One of the primary dividing lines between practitioners of the “Austrian” School of economics and those of the mainstream is the appropriate method of economic reasoning – how are economic theorems validated and thus known to be true? “Austrians”, of course, are famous for their assertion that all of economic theory is deduced from a handful of axioms concerning human action, plus one or two empirical truths, such as the desire for leisure time. The mainstream, on the other hand, treats economics as being more akin to the natural sciences, where propositions are first formulated as hypotheses that must then be tested and validated empirically by sensory observation.

In commenting on this disagreement we shall, in this first part of our examination, go to the very heart of the matter and first of all define what we mean by epistemology and secondly to examine how it is that we know absolutely anything whatsoever. This is necessary before we look more closely at the “Austrian” method as it applies specifically to economics in part two.

Once more we must say that we are tackling here a very deep and extensive area of philosophy and much of that which we present will necessarily be brief, undeveloped and possibly incomplete. Nevertheless we hope here to outline the foundations of this important and much derided area of “Austrian” theory and its implications not only for economics but also for the social sciences and philosophy more widely.

The Purpose of “Austrian” Epistemology

One of the most frequent objections to the “Austrian” method is the misunderstanding that its chief concern is with how knowledge is acquired. Surely, these critics contend, we must have experience of, for example, what is supply and what is demand, or how to use money before we can formulate any theorems that concern them? We cannot just sit back and muse in our mind over these concepts divorced from any real, sensory interaction with what these things mean. However, the a priori nature of “Austrian” economic reasoning has less to do with how knowledge is attained and more to do with the cardinal question of how knowledge is validated – in other words, how do we know a given proposition to be true? Take, for example, the assertion that two parallel lines will never meet. We are not interested in the particular origins of my experience of parallel lines; rather, the question we want to answer is given that I have an experience of parallel lines what validates my conclusion that they will never meet? Do I need to construct the proposition “two parallel lines will never meet” as a hypothesis and then validate that hypothesis by empirical testing? Or will critical reflection upon the problem resolve the matter? In other words, do I need to go out and test a large sample of parallel lines in the real world in order to determine whether they will never meet; or can I reason in my mind that this must be absolutely and undeniably true?

The two titans of the twentieth century “Austrian” School, Ludwig von Mises and Murray N Rothbard, disagreed on the epistemological status of the fundamental categories of human action. Mises, who was influenced by Kantian epistemology, regarded them as “categories of the mind” and that they therefore existed prior to any experience. On the other hand Rothbard, an Aristoletian, denied this and regarded them as “broadly empirical”, something that could only be realised through experience. In other words they did not share the same theory concerning how we come to know the fundamental categories of human action. This divergence of opinion, however, did not prevent them both from recognising the essential self-evident truth of these fundamental categories and from recognising that such categories, regardless of how they come to be known, will always be a priori to the complex phenomena for which economics seeks an explanation. In spite of their differences in some of the more esoteric questions of epistemology, therefore, both could agree that all of the laws of economics are validated by reasoning and deduction from these self-evident categories and not from empirical testing. It is, therefore, the requirements for the validity of economic theory that separates practitioners of the Austrian School from their mainstream colleagues. This will be the focus of our attention in these essays.

Epistemology and Human Action

Let us therefore turn to the foundations of the “Austrian” method in wider epistemology. Contrary to what empiricists and relativists may claim, what is true and valid is heavily constrained by certain conditions of the universe in which humans find themselves. Truth and knowledge are not a tabula rasa upon which we can scribe whatever interesting pieces of information happen to come along. Even if they were we would first have to presuppose the existence and understanding of certain concepts simply to make such a record and communication – concepts such as identity, non-contradiction, alternatives, possibilities, causality, language, quantities, and of course, at the base of it all,  truth itself. You cannot record or communicate unless you have a common understanding of the concepts that you are recording or communicating. It is such presupposed concepts that heavily anchor the ambit of that which constitutes objective knowledge. Where does our knowledge of all of these aspects come from and how does it constrain or condition our search for further veracity?

It is submitted that at the very basis of all knowledge are a limited number of self-evident truths – truths that are proven simply by the endeavour of attempting to validate them. Furthermore, these self-evident truths are revealed to us through our action and the action axiom – the fact that we act in the universe and interact with reality – as all human endeavours in acquiring knowledge are actions and it is the formal conditions of actions that constrain the boundaries of knowledge.

The unique quality of self-evident truths is that they do not need further validation – to validate a proposition is to make it evident; yet if either stating or enquiring into the proposition is to validate it then one does not need to waste time and effort seeking further validation through observation, evidence or whatever; it is absurd to endeavour to make evident that which already is.

The first self-evident truths that we can derive from the action axiom are the individual actor’s identity, his consciousness and his existence. For any enquiry into the question of whether he exists and whether he is conscious answers that very question itself; for he cannot make such an enquiry without demonstrating to himself his existence and his consciousness. Furthermore, he presupposes his identity and his separation from other beings and objects – his enquiry being “do I exist?” and not whether a tree or China exists. He would settle the former question by introspection but not the latter questions, indicating his realisation of his identical separation from those other concepts, objects or beings. Any attempt by the individual to deny his existence, consciousness and identity would be to prove them – one cannot deny that one exists or is conscious; nor can one construct such an argument without recognising that he and he alone is the subject separate and distinct from other beings and objects.

Second, we have the constraints imposed by the formal categories of action itself – ends, means, choices and so on. All action must make a choice to direct means to an end at the exclusion of other ends with the outcome of either a psychic profit or a psychic loss. All enquiries are themselves actions that make use of these categories and so any attempt to disprove them would be futile. But what other self-evident truths are revealed by these categories of action? All actions must combine two or more means to produce an end at the cost of another end; what this reveals is our knowledge of conjunctions – “and” and “or” – for we must combine one means and another in order to produce either end A or end B. We also reveal our knowledge of quantities – for every end requires a specific quantity of a combination of means. A single cup and half a pint of water may be enough to satisfy the end of quenching my thirst; fewer cups or less water would fail to quench it; more cups would be superfluous and more water would cause a flood. Our actions always aim at combining means in the correct proportions. Quantities, incidentally, are a praxeological concept and are not reliant upon whatever we choose to represent them in notation or communication. We know that 2 plus 2 will always equal 4 whenever we act in relation to goods in the real world. The numbers themselves – 1, 2 3, 4 etc. – are simply symbols that we apply to the praxeological concept of each given quantity, routed in our understanding of action – 1 to a single unit of a good, 2 to double that quantity of units, 3 to triple the quantity, and so on. On paper 2 plus 2 could equal 5 but this only serves to change the symbols that we apply to these concepts and all that we have done is renamed that which we once called “4” as “5”. The concepts of 2, 4 and 5 always remain constant and routed in our action and regardless of what we call these quantities a fixed quantity of a good plus another fixed quantity will always arrive at the same quantity in sum however much the operation is repeated. Moreover, regardless of the symbols we choose our expression of quantities is always in a form or magnitude that best serves to meet our ends – both the diameter of a screw and the distance between London and New York City are lengths in space, yet it is praxeologically convenient for us to express the former in millimetres and the latter in either kilometres or miles.

As well as further embedding the law of identity in our recognition of these categories of action, we also reveal an understanding of the law of non-contradiction (A or not-A). For an action is motivated by the condition of scarcity thus revealing that we know that we cannot have our cake and eat it; nor can we swim and remain dry; nor can we be in two places at once. To believe the contrary would mean that a human would never act as he would expect all of his ends to arrive at his doorstep immediately. Action pursues either one end or another and is routed in the realisation that to achieve both or all of them would be a contradiction.

Third, actions all have to take place in space and we interact with this space in order to fulfil our ends. Hence we know automatically that our world is constructed in three dimensions and that certain interactions with space will fulfil our ends whereas others will not. If an apple is to my right then I reach out to my right and I am able to take possession of the apple; if it is on my left then I reach out to the left. More importantly, from this knowledge we derive all of the laws of Euclidean geometry that we use in order to interact with space.

Fourth, we have an understanding of the nature of causality as all actions are designed to produce a causal interference in the world that alters the assumed chain of events. If I wish to eat an apple and proceed to pick an apple from a tree I demonstrate that I know that my action will cause me to take possession of the apple and will cease its hanging from the branch. If I kick a ball my action causes it to fly through the air to another location. If humans did not have an innate understanding of causality then they would never act as they would not know that their movements would bring about the end desired. Action therefore demonstrates an understanding of the phenomenon of causality.

Fifth, we must know through our actions that we live in an aura of uncertainty – uncertainty in the sense that the actor does not know whether a given event is certain to materialise – not whether it is actually certain to do so in practice. If the actor knows that it is certain that event A will happen at point T then there would be no purpose in acting in order to bring about event B. An action to bring about event B at point T indicates that the actor knows that the materialisation of event A at point T is not certain and is subject to change. In any case, regardless of the knowledge of the certainty of events, action itself – the individual motivation towards ends by desires and choices – demonstrates that the world is not ruled by determinism. If it was the materialisation of all future actions of any individual would be motivated not by the individual desires of the human but by a pre-ordained plan that is written into the fabric of the universe. The fact that an actor expresses desires and choices that result in actions that change the course of events demonstrates that there is no fixed course to occurrences in the universe and that they can be altered by an expression of free will, if the means are sufficient. Furthermore, the act of making an enquiry also demonstrates the universal fact of uncertainty – the nature of an enquiry is that the answer is uncertain and could be one way or another. If the answer was certain then we would never bother to make an enquiry as we would already know the correct answer.

Finally, we have an understanding of the nature of time. All actions must take place through time and thus we know that we exist in a linear continuity. If actions did not have to take place through time then the ends would be achieved instantly and thus there would be no action – nor would there be any need to sequence the attainment of ends in order of preference. Indeed time, like quantities, is an inherently praxeological phenomenon. If humans were not subject to the condition of scarcity that motivated them to act and all of their ends were attained to their fullest instantly then the universe might physically exist in what we know as the “passage of time” but humans would have no awareness of this concept. All events would be contemporaneous and all enjoyments received instantly – there would be no comprehension of historical sequence and temporal distance would be non-existent. Any measurement of this non-existent distance in hours, minutes and seconds – let alone centuries, decades and years – would clearly be impossible.

By virtue of the inescapable fact that humans act we lay the groundwork for epistemology through our revelation of these self-evident truths – self-evident because any attempt to deny them must reveal their truth. We therefore realise that there is a body of truths that we know to be absolutely and apodictically true. The fundamental importance of this realisation cannot be denied – these categories of action that we have elaborated constrain and condition our search for knowledge and we cannot imagine knowledge that is incompatible with them. They are not mere conventions or choices of enquiry but are, rather, incontestably and undeniably true presuppositions of all arguments and theorems that may be posited. They are not the results of such arguments but are, rather, the starting blocks – that with which we must work in order to deduce further truth. More importantly, however, it anchors our search for objective truth of reality without having to investigate metaphysical and supernatural problems. In the deepest and murkiest waters of epistemology “truth” could mean pretty much anything we want it to mean. We could hold that simply because something is perceptible and realisable to us does not mean that it is “truthful” according to some as yet unknown, higher plain of understanding. Take, for example, the sensory perceptions. The fact that I can see an object, can touch it, can smell it taste it and if I drop it I can hear it break does not necessarily mean that the proposition “this object exists” is necessarily true – I am just perceiving it to be true. The world is not really full of colour nor do noises actually exist – these are simply interpretations by the brain of particular frequencies of light wave and sound wave respectively. Indeed there may be other senses that I do not possess that may depict hidden reality that I cannot perceive. Taken to an extreme, for all I know nobody else may exist and nothing of what I can perceive around me may be real – it might be some giant hallucination or a video game concocted by some other being who inhabits the genuinely real universe. Is it not possible that reality could just be a product of my consciousness and could I not be deluding myself when I try to concoct objective truths to comprehend that reality? These questions, however, do not concern us when we ground our epistemology upon action. If I act so as to use a cup as means from which to drink a beverage in order to satisfy the end of quenching my thirst I demonstrates my knowledge of the cup’s existence and its possession of certain qualities that affect its suitability as means in action and its direction towards the end of quenching thirst. I can try and deny this and reason that, upon some “higher” plain of understanding, this cup does not exist or that it possesses qualities which it does not. Yet my actions towards this object will always prove the opposite, from actions that both succeed in attaining their ends and those that fail. I might claim that the law that the angles of all triangles sum to 180 degrees is not really true according to some mystical level of knowledge. And yet when I act so as to construct one, or if I try to build a structure that relies on triangles, I will always have to use triangles with angles that sum to 180 degrees; if I did not the outcome would be a failure to attain my end. There is therefore a distinct epistemological harmony and coherence that is revealed to us through the categories of actions – choices, means, ends, results – that ground our knowledge in objective reality and rescue it from ethereal musings. If there was no such coherence between these categories then a person would simply never act at all as there would be no objective laws that link these categories. The characteristic of genuine hallucinations is that they display discordance between the categories of action. In a real case, an individual experienced a hallucination induced by LSD in which he believed his partner had turned into a vicious snake; terrified, he grabbed a knife and proceeded to stab the snake. His end was to kill the snake – a being that looked like a snake, behaved like a snake, hissed like snake and to all intents and purposes was, to him, a snake. And yet the result was that he killed not a snake but his partner. It is clear that where the identities and qualities of means and ends change randomly at will it would be impossible to ground our epistemology on any plain of reality at all. The fact that we are able to continue to act, to meet ends through means motivated by choices indicates that this is not so. Even the failure to meet ours ends indicates not a lack of objective law but the fact that the means were not appropriate for the ends sought – and will be inappropriate once again if the action is repeated under the same conditions. Unless interactive flaws, such as the appearance of the snake, begin to emerge in our current reality then we can be content that we are not all undergoing a mass hallucination, that this is the reality in which we live and this is what we are interested in as the object of our study. More powerfully, however, any action whatsoever demonstrates an individual’s belief in an objective knowledge of this reality that he is powerless to deny – for to do so would itself be an action that displays knowledge of the harmony between choices, means and ends.

We are with confidence, therefore, able to take a position contrary to those of positivism, relativism, skepticism, nihilism and the like and hold that there is a body of truths that are absolutely and undeniably true, undeniable because their self-evidence is revealed to us through the fact their denial would simply end up proving them. It is this springboard – epistemology grounded upon an action – that leads directly to the “Austrian” understanding of how to derive knowledge of other humans and of inanimate, unconscious objects.

Finally, we must also state the fact that the endeavour to attain knowledge and truth is itself bound inherently with our role as actors. Our goal in explaining complex phenomena and gaining an understanding of the world around us is to enhance the effectiveness of our actions – even if the end is merely to attain knowledge for some aesthetic purpose such as the exercising of the mind and the enjoyment of an inherent sense of beauty and order that one may perceive in truth. Non-actors, those creatures whose movements are motivated simply by instinct, never seek the attainment of knowledge for they do not possess the rational mind through which to process it; and if we were humans living in a world of total abundance the seeking of knowledge would be superfluous. Not only would a lack of knowledge itself indicate scarcity but when all enjoyments and satisfactions are achieved instantaneously the attainment of knowledge would have no purpose. Al things would be known and enjoyed immediately and there would be no enquiry into anything whatsoever. At its most basic level, therefore, knowledge itself is a category of action and is intimately bound with our role has human actors.

Conclusion

Having sketched the foundations of our epistemology, therefore, we can go on in the next part to the “Austrian” understanding of human action and the actions of non-humans and the implications of this understanding for economics.

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