Mises often answers attacks on praxeology with a “minimalist” strategy. By this I mean that he denies that praxeology rests on controversial philosophical positions. By avoiding philosophical disputes, he tries to stay out of trouble he doesn’t need. He says, in effect, “We have an a priori grasp of the concept of action, and we can deduce various truths that follow from this concept. We also know that this concept applies to reality—actions exist. That’s all we need.” In what follows, I’ll give some examples of how Mises follows this strategy. It’s a hard strategy to follow, and Mises sometimes does take stands on disputed philosophical issues.
One objection to praxeology is this. Mises says there are a priori truths about action. We can discover the formal structure of all actions just by thinking about the concept of action. But what if our actions are determined by material forces, not by an independent realm of thoughts? To clear a space for praxeology, don’t we have to show that this claim about the way our actions are determined is false?
Mises says that we don’t. He supports what he calls “methodological dualism.” He says,
Various doctrines have been advanced to explain the relation between mind and body. They are mere surmises without any reference to observed facts. All that can be said with certainty is that there are relations between mental and physiological processes. With regard to the nature and operation of this connection we know little if anything.
Concrete value judgments and definite human actions are not open to further analysis. We may fairly assume or believe that they are absolutely dependent upon and conditioned by their causes. But as long as we do not know how external facts—physical and physiologica—-produce in a human mind definite thoughts and volitions resulting in concrete acts, we have to face an insurmountable methodological dualism….Reason and experience show us two separate realms: the external world of physical, chemical, and physiological phenomena and the internal world of thought, feeling, valuation, and purposeful action. No bridge connects—as far as we can see today—these two spheres. Identical external events result sometimes in different human responses, and different external events produce sometimes the same human response. We do not know why….Human action is one of the agencies bringing about change. It is an element of cosmic activity and becoming. Therefore it is a legitimate object of scientific investigation. As—at least under present conditions—it cannot be traced back to its causes, it must be considered as an ultimate given and must be studied as such. (Human Action, p. 61)
Someone might respond, “What if this situation changes in the future? What if we are able to show how thoughts arise from purely physical phenomena? Mises isn’t concerned with that. It isn’t our situation now, and this is all that we need.
Mises follows the same strategy on a related objection, but here he gets into a bit of trouble. The related objection I have in mind is this: “Doesn’t praxeology depend on the controversial philosophical position that people have free will? In praxeology, there is constant reference to people’s choices.”
Mises again denies that praxeology depends on doubtful doctrines. He says,
Some philosophers are prepared to explode the notion of man’s will as an illusion and self-deception because man must unwittingly behave according to the inevitable laws of causality. They may be right or wrong from the point of view of the prime mover or the cause of itself. However, from the human point of view action is the ultimate thing. We do not assert that man is “free” in choosing and acting. We merely establish the fact that he chooses and acts and that we are at a loss to use the methods of the natural sciences for answering the question why he acts this way and not otherwise. (Human Action, p. 675)
The way he gets into trouble is that he is assuming that you can make choices even if you are determined. He is a “compatibilist.” Some philosophers deny this. These “incompatibilists” say that if we are determined, then we don’t choose. This position can be deployed against either determinism or the fact of choice. Since we are determined, we don’t choose. Alternatively, since we do choose, determinism is false. This isn’t the place to assess the controversy. The point I want to make is that Mises isn’t sidestepping a philosophical dispute here. He isn’t fully able to say, as he would like, “I leave such arguments to the metaphysicians.”
One more area where Mises tries to avoid philosophical disputes is in his doctrine of methodological individualism. Groups such as nations or classes don’t act apart from the individuals in them. The action of the United States in declaring war against Japan on December 8, 1941 is explainable entirely by actions of Franklin Roosevelt, members of Congress, and other people. So far, so good, but Mises extends the doctrine in a controversial way here. He says,
If one assumes that there exists above and beyond the individual’s actions an imperishable entity aiming at its own ends, different from those of mortal men, one has already constructed the concept of a superhuman being. Then one cannot evade the question whose ends take precedence whenever an antagonism arises, those of the state or society or those of the individual. (Human Action, p. 705)
In another place, he says,
It is true that some philosophers were ready to overrate the power of human reason. They believed that man can discover by ratiocination the final causes of cosmic events, the inherent ends the prime mover aims at in creating the universe and determining the course of its evolution. They expatiated on the “Absolute” as if it were their pocket watch. They did not shrink from announcing eternal absolute values and from establishing moral codes unconditionally binding on all men. (Human Action, p. 656)
Here again Mises gets into controversial territory. To reject superhuman beings, Hegel’s Geist among them, is to take up a philosophical stance, not to insulate praxeology from philosophy.
Murray Rothbard looks at matters in a different way. He isn’t a minimalist but argues explicitly for various philosophical views, such as “strong” free will, in his defense of praxeology. I hope to address some of his arguments in a future column.