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In his treatise Human Action, Austrian School economist Ludwig von Mises attempts to establish economics not as an empirical science, or a mathematical theory, but as a synthetic a priori endeavor he calls praxeology. Praxeology is supposed to be a study of the consequences of a single axiom called the Action Axiom, which states roughly that "Humans act." or "Human behavior is purposeful behavior."

My question is, have there been any critiques of Mises' praxeological theory? There have no doubt been critiques of his views from an economic perspective, and there have probably been plenty of people criticizing Mises for not taking empirical observations into account in his economic models. But has anyone seriously examined whether praxeology is a viable and rigorous synthetic a priori theory, and whether we can really make substantive conclusions from such a meager axiom as "Humans act."?

I would also like to know whether anyone has made an attempt to render praxeological reasoning in symbolic form. Previous theories that were claimed to be synthetic a priori later came to be regarded as analytic. Kant thought that Euclidean geometry was synthetic, but then the discovery of non-Euclidean geometry and the advent of rigorous formalizations of Euclid's axioms by Tarski and Hilbert led most philosophers to conclude that it was analytic. Similarly, Kant dubbed arithmetic synthetic, but then Frege made a compelling case that it was analytic by providing logical foundations to the subject (with the help of Peano's axiomatization of arithmetic). So an attempt to write out symbolically the reasoning of Mises (and his successors like Rothbard) might either reveal that it's totally incoherent or lacking in rigor, or it might remove the synthetic quality.

Any help would be greatly appreciated.

Thank You in Advance

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My question is, have there been any critiques of Mises' praxeological theory?

Sure. None have been successful though.

1 He who wants to attack a praxeological theorem has to trace it back, step by step, until he reaches a point in which, in the chain of reasoning that resulted in the theorem concerned, a logical error can be unmasked. But if this regressive process of deduction ends at the category of action without having discovered a vicious link in the chain of reasoning, the theorem is fully confirmed. Those positivists who reject such a theorem without having subjected it to this examination are no less foolish than those seventeenth-century astronomers were who refused to look through the telescope that would have shown them that Galileo was right and they were wrong. — Ludwig von Mises, Ultimate Foundation of Economic Science, p.70

2 "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 —as the present writer thinks, false— a synthetic a priori proposition, for it can manifestly not be established by experience." — Ludwig von Mises, The Ultimate Foundation of Economic Science, pg. 5

3 “The attempt to disprove the action-axiom would itself be an action aimed at a goal, requiring means, excluding other courses of action, incurring costs, subjecting the actor to the possibility of achieving or not achieving the desired goal and so leading to a profit or a loss.

And the very possession of such knowledge then can never be disputed, and the validity of these concepts can never be falsified by any contingent experience, for disputing or falsifying anything would already have presupposed their very existence. As a matter of fact, a situation in which these categories of action would cease to have a real existence could itself never be observed, for making an observation, too, is an action.” — Hans-Hermann Hoppe, Economic Science and the Austrian Method

I would also like to know whether anyone has made an attempt to render praxeological reasoning in symbolic form. Previous theories that were claimed to be synthetic a priori later came to be regarded as analytic. Kant thought that Euclidean geometry was synthetic, but then the discovery of non-Euclidean geometry and the advent of rigorous formalizations of Euclid's axioms by Tarski and Hilbert led most philosophers to conclude that it was analytic. Similarly, Kant dubbed arithmetic synthetic, but then Frege made a compelling case that it was analytic by providing logical foundations to the subject (with the help of Peano's axiomatization of arithmetic).

"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.

The starting point of praxeology is a self-evident truth, the cognition of action, that is, the cognition of the fact that there is such a thing as consciously aiming at ends. There is no use cavilling about these words by referring to philosophical problems that have no bearing upon our problem. The truth of this cognition is as self-evident and as indispensable for the human mind as is the distinction between A and non-A.” — Ludwig von Mises, The Ultimate Foundation of Economic Science, p.5

So an attempt to write out symbolically the reasoning of Mises (and his successors like Rothbard) might either reveal that it's totally incoherent or lacking in rigor, or it might remove the synthetic quality.

It is unnecessary.

Praxeology: The Methodology of Austrian Economics by Murray N. Rothbard

...Moreover, even if verbal economics could be successfully translated into mathematical symbols and then translated into English so as to explain the conclusions, the process makes no sense and violates the great scientific principle of Occam’s Razor: avoiding unnecessary multiplication of entities…

...Although himself a mathematical economist, the mathematician son of Carl Menger wrote a trenchant critique of the idea that mathematical presentation in economics is necessarily more precise than ordinary language:

Consider, for example, the statements (2) To a higher price of a good, there corresponds a lower (or at any rate not a higher) demand. (2') If p denotes the price of, and q the demand for, a good, then q = f(p) and dq/dp = f' (p) ≤ 0

Those who regard the formula (2') as more precise or "more mathematical" than the sentence (2) are under a complete misapprehension … the only difference between (2) and (2') is this: since (2') is limited to functions which are differentiable and whose graphs, therefore, have tangents (which from an economic point of view are not more plausible than curvature), the sentence (2) is more general, but it is by no means less precise: it is of the same mathematical precision as (2').

Mathematics versus Economic Logic by Ludwig von Mises

...The deliberations which result in the formulation of an equation are necessarily of a nonmathematical character. The formulation of the equation is the consummation of our knowledge; it does not directly enlarge our knowledge. […] No such constant relations exist, however, between economic elements. The equations formulated by mathematical economics remain a useless piece of mental gymnastics and would remain so even it they were to express much more than they really do.

...The mathematical method is at a loss to show how, from a state of nonequilibrium, those actions spring up which tend toward the establishment of equilibrium. It is, of course, possible to indicate the mathematical operations required for the transformation of the mathematical description of a definite state of nonequilibrium into the mathematical description of the state of equilibrium. But these mathematical operations by no means describe the market process actuated by the discrepancies in the price structure. The differential equations of mechanics are supposed to describe precisely the motions concerned at any instant of the time traveled through. The economic equations have no reference whatever to conditions as they really are in each instant of the time interval between the state of nonequilibrium and that of equilibrium. Only those entirely blinded by the prepossession that economics must be a pale replica of mechanics will underrate the weight of this objection. A very imperfect and superficial metaphor is not a substitute for the services rendered by logical economics...

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Four names, from the Austrian school itself, that come to mind as critics of Mises' Praxeology are Murray Rothbard, Izrael Kirzner, F.A. Hayek and Ludwig Lachmann.

You should be able to find references to these four gentlemen (and others) in this PDF. critiques are mentioned and responded to in various footnotes.

  • Rothbard seems to disagree slightly with Mises about the epistemological status of praxeology, viewing the subject as concerning self-evident truths about humans' internal mental experiences rather than universe-independent Platonic truths, but I think he's still firmly in the praxeologist camp. He still views it as a priori, even if he has a more Aristotelian conception of what a priori truh is. – Keshav Srinivasan Jul 22 '13 at 14:59
  • (cont'd). So do you know of more fundamental critiques, ones that totally reject praxeology? And do you know of any critiques from outside the Austrian school? – Keshav Srinivasan Jul 22 '13 at 15:01
  • Not off-hand, no, but I would go look in Socialist texts from around the same time as well as the works of John Maynard Keynes. As I said, I'm not well-versed on the critiques. – Captain Kenpachi Jul 22 '13 at 15:06
  • I expect that Keynes would critique Mises' views from an economic perspective, I doubt that he would spend much time examining praxeology. Ditto for the socialists, although I suppose some of them may have critiques of Mises' philosophy of methodological individualism. – Keshav Srinivasan Jul 22 '13 at 19:36
  • Socialism is also known as Dialectic Materialism and is about much more than economics. It's worth a quick look. – Captain Kenpachi Jul 23 '13 at 7:49
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This is an old thread, but I happened upon it in a similar search. And in that search I found this paper that seems to apply to your question. I found this paper's contextualization of Mises' radical apriorism with other philosophers such as Wittgenstein, Frege, Kant, Popper, etc. quite illuminating. It's by Roderick T. Long.

https://mises.org/journals/scholar/long.pdf

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This isn't an answer to your question but its too long to go into a comment. The examples you put forward for the border between synthetic & analytic being porous from Kant are commonly misunderstood examples from his ouevre, whether one subscribes to his description of conscious & reality or not.

Kant thought that Euclidean geometry was synthetic, but then the discovery of non-Euclidean geometry and the advent of rigorous formalizations of Euclid's axioms by Tarski and Hilbert led most philosophers to conclude that it was analytic

Kant was interested in how consciousness apprehends reality directly as well as conceptually, he regards space and time as part of our inner sense which enables experience. That physical reality conceptually and in reality is non-euclidean, that there are other geometries available does not obviate the fact that our immediate experience of the space around us is euclidean (in an intuitive sense and not intellectual). Were we creatures that evolved in another possible world where the curvature of spacetime was visible & appreciable on the human scale and immediately apprensible to us in some manner then that would be the geometry he would have used.

He also distinguished analytic and synthetic propositions into two kinds - a priori and a postereroi, and asked the question are synthetic a priori propositions are possible - which he claims is a question never before asked - why, because, on the face of it this appears impossible - how can something be before experience & also of experience. Because he supposes what he calls our intuition enables the conditions of our experience, he concludes that there are such propositions - and they are space & time.

Similarly, Kant dubbed arithmetic synthetic, but then Frege made a compelling case that it was analytic by providing logical foundations to the subject (with the help of Peano's axiomatization of arithmetic)

Kant similarly identifies other categories (going back to Aristotle) that are synthetic a priori, including Quantity. But arithmetic is an intellectual capacity and not an intuition and is thus wholly synthetic. After all a child of two is aware of Quantity but is not aware of arithmetic. As far mathematical foundations go, the situation is controversial, there is a good case for logical pluralism as there is for logical monism.

The main thing to take away, is that Kant refines the analytic-synthetic dichotomy into a priori & aposterori ones, he states that space & quantity are synthetic a priori, and would regard (formal) euclidean space & arithmetic as synthetic.

  • I think you misunderstand why the discovery of non-Euclidean geometry led people to stop regarding Euclidean geometry as synthetic a priori. You see, Kant examined Euclid's Elements, and saw that Euclid's methods weren't very rigorous. So he concluded that the work of geometers was not one of pure reason, but rather an endeavor that involed the use of intuition. But then later, with the advent of non-Euclidean geometry, people found ways to more rigorously express geometric reasoning, eliminating appeals to intuition, so that geometry became purely a matter of logical deduction. – Keshav Srinivasan Jul 23 '13 at 2:36
  • Similarly, Frege's "Grundlagen Der Arithmetik" (or Foundations of Arithmetic in English) is an attempt to show how we can acquire arithmetical truths purely through reason, rather than through Kantian intuition at all. You can read Frege's book here: naturalthinker.net/trl/texts/Frege,Gottlob/… Frege was well-versed in Kantian thought (and he actually agreed with Kant that geometry was synthetic a priori), so I urge you to examine his argument for why arithmetic is analytic. – Keshav Srinivasan Jul 23 '13 at 2:40
  • I'm not so sure about that - Non-euclidean geometry was discovered because geometers had struggled to accept the parallel postulate or its variants as self-evident. So tried to deduce it from the others. This had gone on well before Kants time. Even Omar Khayyam in 10th Century Baghdad had a go. It was only in relatively modern times that it was realised that other consistent geometries are possible - and this was done by using essentially the same kind of geometric reasoning that Euclid did. – Mozibur Ullah Jul 23 '13 at 3:16
  • Even Frege thought very highly of Euclids level of rigour, he writes in the Grundlagen, which I've only just looked through 'After deserting for a time the old Euclidean standards of rigour, mathematics is now returning to them, or even making efforts to go beyond them'. – Mozibur Ullah Jul 23 '13 at 3:29
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For your specific question look at http://axiomaticeconomics.com/critiques/critiques17.php. By the way, Frege recanted after finding himself unable to eliminate Russell's paradox from his logicist system. Having always believed that geometry is synthetic a priori whereas arithmetic is analytic, he concluded that arithmetic had to be synthetic a priori as well. Before dying he started to re-construct arithmetic according to this idea. Unfortunately he did not get far enough.

  • Yes, at the end of his life, Frege gave up his logicist project and tried to develop numbers out of geometry, viewed as a synthetic a priori subject. I think it's pretty clear that Frege simply didn't grasp the work of people like Hilbert. There's quite a few papers about the Frege-Hilbert controversy, but basically it boils down to the fact that Hilbert didn't frame his work in a Fregean way, so Frege didn't recognize that Hilbert was trying to do the same thing to geometry that Frege had tried do to arithmetic. – Keshav Srinivasan Sep 19 '13 at 22:56

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