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"Last Knight" Live Blog 7 -- Ransom

September 20, 2007

The scholarship in chapter 4 of Hulsmann’s biography of Mises is immense and impressive. I’d encourage Hulsmann to make the core subject here — the place of Mengerian social science in the history of economic thought — the topic of his next book. A lot of the content discussed remains locked up in not readily available German language books, articles and documents (one of the great services of the Mises Institute is to make some of these works again available in English editions). For example, perhaps Joseph Schumpeter most significant work, his The Nature and Essence of Theoretical Economics, has never been translated into English, and your local library doesn’t likely have a copy of the 1998 German reprint. And many of Bohm-Bawerk’s important works are even harder to access.

A detailed point-by-point examination of the arguments here — with examples — would add immensely to our understanding of Mengerian economics. There is no doubting that the central story here is one of great interest to any genuine student of social theory — you have here the moment in time when many of the most significant arguments and individuals entered the arena taking on the most basic question in the field of social science: “how can economics give us explanations of real phenomena”? Hulsmann contends that the answer given by Menger was very different from that given by Jevons, Walras, Wieser, Schumpeter and often even Bohm-Bawerk. This matters centrally to Hulsmann’s biographical story because it gives him what looks to be the great theme of his book — how Carl Menger’s explanatory strategy in economics was lost to social science, and how Ludwig Mises reanimated that scientific project, solved many of its outstanding problems, and transformed our understanding of social phenomena in the process.

Let me stop here and reiterate my complaint from the other day. Arguments and especially concrete examples truly matter here, and I was left wanting more of these and fewer of the sign post labels Hulsmann often uses as shorthand. The central problem here is, if you haven’t already mastered the arguments and distinctions which lie behind the labels, or if you don’t share Hulsmann’s particular understanding of these, then the substantive content of controversies mentioned can easily be lost on the reader. Hulsmann gestures in broad abstract terms at real substantive differences. But these abstractions can only go so far in transferring understanding. Often these terms have different meanings to different people or different meanings in different contexts. Examples include “empirical”, “laws”, “utility”, “experience”, “psychology”, etc. Sometimes Hulsmann puts enough detail into his distinctions to push different theorists into different boxes, and to give a general characterization of what folks where up to. Hulsmann’s burden is higher here, however, because his Mengerian thesis in bold, novelly conceived, and constitutes a contentious thesis in economic science and the history of economic thought. I’m not arguing or even suggesting here that Hulsmann’s thesis is wrong — at least in broad sweep. But I am suggesting that it stakes out a thesis which needs yet to be adequately explicated and satisfactorilly demonstrated.

I’ll take up the issue of whether or not a scientific biography needs to do that in a later post.

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