Power & Market

The Kantian Origins of Mises's Praxeology

To trace the epistemological basis of praxeology, it is necessary to understand that Ludwig von Mises, "takes from Kant his central conceptual and terminological distinctions, as well as some fundamental Kantian ideas about the nature of human knowledge" (Hoppe, Economic Science and the Austrian Method (2007), p. 17). It is therefore obligatory to review the Kantian postulates.

According to Kant, although experience induces thought, and as such is located previous to all knowledge in time, this does not mean that all knowledge comes from experience. This is because the truth of knowledge (the existence of experience) is not determined by experience. Consequently, knowledge that is dependent on experience is different from that which is not. The first is called a posteriori knowledge, the second a priori knowledge.1

A priori knowledge necessarily comes from the understanding2  and therefore enjoys a strict universality, its validity determined by the principle of noncontradiction. This is unlike the a posteriori knowledge, which, coming from sensations, only offers "a merely assumed and comparative universality (through induction), so that, properly speaking it must be formulated: so far as we have observed until now, no exception has been found to this or that rule" (Kant, Crítica de la rázon pura (The Critique of Pure Reason) (2002), p. 99). That is, experience shows us something as it is but does not indicate that it cannot be otherwise.

Likewise, Kant offers a second classification, this time by the relationship between the subject and the predicate in a trial (i.e., statement or proposition).  Judgments in which the predicate is contained in the subject are called analytical or explanatory, since the predicate is a part of the subject concept. Likewise, judgments in which the predicate is not contained in the subject are called synthetic or extensive, because the predicate cannot be extracted from a decomposition of the subject concept.

By virtue of the classifications set out above, Kant proposes the main characteristic of his philosophy: a priori synthetic judgments. In these judgments, the subject and predicate, as well as their linkage, derive from a proposition that is conceived as valid in itself. For the human mind, the denial of these judgments results in “nonsense.” The human being (understood as a being that thinks—and acts) conceives them as inherent to himself. As such, these judgments constitute the pure representation of an object (that which is external to the human being) and establish the constant relations between objects.3

But Kant, according to Hoppe (2007), although he gave indications, did not give an answer on how the synthetic judgments a priori are adjusted to the environment.4  But Ludwig von Mises, as an exceptional Kantian, resolves this question by recognizing that “both human thought and action depend on the same root: they are products of the human mind” (Mises, "Ciencia social y ciencia natural" ("Social Science and Natural Science") (2006), p. 278). As Hoppe explains:

We must recognize that such necessary truths are not simply categories of our mind, but that our mind is one of people who act. Our mental categories have to be understood as ultimately based on categories of action….As categories of action, they have to be mental things as well as characteristics of reality. Because it is through action that mind and reality come into contact. (Hoppe 2007, p. 20)

And:

The epistemology that proposes the existence of a priori true synthetic propositions becomes a realistic epistemology. Since it is understood as ultimately based on categories of action, the abyss between the mental and the real, external and physical world is overcome….With his recognition of action as the bridge between mind and external reality, he has found a solution to the Kantian problem of how a priori true synthetic propositions can be possible. (Hoppe 2007, p. 20)

Here are the origins of Mises’s praxeology,5  a theoretical and systematic science of a priori that aspires to formulate theorems of a purely formal and general nature about human action through logical deduction6  from the axiom of action—“man acts”—a proposition evident in itself (Mises, Los fundamentos últimos de la ciencia económica (2012), p. 29). In that order of ideas, having already determined the main categories of human action, the praxeological work extends to make imaginary constructions in order to determine the special forms that action can take.7  To carry out this work, experience is a very useful tool, serving as a guide for the curiosity of the praxeologist.8

  • 1Kant, Crítica de la rázon pura (The Critique of Pure Reason), vol. 1 (Barcelona: Ediciones Folio, 2002). "Propositions are a posteriori when observations are needed to establish their truth, or at least to confirm them. If no observations are needed then the propositions are a priori." See Hans-Hermann Hoppe, Economic Science and the Austrian Method (Auburn, AL: Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2007), p. 16.
  • 2According to Kant (2002) understanding refers to the capacity of man to conceive and form concepts. See Crítica de la rázon pura, vol. 1.
  • 3It should be noted that for synthetic judgments, it is extremely important to have the concepts of their parts well defined, something that only analytical judgments allow; since the validity of the judgment also depends on these.
  • 4As M. Heidegger notes, "the question about the reality of the outside world is the problem of epistemology." La idea de la filosofía y el problema de la concepción del mundo (The idea of philosophy and the problem of the conception of the world) (Barcelona: Herder, 2005), p. 95.
  • 5It should be noted that what Mises intended by using the term praxeology (logic of action), according to Hoppe, was to emphasize the fact that praxeology, as a science, had more in common with the pure sciences than with the empirical natural sciences. See Hoppe, Economic Science and the Austrian Method.
  • 6About this, we can mention Rothbard:
    In praxeology, in the analysis of human action, the axioms themselves are known to be true and significant. Therefore, each verbal deduction step by step is also true and significant, since the great quality of verbal propositions is that each one is significant, while mathematical symbols are not significant by themselves.See Murray Rothbard, “Praxeología: La metodología de la economía austriaca,” ("Praxeology: The Methodology of Austrian Economics") Centro Mises (website), Aug. 15, 2012, http://www.mises.org.es/2012/08/praxeologia-la-metodologia-de-la-economia-austriaca/#.
  • 7On this, Mises argues that:
    In order to achieve praxeological knowledge, the fundamental thing is to analyze and deduce these concepts and theorems; to extract the corresponding conclusions and to determine the universal characteristics of acting as such. Once the typical requirements of all action are known, it is convenient to take a further step in the sense of determining—of course, in a purely categorical and formal way—the more specific requirements of special ways of acting. This second task could be approached by formulating all imaginable situations, and then drawing the appropriate logical conclusions.See Mises, La acción humana (Human Action) (Madrid: Unión Editorial, 2011), p. 211.
  • 8As described by Huerta de Soto: "The experience, only and exclusively, is used to direct the curiosity of the researcher towards certain problems. It tells us what we should investigate; it does not tell us the methodological way in which we should proceed to seek our knowledge." Estudios de Economía Política (Studies in political economy) (Madrid: Unión Editorial, 2004), p. 70.
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