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October 20, 2013 / Adam Knott

The Structural Difference between Social Science and Natural Science – Part 2a: The Epistemological Approach to Knowledge

Physical science studies the objective or physical world; praxeology studies the subjective world or the world of consciousness.  Understanding praxeology requires a deeper understanding of the difference between these two realms of study.  As a guide to understanding the nature of physical science we will use Arthur Eddington’s The Philosophy of Physical Science, and we will contrast Eddington’s account of physical science with the fundamentally different approach taken by praxeology.  Eddington’s book is important for the reason that, while his subject is physical science, he advocates the same epistemological method or epistemological approach that is the foundation of Mises’s social science.  Because Eddington goes into some detail about the relationship between the epistemological approach and physical knowledge, this allows us to form a clear and distinct conception of the relationship between the epistemological approach and social or praxeological knowledge.

Eddington’s primary contention is that the laws of physics are entirely subjective in nature.

All the laws of nature that are usually classed as fundamental can be foreseen wholly from epistemological considerations.  They correspond to a priori knowledge, and are therefore wholly subjective…the system of fundamental laws is wholly subjective. (p. 57)

All [the] progress [of physics] relates to subjective law.  It all relates to uniformities imposed on the results of observation by the procedure of observation. (p. 62)

The subjectivity referred to in these lectures is that which arises from the sensory and intellectual equipment of the observer. (p. 85)

What Eddington refers to as the epistemological approach goes hand-in-hand with the study of laws of subjectivity.

We may distinguish knowledge of the physical universe derived by study of the results of observation as a posteriori knowledge, and knowledge derived by epistemological study of the procedure of observation as a priori knowledge. (p. 24)

The epistemologist is an observer only in the sense that he observes what is in the mind. (p. 23)

…the epistemological approach takes knowledge as the starting point rather than an existent entity of which we have somehow to obtain knowledge. (p. 3)

The traditional method of systematic examination of the data furnished by observation is not the only way of reaching the generalizations valued in physical science.  Some at least of these generalisations can also be found by examining the sensory and intellectual equipment used in observation. (p. 18)

Generalisations that can be reached epistemologically have a security which is denied to those that can only be reached empirically. (p. 19)

The situation is changed when we recognize that some laws of nature may have an epistemological origin.  These are compulsory; and when their epistemological origin is established, we have a right to our expectation that they will be obeyed invariably and universally.  The process of observing, of which they are a consequence, is independent of time or place. (p. 20)

If we compare Eddington’s conception of the epistemological approach to Mises’s description of the foundation of praxeology, we will find a remarkable similarity of vision:

Human knowledge is conditioned by the structure of the human mind.  If it chooses human action as the subject matter of its inquiries, it cannot mean anything else than the categories of action which are proper to the human mind and are its projection into the external world of becoming and change.  All the theorems of praxeology refer only to these categories of action and are valid only in the orbit of their operation. (HA, p. 36)

[The problem of the a priori] refers to the essential and necessary character of the logical structure of the human mind. (HA, p. 34)

For man every cognition is conditioned by the logical structure of his mind and implied in this structure. (HA, p. 86)

For, as must be emphasized again, the reality the elucidation and interpretation of which is the task of praxeology is congeneric with the logical structure of the human mind. (UF, p. 65)

The a priori sciences—logic, mathematics, and praxeology—aim at a knowledge unconditionally valid for all beings endowed with the logical structure of the human mind. (HA, p. 57)

Writing in the early 1940’s, Hayek described the epistemological approach in this way:

If we consider for a moment the simplest kinds of actions where this problem arises, it becomes, of course, rapidly obvious that, in discussing what we regard as other people’s conscious actions, we invariably interpret their action on the analogy of our own mind: that is, that we group their actions, and the objects of their actions, into classes or categories which we know solely from the knowledge of our own mind. (IEO, p. 63)

We thus always supplement what we actually see of another person’s action by projecting into that person a system of classification of objects which we know, not from observing other people, but because it is in terms of these classes that we think ourselves. (IEO, p. 63)

The claim to which I have referred follows directly from this character of the first part of our task as a branch of applied logic.  But it sounds startling enough at first.  It is that we can derive from the knowledge of our own mind in an “a priori” or “deductive” or “analytic” fashion, an (at least in principle) exhaustive classification of all the possible forms of intelligible behavior. (IEO, p. 67)

…when we reflect that, whenever we discuss intelligible behavior, we discuss actions which we can interpret in terms of our own mind, the claim loses its startling character and in fact becomes no more than a truism.  If we can understand only what is similar to our own mind, it necessarily follows that we must be able to find all that we can understand in our own mind. (IEO, p. 68)

Let us pause for a moment and reflect on this procedure which Eddington refers to as the epistemological approach.  The idea is relatively simple: in the epistemological approach, we operate on the assumption that the regularity or uniformity of phenomena is a function of our consciousness, not a function of the external or physical world.  For example, let’s take the law(s) of conservation.  Our cognition and experience concerning the operant laws of conservation may be interpreted in at least two ways.  We may conceive that conservation “exists” in the objective, physical world, independent of any consciousness.  Or, we may conceive that we experience the phenomenon of conservation due to the structure of our mind; i.e., when something (X) “happens,” we believe we will always find some counter-balancing counterpart (Y) because our mind is structured such that “happenings” always come with “counterparts”.  As we’ve seen, Mises is pursuing this second approach.

The human action which is inextricably linked with human thought is conditioned by logical necessity.  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. (HA, p. 25)

The scope of praxeology is the explication of the category of human action. All that is needed for the deduction of all praxeological theorems is knowledge of the essence of human action. It is a knowledge that is our own because we are men; no being of human descent that pathological conditions have not reduced to a merely vegetative existence lacks it. No special experience is needed in order to comprehend these theorems, and no experience, however rich, could disclose them to a being who did not know a priori what human action is. The only way to a cognition of these theorems is logical analysis of our inherent knowledge of the category of action. We must bethink ourselves and reflect upon the structure of human action. Like logic and mathematics, praxeological knowledge is in us; it does not come from without. (HA, p. 64)

Mises’s insight was that the regularities we intuit or experience in social phenomena are experienced as regularities due to the logical structure of the human mind by which we apprehend them. The regularities that we intuit in social phenomena, and which praxeology attempts to formulate in terms of exact laws, are experienced as regularities because our mind organizes experience in terms of mental “categories,” foremost among them the categories of ends (purposes) and means (things utilized toward purposes).  Scientific laws can thus be interpreted as regularities of consciousness which exhibit the structure of our consciousness.  Our task as praxeologists is to study this structure with ever more care and precision as a means to understanding the regularities in the world around us, both social and physical.

Key

EP = Epistemological Problems of Economics, Mises, 1976
EPV = The Economic Point of View, Kirzner, 1976
ESA = Economic Science and the Austrian Method, Hoppe, 1995
FM = The Free Market and its Enemies, Mises, 2004
HA = Human Action, Mises, 1966
HUL = “Economic Science and Neoclassicism,” Hulsmann, The Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics, Winter 1999.
I = Investigations Into the Method of the Social Sciences, Menger, 1985
IEO = Individualism and Economic Order, Hayek, 1948
LR = An Essay on the Nature & Significance of Economic Science, Robbins, 1945
MBS = Minds, Brains and Science, Searle, 2003
MES = Man, Economy, and State, Rothbard, 1993
MM = Money, Method, and the Market Process, Mises, 1990
MOP = A Man of Principle, Essays in Honor of Hans F. Sennholz, 1992
POAE = “The Philosophical Origins of Austrian Economics,” Gordon, 1996
PP = Physics and Philosophy, Heisenberg, 1958
PSW = The Phenomenology of the Social World, Schutz, 1967
TH = Theory and History, Mises, 1985
UF = The Ultimate Foundation of Economic Science, Mises, 2002

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