Thursday, April 17, 2014

Mises and Empiricism

Israel Kirzner relates an anecdote about Mises in his book Ludwig von Mises: The Man and his Economics (2001).

Kirzner once asked Mises how any individual person can know that other people really are “purposeful” in the sense of the human action axiom (Kirzner 2001: 88).

Kirzner relates that Mises’s answer surprised him greatly: Mises replied in effect that we know the existence of other human agents by observation (Kirzner 2001: 88).

Kirzner proceeds to use this answer to argue that Mises was not really the extreme apriorist that he is normally held to be (Kirzner 2001: 89).

However, Mises’s answer (if he really meant it) suggests another conclusion: Mises was just a confused and inconsistent thinker.

Elsewhere in his body of work, Mises regards the epistemological status of the human action axiom as synthetic a priori and a type of Kantian category prior to experience, as we can see here:
“… it is expedient to establish the fact that the starting point of all praxeological and economic reasoning, the category of human action, is proof against any criticisms and objections. No appeal to any historical or empirical considerations whatever can discover any fault in the proposition that men purposefully aim at certain chosen ends. No talk about irrationality, the unfathomable depths of the human soul, the spontaneity of the phenomena of life, automatisms, reflexes, and tropisms, can invalidate the statement that man makes use of his reason for the realization of wishes and desires. From the unshakable foundation of the category of human action praxeology and economics proceed step by step by means of discursive reasoning. Precisely defining assumptions and conditions, they construct a system of concepts and draw all the inferences implied by logically unassailable ratiocination. With regard to the results thus obtained only two attitudes are possible; either one can unmask logical errors in the chain of the deductions which produced these results, or one must acknowledge their correctness and validity.” (Mises 2008: 67).

“The human mind is not a tabula rasa on which the external events write their own history. It is equipped with a set of tools for grasping reality. Man acquired these tools, i.e., the logical structure of his mind, in the course of his evolution from an amoeba to his present state. But these tools are logically prior to any experience.

Man is not only an animal totally subject to the stimuli unavoidably determining the circumstances of his life. He is also an acting being. And the category of action is logically antecedent to any concrete act.

The fact that man does not have the creative power to imagine categories at variance with the fundamental logical relations and with the principles of causality and teleology enjoins upon us what may be called methodological apriorism.

Everybody in his daily behavior again and again bears witness to the immutability and universality of the categories of thought and action.
He who addresses fellow men, who wants to inform and convince them, who asks questions and answers other people's questions, can proceed in this way only because he can appeal to something common to all men--namely, the logical structure of human reason. The idea that A could at the same time be non-A or that to prefer A to B could at the same time be to prefer B to A is simply inconceivable and absurd to a human mind. We are not in the position to comprehend any kind of prelogical or metalogical thinking. We cannot think of a world without causality and teleogy.” (Mises 2008: 35).
As I have argued here, this Misesian epistemology is entirely unconvincing.

One needs empirical evidence to determine what even constitutes a conscious and voluntary human act as defined in the action axiom.

In fact, the “action” as conceived by the human action axiom is to be strictly limited to:
(1) the conscious behaviour of humans;

(2) to exclude unconscious and involuntary behaviour, and

(3) (presumably) to non-mentally-ill human beings.
But Mises requires empirical evidence to demonstrate what these things even are and how to identify them.

To give an example: take sleep-walking. We observe human beings who perform complex physical tasks such as walking and (in extreme cases) driving motor vehicles while in a state of sleep. Such people cannot remember the experiences. Yet sleepwalkers’ eyes are open: presumably the visual system (retinas, optic nerve, visual cortices, etc.) is functioning and presumably the visual cortices show brain activity that is correlated with visual perception.

Are sleep-walkers engaged in action with a purpose? The Misesian might counter: no, because sleep-walkers are not conscious. But how on earth do we know that sleep-walkers are not conscious? Can we know it a priori?

We cannot do so, and need empirical evidence. For example, it could be that being in a sleepwalking state is like being in a dream state and involves some level of consciousness, but that most sleep-walkers simply forget the experience when they wake up. Would they then be engaged in action with a purpose?

However, it seems that most sleep-walking does not occur in REM sleep (when most people dream) but in the deepest, slow-wave sleep in which dreams are rare (Seager 1999: 34), so the idea that most sleepwalkers are genuinely unconscious is possible and probable. But, as noted above, it is empirical evidence and inductive argument that yields this type of a posteriori knowledge about sleep-walking, not a priori reasoning.

But it is far worse than this, for, as Kirzner noticed and Mises appears to have conceded, you need empirical evidence and inductive argument by analogy to make the case that other human minds even exist (Kirzner 2001: 88 even states that it is observation that convinces us to reject solipsism).

These insights are enough to damn the alleged synthetic a priori status of action axiom.

That Mises spent his life defending the Kantian synthetic a priori status of the action axiom but then casually and privately admitted to Kirzner that observation (a kind of empirical evidence) is needed to know that other purposeful human minds even exist only shows what a third rate philosopher and thinker Mises really was.

Armstrong, D. M. 1963. “Is Introspective Knowledge Incorrigible?,” The Philosophical Review 72.4: 417–432.

Kirzner, Israel M. 2001. Ludwig von Mises: The Man and his Economics. ISI Books, Wilmington, Del.

Mises, L. 2008. Human Action: A Treatise on Economics. The Scholar’s Edition. Mises Institute, Auburn, Ala.

Seager, William. 1999. Theories of Consciousness: An Introduction and Assessment. Routledge, London and New York.


  1. Mises just completely misunderstood Kant. Kant's a priori philosophy was all about "pure reason" -- i.e. deriving the determinations of of experience through pure critical thought. When it came to human behavior etc. this was always empirical (and moral!) for Kant as can be seen in his lectures on anthropology (read up on these if you really want to critique Mises' nonsense...).

    If I were teaching Kant and Mises handed me an essay he'd have got an F. And I would have told all the other teachers that he understood nothing about philosophy and just used philosophical terminology in a pretentious manner.

    1. If the action axiom is not a synthetic a priori proposition, then what kind of proposition is it?

    2. The action axiom is synthetic a posteriori.

    3. Action is defined as the employment of means to attain an end.

      Are you saying that we need to check every action to see if involves the employment of means to attain an end?

    4. The way we know that real conscious human action has a purpose, or is a means to an end, is by empirical evidence. In fact, the only way we know other humans even exist is by empirical evidence and inductive argument.

      Merely defining action as "means to attain an end" is a analytic a priori proposition, and is effectively a tautology and not a statement about reality.

      But I am guessing the finer points of philosophy and epistemology aren't your strong suit.

    5. In insisting on the a priori character of economic theory, Mises was referring strictly to the chains of reasoning of which economic theorizing consists. He was not challenging the sense in which the relevance (and certainly the applicability to specific situations) of such theorizing must rely on empirical observation. But clearly, he viewed the observation that there exist other purposeful human beings in this world as a background observation, not at all as part of the new knowledge and understanding that
      economics itself can provide. It is because such observations are so emphatically background observations that Mises felt able to insist on the epistemological autonomy of the pure science of
      human action that makes up the identifiable core of economic theory.

    6. In insisting on the a priori character of economic theory, Mises was referring strictly to the chains of reasoning of which economic theorizing consists.

      I disagree. On the contrary, he was trying to claim that praxeology is a kind of synthetic a priori knowledge.

    7. That's Kirzner's take on the answer of Mises.
      As I see it, once you observe bodies moving and interpret them as human action, you can employ praxeology. Observation isn’t the scope of economics, but of economic history and to understand the complex observed phenomena, you need a theory to interpret them. As Mises pointed out: “although history is, like all other sciences, at the background of his studies, he [the economist] does not learn directly from history. It is, on the contrary, economic history that needs to be interpreted with the aid of the theories developed by economics.”
      With the observation of purposeful action it is the same, you see bodies moving and need something to interpret, as soon as you perceive that’s human action (instead of working machines, or sleep-walking men, or chemistry etc.), you use praxeology. As Kirzner claimed, Mises didn’t see observation as a need for new knowledge, but only to know what are the tools you can employ. And Mises, again, showing the absurdities of your father’s observation, claimed that it is wrong to contend that "it is from observation that even deductive economics obtains its ultimate premises." What we can "observe" is always only complex phenomena.

  2. The existence of human action is undeniable. Any person who denies the existence of human action (purposeful behavior) is engaged in a performative contradiction.

    Action is purposeful behavior. Action involves employing means to attain an end. For instance, the person who wrote this post was acting. The author was behaving purposefully. The author employed means (land, labor, capital) in an attempt to achieve his end (refute Mises).

    Every attempt to refute the action axiom is an action. One can only deny the action by employing scarce means. Any person who denies the action axiom is engaged in a performative contradiction: their act of denying the existence of human action affirms the existence of human action.

    The content of this entire post was falsified by the act of writing and posting it.

    1. No, anonymous, you have totally misunderstood the purpose of the post.

      The purpose of the post is not to deny that conscious human action is purposeful, but to ask how, epistemologically speaking, we know this is true.

      Mises's belief that the action axiom is Kantian synthetic a priori is unconvincing, and his casual answer to Kirzner only strengthens the case against him.

    2. Lord Keynes,

      Can you please provide an example of a correct synthetic a priori statement?

      Or do you deny the existence of correct synthetic a priori propositions?

    3. Synthetic a priori statements were proposed as a type of proposition by Kant.

      The whole history of modern analytic philosophy has been to discredit Kantian synthetic a priori knowledge, and for good reason. I agree with this,

      Synthetic a priori statements do not exist.

      Some links related to this:

    4. Lord Keynes,

      So you are an empiricist? Do you believe that all statements/propositions are hypothetical?

    5. I follow the moderate empiricist tradition in modern analytic philosophy, yes -- though not the extreme logical positivist or Quinean tradition.

      There are certainly analytic a priori propositions that have necessary truth, like "all bachelors are unmarried". Most of pure maths and pure geometry can be considered analytic a priori systems.

      As whether Saul Kripke's necessary a posteriori propositions exist, I used to accept them but now am somewhat agnostic.

      I reject (as many modern analytic philosophers do) Kripke's contingent a priori propositions.

  3. Hi LK,

    I was just wondering why you thought my example of market clearing over at Murphy's blog was so dumb:

    1. Oh, sorry, Philippe, my comment was directed at "Gamble", not you.

      Gamble's comment:

      "Market clearing prices happen everywhere, every day, every second.

      When you grab something off the shelf and pay for it, you just paid the market clearing price. "

      You are right to point out in the next comment that "the ‘market clearing price’ is a theoretical equilibrium price at which the total quantity supplied is equal to the total quantity demanded, so that everything is sold."

      I'll clarify this over at murphy's blog.

    2. In fact, Murphy's had such stupid posts of late, I can't be bothered even commenting on threads at all really.

  4. This might interest you:

    this Delong blog post talks about the Kochs, austrian economics and Tyler Cowen:

    It mentions two papers by Cowen which critique austrian economics:

    I just read the first one and it pretty much tears Mises' evenly rotating economy idea to shreds.

    1. Thanks for the links. Will have a read soon.