Saturday, September 7, 2013

Mises versus the Vienna Circle

The untenable nature of Mises’s economic apriorism was noticed by the logical positivists, and is described in a recent study of Lionel Robbins:
“The Vienna Circle took a hard line on epistemology, and on the demarcation between mathematics and science on the one hand and non-science (or metaphysics) on the other. The propositions of logic and mathematics are necessarily true, true by definition of the terms and hence tautologous ... . They are analytic a priori in Kant’s terminology. All other propositions may be true or false, and if such propositions are to be scientific they must be capable of confirmation or refutation by empirical facts. Such propositions are synthetic a posteriori statements. The implication is that there can be no synthetic a priori statements in a science, because such statements are neither analytic nor verifiable. Haberler, Hutchison, Kaufmann and all spotted that Mises’s conception of economics ran into the problem that insofar as it was purely analytical and hence a priori true, it could not also be an empirical science.” (Howson 2011: 272).
Of course, one does not have to agree with the logical positivists on their verifiability principle to see that there is still merit in this view.

The logical positivists did much to demonstrate that synthetic a priori knowledge is untenable, and to refute the myths of apriorist Rationalism, of which Mises’s praxeology is an obvious example.

Howson, Susan. 2011. Lionel Robbins. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge and New York.


  1. Yes. While I don't believe in the verification principle as an Absolute Test of science and I'm not even sympathetic that economics is indeed a science, they spot a key problem with Mises' approach. It's not applicable. Or, rather, is applicable but is then a political program like Marxism rather than an economic doctrine.

  2. It is really important to hammer away at the a priori approach of Mises et al. It produces an insufferable hubris especially among the Facebook an/cap crowd. Even today, one of my friends was dealing with one an/cap who was defending the view that people have no right to food, no right to water, no right to anything to keep us alive because of the "indubitable" self-ownership concept combined with the "indubitable" "justly acquired property" fiction. And from these allegedly self-evident truths they arrive at a grotesque end state envisioned by Hoppe as follows: "If they continued with their behavior or lifestyle [such as homosexuality], they would be barred from civilized society and live physically separate from it, in ghettos or on the fringes of society, and many positions or professions would be unattainable to them."

    1. Start at libertarianism end at Nazism. Is it REALLY that surprising? Seems quite organic to me.

    2. One thing I find amusing is for people who have apodictic truth on their side, they do like to engage in torturing the text beyond recognition. For example, some of the an/caps try to spin a story about Mises being an "anarchist" (again their idiosyncratic definition of anarchy). One good way to see this is to take Hoppe's Democracy: The God that Failed, page 238, where he is trying to spin Mises into an anarchist, and then look up the original text in Mises's Liberalism: The Classical Tradition. You will notice certain phrases were deliberately deleted in Hoppe's version. When you look at the original and insert the missing phrases the entire meaning changes to be pretty much the opposite.