Fixing the Economists Article of the Week
by Philip Pilkington
While I do not really want to deal with the Austrians on this blog — let alone Mises who, together with Rothbard, was the most muddled and mediocre of the school — nevertheless I think it might be worthwhile making a general point about Mises’ book Human Action. As discussed previously on this blog Mises’ goal was essentially to form an a priori basis with which to delineate all of human behavior.
I have already in my last post on the topic outlined why this is a doomed project. Here I would like to raise a more fundamental logical inconsistency in Mises’ project — a logical inconsistency that can be traced back to Kant himself who, of course, was Mises’ inspiration for his praxeology. First let us allow Mises himself to get a word in on what he is trying to do. The following is from page 38 of his Human Action:
The real thing which is the subject matter of praxeology, human action, stems from the same source as human reasoning. Action and reason are congeneric and homogeneous; they may even be called two different aspects of the same thing. That reason has the power to make clear through pure ratiocination the essential features of action is a consequence of the fact that action is an offshoot of reason. The theorems attained by correct praxeological reasoning are not only perfectly certain and incontestable, like the correct mathematical theorems.
The idea, as we can see, is to deduce certain constants that take place in human behavior. However, Mises was treading on ground which Kant himself had stumbled near the end of the 18th century. I refer, of course, to his lectures on anthropology. As Michel Foucault pointed out in his famous introduction to his French translation there was a logical contradiction in Kant’s approach. Here is Foucault on the inconsistency
Thus the relation between the given and the a priori takes on, in the Anthropology, an inverted structure with respect to that which has been employed in the Critique. The a priori in the order of knowledge, becomes, in the order of concrete existence, an originary that is not chronologically primary, but which, as soon as it appears in the succession of figures of the synthesis, reveals itself as already there; on the other hand, what is given is lightened, in the reflection on concrete existence, by soft lights that give the depth of the already operated.
What Foucault is saying is that in Kant’s original system the a priori is thought to be something that exists outside of time and space; it is, then, something infinite. Yet, in his anthropology Kant says that we can study men as objects. But this is contradictory because if we understand that men carry around with them certain infinite and timeless truths inside their heads and then we try to study them as objects in their finite existence (i.e. in real historical time) then we are committing a fallacy insofar as we are merely examining superficial untruths without seeing the infinite truths lying behind them.
To put it another way: if we rest our philosophy on an Absolute Subject and claim that such an Absolute Subject inhabits all men, then studying these men as objects in finite time doesn’t make any sense. Either the truth of man lies in a priori principles that are non-empirical, or the truth of man lies in his empirical, finite existence. Kant wants to have it both ways. But he cannot.
The same criticism, of course, applies to Mises. As the blogger Lord Keynes has pointed out elsewhere Mises slips in empirical observations into his analysis and then tries to cover up what he has done. The reason he has to do this is because of what we have just laid out above: you cannot study human behavior seriously and assign it truth-value and at the same time hold that there are a prioris that lie within the Absolute Subject. You can only have one or the other; you cannot have your cake and eat it.
Kant made this mistake toward the end of his life, but in doing so he did not necessarily undermine his earlier work. His slip up could simply be seen as a mistake and thrown out as such. Mises, on the other hand, constructs his entire theory around this contradiction, making all of it completely incoherent.
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