“I was going to be snotty about it, but that would be unfair since many Misesians thought Mises was making synthetic a priori propositions. But, look at literally the sentence right before the one you quoted. Mises wrote:First, let us imagine (for the sake of argument) that Mises was really saying that praxeology and Euclidean geometry are analytic a priori. What are the consequences of that?
‘This theorem is a tautology, its deduction results in an analytic judgment. Nonetheless nobody would contend that geometry in general and the theorem of Pythagoras in particular do not enlarge our knowledge.’
So Mises is here saying that the Pythagorean theorem is an analytic a priori statement.”
As analytic a priori systems, neither praxeology nor Euclidean geometry can provide us with any necessarily true knowledge of the real world known a priori. The instant either is asserted as true of the real world, both become synthetic a posteriori and must be judged true or false empirically.
But, if that were true, this has destroyed praxeology as the system imagined by Mises as providing necessarily true knowledge of the real world known a priori:
“Praxeology is a theoretical and systematic, not a historical, science. Its scope is human action as such, irrespective of all environmental, accidental, and individual circumstances of the concrete acts. Its cognition is purely formal and general without reference to the material content and the particular features of the actual case. It aims at knowledge valid for all instances in which the conditions exactly correspond to those implied in its assumptions and inferences. Its statements and propositions are not derived from experience. They are, like those of logic and mathematics, a priori. They are not subject to verification and falsification on the ground of experience and facts. They are both logically and temporally antecedent to any comprehension of historical facts. They are a necessary requirement of any intellectual grasp of historical events” (Mises 2008: 32).Mises is saying here that praxeology is not just an analytic a priori system. First, he is saying that it is not open to verification and falsification on the grounds of experience (or a posteriori), but can be known a priori. Secondly, it also provides necessarily true knowledge of the real world that cannot be refuted by empirical evidence (“It aims at knowledge valid for all instances in which the conditions exactly correspond to those implied in its assumptions and inferences”).
The only way it can do this is if the theorems of praxeology are synthetic a priori.
Murphy has badly misinterpreted Mises. If Mises really thought that praxeology was merely analytic a priori, then the Mises quote I have just cited above makes no sense. Mises’s epistemology would be hopelessly contradictory and self-refuting.
Secondly, let us return to the original passage Murphy quotes in his post.
But let us quote it in its entirety and with full context:
“Aprioristic reasoning is purely conceptual and deductive. It cannot produce anything else but tautologies and analytic judgments. All its implications are logically derived from the premises and were already contained in them. Hence, according to a popular objection, it cannot add anything to our knowledge.First, it is quite clear here that Mises is rejecting the “popular objection” he refers to in paragraph 1. Mises is saying that Euclidean geometry provides real knowledge about the external world, despite being a system of tautologies derived by deduction from the axioms. He is implying that Euclidean geometry is Kantian synthetic a priori knowledge (because Mises cannot properly distinguish between (1) analytic a priori pure geometry and (2) synthetic a posteriori applied geometry).
All geometrical theorems are already implied in the axioms. The concept of a rectangular triangle already implies the theorem of Pythagoras. This theorem is a tautology, its deduction results in an analytic judgment. Nonetheless nobody would contend that geometry in general and the theorem of Pythagoras in particular do not enlarge our knowledge. Cognition from purely deductive reasoning is also creative and opens for our mind access to previously barred spheres. The significant task of aprioristic reasoning is on the one hand to bring into relief all that is implied in the categories, concepts, and premises and, on the other hand, to show what they do not imply. It is its vocation to render manifest and obvious what was hidden and unknown before.
In the concept of money all the theorems of monetary theory are already implied. The quantity theory does not add to our knowledge anything which is not virtually contained in the concept of money. It transforms, develops, and unfolds; it only analyzes and is therefore tautological like the theorem of Pythagoras in relation to the concept of the rectangular triangle. However, nobody would deny the cognitive value of the quantity theory. To a mind not enlightened by economic reasoning it remains unknown. A long line of abortive attempts to solve the problems concerned shows that it was certainly not easy to attain the present state of knowledge.
It is not a deficiency of the system of aprioristic science that it does not convey to us full cognition of reality. Its concepts and theorems are mental tools opening the approach to a complete grasp of reality; they are, to be sure, not in themselves already the totality of factual knowledge about all things. Theory and the comprehension of living and changing reality are not in opposition to one another. Without theory, the general aprioristic science of human action, there is no comprehension of the reality of human action.
The relation between reason and experience has long been one of the fundamental philosophical problems. Like all other problems of the critique of knowledge, philosophers have approached it only with reference to the natural sciences. They have ignored the sciences of human action. Their contributions have been useless for praxeology.
It is customary in the treatment of the epistemological problems of economics to adopt one of the solutions suggested for the natural sciences. Some authors recommend Poincaré’s conventionalism. They regard the premises of economic reasoning as a matter of linguistic or postulational convention. Others prefer to acquiesce in ideas advanced by Einstein. Einstein raises the question: ‘How can mathematics, a product of human reason that does not depend on any experience, so exquisitely fit the objects of reality? Is human reason able to discover, unaided by experience through pure reasoning the features of real things?’ And his answer is: ‘As far as the theorems of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain, and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.’
However, the sciences of human action differ radically from the natural sciences. All authors eager to construct an epistemological system of the sciences of human action according to the pattern of the natural sciences err lamentably.
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. They refer, moreover, with the full rigidity of their apodictic certainty and incontestability to the reality of action as it appears in life and history. Praxeology conveys exact and precise knowledge of real things.” (Mises 2008: 38–39).
Secondly, although it is poorly expressed, Mises appears to be thinking of synthetic a priori knowledge when he says that:
“In the concept of money all the theorems of monetary theory are already implied. The quantity theory does not add to our knowledge anything which is not virtually contained in the concept of money. It transforms, develops, and unfolds; it only analyzes and is therefore tautological like the theorem of Pythagoras in relation to the concept of the rectangular triangle. However, nobody would deny the cognitive value of the quantity theory.”Mises cannot seriously believe that his monetary theory provides no necessary knowledge of reality, and it seems that he is referring to the synthetic character of these theories by his reference above to “the cognitive value of the quantity theory.”
Next, Mises is very clear in rejecting the analytic a priori character of praxeology when he rejects (1) Poincaré’s conventionalism and (2) Einstein’s view of mathematics as being divided into (a) pure mathematics (which is necessarily true) and (b) applied mathematics (which is only true of the real world contingently).
The final paragraph of Mises clinches my argument:
The theorems attained by correct praxeological reasoning are not only perfectly certain and incontestable, like the correct mathematical theorems. They refer, moreover, with the full rigidity of their apodictic certainty and incontestability to the reality of action as it appears in life and history. Praxeology conveys exact and precise knowledge of real things.” (Mises 2008: 39).This entails that praxeological theorems are necessarily and absolutely true, and are known a priori, but also yield necessary knowledge of the real world. That is nothing but Kantian synthetic a priori knowledge.
And, finally, if Mises did not think that praxeological theorems were synthetic a priori, why is Mises desperate to defend the existence of synthetic a priori in The Ultimate Foundation of Economic Science: An Essay on Method (1962)?:
“The essence of logical positivism is to deny the cognitive value of a priori knowledge by pointing out that all a priori propositions are merely analytic. They do not provide new information, but are merely verbal or tautological, asserting what has already been implied in the definitions and premises. Only experience can lead to synthetic propositions. There is an obvious objection against this doctrine, viz., that this proposition that there are no synthetic a priori propositions is in itself a — as the present writer thinks, false — synthetic a priori proposition, for it can manifestly not be established by experience.In other words, the collapse of Euclidian geometry as synthetic a priori knowledge does not apply to the synthetic a priori status of praxeology!
The whole controversy is, however, meaningless when applied to praxeology. It refers essentially to geometry. Its present state, especially its treatment by logical positivism, has been deeply influenced by the shock that Western philosophy received from the discovery of non-Euclidian geometries. Before Bolyai and Lobachevsky, geometry was, in the eyes of the philosophers, the paragon of perfect science; it was assumed that it provided unshakable certainty forever and for everybody. To proceed also in other branches of knowledge more geometrico was the great ideal of truth-seekers. All traditional epistemological concepts began to totter when the attempts to construct non-Euclidian geometries succeeded.
Yet praxeology is not geometry. It is the worst of all superstitions to assume that the epistemological characteristics of one branch of knowledge must necessarily be applicable to any other branch. In dealing with the epistemology of the sciences of human action, one must not take one’s cue from geometry, mechanics, or any other science.
The assumptions of Euclid were once considered as self-evidently true. Present-day epistemology looks upon them as freely chosen postulates, the starting point of a hypothetical chain of reasoning. Whatever this may mean, it has no reference at all to the problems of praxeology.” (Mises 1962: 5).
This, if nothing else, is breathtaking in its pig-headed unwillingness to reconsider the epistemology status of praxeology given the fall of Euclidian geometry as the paradigmatic case of synthetic a priori knowledge.
I will just end by noting that part of the problem we face in interpreting Mises is that Mises hismelf was not always clear, and was probably confused about basic epistemological concepts, as his critic Hans Albert has noted:
“Mises gives a Kantian answer to the question of how the a priori character of praxeological knowledge and its apodictic certainty is to be explained. This knowledge apparently can be reduced to the logical structure of the human mind which is supposed to be the basis for thought and action. ... On the one hand he seems to suggest that he is introducing with his principle of action a synthetic a priori proposition, as he ascribes informational content to the principle. On the other hand, he declares the question of whether the respective propositions are synthetic or analytic to be purely verbal and therefore uninteresting. This seems to show that he was not aware of the connection between analyticity and informational vacuity. He permanently compares his allegedly a priori knowledge with logical and mathematical knowledge and gives such a description of the respective propositions and their mode of derivation that one comes to suspect them to be analytic. He confounds the analytical character of propositions with the logical character of the relationships between propositions in a deduction. But the fact that particular propositions are deducible from particular sets of premises does not render them analytic. For instance, in physics propositions from geometry get an empirical interpretation, and, interpreted in this way, they are synthetic. But propositions which are the result of the ‘logical unfolding’ of certain concepts contain no information. They are analytic not because they are derived, but because they follow from definitions which do not carry information themselves. When Mises tells us that the concept of money already implies all theorems of the theory of money, the alleged certainty of the basis of this derivation does not help him to establish a nonvacuous economic theory. The theory of money as he envisages it here would be without informational content and could not be used to explain anything.” (Albert 1999: 131–132).BIBLIOGRAPHY
Albert, H. 1999. Between Social Science, Religion and Politics: Essays in Critical Rationalism. Rodopi, Amsterdam.
Mises, Ludwig von. 1962. The Ultimate Foundation of Economic Science: An Essay on Method. Van Nostrand, Princeton, N.J.
Mises, L. von. 2008. Human Action: A Treatise on Economics. The Scholar’s Edition. Mises Institute, Auburn, Ala.