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Epistemological Problems of Economics
Ludwig von Mises

The Task and Scope of
the Science of Human Action

I. The Nature and Development of the Social Sciences

3. The Program of Sociology and
the Quest for Historical Laws

Concurrently with the achievements that stemmed from the foundation of the science of human action came grandiloquent programmatic declarations that demanded a science of social phenomena. The discoveries made by Hume, Smith, Ricardo, Bentham, and many others may be regarded as constituting the historical beginning and foundation of a truly scientific knowledge of society. The term "sociology," however, was coined by August Comte, who, for the rest, in no way contributed to social science. A great number of authors with him and after him called for a science of society, most of them without appreciating what had already been done toward founding it and without being able to specify how one would go about achieving it. Many lost themselves in empty trivialities, the most frightful example of which may be considered the attempt to conceive of society as a biological organism. Others concocted an ostensible science to justify their political schemes. Still others, for example Comte himself, added new constructions to the philosophy of history and called the result sociology.

These prophets of a new epoch, who professed to have developed for the first time a science of the social realm, not only failed in this domain, which they had declared to be the proper field of their activity, but unhesitatingly set out to destroy history and all the sciences that make use of the historical method. Prepossessed by the idea that Newtonian mechanics constitutes the model for all the genuine sciences, they demanded of history that it at last begin to raise itself to the status of an exact science through the construction of "historical laws."

Windelband, Rickert, and their school opposed these demands and brought into clear relief the special and peculiar characteristics of historical investigation. Nevertheless, their arguments are weakened by their failure to conceive of the possibility of universally valid knowledge in the sphere of human action. In their view the domain of social science comprises only history and the historical method .[2] They regarded the findings of economics and historical investigation in the same light as the Historical School. Thus, they remained bound to historicism. Moreover, they did not see that an intellectual outlook corresponding to the empiricism that they had attacked in the field of the sciences of human action often went hand in hand with historicism.


[2] Cf. below p. 74.

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