Radical Subjectivism Is Radical and Subjectivist!

This is a quick response to: “‘Radical Subjectivism’: Not Radical, Not Subjectivist” by John O’Neill

Meaning of ‘Radical’

I show that the core claim of radical subjectivism, as it is presented by its proponents, is neither radical nor subjectivist. It is not radical—the thesis it defends has been around for some two millennia. Attention to that history shows that it need not be subjectivist.

Right off the bat, this statement is made. From my interpretation, he is implying that ‘radical’ means that it is a brand new idea of something. It is a faulty definition of ‘radical’ but even if that definition was to hold, that is not what Radical Subjectivists mean by radical. Radical Subjectivism is radical in the sense that we extend subjectivism to not only preferences but to expectations as well. This is quite clear in Lachmann’s essay ‘An Austrian Stocktaking’ when he states:

 The first, and most prominent, feature of Austrian economics is a radical subjectivism, today no longer confined to human preferences but extended to expectations. It found its perfect expression many years ago in Hayek’s statement, “It is probably no exaggeration to say that every important advance in economic theory during the last hundred years was a further step in the consistent application of subjectivism.”

While other Austrians think they have done work on expectations with claims like, “Austrian economists from Menger to Rothbard were fully aware of time, uncertainty, knowledge, expectations, institutions, and market processes,” they are false, or seriously mislead (at best), at least in the eyes of the Radical Subjectivists because, as I explained to a commenter:

[I]n accepting subjective expectations, one also has to accept the fact that markets are not stable. The concept of market instability is something lacking in the Austrian literature, mainly because most Austrians fail to see that the market is an unstable process.

Unfortunately, all throughout the paper, he uses the word ‘radical’ in the sense that it is supposed to mean that it is something new. He simply interprets a story by Aristotle and concludes something along the lines of: “A ha! You see, you guys are not radical because this idea of future being indeterminate (in the sense that there is no objective value or a given state of the future) was already thought of by Aristotle and ‘has a long history in scholastic philosophy concerning foreknowledge and determinism.'” Obviously, if you are critiquing Radical Subjectivists, it is good to know what we mean by ‘radical’.

To bring this point home, let me say that this is as bad of a straw man as saying, “Mises thought that people act purposefully, that is, people act rationally, but this is false because people do not act rationally. It is irrational if you think dancing around a bonfire is going produce rain.” Obviously, yes in a scientific sense, it is irrational but Mises’ ‘rationality’ dealt with people doing means to attain some end. But this example is a bit different than the O’Neill/Radical Subjectivist problem because while it is legitimate to have a definition of rationality based on the scientific sense and the Misesian sense, O’Neill completely changes the definition of radical to mean ‘something new,’ which this is the first time, and probably only time, I will ever see ‘radical’ defined in such a way.

Subjectivity

Im not really sure here what exactly he is criticizing here. He says that our view of subjectivity “…can be stated without reference to the notion of subjectivity at all and in the traditional discussions from Aristotle through the scholastics it was thus stated.” And thus, “[t]he position need not be characterized as ‘subjectivist.'” I am not quite sure this is logically correct. Nor do I completely understand his entrepreneurial story, but since it is implied that it is the same as the Sea Battle Argument, I will talk about the Sea Battle Argument. Aristotle assumes in this argument that everything is predetermined, that is as Aristotle states, “Everything is, or happens of necessity.” And from there, one might be able to get truth value. But Radical Subjectivists do not hold onto the view that the future is predetermined, so I am not quite sure how this connects. While choices today determine future states, these choices differ. Even if we were to assume to know all choices in a given time, the future would still be unknown for the data is bound to change as time changes. What I can say is that we are subjectivists. We hold onto the view the prefernces greatly differ from person to person, that expectations differ from person to person, the way knowledge is interpreted is different, etc etc. And on top of that, we reject to give these things (interpretations of knowledge, expectations, and preferences) objective value, and reject that there can somehow be a way to aggregate these things and apply them into formula.  This is what we mean by being subjectivists, I see no connection to these themes in O’Neill’s paper.

-Isaac Marmolejo

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4 responses to “Radical Subjectivism Is Radical and Subjectivist!

  1. Izzy, isn’t it funny that an Austrian academic journal would let this article that you are critiquing be published. Obviously, it completely misrepresents radical subjectivism.

  2. You, sir, have made me interested in radical subjectivism. You never really hear about Lachmanns contributions to AE now and you do a great job in ‘reviving’ his work and importance.

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