26/06/2006 4 min #1496

The Philosophical Origins of Austrian Economics

{::export from newsnet in Analyses by newsnet date: 26/06/06}Deductive Science

Another Aristotelian theme exercised great influence on the Austrians; and this one, fortunately, is easier to document. The characteristic method of Austrian economics, carried to its culmination in Mises, is deduction. One starts with a self-evident axiom ("man acts") and with the aid of a few subsidiary postulates, deduces the entire science of human action.

Where does this notion of science originate? Although, as earlier mentioned, it is very difficult in intellectual history to demonstrate direct influence, I think it is no accident that the idea of a deductive science is found in Aristotle's Posterior Analytics. Aristotle argues that a complete science must start with a self-evident axiom and, by the use of deduction, exfoliate the entire discipline. Often conditions force the use of mere empirical hypotheses, but this is a mere expedient.[10]

Empirical science exists as a placeholder for true science, which must work through deduction. When Brentano and others revived the study of Aristotle, this view of method became available for study in Austrian universities.

Aristotle also discusses the necessity of self-evident principles in the Nicomachean Ethics. He notes that to justify a proposition, one would normally proceed by citing another proposition. But if matters are left at this, the task is not finished. What in turn justifies the proposition advanced in support of one's original claim? Obviously, one can cite yet another proposition, but this procedure cannot continue forever.

One needs to start with one or more self-evident axioms from which justification proceeds. Unless this is done, reasons advanced in support of one's claims will hang in air. One will either pile up justifications indefinitely or argue in a circle. Once more the parallel with the Austrian procedure is precise. Praxeology stems from the axiom of action, which itself requires nothing further in its support.

A common mistake needs to be noted here. It does not follow from the regress argument about justification that one must always trace arguments to one axiom alone. All that the argument shows is that at least one self-evident principle is required to begin a chain of justification. But nothing in the argument limits the number of these principles.

If one were to argue that to avoid an infinite regress of justification, one must arrive at a single axiom, the argument would be fallacious. The argument, in brief, would be that since every proposition that is not self-evident requires justification, there must be some basic proposition which is the source from which all others are justified. This is equivalent to the "argument" that since everyone has a father, someone is everyone's father. Obviously, this is wrong.

When a proposition is claimed to be self-evident, this does not mean that one is appealing to a psychological experience of certainty in support of the proposition. To do so would precisely be not to claim that the proposition was self-evident, since its evidence here depends on something else the psychological experience. Whether one has an "Aha" experience in the style of Gestalt psychology on coming to realize the self-evidence of a proposition is irrelevant.

The point is important because contemporary hermeneuticists sometimes maintain that the self-evident axioms of praxeology are really principles accepted by a particular community. This approach is just a variant of the psychological fallacy we have already considered. Whether a particular group accepts a proposition as an axiom differs from the question of whether the axiom is self-evident.

article complet : mises.org