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The Ultimate Foundation of Economic Science
Ludwig von Mises

1
The Human Mind

2. A Hypothesis about the Origin of A Priori Categories

The concepts of natural selection and evolution make it possible to develop a hypothesis about the emergence of the logical structure of the human mind and the a priori.

Animals are driven by impulses and instincts. Natural selection eliminated those specimens and species which developed instincts that were a liability in the struggle for survival. Only those endowed with impulses serviceable to their preservation survived and could propagate their species.

We are not prevented from assuming that in the long way that led from the nonhuman ancestors of man to the emergence of the species Homo sapiens some groups of advanced anthropoids experimented, as it were, with categorial concepts different from those of Homo sapiens and tried to use them for the guidance of their conduct. But as such pseudo categories were not adjusted to the conditions of reality, behavior directed by a quasi reasoning based upon them was bound to fail and to spell disaster to those committed to it. Only those groups could survive whose members acted in accordance with the right categories, i.e., with those that were in conformity with reality and therefore—to use the concept of pragmatism—worked.[5]

However, reference to this interpretation of the origin of the a priori categories does not entitle us to call them a precipitate of experience, of a prehuman and prelogical experience as it were.[6] We must not blot out the fundamental difference between finality and the absence of finality.

The Darwinian concept of natural selection tries to explain phylogenetic change without recourse to finality as a natural phenomenon. Natural selection is operative not only without any purposive interference on the part of external elements; it operates also without any intentional behavior on the part of the various specimens concerned.

Experience is a mental act on the part of thinking and acting men. It is impossible to assign to it any role in a purely natural chain of causation the characteristic mark of which is the absence of intentional behavior. It is logically impossible to compromise between design and the absence of design. Those primates who had the serviceable categories survived, not because, having had the experience that their categories were serviceable, they decided to cling to them. They survived because they did not resort to other categories that would have resulted in their own extirpation. In the same way in which the evolutionary process eliminated all other groups whose individuals, because of specific properties of their bodies, were not fit for life under the special conditions of their environment, it eliminated also those groups whose minds developed in a way that made their use for the guidance of conduct pernicious.

The a priori categories are not innate ideas. What the normal—healthy—child inherits from his parents are not any categories, ideas, or concepts, but the human mind that has the capacity to learn and to conceive ideas, the capacity to make its bearer behave as a human being, i.e., to act.

However we may think about this problem, one thing is certain. Since the a priori categories emanating from the logical structure of the human mind have enabled man to develop theories the practical application of which has aided him in his endeavors to hold his own in the struggle for survival and to attain various ends that he wanted to attain, these categories provide some information about the reality of the universe. They are not merely arbitrary assumptions without any informative value, not mere conventions that could as well be replaced by some other conventions. They are the necessary mental tool to arrange sense data in a systematic way, to transform them into facts of experience, then these facts into bricks to build theories, and finally the theories into technics to attain ends aimed at.

The animals too are equipped with senses; some of them are even capable of sensing stimuli that do not affect man's senses. What prevents them from taking advantage of what their senses convey to them in the way man does, is not an inferiority of their sense equipment, but the fact that they lack what is called the human mind with its logical structure, its a priori categories.

Theory as distinct from history is the search for constant relations between entities or, what means the same, for regularity in the succession of events. In establishing epistemology as a theory of knowledge, the philosopher implicitly assumes or asserts that there is in the intellectual effort of man something that remains unchanged, viz., the logical structure of the human mind.

If there were nothing permanent in the manifestations of the human mind, there could not be any theory of knowledge, but merely a historical account of the various attempts made by men to acquire knowledge. The condition of epistemology would resemble that of the various branches of history, e.g., what is called political science. In the same way in which political science merely records what has been done or has been suggested in its field in the past, but is at a loss to tell anything about invariant relations among the elements with which it deals, epistemology would have to restrict its work to the assemblage of historical data about the mental activities of the past.

In stressing the fact that the logical structure of the human mind is common to all specimens of the species Homo sapiens, we do not want to assert that this human mind as we know it is the only or the best possible mental tool that could be devised or that has ever been and will ever be called into existence. In epistemology, as well as in all other sciences, we are dealing neither with eternity nor with conditions in parts of the universe from which no sign reaches our orbit nor with what may possibly happen in future aeons. Perhaps there are somewhere in the infinite universe beings whose minds outrank our minds to the same extent as our minds surpass those of the insects. Perhaps there will once somewhere live beings who will look upon us with the same condescension as we look upon amoebae. But scientific thinking cannot indulge in such imagery. It is bound to limit itself to what is accessible to the human mind as it is.

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[5] Mises, Human Action , pp. 86 ff.

[6] As J. Benda, La crise du rationalisme (Paris, 1949), pp. 27 ff., suggests.

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