. It also repeats the polylogist's mistake of thinking that it can ever be beneficial to hold an erroneous judgment.

 

Reason is an ultimate given, a nonrational fact; one cannot establish the validity of reason itself through logical argument. Yet it is man's foremost tool in action, and distinguishes man from other animals. There can be no such thing as an irrational mode of thinking. To renounce reason and return to guidance by "instinct" would destroy the foundations of civilization.

CHAPTER SUMMARY

1. The Revolt Against Reason

2. The Logical Aspect of Polylogism

3. The Praxeological Aspect of Polylogism

4. Racial Polylogism

5. Polylogism and Understanding

6. The Case for Reason

WHY IT MATTERS

Mises considers it crucial to demolish the Marxist notion of polylogism. Without tackling this idea directly, the entire body of praxeology would rest on quicksand. Regardless of the coherence of his demonstrations throughout the rest of the book, the critic could dismiss it all as based on "bourgeois logic."

TECHNICAL NOTES

  1. It is interesting that Mises' handling of Marxian polylogism illustrates his very points on the matter. Mises claims that the motivation for Marx to develop his doctrine was the need to challenge the classical economists (p. 78). Yet Mises' critique doesn't end there. He spends countless pages in Human Action detailing the defects of polylogism.

  2. Marxian polylogism is a very strong doctrine and should not be confused with superficially similar attitudes. Mises does not deny that people with different backgrounds may "think differently" about some issues. What he does deny is that such people's minds operate according to different logical structures. Mises also is aware that certain groups can benefit from the perpetuation of faulty beliefs. But the true Marxist doesn't claim that the capitalists financed pamphlets on laissez-faire, knowing full well that the doctrines were wrong. On the contrary, the true Marxist must say that the capitalist mind was incapable of seeing the flaws in the doctrines, because to do so would be detrimental to his interests.

  3. Mises affirms Hoppe's interpretation regarding synthetic a priori truths (though not in these terms) when he writes, "It is consequently incorrect to assert that aprioristic insight and pure reasoning do not convey any information about reality and the structure of the universe" (p. 86).

 

STUDY QUESTIONS

1. The Revolt Against Reason

2. The Logical Aspect of Polylogism

3. The Praxeological Aspect of Polylogism

4. Racial Polylogism

5. Polylogism and Understanding

6. The Case for Reason

 

What does Mises mean by saying, "The revolt against reason was directed against another target. It did not aim at natural sciences, but at economics"?

Why is human reason constitutionally unfitted to find truth, according to Marx?

 

Why is it absolutely superfluous to deepen the critique of the concepts of social class and race as such? Give examples.

 

Why is the "ideological" approach erroneous from praxeological point of view?

Why is the psychological background not important for the examination of a theory?

How does workers' competition among themselves relate to Marx's theory of the interests of the working class?

Why is an entrepreneur neither favored nor injured by protectionist measures? How does a businessman react to the institutional conditions of his country?

Why can't we say that the rich have a particular interest in maintaining free competition?

Comment: "It is ideas that make history and not history that makes ideas."

 

Why is Marxian polylogism irreconcilable with science and reason?

Do different races have different logical structures of mind?

How can aprioristic insight and pure reasoning lead to knowledge of the world and reality?

 

What does determine judgments of value and the choice of ends?

Whom is Mises quoting when he writes, "You can't make an omelet without breaking eggs"?

 

What drives many intellectuals towards socialism?

What is the only statement that we can make about reason? Why?

 


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