1. Skip to navigation
  2. Skip to content
  3. Skip to sidebar

The Ludwig von Mises Institute

Advancing Austrian Economics, Liberty, and Peace

Advancing the scholarship of liberty in the tradition of the Austrian School

Search Mises.org
THEORY AND HISTORY

Chapter 14: The Epistemological Features of History


1. Prediction in the Natural Sciences

THE NATURAL SCIENCES have two modes of predicting future events: the sweeping prediction and the statistical prediction. The former says: b follows a. The latter says: In x% of all cases b follows a; in (lOO-x) % of all eases non-b follows a.

Neither of these predictions can be called apodictic. Both are based upon experience. Experience is necessarily of past events. It can be resorted to for the prediction of future events only with the aid of the assumption that an invariable uniformity prevails in the concatenation and succession of natural phenomena. Referring to this aprioristic assumption, the natural sciences proceed to ampliative induction, inferring from regularity observed in the past to the same regularity in future events.

Ampliative induction is the epistemological basis of the natural sciences. The fact that the various machines and gadgets designed in accordance with the theorems of the natural sciences run and work in the expected way provides practical confirmation both of the theorems concerned and of the inductive method. However, this corroboration too refers only to the past. It does not preclude the possibility that one day factors up

p. 303


to now unknown to us may produce effects that will make a shambles of our knowledge and technological skill. The philosopher has to admit that there is no way mortal man can acquire certain knowledge about the future. But acting man has no reason to attach any importance to the logical and epistemological precariousness of the natural sciences. They provide the only mental tool that can be used in the ceaseless struggle for life. They have proved their practical worth. As no other way to knowledge is open to man, no alternative is left to him. If he wants to survive and to render his life more agreeable, he must accept the natural sciences as guides toward technological and therapeutical success. He must behave as if the predictions of the natural sciences were truth, perhaps not eternal, unshakable truth, but at least truth for that period of time for which human action can plan to provide.

The assurance with which the natural sciences announce their findings is not founded solely upon this as if. It is also derived from the intersubjectivity and objectivity of the experience that is the raw material of the natural sciences and the starting point of their reasoning. The apprehension of external objects is such that among all those in a position to become aware of them agreement about the nature of that apprehension can easily be reached. There is no disagreement about pointer readings that cannot be brought to a final decision. Scientists may disagree about theories. They never lastingly disagree about the establishment of what is called pure facts. There can be no dispute as to

p. 304


whether a definite piece of stuff is copper or iron or its weight is two pounds or five.

It would be preposterous to fail to recognize the significance of the epistemological discussions concerning induction, truth, and the mathematical calculus of probability. Yet these philosophical disquisitions do not further our endeavors to analyze the epistemological problems of the sciences of human action. What the epistemology of the sciences of human action has to remember about the natural sciences is that their theorems, although abstracted from experience, i.e., from what happened in the past, have been used successfully for designing future action.

2. History and Prediction

In their logical aspect the procedures applied in the most elaborate investigations in the field of natural events do not differ from the mundane logic of everybody's daily business. The logic of science is not different from the logic resorted to by any individual in the meditations that precede his actions or weigh their effects afterward. There is only one a priori and only one logic conceivable to the human mind. There is consequently only one body of natural science that can stand critical examination by the logical analysis of available experience.

As there is only one mode of logical thinking, there is only one praxeology (and, for that matter, only one mathematics) valid for all. As there is no human thinking

p. 305


that would fail to distinguish between A and non-A, so there is no human action that would not distinguish between means and ends. This distinction implies that man values, i.e., that he prefers an A to a B.

For the natural sciences the limit of knowledge is the establishment of an ultimate given, that is, of a fact that cannot be traced back to another fact of which it would appear as the necessary consequence. For the sciences of human action the ultimate given is the judgments of value of the actors and the ideas that engender these judgments of value.

It is precisely this fact that precludes employing the methods of the natural sciences to solve problems of human action. Observing nature, man discovers an inexorable regularity in the reaction of objects to stimuli. He classifies things according to the pattern of their reaction. A concrete thing, for example copper, is something that reacts in the same way in which other specimens of the same class react. As the patterns of this reaction are known, the engineer knows what future reaction on the part of copper he has to expect. This foreknowledge, notwithstanding the epistemological reservations referred to in the preceding section, is considered apodictic. All our science and philosophy, all our civilization would at once be called into question if, in but one instance and for but one moment, the patterns of these reactions varied.

What distinguishes the sciences of human action is the fact that there is no such foreknowledge of the individuals' value judgments, of the ends they will aim' at under the impact of these value judgments, of the

p. 306


means they will resort to in order to attain the ends sought and of the effects of their actions insofar as these are not entirely determined by factors the knowledge of which is conveyed by the natural sciences. We know something about these things, but our knowledge of them and about them is categorically different from the kind of knowledge the experimental natural sciences provide about natural events. We could call it historical knowledge if this term were not liable to misinterpretation in suggesting that this knowledge serves only or predominantly to elucidate past events. Yet its most important use is to be seen in the service it renders to the anticipation of future conditions and to the designing of action that necessarily always aims at affecting future conditions.

Something happens in the field of the nation's domestic politics. How will Senator X, the outstanding man of the green party, react? Many informed men may have an opinion about the senator's expected reaction. Perhaps one of these opinions will prove to be correct. But it may also happen that none of them was right and that the senator reacts in a way not prognosticated by anybody. And then a similar dilemma arises in weighing the effects brought about by the way the senator has reacted. This second dilemma cannot be resolved as the first one was, as soon as the senator's action becomes known. For centuries to come historians may disagree about the effects produced by certain actions.

Traditional epistemology, exclusively preoccupied with the logical problems of the natural sciences and wholly ignorant even of the existence of the field of

p. 307


praxeology, tried to deal with these problems from the point of view of its narrow-minded, dogmatic orthodoxy. It condemned all the sciences that were not experimental natural sciences as backward and committed to an outdated philosophical and metaphysical, i.e., in their usage, stupid, method. It confused probability as the term is used in colloquial expressions referring to history and practical everyday action with the concept of probability as employed in the mathematical calculus of probability. Finally sociology made its appearance. It promised to substitute true science for the rubbish and empty gossiping of the historians in developing an aposteriori science of "social laws" to he derived from historical experience.

This disparagement of the methods of history moved first Dilthey, then Windelband, Rickert, Max Weber, Croce, and Collingwood to opposition. Their interpretations were in many regards unsatisfactory. They were deluded by many of the fundamental errors of historicism. All but Collingwood failed entirely to recognize the unique epistemological character of economics. They were vague in their references to psychology. The first four moreover were not free from the chauvinistic bias which in the age of pan-Germanism induced even the most eminent German thinkers to belittle the teachings of what they called Western philosophy. But the fact remains that they succeeded brilliantly in elucidating the epistemological features of the study of history. They destroyed forever the prestige of those epistemological doctrines that blamed history for being history and for not being "social physics." They exposed the

p. 308


futility of the search after aposteriori laws of historical change or historical becoming that would make possible the prediction of future history in the way the physicists predict the future behavior of copper. They made history self-conscious.

3. The Specific Understanding of History

Praxeology, the a priori science of human action, and, more specifically, its up to now best-developed part, economics, provides in its field a consummate interpretation of past events recorded and a consummate anticipation of the effects to be expected from future actions of a definite kind. Neither this interpretation nor this anticipation tells anything about the actual content and quality of the acting individuals' judgments of value. Both presuppose that the individuals are valuing and acting, but their theorems are independent of and unaffected by the particular characteristics of this valuing and acting. These characteristics are for the sciences of human action ultimate data, they are what is called historical individuality.

However, there is a momentous difference between the ultimate given in the natural sciences and that in the field of human action. Au ultimate given of nature is-for the time being, that is, until someone succeeds in exposing it as the necessary consequence of some other ultimate given-a stopping point for human reflection. It is as it is, that is all that man can say about it.

But it is different with the ultimate given of human action, with the value judgments of individuals and the

p. 309


actions induced by them. They are ultimately given as they cannot be traced back to something of which they would appear to be the necessary consequence. If this were not the case, it would not be permissible to call them an ultimate given. But they are not, like the ultimate given in the natural sciences, a stopping point for human reflection. They are the starting point of a specific mode of reflection, of the specific understanding of the historical sciences of human action.

If the experimenter in the laboratory has established a fact which, at least for the time being, cannot be traced back to another fact of which it would appear as a derivative, there is nothing more to be said about the issue. But if we are faced with a value judgment and I the resulting action, we may try to understand how they originated in the mind of the actor.

This specific understanding of human action as it is practiced by everybody in all his interhuman relations and actions is a mental procedure that must not be confused with any of the logical schemes resorted to by the natural sciences and by everybody in purely technological or therapeutical activities.

The specific understanding aims at the cognition of other people's actions. It asks in retrospect: What was he doing, what was he aiming at? What did he mean m choosing this definite end? What was the outcome of his action? Or it asks analogous questions for the future What ends will he choose? What will he do in order to attain them? What will the outcome of his action be?

In actual life all these questions are seldom asked in isolation. They are mostly connected with other questions

p. 310


referring to praxeology or to the natural sciences. The categorial distinctions that epistemology is bound to make are tools of our mental operations. The real events are complex phenomena and can be grasped by the mind only if each of the various tools available is employed for its proper purpose.

The main epistemological problem of the specific understanding is: How can a man have any knowledge of the future value judgments and actions of other people? The traditional method of dealing with this problem, commonly called the problem of the alter ego or Fremdverstehen, is unsatisfactory. It focused attention upon grasping the meaning of other people's behavior in the "present" or, more correctly, in the past. But the task with which acting man, that is, everybody, is faced in all relations with his fellows does not refer to the past; it refers to the future. To know the future reactions of other people is the first task of acting man. Knowledge of their past value judgments and actions, although indispensable, is only a means to this end.

It is obvious that this knowledge which provides a man with the ability to anticipate to some degree other people's future attitudes is not a priori knowledge. The a priori discipline of human action, praxeology, does not deal with the actual content of value judgments; It deals only with the fact that men value and then act according to their valuations. What we know about the actual content of judgments of value can be derived only from experience. We have experience of other people?s past value judgments and actions; and we have experience of our own value judgments and actions.

p. 311


The latter is commonly called introspection. To distinguish it from experimental psychology, the term thymology was suggested in an earlier chapter[1] for that branch of knowledge which deals with human judgments of values and ideas.

Wilhelm Dilthey stressed the role that thymology of course he said psychology-plays in the Geisteswissenschaften, the mental or moral sciences, the sciences dealing with human thoughts, ideas, and value judgments, and their operation in the external world.[2] It is not our task to trace back Dilthey's ideas to earlier authors. There is little doubt that he owed much to predecessors, especially to David Hume. But the examination of these influences must be left to treatises dealing with the history of philosophy. Dilthey's chief contribution was his pointing out in what respect the kind of psychology he was referring to was epistemologically and methodologically different from the natural sciences and therefore also from experimental psychology.

4. Thymological Experience

Thymological experience is what we know about human value judgments, the actions determined by them, and the responses these actions arouse in other people. As has been said, this experience stems either from introspection or from intercourse with other men, from our acting in various interhuman relations.

-------

[1]. See p. 265.

[2]. See especially Dilthey, Einleitung in die Geisteswissenschaften, Leipzig, 1883. See also H. A. Hodges, The Philosophy of Wilhelm Dilthey (London, 1952), pp. 170 ff.

p. 312


Like all experience, thymological experience too is necessarily knowledge of things that happened in the past. For reasons made sufficiently clear in the earlier sections of this essay, it is not permitted to assign to it the meaning the natural sciences assign to the results of experimentation. What we learn from thymological experience never has the significance of what is called in the natural sciences an experimentally established fact. It always remains a historical fact. Thymology is a historical discipline.

For lack of any better tool, we must take recourse to thymology if we want to anticipate other people's future attitudes and actions. Out of our general thymological experience, acquired either directly from observing our fellow men and transacting business with them or indirectly from reading and from hearsay, as well as out of our special experience acquired in previous contacts with the individuals or groups concerned, we try to form an opinion about their future conduct. It is easy to see in what the fundamental difference consists between this kind of anticipation and that of an engineer designing the plan for the construction of a bridge.

Thymology tells no more than that man is driven various innate instincts, various passions, and various ideas. The anticipating individual tries to set aside those factors that manifestly do not play any role in the concrete case under consideration. Then he chooses among the remaining ones.

It is usual to qualify such prognoses as more or less probable and to contrast them with the forecasts of the natural sciences which once were called certain and

p.313


are still considered certain and exact by people not familiar with the problems of logic and epistemology. Setting aside these latter problems, we must emphasize that the probability of the prognoses concerning future human action has little in common with that category of probability which is dealt with in the mathematical calculus of probability. The former is case probability and not class probability.[1] In order to prevent confusion, it is advisable to refer to case probability as likelihood.

In the specific understanding of future events there are as a rule two orders of likelihood to be ascertained The first refers to the enumeration of the factors that could possibly take or have taken effect in producing the outcome in question. The second refers to the influence of each of these factors in the production of the outcome. It can easily be seen that the likelihood that the enumeration of the operating factors will be correct and complete is much higher than the likelihood that the proper extent of participation will be attributed to each. Yet the correctness or incorrectness of a prognosis depends on the correctness or incorrectness of this latter evaluation. The precariousness of forecasting is mainly due to the intricacy of this second problem. It is not only a rather puzzling question in forecasting future events. It is no less puzzling in retrospect for the historian.

It is not enough for the statesman, the politician the general, or the entrepreneur to know all the factors that I can possibly contribute to the determination of a future
---------

[1]. See above, p. 91.

p. 314


event. In order to anticipate correctly they must also anticipate correctly the quantity as it were of each factor's contribution and the instant at which its contribution will become effective. And later the historians will have to face the same difficulty in analyzing and understanding the case in retrospect.

5. Real Types and Ideal Types

The natural sciences classify the things of the external world according to their reaction to stimuli. Since copper is something that reacts in a definite way, the name copper is denied to a thing that reacts in a different way. In establishing the fact that a thing is copper, we make a forecast about its future behavior. What is copper cannot be iron or oxygen.

In acting-in their daily routine, as well as in technology and therapeutics, and also in history-people employ "real types," that is, class concepts distinguishing people or institutions according to neatly definable traits. Such classification can be based on concepts of praxeology and economics, of jurisprudence, of technology, and of the natural sciences. It may refer to Italians, for example, either as the inhabitants of a definite area, or as people endowed with a special legal characteristic, viz., Italian nationality, or as a definite linguistic group. This kind of classification is independent of specific understanding. It points toward something that is common to all members of the class. All Italians in the geographic sense of the term are affected by geological or meteorological events that touch their

p. 315


country. All Italian citizens are concerned by legal acts relating to people of their nationality. All Italians in the linguistic sense of the term are in a position to make themselves understood to one another. Nothing more than this is meant when a man is called an Italian in one of these three connotations.

The characteristic mark of an "ideal type," on the other hand, is that it implies some proposition concerning valuing and acting. If an ideal type refers to people, it implies that in some respect these men are valuing and acting in a uniform or similar way. When it refers to institutions, it implies that these institutions are products of uniform or similar ways of valuing and acting or that they influence valuing and acting in a uniform or similar way.

Ideal types are constructed and employed on the basis of a definite mode of understanding the course of events, whether in order to forecast the future or to analyze the past. If in dealing with American elections one refers to the Italian vote, the implication is that there are voters of Italian descent whose voting is to some extent influenced by their Italian origin. That such a group of voters exists will hardly be denied; but people disagree widely as to the number of citizens included in this group and the degree to which their voting is determined by their Italian ideologies. It is this uncertainty about the power of the ideology concerned, this impossibility of finding out and measuring its effect upon the minds of the individual members of the group, that characterizes the ideal type as such and distinguishes it from real types. An ideal type is a conceptual

p. 316


tool of understanding and the service that it renders depends entirely on the serviceableness of the definite mode of understanding.

Ideal types must not he confused with the types referred to in moral or political "oughts," which we may call "ought types." The Marxians contend that all proletarians necessarily behave in a definite way, and the Nazis make the analogous statement with regard to all Germans. But neither of these parties can deny that its declaration is untenable as a proposition about what is, since there are proletarians and Germans who deviate from the modes of acting which these parties call proletarian and German respectively. What they really have in mind in announcing their dicta is a moral obligation. What they mean is: Every proletarian ought to act the way the party program and its legitimate expositors declare to be proletarian; every German ought to act the way the nationalist party considers genuinely German. Those proletarians or Germans whose conduct does not comply with the rules are smeared as traitors. The ought type belongs to the terminology of ethics and politics and not to that of the epistemology of the sciences of human action.

It is furthermore necessary to separate ideal types from organizations having the same name. In dealing with nineteenth-century French history we frequently encounter references to the Jesuits and to the Free Masons. These terms may refer to acts of the organizations designated by these names, e.g., "The Jesuit order opened a new school" or "The lodges of the Free Masons donated a sum of money for the relief of

p. 317


people who suffered in a fire." Or they may refer to ideal types, pointing out that members of these organizations and their friends are in definite respects acting under the sway of a definite Jesuit or Masonic ideology. There is a difference between stating that a political movement is organized, guided, and financed by the order or the lodges as such and saying that it is inspired by an ideology of which the order or the lodges are considered the typical or outstanding representatives. The first proposition has no reference to the specific understanding. It concerns facts that could be confirmed or disproved by the study of records and the hearing of witnesses. The second assertion regards understanding. In order to form a judgment on its adequacy or inadequacy one has to analyze ideas and doctrines and their bearing upon actions and events. Methodologically there is a fundamental difference between the analysis of the impact of the ideology of Marxian socialism upon the mentality and the conduct of our contemporaries and the study of the actions of the various communist and socialist governments, parties, and conspiracies.[1]

p. 318


The service a definite ideal type renders to the acting man in his endeavors to anticipate future events and to the historian in his analysis of the past is dependent on the specific understanding that led to its construction. To question the usefulness of an ideal type for explaining a definite problem, one must criticize the mode of understanding involved.

In dealing with conditions in Latin America the ideal type ?general? may be of some use. There have been definite ideologies current which in some respects determined the role played by many-not by all-army leaders who became important in politics. In France too ideas prevailed that by and large circumscribed the position of generals in politics and the role of such men as Cavaignac, MacMahon, Boulanger, Pe'tain, and de Gaulle. But in the United States it would make no sense to employ the ideal type of a political general or a general in politics. No American ideology exists that would consider the armed forces as a separate entity distinguished from and opposed to the "civilian" population. There is consequently no political esprit de corps in the army and its leaders have no authoritarian prestige among "civilians." A general who becomes president ceases not only legally but also politically to be a member of the army.

p. 319


In referring to ideal types the historian of the past as well as the historian of the future, i.e., acting man, must never forget that there is a fundamental difference between the reactions of the objects of the natural sciences and those of men. It is this difference that people have wanted to bring into relief in speaking of the opposition of mind and matter, of freedom of the will, and of individuality. Ideal types are expedients to simplify the treatment of the puzzling multiplicity and variety of human affairs. In employing them one must always be aware of the deficiencies of any kind of simplification. The exuberance and variability of human life and action cannot be fully seized by concepts and definitions. Some unanswered or even unanswerable questions always remain, some problems whose solution passes the ability even of the greatest minds.

[1]. There is a distinction between the Communist party or a Communist party as an organized body on the one hand and the communist (Marxian) ideology on the other. In dealing with contemporary history and politics people often fail to realize the fact that many people who are not members - ?card-bearing? or dues-paying members -- of a party organization may be, either totally or in certain regards, under the sway of the party ideology. Especially in weighing the strength of the ideas of communism or of those of Nazism in Germany or of Fascism in Italy serious confusion resulted from this error. Furthermore it is necessary to know that an ideology may sometimes also influence the minds of those who believe that they are entirely untouched by it or who even consider themselves its deadly foes and are fighting it passionately. The success of Nazism in Germany in 1933 was due to the fact that the immense majority of the Germans, even of those voting the ticket of the Marxist parties, of the Catholic Centrum party, and of the various ?bourgeois? splinter parties, were committed to the ideas of radical aggressive nationalism, while the Nazis themselves had adopted the basic principles of the socialist program. Great Britain would not have gone socialist if the Conservatives, not to speak of the ?Liberals,? had not virtually endorsed socialist ideas.

p. 320