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Chapter 20 Economic Method

Money, Method, and The Market Process1

“Social Science and Natural Science”

I

The foundations of the modern social sciences were laid in the eighteenth century. Up to this time we find history only. Of course, the writings of the historians are full of implications which purport to be valid for all human action irrespective of time and milieu, and even when they do not explicitly set forth such theses they necessarily base their grasp of the facts and their interpretation on assumptions of this type. But no attempt was made to clarify these tacit suppositions by special analysis.

On the other hand the belief prevailed that in the field of human action no other criterion could be used than that of good and bad. If a policy did not attain its end, its failure was ascribed to the moral insufficiency of man or to the weakness of the government. With good men and strong governments everything was considered feasible.

Then in the eighteenth century came a radical change. The founders of Political Economy discovered regularity in the operation of the market. They discovered that to every state of the market a certain state of prices corresponded and that a tendency to restore this state made itself manifest whenever anything tried to alter it. This insight opened a new chapter in science. People came to realize with astonishment that human actions were open to investigation from other points of view than that of moral judgment. They were compelled to recognize a regularity which they compared to that with which they were already familiar in the field of the natural sciences.

Since the days of Cantillon, Hume, the Physiocrats and Adam Smith, economic theory has made continuous — although not steady — progress. In the course of this development it has become much more than a theory of market operations within the frame of a society based on private ownership of the means of production. It has for some time been a general theory of human action, of human choice and preference.

II

The elements of social cognition are abstract and not reducible to any concrete images that might be apprehended by the senses. To make them easier to visualize one likes to have recourse to metaphorical language. For some time the biological metaphors were very popular. There were writers who overworked this metaphor to ridiculous extremes. It will suffice to cite the name of Lilienfeld.2

Today the mechanistic metaphor is much more in use. The theoretical basis for its application is to be found in the positivist view of social science. Positivism blithely waved aside everything which history and economics taught. History, in its eyes, is simply no science; economics a special kind of metaphysics. In place of both, Positivism postulates a social science which has to be built up by the experimental method as ideally applied in Newtonian physics. Economics has to be experimental, mathematical and quantitative. Its task is to measure, because science is measurement. Every statement must be open to verification by facts.

Every proposition of this positivist epistemology is wrong.

The social sciences in general and economics in particular cannot be based on experience in the sense in which this term is used by the natural sciences. Social experience is historical experience. Of course every experience is the experience of something passed. But what distinguishes social experience from that which forms the basis of the natural sciences is that it is always the experience of a complexity of phenomena. The experience to which the natural sciences owe all their success is the experience of the experiment. In the experiments the different elements of change are observed in isolation. The control of the conditions of change provides the experimenter with the means of assigning to each effect its sufficient cause. Without regard to the philosophical problem involved he proceeds to amass “facts.” These facts are the bricks which the scientist uses in constructing his theories. They constitute the only material at his disposal. His theory must not be in contradiction with these facts. They are the ultimate things.

The social sciences cannot make use of experiments. The experience with which they have to deal is the experience of complex phenomena. They are in the same position as acoustics would be if the only material of the scientist were the hearing of a concerto or the noise of a waterfall. It is nowadays fashionable to style the statistical bureaus laboratories. This is misleading. The material which statistics provides is historical, that means the outcome of a complexity of forces. The social sciences never enjoy the advantage of observing the consequences of a change in one element only, other conditions being equal.

It follows that the social sciences can never use experience to verify their statements. Every fact and every experience with which they have to deal is open to various interpretations. Of course, the experience of a complexity of phenomena can never prove or disprove a statement in the way in which an experiment proves or disproves. We do not have any historical experience whose import is judged identically by all people. There is no doubt that up to now in history only nations which have based their social order on private ownership of the means of production have reached a somewhat high stage of welfare and civilization. Nevertheless, nobody would consider this as an incontestable refutation of socialist theories. In the field of the natural sciences there are also differences of opinion concerning the interpretation of complex facts. But here freedom of explanation is limited by the necessity of not contradicting statements satisfactorily verified by experiments. In the interpretation of social facts no such limits exist. Everything could be asserted about them provided that we are not confined within the bounds of principles of whose logical nature we intend to speak later. Here however we already have to mention that every discussion concerning the meaning of historical experience imperceptibly passes over into a discussion of these principles without any further reference to experience. People may begin by discussing the lesson to be learnt from an import duty or from the Russian Soviet system; they will very quickly be discussing the general theory of interregional trade or the no less pure theory of socialism and capitalism.

The impossibility of experimenting means concomitantly the impossibility of measurement. The physicist has to deal with magnitudes and numerical relations, because he has the right to assume that certain invariable relations between physical properties subsist. The experiment provides him with the numerical value to be assigned to them. In human behavior there are no such constant relations, there is no standard which could be used as a measure and there are no experiments which could establish uniformities of this type.

What the statistician establishes in studying the relations between prices and supply or between supply and demand is of historical importance only. If he determines that a rise of 10 per cent in the supply of potatoes in Atlantis in the years between 1920 and 1930 was followed by a fall in the price of potatoes by 8 percent, he does not say anything about what happened or may happen with a change in the supply of potatoes in another country or at another time. Such measurements as that of elasticity of demand cannot be compared with the physicist’s measurement, e.g., specific density or weight of atoms. Of course everybody realizes that the behavior of men concerning potatoes and every other commodity is variable. Different individuals value the same things in a different way, and the valuation changes even with the same individual with changing conditions. We cannot categorize individuals in classes which react in the same way, and we cannot determine the conditions which evoke the same reaction. Under these circumstances we have to realize that the statistical economist is an historian and not an experimenter. For the social sciences, statistics constitutes a method of historical research.

In every science the considerations which result in the formulation of an equation are of a non-mathematical character. The formulation of the equation has a practical importance because the constant relations which it includes are experimentally established and because it is possible to introduce specific known values in the function to determine those unknown. These equations thus lie at the basis of technological designing; they are not only the consummation of the theoretical analysis but also the starting point of practical work. But in economics, where there are no constant relations between magnitudes, the equations are void of practical application. Even if we could dispose of all qualms concerning their formulation we would still have to realize that they are without any practical use.

But the chief objection which must be raised to the mathematical treatment of economic problems comes from another ground: it really does not deal with the actual operations of human actions but with a fictitious concept that the economist builds up for instrumental purposes. This is the concept of static equilibrium.

For the sake of grasping the consequences of change and the nature of profit in a market economy the economist constructs a fictitious system in which there is no change. Today is like yesterday and tomorrow will be like today. There is no uncertainty about the future, and activity therefore does not involve risk. But for the allowance to be made of interest, the sum of the prices of the complementary factors of production exactly equals the price of the product, which means there is no room left for profit. But this fictitious concept is not only unrealizable in actual life; it cannot even be consistently carried to its ultimate conclusions. The individuals in this fictitious world would not act, they would not have to make choices, they would just vegetate. It is true that economics, exactly because it cannot make experiments, is bound to apply this and other fictitious concepts of a similar type. But its use should be restricted to the purposes which it is designed to serve. The purpose of the concept of static equilibrium is the study of the nature of the relations between costs and prices and thereby of profits. Outside of this it is inapplicable, and occupation with it vain.

Now all that mathematics can do in the field of economic studies is to describe static equilibrium. The equations and the indifference curves deal with a fictitious state of things, which never exists anywhere. What they afford is a mathematical expression of the definition of static equilibrium. Because mathematical economists start from the prejudice that economics has to be treated in mathematical terms they consider the study of static equilibrium as the whole of economics. The purely instrumental character of this concept has been overshadowed by this preoccupation.

Of course, mathematics cannot tell us anything about the way by which this static equilibrium could be reached. The mathematical determination of the difference between any actual state and the equilibrium state is not a substitute for the method by which the logical or non-mathematical economists let us conceive the nature of those human actions which necessarily would bring about equilibrium provided that no further change occurs in the data.

Occupation with static equilibrium is a misguided evasion of the study of the main economic problems. The pragmatic value of this equilibrium concept should not be underrated, but it is an instrument for the solution of one problem only. In any case the mathematical elaboration of static equilibrium is mere by-play in economics.

The case is similar with the use of curves. We may represent the price of a commodity as the point of intersection of two curves, the curve of demand and the curve of supply. But we have to realize that we do not know anything about the shape of these curves. We know a posteriori the prices, which we assume to be the points of intersection, but we do not know the form of the curve either in advance or for the past. The representation of the curves is therefore nothing more than a didactic means of rendering the theory graphic and hence more easily comprehensible.

The mathematical economist is prone to consider the price either as a measurement of value or as equivalent to the commodity. To this we have to say that prices are not measured in money but that they are the amount of money exchanged for a commodity. The price is not equivalent to the commodity. A purchase takes place only when the buyer values the commodity higher than the price, and the seller values it lower than the price. Nobody has the right to abstract from this fact and to assume an equivalence where there is a difference in valuation. When either one of the parties considers the price as the equivalent of the commodity no transaction takes place. In this sense we may say every transaction is for both parties a “bargain.”

III

Physicists consider the objects of their study from without. They have no knowledge of what is going on in the interior, in the “soul,” of a falling stone. But they have the opportunity to observe the falling of the stone in experiments and thereby to discover what they call the laws of falling. From the results of such experimental knowledge they build up their theories proceeding from the special to the more general, from the concrete to the more abstract.

Economics deals with human actions, not as it is sometimes said, with commodities, economic quantities or prices. We do not have the power to experiment with human actions. But we have, being human ourselves, a knowledge of what goes on within acting men. We know something about the meaning which acting men attach to their actions. We know why men wish to change the conditions of their lives. We know something about that uneasiness which is the ultimate incentive of the changes which they bring about. A perfectly satisfied man or a man who although unsatisfied did not see any means of improvement would not act at all.

Thus the economist is, as Cairnes says, at the outset of his researches already in possession of the ultimate principles governing the phenomena which form the subject of his study, whereas mankind has no direct knowledge of ultimate physical principles. Herein lies the radical difference between the social sciences (moral sciences, Geisteswissenschaften) and the natural sciences. What makes natural science possible is the power to experiment; what makes social science possible is the power to grasp or to comprehend the meaning of human action.

We have to distinguish two quite different kinds of this comprehension of the meaning of action: we conceive and we understand.

We conceive the meaning of an action, that is to say, we take an action to be such. We see in the action the endeavor to reach a goal by the use of means. In conceiving the meaning of an action we consider it as a purposeful endeavor to reach some goal, but we do not regard the quality of the ends proposed and of the means applied. We conceive activity as such, its logical (praxeological) qualities and categories. All that we do in this conceiving is by deductive analysis to bring to light everything which is contained in the first principle of action and to apply it to different kinds of thinkable conditions. This study is the object of the theoretical science of human action (praxeology) and in particular of its hitherto most developed branch, economics (economic theory).

Economics therefore is not based on or derived (abstracted) from experience. It is a deductive system, starting from the insight into the principles of human reason and conduct. As a matter of fact all our experience in the field of human action is based on and conditioned by the circumstance that we have this insight in our mind. Without this a priori knowledge and the theorems derived from it we could not at all realize what is going on in human activity. Our experience of human action and social life is predicated on praxeological and economic theory.

It is important to be aware of the fact that this procedure and method are not peculiar only to scientific investigation but are the mode of ordinary daily apprehension of social facts. These aprioristic principles and the deductions from them are applied not only by the professional economist but by everybody who deals with economic facts or problems. The layman does not proceed in a way significantly different from that of the scientist; only he sometimes is less critical, less scrupulous in examining every step in the chain of his deductions and therefore sometimes more subject to error. One need only observe any discussion on current economic problems to realize that its course turns very soon towards a consideration of abstract principles without any reference to experience. You cannot, for instance, discuss the Soviet system without falling back on the general principles both of capitalism and socialism. You cannot discuss a wage and hours bill without falling back on the theory of wages, profits, interests and prices, that means the general theory of a market society. The “pure fact” — let us set aside the epistemological question whether there is such a thing — is open to different interpretations. These interpretations require elucidation by theoretical insight.

Economics is not only not derived from experience, it is even impossible to verify its theorems by appeal to experience. Every experience of a complex phenomenon, we must repeat, can be and is explained in different ways. The same facts, the same statistical figures are claimed as confirmations of contradictory theories.

It is instructive to compare the technique of dealing with experience in the social sciences with that in the natural sciences. We have many books on economics which, after having developed a theory, annex chapters in which an attempt is made to verify the theory developed by an appeal to the facts. This is not the way which the natural scientist takes. He starts from facts experimentally established and builds up his theory in using them. If his theory allows a deduction that predicts a state of affairs not yet discovered in experiments he describes what kind of experiment would be crucial for his theory; the theory seems to be verified if the result conforms to the prediction. This is something radically and significantly different from the approach taken by the social sciences.

To confront economic theory with reality we do not have to try to explain in a superficial way facts interpreted differently by other people so that they seem to verify our theory. This dubious procedure is not the way in which reasonable discussion can take place. What we have to do is this: we have to inquire whether the special conditions of action which we have implied in our reasoning correspond to those we find in the segment of reality under consideration. A theory of money (or rather of indirect exchange) is correct or not without reference to the question of whether the actual economic system under examination employs indirect exchange or only barter.

The method applied in these theoretical aprioristic considerations is the method of speculative constructions. The economist — and likewise the layman in his economic reasoning — builds up an image of a non-existent state of things. The material for this construction is drawn from an insight into the conditions of human action. Whether the state of affairs which these speculative constructions depict corresponds or could correspond to reality is irrelevant for their instrumental efficiency. Even unrealizable constructions can render valuable service in giving us the opportunity to conceive what makes them unrealizable and in what respect they differ from reality. The speculative construction of a socialist community is indispensable for economic reasoning notwithstanding the question of whether such a society could or could not be realized.

One of the best known and most frequently applied speculative constructions is that of a state of static equilibrium mentioned above. We are fully aware that this state can never be realized. But we cannot study the implications of changes without considering a changeless world. No modern economist will deny that the application of this speculative concept has rendered invaluable service in elucidating the character of entrepreneur’s profits and losses and the relation between costs and prices.

All our economic reasoning operates with these speculative concepts. It is true that the method has its dangers; it easily lends itself to errors. But we have to use it because it is the only method available. Of course, we have to be very careful in using it.

To the obvious question, how a purely logical deduction from aprioristic principles can tell us anything about reality, we have to reply that both human thought and human action stem from the same root in that they are both products of the human mind. Correct results from our aprioristic reasoning are therefore not only logically irrefutable, but at the same time applicable with all their apodictic certainty to reality provided that the assumptions involved are given in reality. The only way to refuse a conclusion of economics is to demonstrate that it contains a logical fallacy. It is another question whether the results obtained apply to reality. This again can be decided only by the demonstration that the assumptions involved have or do not have any counterpart in the reality which we wish to explain.

The relation between historical experience — for every economic experience is historical in the sense that it is the experience of something past — and economic theory is therefore different from that generally assumed. Economic theory is not derived from experience. It is on the contrary the indispensable tool for the grasp of economic history. Economic history can neither prove nor disprove the teachings of economic theory. It is on the contrary economic theory which makes it possible for us to conceive the economic facts of the past.

IV

But to orient ourselves in the world of human actions we need to do more than merely conceive the meaning of human action. Both the acting man and the purely observing historian have not only to conceive the categories of action as economic theory does; they have besides to understand (verstehen) the meaning of human choice.

This understanding of the meaning of action is the specific method of historical research. The historian has to establish the facts as far as possible by the use of all the means provided both by the theoretical sciences of human action — praxeology and its hitherto most developed part, economics — and by the natural sciences. But then he has to go farther. He has to study the individual and unique conditions of the case in question. Individuum est ineffabile. Individuality is given to the historian, it is exactly that which cannot be exhaustively explained or traced back to other entities. In this sense individuality is irrational. The purpose of specific understanding as applied by the historical disciplines is to grasp the meaning of individuality by a psychological process. It establishes the fact that we face something individual. It fixes the valuations, the aims, the theories, the beliefs and the errors, in a word, the total philosophy of the acting individuals and the way in which they envisaged the conditions under which they had to act. It puts us into the milieu of the action. Of course this specific understanding cannot be separated from the philosophy of the interpreter. That degree of scientific objectivity which can be reached in the natural sciences and in the aprioristic sciences of logic and praxeology can never be attained by the moral or historical sciences (Geisteswissenschaften) in the field of the specific understanding. You can understand in different ways. History can be written from different points of view. The historians may agree in everything that can be established in a rational way and nevertheless widely disagree in their interpretations. History therefore has always to be rewritten. New philosophies demand a new representation of the past.

The specific understanding of the historical sciences is not an act of pure rationality. It is the recognition that reason has exhausted all its resources and that we can do nothing more than to try as well as we may to give an explanation of something irrational which is resistant to exhaustive and unique description. These are the tasks which the understanding has to fulfill. It is, notwithstanding, a logical tool and should be used as such. It should never be abused for the purpose of smuggling into the historical work obscuranticism, mysticism and similar elements. It is not a free charter for nonsense.

It is necessary to emphasize this point because it sometimes happens that the abuses of a certain type of historicism are justified by an appeal to a wrongly interpreted “understanding.” The reasoning of logic, praxeology and of the natural sciences can under no circumstances be invalidated by the understanding. However strong the evidence supplied by the historical sources may be, and however understandable a fact may be from the point of view of theories contemporaneous with it, if it does not fit into our rationale, we cannot accept it. The existence of witches and the practice of witchcraft are abundantly attested by legal proceedings; yet we will not accept it. Judgments of many tribunals are on record asserting that people have depreciated a country’s currency by upsetting the balance of payments; yet we will not believe that such actions have such effects.

It is not the task of history to reproduce the past. An attempt to do so would be vain and would require a duplication not humanly possible. History is a representation of the past in terms of concepts. The specific concepts of historical research are type concepts. These types of the historical method can be built up only by the use of the specific understanding and they are meaningful only in the frame of the understanding to which they owe their existence. Therefore not every type-concept which is logically valid can be considered as useful for the purpose of understanding. A classification is valid in a logical sense if all the elements united in one class are characterized by a common feature. Classes do not exist in actuality, they are always a product of the mind which in observing things discovers likenesses and differences. It is another question whether a classification which is logically valid and based on sound considerations can be used for the explanation of given data. There is for instance no doubt that a type or class “Fascism” which includes not only Italian Fascism but also German Nazism, the Spanish system of General Franco, the Hungarian system of Admiral Horthy and some other systems can be constructed in a logically valid way and that it can be contrasted to a type called “Bolshevism,” which includes the Russian Bolshevism and the system of Bela Kun in Hungary and of the short Soviet episode of Munich. But whether this classification and the inference from it which sees the world of the last twenty years divided into the two parties, Fascists and Bolsheviks, is the right way to understand present-day political conditions is open to question. You can understand this period of history in a quite different way by using other types. You may distinguish Democracy and Totalitarianism, and then let the type Democracy include the Western Capitalist system and the type Totalitarianism include both Bolshevism and what the other classification terms Fascism. Whether you apply the first or the second typification depends on the whole mode in which you see things. The understanding decides upon the classification to be used, and not the classification upon the understanding.

The type-concepts of the historical or moral sciences (Geisteswissenschaften) are not statistical averages. Most of the features used for classification are not subject to numerical determination, and this alone renders it impossible to construct them as statistical averages. These type-concepts (in German one uses the term Ideal-Typus in order to distinguish them from the type-concepts of other sciences, especially of the biological ones) ought not to be confused with the praxeological concepts used for the conceiving of the categories of human action. For instance: the concept “entrepreneur” is used in economic theory to signify a specific function, that is the provision for an uncertain future. In this respect everybody has to some extent to be considered as an entrepreneur. Of course, it is not the task of this classification in economic theory to distinguish men, but to distinguish functions and to explain sources of profit or loss. Entrepreneur in this sense is the personification of the function which results in profit or loss. In economic history and in dealing with current economic problems the term “entrepreneur” signifies a class of men who are engaged in business but who may in many other respects differ so much that the general term entrepreneur seems to be meaningless and is used only with a special qualification, for instance big (medium-sized, small) business, “Wall Street,” armaments business, German business, etc. The type entrepreneur as used in history and politics can never have the conceptual exactitude which the praxeological concept entrepreneur has. You never meet in life men who are nothing else than the personification of one function only.3

V

The preceding remarks justify the conclusion that there is a radical difference between the methods of the social sciences and those of the natural sciences. The social sciences owe their progress to the use of their particular methods and have to go further along the lines which the special character of their object require. They do not have to adopt the methods of the natural sciences.

It is a fallacy to recommend to the social sciences the use of mathematics and to believe that they could in this way be made more “exact.” The application of mathematics does not render physics more exact or more certain. Let us quote Einstein’s remark: “As far as mathematical propositions refer to reality they are not certain and as far as they are certain they do not refer to reality.” It is different with praxeological propositions. These refer with all their exactitude and certainty to the reality of human action. The explanation of this phenomenon lies in the fact that both — the science of human action and human action itself — have a common root, i.e., human reason. It would be a mistake to assume that the quantitative approach could render them more exact. Every numerical expression is inexact because of the inherent limitations of human powers of measurement. For the rest we have to refer to what has been said above on the purely historical character of quantitative expressions in the field of the social sciences.

The reformers who wish to improve the social sciences by adopting the methods of the natural sciences sometimes try to justify their efforts by pointing to the backward state of the former. Nobody will deny that the social sciences and especially economics are far from being perfect. Every economist knows how much remains to be done. But two considerations must be kept in mind. First, the present unsatisfactory state of social and economic conditions has nothing to do with an alleged inadequacy in economic theory. If people do not use the teachings of economics as a guide for their policies they cannot blame the discipline for their own failure. Second, if it may some day be necessary to reform economic theory radically this change will not take its direction along the lines suggested by the present critics. The objections of these are thoroughly refuted forever.

 

The Ultimate Foundation of Economic Science4

3. On Economics

The study of economics has been again and again led astray by the vain idea that economics must proceed according to the pattern of other sciences. The mischief done by such misconstructions cannot be avoided by admonishing the economist to stop casting longing glances upon other fields of knowledge or even to ignore them entirely. Ignorance, whatever subject it may concern, is in no case a quality that could be useful in the search for truth. What is needed to prevent a scholar from garbling economic studies by resorting to the methods of mathematics, physics, biology, history or jurisprudence is not slighting and neglecting these sciences, but, on the contrary, trying to comprehend and to master them. He who wants to achieve anything in praxeology must be conversant with mathematics, physics, biology, history, and jurisprudence, lest he confuse the tasks and the methods of the theory of human action with the tasks and the methods of any of these other branches of knowledge. What was wrong with the various Historical Schools of economics was first of all that their adepts were merely dilettantes in the field of history. No competent mathematician can fail to see through the fundamental fallacies of all varieties of what is called mathematical economics and especially of econometrics. No biologist was ever fooled by the rather amateurish organicism of such authors as Paul de Lilienfeld.

When I once expressed this opinion in a lecture, a young man in the audience objected. “You are asking too much of an economist,” he observed; “nobody can force me to employ my time in studying all these sciences.” My answer was: “Nobody asks or forces you to become an economist.”

4. The Starting Point of Praxeological Thinking

The a priori knowledge of praxeology is entirely different — categorially different — from the a priori knowledge of mathematics or, more precisely, from mathematical a priori knowledge as interpreted by logical positivism. The starting point of all praxeological thinking is not arbitrarily chosen axioms, but a self-evident proposition, fully, clearly and necessarily present in every human mind. An unbridgeable gulf separates those animals in whose minds this cognition is present from those in whose minds it is not fully and clearly present. Only to the former is the appellation man accorded. The characteristic feature of man is precisely that he consciously acts. Man is homo agens, the acting animal.

All — apart from zoology — that has ever been scientifically stated to distinguish man from nonhuman mammals is implied in the proposition: man acts. To act means: to strive after ends, that is, to choose a goal and to resort to means in order to attain the goal sought.

The essence of logical positivism is to deny the cognitive value of a priori knowledge by pointing out that all a priori propositions are merely analytic. They do not provide new information, but are merely verbal or tautological, asserting what has already been implied in the definitions and premises. Only experience can lead to synthetic propositions. There is an obvious objection against this doctrine, viz., that this proposition that there are no synthetic a priori propositions is in itself a — as the present writer thinks, false — synthetic a priori proposition, for it can manifestly not be established by experience.

The whole controversy is, however, meaningless when applied to praxeology. It refers essentially to geometry. Its present state, especially its treatment by logical positivism, has been deeply influenced by the shock that Western philosophy received from the discovery of non-Euclidian geometries. Before Bolyai and Lobachevsky, geometry was, in the eyes of the philosophers, the paragon of perfect science; it was assumed that it provided unshakable certainty forever and for everybody. To proceed also in other branches of knowledge more geometrico was the great ideal of truth-seekers. All traditional epistemological concepts began to totter when the attempts to construct non-Euclidian geometries succeeded.

Yet praxeology is not geometry. It is the worst of all superstitions to assume that the epistemological characteristics of one branch of knowledge must necessarily be applicable to any other branch. In dealing with the epistemology of the sciences of human action, one must not take one’s cue from geometry, mechanics, or any other science.

The assumptions of Euclid were once considered as self-evidently true. Present-day epistemology looks upon them as freely chosen postulates, the starting point of a hypothetical chain of reasoning. Whatever this may mean, it has no reference at all to the problems of praxeology.

The starting point of praxeology is a self-evident truth, the cognition of action, that is, the cognition of the fact that there is such a thing as consciously aiming at ends. There is no use cavilling about these words by referring to philosophical problems that have no bearing upon our problem. The truth of this cognition is as self-evident and as indispensable for the human mind as is the distinction between A and non-A. ...

5. The Two Branches of the Sciences of Human Action5

There are two branches of the sciences of human action, praxeology on the one hand, history on the other hand.

Praxeology is a priori. It starts from the a priori category of action and develops out of it all that it contains. For practical reasons praxeology does not as a rule pay much attention to those problems that are of no use for the study of the reality of man’s action, but restricts its work to those problems that are necessary for the elucidation of what is going on in reality. Its intent is to deal with action taking place under conditions that acting man has to face. This does not alter the purely aprioristic character of praxeology. It merely circumscribes the field that the individual praxeologists customarily choose for their work. They refer to experience only in order to separate those problems that are of interest for the study of man as he really is and acts from other problems that offer a merely academic interest. The answer to the question whether or not definite theorems of praxeology apply to a definite problem of action depends on the establishment of the fact whether or not the special assumptions that characterize this theorem are of any value for the cognition of reality. To be sure, it does not depend on the answer to the question whether or not these assumptions correspond to the real state of affairs that the praxeologists want to investigate. The imaginary constructions that are the main — or, as some people would rather say, the only — mental tool of praxeology describe conditions that can never be present in the reality of action. Yet they are indispensable for conceiving what is going on in this reality. Even the most bigoted advocates of an empiricist interpretation of the methods of economics employ the imaginary construction of an evenly rotating economy (static equilibrium), although such a state of human affairs can never be realized.6

Following in the wake of Kant’s analyses, philosophers raised the question: How can the human mind, by aprioristic thinking, deal with the reality of the external world? As far as praxeology is concerned, the answer is obvious. Both, a priori thinking and reasoning on the one hand and human action on the other, are manifestations of the human mind. The logical structure of the human mind creates the reality of action. Reason and action are congeneric and homogeneous, two aspects of the same phenomenon. In this sense we may apply to praxeology the dictum of Empedocles

Some authors have raised the rather shallow question how a praxeologist would react to an experience contradicting theorems of his aprioristic doctrine. The answer is: in the same way in which a mathematician will react to the “experience” that there is no difference between two apples and seven apples or a logician to the “experience” that A and non-A are identical. Experience concerning human action presupposes the category of human action and all that derives from it. If one does not refer to the system of the praxeological a priori, one must not and cannot talk of action, but merely of events that are to be described in terms of the natural sciences. Awareness of the problems with which the sciences of human action are concerned is conditioned by familiarity with the a priori categories of praxeology. Incidentally, we may also remark that any experience in the field of human action is specifically historical experience, i.e., the experience of complex phenomena, which can never falsify any theorem in the way a laboratory experiment can do with regard to the statements of the natural sciences.

Up to now the only part of praxeology that has been developed into a scientific system is economics. A Polish philosopher, Tadeusz Kotarbinski, is trying to develop a new branch of praxeology, the praxeological theory of conflict and war as opposed to the theory of cooperation or economics.7

The other branch of the sciences of human action is history. It comprehends the totality of what is experienced about human action. It is the methodically arranged record of human action, the description of the phenomena as they happened, viz., in the past. What distinguishes the descriptions of history from those of the natural sciences is that they are not interpreted in the light of the category of regularity. When the physicist says: if A encounters B, C results, he wants, whatever philosophers may say, to assert that C will emerge whenever or wherever A will encounter B under analogous conditions. When the historian refers to the battle of Cannae, he knows that he is talking about the past and that this particular battle will never be fought again.

Experience is a uniform mental activity. There are not two different branches of experience, one resorted to in the natural sciences, the other in historical research. Every act of experience is a description of what happened in terms of the observer’s logical and praxeological equipment and his knowledge of the natural sciences. It is the observer’s attitude that interprets the experience by adding it to his own already previously accumulated store of experienced facts. What distinguishes the experience of the historian from that of the naturalist and the physicist is that he searches for the meaning that the event had or has for those who were either instrumental in bringing it about or were affected by its happening.

The natural sciences do not know anything about final causes. For praxeology finality is the fundamental category. But praxeology abstracts from the concrete content of the ends men are aiming at. It is history that deals with the concrete ends. For history the main question is: What was the meaning the actors attached to the situation in which they found themselves and what was the meaning of their reaction, and, finally, what was the result of these actions? The autonomy of history or, as we may say, of the various historical disciplines consists in their dedication to the study of meaning.

It is perhaps not superfluous to emphasize again and again that when historians say “meaning,” they refer to the meaning individual men—the actors themselves and those affected by their actions or the historians — saw in the actions. History as such has nothing in common with the point of view of philosophies of history that pretend to know the meaning that God or a quasi-God — such as the material productive forces in the scheme of Marx — attaches to the various events.

6. The Logical Character of Praxeology

Praxeology is a priori. All its theorems are products of deductive reasoning that starts from the category of action. The questions whether the judgments of praxeology are to be called analytic or synthetic and whether or not its procedure is to be qualified as “merely” tautological are of verbal interest only.

What praxeology asserts with regard to human action in general is strictly valid without any exception for every action. There is action and there is the absence of action, but there is nothing in between. Every action is an attempt to exchange one state of affairs for another, and everything that praxeology affirms with regard to exchange refers strictly to it. In dealing with every action we encounter the fundamental concepts end and means, success or failure, profit or loss, costs. An exchange can be either direct or indirect, i.e., effected through the interposition of an intermediary stage. Whether a definite action was indirect exchange has to be determined by experience. But if it was indirect exchange, then all that praxeology says about indirect exchange in general strictly applies to it.

Every theorem of praxeology is deduced by logical reasoning from the category of action. It partakes of the apodictic certainty provided by logical reasoning that starts from an a priori category.

Into the chain of praxeological reasoning the praxeologist introduces certain assumptions concerning the conditions of the environment in which an action takes place. Then he tries to find out how these special conditions affect the result to which his reasoning must lead. The question whether or not the real conditions of the external world correspond to these assumptions is to be answered by experience. But if the answer is in the affirmative, all the conclusions drawn by logically correct praxeological reasoning strictly describe what is going on in reality. ...

1. The Problem of Quantitative Definiteness8

Laboratory experiments and observation of external phenomena enable the natural sciences to proceed with measurement and the quantification of knowledge. Referring to this fact, one used to style these sciences as the exact sciences and to belittle the lack of exactitude in the sciences of human action.

Today nobody any longer denies that on account of the insufficiency of our senses measurement is never perfect and precise in the full sense of these terms. It is only more or less approximate. Besides, the Heisenberg principle shows that there are relations that man cannot measure at all. There is no such thing as quantitative exactitude in our description of natural phenomena. However, the approximations that measurement of physical and chemical objects can provide are by and large sufficient for practical purposes. The orbit of technology is an orbit of approximate measurement and approximate quantitative definiteness.

In the sphere of human action there are no constant relations between any factors. There is consequently no measurement and no quantification possible. All measurable magnitudes that the sciences of human action encounter are quantities of the environment in which man lives and acts. They are historical facts, e.g., facts of economic or of military history, and are to be clearly distinguished from the problems with which the theoretical science of action — praxeology and especially also its most developed part, economics — deals.

Deluded by the idea that the sciences of human action must ape the technique of the natural sciences, hosts of authors are intent upon a quantification of economics. They think that economics ought to imitate chemistry, which progressed from a qualitative to a quantitative state.9 Their motto is the positivistic maxim: Science is measurement. Supported by rich funds, they are busy reprinting and rearranging statistical data provided by governments, by trade associations, and by corporations and other enterprises. They try to compute the arithmetical relations among various of these data and thus to determine what they call, by analogy with the natural sciences, correlations and functions. They fail to realize that in the field of human action statistics is always history and that the alleged “correlations” and “functions” do not describe anything else than what happened at a definite instant of time in a definite geographical area as the outcome of the actions of a definite number of people.10 As a method of economic analysis econometrics is a childish play with figures that does not contribute anything to the elucidation of the problems of economic reality. ...

9. The Examination of Praxeological Theorems

The epistemologist who starts his lucubrations from the analysis of the methods of the natural sciences and whom blinders prevent from perceiving anything beyond this field tells us merely that the natural sciences are the natural sciences and that what is not natural science is not natural science. About the sciences of human action he does not know anything, and therefore all that he utters about them is of no consequence.

It is not a discovery made by these authors that the theories of praxeology cannot be refuted by experiments nor confirmed by their successful employment in the construction of various gadgets. These facts are precisely one aspect of our problem.

The positivist doctrine implies that nature and reality, in providing the sense data that the protocol sentences register, write their own story upon the white sheet of the human mind. The kind of experience to which they refer in speaking of verifiability and refutability is, as they think, something that does not depend in any way on the logical structure of the human mind. It provides a faithful image of reality. On the other hand, they suppose, reason is arbitrary and therefore liable to error and misinterpretation.

This doctrine not only fails to make allowance for the fallibility of our apprehension of sense objects; it does not realize that perception is more than just sensuous apprehension, that it is an intellectual act performed by the mind. In this regard both associationism and Gestalt psychology agree. There is no reason to ascribe to the operation the mind performs in the act of becoming aware of an external object a higher epistemological dignity than to the operation the mind performs in describing its own ways of procedure.

In fact, nothing is more certain for the human mind than what the category of human action brings into relief. There is no human being to whom the intent is foreign to substitute by appropriate conduct one state of affairs for another state of affairs that would prevail if he did not interfere. Only where there is action are there men.

What we know about our own actions and about those of other people is conditioned by our familiarity with the category of action that we owe to a process of self-examination and introspection as well as of understanding of other peoples’ conduct. To question this insight is no less impossible than to question the fact that we are alive.

He who wants to attack a praxeological theorem has to trace it back, step by step, until he reaches a point in which, in the chain of reasoning that resulted in the theorem concerned, a logical error can be unmasked. But if this regressive process of deduction ends at the category of action without having discovered a vicious link in the chain of reasoning, the theorem is fully confirmed. Those positivists who reject such a theorem without having subjected it to this examination are no less foolish than those seventeenth-century astronomers were who refused to look through the telescope that would have shown them that Galileo was right and they were wrong. ...

4. The Case of the Sciences of Human Action11

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.

5. The Fallacies of Positivism

Consistently aiming at an improvement of the conditions under which men have to live, the nations of Western and Central Europe and their scions settled in overseas territories have succeeded in developing what is called — and more often smeared as — Western bourgeois civilization. Its foundation is the economic system of capitalism, the political corollary of which is representative government and freedom of thought and interpersonal communication. Although continually sabotaged by the folly and the malice of the masses and the ideological remnants of the precapitalistic methods of thinking and acting, free enterprise has radically changed the fate of man. It has reduced mortality rates and prolonged the average length of life, thus multiplying population figures. It has, in an unprecedented way, raised the standard of living of the average man in those nations that did not too severely impede the acquisitive spirit of enterprising individuals. All people, however fanatical they may be in their zeal to disparage and to fight capitalism, implicitly pay homage to it by passionately clamoring for the products it turns out.

The wealth capitalism has brought to mankind is not an achievement of a mythical force called progress. Neither is it an achievement of the natural sciences and of the application of their teachings for the perfection of technology and therapeutics. No technological and therapeutical improvements can be practically utilized if the material means for its utilization have not been previously made available by saving and capital accumulation. The reason why not everything about the production and the use of which technology provides information can be made accessible to everybody is the insufficiency of the supply of capital accumulated. What transformed the stagnant conditions of the good old days into the activism of capitalism was not changes in the natural sciences and in technology, but the adoption of the free enterprise principle. The great ideological movement that started with the Renaissance, continued in the Enlightenment, and in the nineteenth century culminated in Liberalism produced both capitalism — the free market economy — and its political corollary or — as the Marxians have to say, its political “superstructure” — representative government and the individuals’ civic rights: freedom of conscience, of thought, of speech, and of all other methods of communication. It was in the climate created by this capitalistic system of individualism that all the modern intellectual achievements thrived. Never before had mankind lived under conditions like those of the second part of the nineteenth century, when, in the civilized countries, the most momentous problems of philosophy, religion, and science could be freely discussed without any fear of reprisals on the part of the powers that be. It was an age of productive and salutary dissent.

A countermovement evolved, but not from a regeneration of the discredited sinister forces that in the past had made for conformity. It sprouted from the authoritarian and dictatorial complex deeply inwrought in the souls of the many who were benefited by the fruits of freedom and individualism without having contributed anything to their growing and ripening. The masses do not like those who surpass them in any regard. The average man envies and hates those who are different.

What pushes the masses into the camp of socialism is, even more than the illusion that socialism will make them richer, the expectation that it will curb all those who are better than they themselves are. The characteristic feature of all utopian plans from that of Plato down to that of Marx is the rigid petrification of all human conditions. Once the “perfect” state of social affairs is attained, no further changes ought to be tolerated. There will no longer be any room left for innovators and reformers.

In the intellectual sphere the advocacy of this intolerant tyranny is represented by positivism. Its champion, Auguste Comte, did not contribute anything to the advancement of knowledge. He merely drafted the scheme of a social order under which, in the name of progress, science, and humanity, any deviation from his own ideas was to be prohibited.

The intellectual heirs of Comte are the contemporary positivists. Like Comte himself, these, advocates of “Unified Science,” of panphysicalism, of “logical” or “empirical positivism,” and of “scientific” philosophy did not themselves contribute to the advancement of the natural sciences. The future historians of physics, chemistry, biology, and physiology will not have to mention their names and their work. All that “Unified Science” brought forward was to recommend the proscription of the methods applied by the sciences of human action and their replacement by the methods of the experimental natural sciences. It is not remarkable for that which it contributed, but only for that which it wants to see prohibited. Its protagonists are the champions of intolerance and of a narrow-minded dogmatism.

Historians have to understand the political, economic, and intellectual conditions that brought about positivism, old and new. But the specific historical understanding of the milieu out of which definite ideas developed can neither justify nor reject the teachings of any school of thought. It is the task of epistemology to unmask the fallacies of positivism and to refute them. ...

1. The Misinterpretation of the Universe13

The way in which the philosophy of logical positivism depicts the universe is defective. It comprehends only what can be recognized by the experimental methods of the natural sciences. It ignores the human mind as well as human action.

It is usual to justify this procedure by pointing out that man is only a tiny speck in the infinite vastness of the universe and that the whole history of mankind is but a fleeting episode in the endless flux of eternity. Yet the importance and significance of a phenomenon defies such a merely quantitative appraisal. Man’s place in that part of the universe about which we can learn something is certainly modest only. But as far as we can see, the fundamental fact about the universe is that it is divided into two parts, which — employing terms suggested by some philosophers, but without their metaphysical connotation — we may call res extensa, the hard facts of the external world, and res cogitans, man’s power to think. We do not know how the mutual relations of these two spheres may appear in the vista of a superhuman intelligence. For man their distinction is peremptory. Perhaps it is only the inadequacy of our mental powers that prevents us from recognizing the substantial homogeneousness of what appears to us as mind and as matter. But certainly no palaver about “unified science” can convert the metaphysical character of monism into an unassailable theorem of experiential knowledge. The human mind cannot help distinguishing two realms of reality, its own sphere and that of external events. And it must not relegate the manifestations of the mind to an inferior rank, as it is only the mind that enables man to cognize and to produce a mental representation of what it is.

Positivism’s world view distorts the fundamental experience of mankind, for which the power to perceive, to think, and to act is an ultimate fact clearly distinguishable from all that happens without the interference of purposive human action. It is vain to talk about experience without reference to the factor that enables man to have experience.

2. The Misinterpretation of the Human Condition

As all brands of positivism see it, the eminent role man plays on the earth is the effect of his progress in the cognition of the interconnectedness of natural — i.e., not specifically mental and volitional — phenomena and in its utilization for technological and therapeutical behavior. Modern industrial civilization, the spectacular affluence it has produced, and the unprecedented increase in population figures it has made possible are the fruits of the progressive advancement of the experimental natural sciences. The main factor in improving the lot of mankind is science, i.e., in the positivistic terminology, the natural sciences. In the context of this philosophy society appears as a gigantic factory and all social problems as technological problems to be solved by “social engineering.” What, for example, is lacking to the so-called underdeveloped countries is, in the light of this doctrine, the “know-how,” sufficient familiarity with scientific technology.

It is hardly possible to misinterpret mankind’s history more thoroughly. The fundamental fact that enabled man to elevate his species above the level of the beasts and the horrors of biological competition was the discovery of the principle of the higher productivity of cooperation under a system of the division of labor, that great cosmic principle of becoming. What improved and still improves the fecundity of human efforts is the progressive accumulation of capital goods without which no technological innovation could ever be practically utilized. No technological computation and calculation would be possible in an environment that would not employ a generally used medium of exchange, money. Modern industrialization, the practical employment of the discoveries of the natural sciences, is intellectually conditioned by the operation of a market economy in which prices, in terms of money, for the factors of production are established and thus the opportunity is given to the engineer to contrast the costs and the proceeds to be expected from alternative projects. The quantification of physics and chemistry would be useless for technological planning if there were no economic calculation.14 What is lacking to the underdeveloped nations is not knowledge, but capital.15

The popularity and the prestige that the experimental methods of the natural sciences enjoy in our age and the dedication of ample funds for the conduct of laboratory research are attendant phenomena of capitalism’s progressive accumulation of capital. What transformed the world of horse-drawn carriages, sailing ships, and windmills step by step into a world of airplanes and electronics was the laissez-faire principle of Manchesterism. Large savings, continuously in search of the most profitable investment opportunities, are providing the resources needed for rendering the accomplishments of the physicists and chemists utilizable for the improvement of business activities. What is called economic progress is the joint effect of the activities of the three progressive groups — or classes — of the savers, the scientist-inventors, and the entrepreneurs, operating in a market economy as far as it is not sabotaged by the endeavors of the nonprogressive majority of the routinists and the public policies supported by them.

What begot all those technological and therapeutical achievements that characterize our age was not science, but the social and political system of capitalism. Only in the climate of huge capital accumulation could experimentalism develop from a pastime of geniuses like Archimedes and Leonardo da Vinci into a well-organized systematic pursuit of knowledge. The much decried acquisitiveness of the promoters and speculators was intent upon applying the accomplishments of scientific research to the improvement of the masses’ standard of living. In the ideological environment of our age, which, driven by a fanatical hatred of the “bourgeois,” is anxious to substitute the “service” principle for the “profit” principle, technological innovation is more and more directed toward the fabrication of efficient instruments of war and destruction.

The research activities of the experimental natural sciences are in themselves neutral with regard to any philosophical and political issue. But they can thrive and become beneficial for mankind only where there prevails a social philosophy of individualism and freedom.

In stressing the fact that the natural sciences owe all their achievements to experience, positivism merely repeated a truism which since the demise of Naturphilosophie nobody any longer disputed. In disparaging the methods of the sciences of human action, it paved the way for the forces that are sapping the foundations of Western civilization.

  • 1. [Ludwig von Mises, Money, Method, and the Market Process: Essays by Ludwig von Mises, ed. Richard Ebeling (1942; Boston: Kluwer, 1990), chap. 1, pp. 3–15.]
  • 2. Cf. for instance Paul von Lilienfeld La Pathologie Sociale (Paris, 1896).
  • 3. For the sake of completeness we have to remark that there is a third use of the term entrepreneur in law which has to be carefully distinguished from the two mentioned above.
  • 4. [Ludwig von Mises, The Ultimate Foundation of Economic Science: An Essay on Method (1962; Kansas City: Sheed Andrews and McMeel, 1978), section “Some Preliminary Observations Concerning Praxelogy,” pp. 3–6.]
  • 5. [Ibid., chap. 2: “The Activistic Basis of Knowledge, pp. 41–45.]
  • 6. [Ludwig von Mises, Human Action (1949, Auburn, Ala.: Mises Institute, 1998), pp. 237 ff.]
  • 7. [Tadeusz] Kotarbinski, “Considérations sur la théorie générale de la lutte,” Appendix to Z Zagadnien Ogólnej Teorii Walki (Warsaw, 1938), pp. 65–92; the same author, “Idée de la methodologie générale praxeologie,” Travaux du IXe Congrés International de Philosophie (Paris, 1937), vol. 4, pp. 190–94. The theory of games has no reference whatever to the theory of action. Of course, playing a game is action, but so is smoking a cigarette or munching a sandwich. See below, pp. 87 ff.
  • 8. [Mises, Ultimate Foundation of Economic Science, chap. 4: “Certainty and Uncertainty,” pp. 62–63, 70–72.]
  • 9. [Joseph] Schumpeter, Das Wesen und der Hauptinhalt der theoretischen Nationalökonomie (Leipzig, 1908), pp. 606 ff.; [Wesley] Mitchell, “Quantitative Analysis in Economic Theory,” American Economic Review, vol. 15, 1 ff.; [Gustav] Cassel, On Quantitative Thinking in Economics (Oxford, 1935); and a daily increasing flood of books and articles.
  • 10. Mises, Human Action, pp. 347ff.
  • 11. [Mises, Ultimate Foundation of Economic Science, chap. 7: “The Epistemological Roots of Monism,” pp. 120–24.]
  • 13. [Mises, Ultimate Foundation of Economic Science, chap. 8: “Positivism and the Crisis of Western Civilization,” pp. 125–28.]
  • 14. About the problems of economic calculation, see Mises, Human Action, pp. 201–32 and 691–711.
  • 15. This answers also the often raised question why the ancient Greeks did not construct steam engines although their physics gave them the theoretical knowledge required. They did not conceive the primary importance of saving and capital formation.
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