Human Action, Ch. 1

Well, I finally started reading Human ActionOne connection stood out to me from the first chapter. 

First, there’s much more attention paid to fundamental philosophy than I expect from economic treatises. This is understandable given that Mises felt he had to set the stage — sparring, as he says, with the irrationalists, polylogists, historicists, positivists, behaviorists, and other economists within the youngest science. Every undergrad, cracking open Hobbes’ Leviathan, is startled to find lengthy remarks on human cognition in what they thought was only a work of political philosophy; this was a similar experience. 

There are noticeable allusions between von Mises and pre- and post-Tractatus Wittgenstein. Both Austrians and both Ludwigs, the economist writes that “It is impossible for the human mind to conceive logical relations at variance with the logical structure of our mind. It is impossible for the human mind to conceive a mode of action whose categories would differ from the categories which determine our own actions” (p. 25). Similarly, for the philosopher, the logical structure of thought (and language) was a central theme of Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus; one of the young Wittgenstein’s conclusions was that some (ethical, aesthetic, metaphysical) postulates go beyond the limits of language and, when crunched into such human linguistic straightjackets, create sheer nonsense (leading to such maxims like, “What can be said at all can be said clearly…”) (TLP, §7).

Each Ludwig, of course, limited their inquiry to the human mind, discovering, like Kant, universal conditions of rational beings (or so I garner so far from Mises). 

Another methodological point in common. Ludwig von Mises, in section The Alter Ego, remarks on “the ultimate given,” an idea which, I believe, is unpopular in contemporary epistemology. The empirical sciences must reach final points of inquiry, upon which their tools fail to produce deeper insight. This is so because, to Mises, there are only “two principles available for a mental grasp of reality, namely, those of teleology and causality” (p. 25): teleology belonging to purposeful behavior, and causality to non-purposive objects of study. The former, applied ad infinitum, must stop at the unmoved mover, and the latter can only invoke an infinite regress. This point is important for deploying praxeology as a deductive science.

This doesn’t seem like a new insight, but it’s also one that Wittgenstein touches upon in a different way in Philosophical Investigations, writing in the first segment “Explanations come to an end somewhere.” The use of language in daily life does not imply ultimate, elucidated concepts between speakers; we never ask for these and likewise we do not need them to communicate. Reaching deeper into shared insight also leads to confusion; we talk of objects and ideas as ‘wholes’ and ‘composites,’ but these categories are not unambiguous. Wittgenstein situates the sense of concept-analysis only within a language game: “The question ‘Is what you see composite?’ makes good sense if it is already established what kind of complexity — that is, which particular use of the word — is in question. If it had been laid down that the visual image of a tree was to be called ‘composite’ if one saw not just a single trunk, but also branches, then the question ‘Is the visual image of this tree simple or composite?’, and the question ‘What are its simple component parts?’, would have a clear sense — a clear use.” So therefore, “To the philosophical question: ‘Is the visual image of this tree composite, and what are its component parts?’ the correct answer is: ‘That depends on what you understand by “composite”.’ (And that is of course not an answer but a rejection of the question.)” (PI, §47).

In the future I might post on Mises’ short use of terms like “being,” “change,”and “becoming,” which he uses in a sense reminiscent of Parmenides.

Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations. G. E. M. Anscombe trans.

von Mises, Human Action. Scholar’s Edition. Ludwig von Mises Institute.


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