Mises Was A Scientist

by Roger Koppl

Over at Division of Labor, Noel Campbell picks a fight with Austrian fans of Mises.  “I always conceived of Mises’ efforts as attempting to build a logically correct and (therefore) irrefutable description of human behavior. As such, I always viewed Human Action as a work of philosophy, not science.”   Noel hints that he doesn’t want to be answered with a lot of philosophy of science.  I might whine about how unfair it is to contrast Mises’ “philosophy” with “science” and then expect a response that doesn’t get into the philosophy of science.  But Noel seems to be a nice guy with a sincere question, so I’ll take a stab at it anyway.

Mises is trying to build a science of society so he can tell socialists and interventionists that their schemes won’t have the effects they intend. Laying out the scientific sense in which socialism “doesn’t work” or the minimum wage “doesn’t work” is a scientific enterprise.  It’s about society, not building an “irrefutable description of human behavior.”

Noel is mistaken about what Mises was trying to do.  Mises gets some of the blame for Noel’s misunderstanding.  He front-loaded Human Action with all that stuff about “apodictic certainty,” “praxeology,” and so on.  That really gives you the idea that he’s more interested in methodology than results.  No, he was more interested in results than methodology.

Speaking of methodology, if I were allowed to discuss philosophy of science I’d go on about how Mises anticipated Lakatos and others, how he never gets credit for being way ahead on methodology, and so on.  But I said I’d stick with science.  

Okay, so science says we have common biological history and, therefore, a common mental structure.  In particular, we seem to have a “theory of mind module” that lets us interpret other humans with the same categories we use to interpret ourselves.  They have minds just like I do; their emotions are like mine; his green is the same as my green; and so on.  This is how we can understand each other: we are preprogrammed for it.  Thus, the agents within our models should be modeled as using those biologically endowed categories to understand one another.  Those categories are pretty much empty until we add in “empirical facts” (that it, facts) about people such as the disutility of labor at the margin, positive time preference, and uncertainty about the future.

Those facts and categories already spell out testable propositions about society if we reason carefully.  If our reasoning were perfect the test would always be about whether the “if” part applies where we thought it might, but our reasoning is imperfect.  Anyway, you can go pretty far in social science just thinking carefully about what people are like.  You need to check whether your carefully worked out story fits the apparent facts.  If so, you might be right.  If not, you need to see where you went wrong.  It could be that your logic is flawed or the “if” part doesn’t really apply.

It could be, however, that the “facts” were not reported correctly.  If we learn that prices in some European port city fell when the Spanish landed with their American gold, we could say “so much for demand and supply!”  More likely, however, we would question the accuracy of the historical record.  St. Joseph of Cupertino might have been able to levitate, but I think it is more likely that reports of his flying abilities are somehow mistaken.

For all his talk about apriorism and whatnot, Mises completely wants us to engage in that dialectic between fact and theory that we call science.  Mises’ theory of the trade cycle is science not philosophy.  His theorem on the impossibility of rational economic calculation under socialism is science, not philosophy.  His marginal utility approach to money demand is science, not philosophy.  And so on.  Mises had some weird lingo.  He worked out his position before many modern developments in methodology.  And so on.  But he was doing science all the way, albeit front-loaded with some now old-fashioned philosophy.

25 thoughts on “Mises Was A Scientist

  1. Mises was never a philosopher of science and that’s why, from our perspective, the neokantian language about methodology seems a little bit anachronical even though it’s full of great ideas and a mistake to dismiss the wealth of that particular approach to epistemology altogether (Popper, by the way, was also a Kantian).

    But Mises’s greatness and originality lies elsewhere, but unfortunately it can only be understood in the German tradition of social science (history, sociology and economics). He is, in many ways, the heir of Weber and probably the last man who tried to rescue the idea of sociology – an integrated positive science of human society – from the failure of the comtean positivist project.

  2. Gregor,

    I think Human Action was meant to address an Anglo-American audience that was not so familiar with the German literature you allude to. I kind of thought it worked; you seem be saying it didn’t. Maybe you’re right! There have sure been some mistaken things said about Mises in the Anglo-American tradition! In any event your point about Weber is very important. Thanks for that. As you know, Bruce Caldwell makes the Weber connection in his intellectual biography of Hayek.

  3. Well done, Roger.

    The facts that we share common structures of mind is also explained by Hayek and Wittgenstein.

    The irony, of course, is that those who attack the Hayek/Mises causal explanatory strategy do so from within a bogus picture of “science” which mostly descends from the deeply mistaken philosophical tradition demanding demonstrative “justification” which never understood the Hayek / Mises / Wittgenstein point about shared structures of mind, and the significance of these shared structures of mind for understanding social institutions / products like language and the market economy.

    One thing Mises botches is the thing Hayek points out — learning is a causal element at the core of Mises explanation, which makes Mises’ explanatory strategy a causal one dependent on causation, and not fundamentally a “Kantian” one.

    The revolution here is that learning as a causal force can’t be “limned” as a Humean or Millian would demand — i.e. someone like the Humean Alex Rosenberg has no way to admit entrepreneurial learning into the Republic of Science as the central causal explanatory variable in economics, becasue doesn’t fit the constant conjunction model of reality and causation, much less the demands of the covering law model of “science” and reality.

  4. Thanks, Greg. That comment really helps me ‘get’ some of the spats about the covering law model. Somehow I hadn’t quite seen it in the right light. That really helps.

    Where does Wittgenstein make the point about common structures of mind?

    Bogdan: I don’t know where “Gregor” came from. Please forgive me!

  5. This is the same reason why most philosophers of science now rejects the Humean / Rosenberg / covering law model of “science” and reality — it fails to capture the open-ended and conceptually novel nature of most scientific learning and advance:

    “someone like the Humean Alex Rosenberg has no way to admit entrepreneurial learning into the Republic of Science as the central causal explanatory variable in economics, because it doesn’t fit the constant conjunction model of reality and causation, much less the demands of the covering law model of “science” and reality.”

    The destruction of the constant conjunction / covering law model came from two directions — from brain science and psychology (e.g. Hayek and Popper) and from the philosophy of science (Hanson and Kuhn and Popper).

    And of course, the constant conjunction and covering law model also self-destructed internally from formal pathologies and inconsistencies within itself — there is a huge literature on this.

  6. My point is that entrepreneurial learning — the core causal explanatory element in Mises’ economics — is open-ended learning which often involves conceptual novelty (non-shared individual “subjectivity”) and “know how” local knowledge. Scientific advance and scientific knowledge and scientific learning often involves the same elements (Kuhn, Hanson, Polanyi). None of this stuff fits in the Humean constant conjuction model or the Nagel covering law model.

  7. “Where does Wittgenstein make the point about common structures of mind?”

    The point is made all over the place, note where Wittgenstein talks about “going on together”, or where he talks about the difference between how people and tigers might understand the world, or when he talks about people with different mind than us, or where he talks about the difference between color blind people and the rest of us, etc. Look for it and you’ll see it everywhere in his later writings.

    More directly Wittgenstein explicitly talks about “shared natures” in his _Remarks on Mathematics_ (title?).

  8. I should note that Rosenberg has attempted to back-stop his constant conjunction / covering law metaphysics and image of “science” with a pure quantitative predictive success version as the ultimate criterion of “science” and reality — which has caused Rosenberg trouble making sense of the reality of biological entities and the scientific status of biological explanation — and which is also problematic given what everyone seems now to know about all sorts of non-linear dynamic phenomena in physics which can be explained in terms of patterns but which cannot be predicted in the Laplacean and quantitative predictive sense Roseberg holds up at the litmus test of “real science”.

  9. Thanks again, Greg. I get it. If a lion could talk and all that. I’ll be alert next time I get to poke my head into Wittgenstein. Unfortunately, that could be a while!

  10. The Russell/Mach/Carnap tradition grounded justification and meaning in bare mental particulars — the same atoms at the core of the Humean constant conjuction model.

    Wittgenstein destroyed this picture — showing how there is no final “ground” in bare particulars, and how “explanation has to end somewhere” which turns out to be in _patterns_ of going on together. Further, Wittgenstein showed how common structure of mind and “going on together” were required even for a language of “mental entities” to exist.

    Hayek, Popper, Kuhn, and others also destroyed the bare particulars picture.

    Hayek and Kuhn identified many-many problems blocking reduction (did Kuhn get this from Hayek?) of these sensory entities to public physical entities.

    Wittgenstein identified many-many problems even in the relations between patterns of going on together and the articulated “rules” we use to describe them.

    Popper and Kuhn and Hayek talked about how our understanding is theory laden, which shaped what we experience and how we understood what we experienced.

    Carnap’s original covering law model really assumed the viability of the Mach / Russell picture of language and reality grounded in bare particulars. This is complex stuff, but that is the a fair reading for blog post purposes. Much of 20th century “analytic” philosophy of science can be understood a efforts to save some radically attenuated version of Carnap (Mill + Mach + Frege) given an ever growing understanding of its various logical and empirical deficiencies.

  11. Roger, I think your post (augmented by Greg’s point about Hayek and learning) is the most insightful and pithiest summary assessment of what Mises was up to that I have seen. It is all too easy to see Mises as a crabby and idiosyncratic old methodologist and stop there, thereby missing an appreciation of his exceptional creativity as a theoretical economist and his active, consistent, and brave (given his circumstances) work as an applied scientist.

  12. Roger, I’ll second Thomas McQuade’s remark on your post. In my time at GMU, despite all the assistance from Don Lavoie and others, I mostly stayed stuck in the view of Mises as “idiosyncratic old methodologist” on issues besides the calculation debate. I just couldn’t get past the first 100 pages or so of Human Action. Your explanation helps unstick my views.

  13. What I wanted to say in my first post, is that Mises is part of a tradition of social science that is almost extinct today. It is the same tradition that gave birth to sophisticated “Historical School” economics (Michael Polany, for instance), Weber’s sociology, phenomenology in philosophy and so on. Outiside the German language millieu and even in Germany and Austria after WW II it died out, for some reason – maybe it wasn’t fruitful anymore, or maybe the historical turmoil around WW II destroyed the community of scholars and the public that could carry on this tradition. However, it is pretty clear that it is a very distinct – very interdisciplinary – approach to social science. Take Weber’s analysis in the Protestant Ethic, for instance : it has history, some economics, culture etc; he was informed about the developments in economics and social science in France, Italy, Brittain etc; but he’s work is profoundly original, complex and difficult to imitate. I can’t imagine a French or an Anglo-Saxon scholar, for instance, writing the same work. It is not simply economics transplated into sociological topics; not exactly the sociology we know today; not really a “cultural study”, and too theoretical to be simply history. Mises is clearly in this tradition. What he takes from the classical economists or the great neoclassical economists of his age, is “translated” into a different framework, and is almost unrecognizable. The same is true for Hayek.

  14. I think I agree with all that, Bogdan. I think of my efforts in Austrian economics as an attempt to connect one bit of the grand tradition, the Mises Circle, with mainstream economics. I’m hardly the one to say how successful I’ve been in absolute, but it has been fun and interesting for me personally.

  15. I am late to this (in blogosphere time). However, I must say that there is what I would call a “Misesian method disease.” This is the tactic of reducing substantive questions to virtual tautologies. I have seen it used many times by people who call themselves Austro-libertarians. And I would not excuse Mises by saying this is just an abuse of his ideas.

  16. I’ve seen it too, Mario. But are you denying that Mises was a scientist first and a methodologist second (or third or fourth)? I do say he gets some of the blame for Noel’s misapprehensions. For me at least, it’s not a matter of excusing him, just explaining why you might like him even if you are free of Misesian method disease, as I believe I am. In other words, I’m interested in Mises the scientist no matter his methodological sins.

  17. Yes, Mises was a scientist first. But he did himself enormous harm by casting a great deal of Human Action in terms of his methodological perspective. And I do not mean just the first 71 pages or so. For example, he analyzes the whole time preference issue in a way that preserves its a priori character but makes it incapable of explaining interest rates! Actually, this is much more than “casting” his theory — it is a degredation or corruption of the theory (of time preference) by his aprioristic method.

    I think that in other areas his theories escape this problem — e.g., socialist calculation.

    But let’s admit it. He invited criticism that he could have easily avoided. It was enough to carry the banner of laissez faire without carrying the methodological stuff too.

  18. I guess I take a milder view than that, Mario. I agree that his methodological writings in HA throw a lot of people off track as they did Noel Campbell. I agree that his treatment of time preference in HA is not satisfactory. And I agree that his methodology is simply not up to today’s standard. But still I think his methodology is better than it is generally recognized to be. I think the fans and critics both make his methodology as explained in HA less sophisticated than it really is. Bogdan has a point about that IMHO. In my Big Players book I go on about loose vs. tight apriorism. I say Mises didn’t really distinguish them, but the essential thing is the loose apriorism. Some comments by Machlup seem to point in the same direction IMHO. But any disagreement between us on these points is rather minor as far as I can tell.

  19. Mario Rizzo says;

    “I must say that there is what I would call a “Misesian method disease.” This is the tactic of reducing substantive questions to virtual tautologies.”

    Are you referring here to dogmatic, neokantian nonsense that all things being equal increased supply of goods leads to price decrease? Or that demand curve is downward slopping? Or maybe to similar philosophical and antiscientific nonsense that you cannot to “empirically test” proposition that minimal wage increases unemployment?

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