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November 10, 2013 / Adam Knott

The Structural Difference between Social Science and Natural Science – Part 2b: The Content of Conscious Action Contrasted to the Form of Conscious Action (the a posteriori and the a priori)

The Content of Conscious Action Contrasted to the Form of Conscious Action (the a posteriori and the a priori)

The focus of praxeology is exact laws of conscious action.  A law is a regularity in the association of two nonidentical phenomena, A and B, such that when A happens or occurs, B happens or occurs.  Following Menger we distinguish between two fundamental types of regularities—exact laws and empirical laws:

The types and typical relationships (the laws) of the world of phenomena are not equally strict in all cases.  A glance at the theoretical sciences teaches us rather that the regularities in the coexistence and in the succession of phenomena are in part without exception; indeed they are such that the possibility of an exception seems quite out of the question.  However, some are such that they do indeed exhibit exceptions, or that in their case exceptions seem possible.  The first are called laws of nature, the latter empirical laws. (I-50)(note: laws of nature for which no exception seems possible Menger terms “exact laws”)

Eddington terms a “law of nature” a “regularity which we have found in our observational knowledge, irrespective of its source.” (PPS-67)  When he writes “irrespective of its source,” Eddington means the regularity as such, regardless whether we interpret the regularity as a regularity of objective nature or as a regularity that is a function of our “intellectual equipment” used in observing nature.

In physical science, the regular relationship in question is that between (A) an observational procedure and (B) the results of that observational procedure:

Clearly a statement cannot be tested by observation unless it is an assertion about the results of observation.  Every item of physical knowledge must therefore be an assertion of what has been or would be the result of carrying out a specified observational procedure. (PPS, 9-14)

As an observational procedure we might imagine the arrangement of equipment to various technical specifications, the initiation of some chemical or electrical process, and the observation of the results of having done these things; either direct observation, or observation of the readings of a measuring device.  Regardless of the specific observational process, the universal form of such a process will be:

Do A, and you will observe B.

Or

Do a, b, and c, and you will observe d.

The procedure involves specifying a series of activities (A) and the results (B) that will be observed if those activities are performed.

Of course, in the theory of action a procedure is simply another name for an action or a series of actions.   A procedure is simply a specific or defined intentional activity or series of intentional activities.  Thus, when we say that physical knowledge involves a relationship between an observational procedure and the results of that procedure, we are saying that physical knowledge involves a relationship between a specified action (or series of actions) and the result of that action.  If this is correct, then economics in its common meaning is similar to physical science in its attempt to ascertain the results of various “economic actions”—actions having to do with the money economy.  For example, economics is interested in the relationship between (the action of) currency creation on the one hand, and the resultant effect on prices on the other hand.  Or, economics is interested in the relationship between (the action of) interest rate manipulation on the one hand, and boom and bust cycles on the other hand.  Both currency creation and interest rate manipulation are “procedures” in the general sense of the term.  Both of these activities, as with the procedures of physical science, may be defined or specified such that they may reproduced or repeated by ourselves or others.  When we are in possession of the definition of currency creation or interest rate manipulation, we are thus enabled to identify this activity when it occurs in spatial nature (i.e., we can locate a person(s) who is doing this activity, and a time and place where this activity is being performed or has been performed).  The point is that with regard to the general knowledge form “activity A leads to result B,” physics (Eddington’s description of it) and economics (in its common meaning) are identical.  Both physics and economics treat the relationship between a specified procedure or action and the results of that procedure or action.

When speaking of the results of various activities in the common understanding, there are at least two things that are not meant by “results.”  First, when we speak of the results of an activity, we do not mean the “co-present” results of an activity.  I.e., we do not mean by “results” some phenomenon B which occurs cotemporaneously with the given activity A.  In the common understanding, when we say “results” we mean the “and then” results: first do a, then do b, then do c, and then d will result.  Simply stated, by “results” we mean the time-separated consequence B, of the temporally prior action or procedure A.

Second, when we speak of results, and especially of observed results, we mean that the time-separated result (B) is in some sense independent of the observational or intellectual “equipment” (OE) such that the presence of OE does not guarantee the presence of B.  For example, we might instruct: “Walk to the top of that mountain and look down into the valley.  [The result is] you will see an olive grove.”  By contrast, we would not instruct: “Walk to the top of that mountain and look down into the valley.  [The result is] you will experience extended space.” (Here we assume for illustrative purposes that experiencing extended space is part of the activity of looking.)  By “result” B we commonly mean an assumed act of observation in which B may or may not “present” (in which B may or may not appear or take place).  By “result” B we do not mean a thing X that must be present in any observation because it is part of the activity of observing.  As another example, let’s assume that the specified result B of some activity A has to do with market prices.  We might then instruct: “Read the report and [the result is] you will see that prices have increased.”  We would not instruct: “Read the report and [the result is] you will experience differentiated perceptions.” (Assuming for illustrative purposes that conscious activity generally entails differentiated perceptions.)  When we speak of “results” in the common meaning, we mean something X that may or may not be part of the conscious activity in question, not something that by its nature must be part of every conscious activity.

It seems that if we define “results” a priori so as to exclude 1) the co-present aspects of any conscious activity, and 2) those aspects of consciousness necessarily entailed in verifying the results of any conscious activity, that we have thereby defined “results” as the a posteriori, or contingent, or empirical, aspect of any conscious activity.  If the notion of “result” is defined in this way, then there can be, by definition, no a priori or necessary results of any conscious activity.  Thus, an understanding of what we mean by the “results” of an activity is important.  There can be no a priori knowledge if by knowledge we mean exclusively the a posteriori aspects of any conscious activity.

If we consider again Eddington’s definition of physical knowledge:

Clearly a statement cannot be tested by observation unless it is an assertion about the results of observation.  Every item of physical knowledge must therefore be an assertion of what has been or would be the result of carrying out a specified observational procedure.

We can see how important the precise meaning of “results” is.  It seems clear that the common conception of physical knowledge does not refer to the co-present (non-time-separated) features of physical-scientific procedures.  Nor does it refer to those features of consciousness that are necessarily entailed in verifying the results of physical-scientific procedures.  If this is correct, then the common definition of physical knowledge (which many consider identical to “scientific” knowledge) may be identical to the common definition of a posteriori (or contingent or empirical) knowledge.

Eddington’s proposition is that the fundamental physical laws are a priori:

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. (PPS-57)

However, if we define physical knowledge in terms of the results of observation, and if our definition of “results” is identical to our definition of a posteriori knowledge, then we have defined physical knowledge as a posteriori knowledge.  Eddington’s conception of physical knowledge is then in logical conflict with his contention that the fundamental physical laws (a kind of physical knowledge) are a priori.  In other words, as indicated previously, Eddington’s definition of physical knowledge excludes the possibility of physical knowledge being a priori.  If there are fundamental a priori laws (for example, a priori laws of consciousness), these laws cannot be physical laws if we accept Eddington’s definition of physical knowledge as the a posteriori aspects of conscious scientific activity.

When we turn our attention to economics as a branch of praxeology, these same principles apply.  Let’s assume we assert that doing A will result in B (e.g., doing A will result in a slump, or a boom, or in an increase in prices).  We then exclude from our definition of “results” 1) the co-present, cotemporaneous, aspects of action A, and 2) those elements of consciousness necessarily entailed in any cognition, perception, or observation of B.  We have thus defined “results,” negatively and indirectly, as the a posteriori aspect(s) of activity A.  In defining “result” exclusively in terms of the a posteriori, we guarantee that the science studying the relationship between actions and their results will be an a posteriori (empirical) one.

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
PPS = The Philosophy of Physical Science, Eddington, 1978
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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