Did Mises Contradict Himself?

In Human Action, Mises states:

It is customary for many people to blame economics for being backward. Now it is quite obvious that our economic theory is not perfect. There is no such thing as perfection in human knowledge, nor for that matter in any other human achievement. Omniscience is denied to man. The most elaborate theory that seems to satisfy completely our thirst for knowledge may one day be amended or supplanted by a new theory. Science does not give us absolute and final certainty. It only gives us assurance within the limits of our mental abilities and the prevailing state of scientific thought. A scientific system is but one station in an endlessly progressing search for knowledge. It is necessarily affected by the insufficiency inherent in every human effort. But to acknowledge these facts does not mean that present-day economics is backward. It merely means that economics is a living thing–and to live implies both imperfection and change.

I agree with this, and most economists, either in heterodoxy and orthodoxy  branches, would agree with this. A perfect economic theory is unattainable simply because our knowledge is not perfect, or as Mises stated, ‘omniscience is denied to man.’ But then if we accept the Mises passage above, doesn’t this imply that Mises’ praxeology idea may be falsified? Here is Mises on praxeology:

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 or falsification on the ground of experience and facts. They are both logically and temporally antecedent to any comprehension of historical facts

Here he truly accepted that praxeology could not be falsified, but he stated in the same book that ‘a scientific system is but one station in an endlessly progressing search for knowledge,’ and the fact that we are not gifted with omniscience means that our theories have to be falsified because they are not perfect.

I raised this issue in Daniel Kuehn’s blog in which I state:

If we were to stay logically consistent then, doesn’t this imply that praxeology may be falsifiable then?

Current responds:

To Mises not all of economics is praxeology. Praxeology is the logical part that follows from definitions, then there are the observational forms of “catallactics” that do not follow from logic. It’s also possible to make mistakes in the logic of praxeology.

For all that I don’t really accept Mises views on methods, but they are more reasonable than many people make them out to be.

In which I respond back:

you missed the point though… Mises thought the structure of praxeology was not falsifiable, it was a given everyday fact that humans acted purposefully. People like, say Karl Popper, did not like praxeology precisely because it could not be falsified.

But if we look at the Mises passage above he implies that economic theory may be falsified and replaced by something else. Thus in order to stay consistent, he is implying that praxeology may be falsified.

A Misesian cannot except both statements by Mises, one must accept that economics is, in a sense, an evolutionary process where economic theories are subject to change or that praxeology cannot be falsified . To accept both things would be contradictory.

So really, am I right then? Did Mises just contradict himself? I believe so. I doubt that I will get a satisfying answer from the opposition, but I am of course open to one.  This also raises another important question though: If then, praxeology does account for falsifiability, then can it finally be viewed as scientific, at least by the  followers of Karl Popper?

-Isaac Marmolejo

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5 responses to “Did Mises Contradict Himself?

  1. I don’t think Mises contradicted himself at all…by falsifiable in this case, he means subject to correct deductive scrutiny.

    “Man can never become omniscient…All that man can do is submit all his theories again and again to the most criticial reexamination. This means for the economist to trace back all theorems to their unquestionable and certain ……It cannot be contended that this procedure is a guarantee against error. ”

    (more, just too lazy to type it p.68)

    What Mises is implying is that he is not a god, and even with the deductive apparatus he (and all economists who utilize it) are prone to make mistakes. So while someone may say “Hey, I’ve deduced theory X from human action and it is now airtight”, someone else will say “No, I found a flaw in your theory with this particular deduction, so it is wrong”.

    • Patch,

      Nevertheless though, he is claiming that praxeology cannot be falsified and then claiming that economic theories may be falsified. It’s just the law of contradiction there. Once you apply praxeology to economic theory, you have to account for falsification.

      • Hes claiming that praxeological theories can be falsified by scrutinizing the logical deductions, not through empirical evidence. If Mises said that nothing he stated could even be “proven wrong” through deductive analysis, he wouldn’t be writing economics, he’d be preaching religion.

        Mises is saying that if the deductions are correct, then the economics is logically and apodictically true, and they can only be proven incorrect by finding a flaw in the deductions.

        • False, the quote Mises passage claiming that economic theories that we claim as satisfactory today and might discard in the future, due to better explanations says nothing about praxeology. The passage was meant as a general statement towards economic theories.

          So while Mises thought that a satisfactory explanation on economic theory dealt with solely on praxeology, valid and sound logical deductions, thus discarding empirical evidence when applied to the validity of economic theory, there still may be economic theories in the future that are better explanations than the praxeological approach. As Mises quite implied from the passage, economic theories are imperfect and must account for change, due to our mental limits, thus praxeology, when applied to economic theory, must account for that same thing, thus it has to be falsifiable, since to claim that it isn’t falsifiable means that it is a perfect system for economic theory, which is impossible.

  2. Pingback: Von Mises and Popper « The Radical Subjectivist

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