Praxeology and History

Some people assert that a shortcoming of praxeology is that it denies the relevance of empirical evidence. This assertion suffers from a misunderstanding of the purpose and scope of praxeology.

It is true that praxeology is fundamentally axiomatic, meaning it builds all its theories upon the irrefutable axiom that humans consciously aim at chosen objectives and employ chosen means in order to attain those objectives.

But that axiom in itself is of course empirical. It is derived from a simple observation of human action. It is, like any other proposition, derived from objective facts of observable reality. Someone must at some point have made that observation in order to formulate the axiom.

Just as logic is nothing but a derivative of the consistency of all reality, praxeology in particular is a derivative of the occurrence of human choice and action in reality. If reality wasn’t consistent, there would be no logic. If no purposefully acting and choosing beings existed in the universe, then praxeology would not exist.

What praxeology does say is that at the very least any proposition about human action naturally needs to be in complicance with irrefutable axioms about human action in order for it to be potentially valid. Praxeology has never claimed to be helpful in the process of gathering evidence for the actual occurence of an event. This is, in fact, the task of history and outside the scope of praxeology.

If a proposition can’t even pass that most basic test, there is no need to look for historical evidence in its support. This doesn’t mean that historical evidence is meaningless to the overall science of Human Action.

Nor is praxeology itself stubborn toward the evidence of history. If someone were to make a complete and isolated historical observation that contradicts praxeologically established concepts, then he is free to disprove the validity of the praxeological concept on logical grounds. But if he cannot do that, then there is something he is missing in his observation; maybe a variable or two, maybe the measurement was off, maybe his eyesight is skewed etc.

In the same way, if someone were to make an empirical mathematical observation, claiming that he put two red balls and two blue balls into a box, and then suddenly had 5 balls, would you be convinced that the mathematical concept of 2+2 = 4 is invalid? Isn’t it rather possible that there was already a 5th ball in the box, or that someone threw it in from somewhere else, or that the observer had a martini too many? And furthermore, if all these things are not the case, then all we would need is for the person to provide logically deductive proof that 2 + 2 = 4 is a false statement.

Mises was most definitely not ignorant to the evidence of history. I would even go so far as to saying that he is one of the greatest historians of the 20th century. He himself actually subdivided the science of Human Action into praxeology and (you guessed it) … history!

The purpose of history is the gathering of convincing and sufficient evidence to prove that certain events did in fact occur.

History says “The price of house X fell from 2007 through 2010.” while praxeology (or economics in particular) says “Ceteris paribus, the price of a good with rising supply and falling demand will fall.”

History is a helpful tool in finding evidence that further corroborates propositions that already conform with praxeological axioms. Historical evidence in support of any proposition regarding human action is necessary, not sufficient. History without praxeology would be nothing but the observation of seemingly random limb movements of fleshy/bony objects in space.

As it is with history, more than in any other science, social events are always immensely complex, unisolated, and almost impossible to reproduce without introducing new variables. Historical statistics and data can very easily be prepared and falsified to support one view or another.

Thus what Mises rejected was the method of historicism, that is solely gathering historical evidence in order to prove theorems that don’t even pass the very first hurdles of praxeology.

In short: History deals with specific instances of human action, while praxeology explains general, immutable, and irrefutable attributes of human action. The narrow concepts of history and praxeology are to human action what the broader concepts of empiricism and logic are to all of science, respectively.

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7 thoughts on “Praxeology and History”

  1. I found this from the link you posted to another article in a reply you made to me on reddit. I thought about replying there, because the subject of this article is basically what I was critiquing on reddit, but i’ll go ahead and reply here instead.

    The basic problem with this article that it has a skewed view of logic. You say:

    “Just as logic is nothing but a derivative of the consistency of all reality”

    But this is not what logic is. There are things that exist in logic that do not exist in reality. Consider all the different types of geometries that have been constructed. While the question of exactly what type of geometry reality consists of is not completely answered, considering the fact that geometries have been constructed that are mutually exclusive, it is clear that something can be logically constructed that does not accurately reflect reality.

    “Someone must at some point have made that observation in order to formulate the axiom.”

    To continue using the example of geometries, this statement is clearly false, at least in that area of mathematics. Hyperbolic geometry was constructed after asking what would happen if one of Euclids postulates was false. Specifically, it was the parallel postulate. No one observed parallel lines intersecting at some point. It was imagined as a possibility.

    So the idea that in order to state an axiom, something must be observed first is false, at least if you’re talking about empirical observation. A more modern example would be string theory, which has mathematical consistency, but is not supported by empirical evidence. There are also multiple string theories that have different assumptions and consequences. These are logically consistent but may not accurately reflect reality.

    At this point, we haven’t gotten to the axiom itself yet, but since I wrote about that on reddit, I’ll hold off on it here and give you a chance to reply to this. Finally, thanks for making me think.

  2. Thanks much.

    I have to stop right here at this sentence though:

    But this is not what logic is. There are things that exist in logic that do not exist in reality.

    Again, you are implying that I stated that things “exist in logic that do not exist in reality”. I didn’t say that. In fact I argue very strongly that logic doesn’t exist at all. Logic is a mental concept, not a thing that exists.

    That having been said, I think that the 3 laws of logic are only valid because reality is consistent. If reality was indeed akin to a dreamworld where people can be in front of you and behind you at the same time and where up is down, etc … then the 3 laws of logic as we know them today would indeed not have any validity or relevance at all.

    It is only in that sense that I say that the concept of logic is a derivative of the consistency of reality.

    Regarding what you say about mathematics: I would agree that there are certainly wild areas that you can venture into, but we are here talking about axioms, that is very basic and irrefutable statements. The statement that 1+1=2 is an accurate derivative of the act of counting distinct entities in reality. If it weren’t for distinct entities in reality, if everything was just an indistinguishable soup, it would be a completely useless pastime to come up with such theories.

    On a side note, and without claiming to have researched or thought about the following in much detail:

    It is the closeness to reality that makes us feel good about clearly and understandably useful theories and a detachment or departure therefrom, that makes us mortal non-scientists look askance upon extremely abstract theories.

    It is such that I feel about string theories. I don’t claim to have researched this field in any detail, but I do have to say that it looks suspect, at least to me, to have a so many state (=blood money) funded researchers spend so much time in this field, as if there weren’t more pressing issues before us in the here and now.

    So I will withhold my judgment about string theories until their advocates can show me a car that runs on string theory and functions many times better than regular ones, or once they can give me specific instructions as to how I could run a reproducible experiment in which another person can be in front of me and tap me on the shoulder from behind simultaneously. :)

  3. Again, you are implying that I stated that things “exist in logic that do not exist in reality”.

    Actually, I was claiming the opposite. I take issue with the fact that you don’t believe this. It’s possible to construct logically consistent systems that do not accurately reflect reality. In support of this, I offer both alternative geometries and the multiple versions of string theory.

    Furthermore, I take issue with the idea that logic is only a mental concept. Would 1+1 still equal two, even if there were not any humans around? The answer is obviously yes. The concept exists even if there is no one to think of it. The universe didn’t change when Newton discovered his laws of motion. It didn’t change when Einstein pointed out that those laws were incomplete and needed updates. Our descriptions of those laws are human, but the existence of those laws are not.

  4. Sorry, what I meant to say was that you were implying that I said that all things that “exist in logic also exist in reality”.

    That doesn’t change my point though. Since logic doesn’t exist, how could I possibly advance the point that”things exist in logic” … is what I’m saying.

    You can’t go out into the world and look for “logic” particles. Logic is a concept, not a thing. In that sense only am I saying that logic does not exist.

    Furthermore, I am not sure where I lead you to believe that I was saying that the universe changed when Newton or Einstein made their discoveries?

    I am very clearly saying that logic is a mental derivative of objective reality. So how could I possibly believe that objective reality would change because humans’ views about it have changed (other than of course their change in behavior from thereon.)

    “Would 1+1 still equal two, even if there were not any humans around?”

    Yes, it would. But only because it accurately reflects facts of reality. Again, logic is a a derivative of the consistency of reality.

    IF reality indeed was not consistent, if up was down, if you could stand before and behind me simultaneously, if seagulls randomly transformed into anvils and cats into dogs, etc. … then yes, absolutely, the laws of logic as we know them would not even have crossed our minds in the first place.

  5. Let me try to rephrase my point: You can build things logically that do not exist in reality. If this wasn’t possible, experiments would not be necessary.

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