Books / Digital Text

Chapter 5: On Some Popular Errors Concerning the Scope and Method of Economics

11. The Behavioral Sciences

The self-styled behavioral sciences want to deal scientifically with human behavior.15 They reject as "unscientific" or "rationalistic" the methods of praxeology and economics. On the other hand, they disparage history as tainted with antiquarianism and devoid of any practical use for the improvement of human conditions. Their allegedly new discipline will, they promise, deal with every aspect of man's behavior and thereby provide knowledge that will render priceless services to the endeavors to improve the lot of mankind.

The representatives of these new sciences are not prepared to realize that they are historians and resorting to the methods of historical research.16 What frequently—but not alway—distinguishes them from the regular historians is that, like the sociologists, they choose as the subject matter of their investigations conditions of the recent past and aspects of human conduct that most historians of former times used to neglect. More remarkable may be the fact that their treatises often suggest a definite policy, as allegedly "taught" by history, an attitude which most of the sound historians have abandoned long since. It is not our concern to criticize the methods applied in these books and articles nor to question the rather naive political prepossessions occasionally displayed by their authors. What makes it advisable to pay attention to these behavioral studies is their neglect of one of the most important epistemological principles of history, the principle of relevance.

In the experimental research of the natural sciences everything that can be observed is relevant enough to be recorded. As, according to the a priori that is at the outset of all research in the natural sciences, whatever happens is bound to happen as the regular effect of what preceded it, every correctly observed and described event is a "fact" that has to be integrated into the theoretical body of doctrine. No account of an experience is without some bearing on the whole of knowledge. Consequently, every research project, if conscientiously and skillfully performed, is to be considered as a contribution to mankind's scientific effort.

In the historical sciences it is different. They deal with human actions: the value judgments that incited them, the serviceableness of the means that were chosen for their performance, and the results brought about by them. Each of these factors plays its own role in the succession of events. It is the main task of the historian to assign as correctly as possible to every factor the range of its effects. This quasi quantification, this determination of each factor's relevance, is one of the functions that the specific understanding of the historical sciences is called upon to perform.17

In the field of history (in the broadest sense of the term) there prevail considerable differences among the various topics that could be made the subject of research activities. It is insignificant and meaningless to determine in general terms "the behavior of man" as the program of a discipline's activities. Man aims at an infinite number of different goals and resorts to an infinite number of different means for their attainment. The historian (or, for that matter, the behavioral scientist) must choose a subject of relevance for the fate of mankind and therefore also for the enlargement of our knowledge. He must not waste his time in trifles. In choosing the theme of his book he classifies himself. One man writes the history of liberty, another man the history of a card game. One man writes the biography of Dante, another the biography of a fashionable hotel's headwaiter.18

As the great subjects of mankind's past have already been dealt with by the traditional historical sciences, what is left to the behavioral, sciences is, detailed studies about the pleasures, sorrows, and crimes of the common man. To collect recent material about these and similar matters no special knowledge or technique is required. Every college boy can immediately embark upon some project. There is an unlimited number of subjects for doctoral dissertations and more sizable treatises. Many of them deal with quite trivial themes, devoid of any value for the enrichment of our knowledge.

These so-called behavioral sciences badly need a thorough reorientation from the point of view of the relevance principle. It is possible to write a voluminous book about every subject. But the question is whether such a book deals with something that counts as relevant from the point of view of theory or of practice.

  • 15. One must not confuse the "behavioral sciences" with behaviorism. About the latter, see Mises, Human Action, p. 26.
  • 16. Of course, some of these scholars deal with problems of medicine and hygiene.
  • 17. See above, p. 66.
  • 18. Karl Schriftgiesser. Oscar of the Waldorf (New York, 1943), 248 pages.