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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

4. The Standpoint of Historicism

In the view of historicism the field of the science of human action is constituted only by history and the historical method. Historicism maintains that it is a waste of effort to search after universally valid regularities that would be independent of time, place, race, nationality, and culture. All that sociology and economics can tell us is the experience of a historical event, which can be invalidated by new experience. What was yesterday can be otherwise tomorrow. All scientific knowledge in the social realm is derived from experience; it is a generalization drawn from past experience that can always be upset by some later experience. Therefore, the only appropriate method of the social sciences is the specific understanding of the historically unique. There is no knowledge whose validity extends beyond a definite historical epoch or at most beyond several historical epochs.

It is impossible to think this view through consistently to its conclusion. If one attempts to do so, one must sooner or later reach a point at which one is forced to admit that there is something in our knowledge that comes before experience, something whose validity is independent of time and place. Even Sombart, who is today the most outspoken representative of the view that economics must make use of the method of understanding, is compelled to acknowledge that also in the "field of culture, and in particular of human society, there is such a thing as logically necessary relationships." He believes that "they constitute what we call the mind's conformity to law; and we call these principles, deduced a priori, laws."[3] Thus, unintentionally and unawares, Sombart has admitted all that is required to prove the necessity of a universally valid science of human action fundamentally different from the historical sciences of human action. If there are such principles and laws at all, then there must also be a science of them; and this science must be logically prior to every other treatment of these problems. It will not do simply to accept these principles as they are conceived in daily life. It is absurd to want to forbid science to enter a field and to demand tolerance for received misconceptions and unclear, contradictory ideas. Nor is Sombart able to offer anything more than a few sarcastic remarks in support of his disapproval of any attempt to treat economics as a universally valid theory. He thinks it is "occasionally very amusing to observe how an empty trifle lying concealed behind a great show of words makes its appearance in all its pitiful meagerness and almost arouses our scorn."[4] This is, of course, a quite inadequate attempt to defend the procedure adopted by Sombart and other supporters of historicism. If, as Sombart expressly admits, there are "fundamental economic concepts . . . that are universally valid for all economic action,"[5] then science may not be prevented from concerning itself with them.

Sombart admits still more. He states explicitly that "all theory is 'pure,' that is, independent of time and space."[6] Thus he takes issue with Knies, who opposed the "absolutism of theory," i.e., its "pretension to set forth propositions in the scientific treatment of political economy that are unconditional and equally valid for all times, countries, and nationalities."[7]

Perhaps it will be objected that it is belaboring the obvious to insist that economics provides us with universally valid knowledge. Unfortunately, such a reproach would have no justification; in the eyes of many people it is not obvious. Whoever has undertaken to present the teachings of historicism in a coherent form has generally been unable to avoid revealing, at some point in the process, the impossibility of systematically developing the doctrine. However, the importance of historicism does not lie in the entirely abortive attempts that have been made to treat it as a coherent theory. Historicism by its very nature is not a system, but the rejection and denial in principle of the possibility of constructing a system. It exists and operates not within the structure of a complete system of thought, but in critical aper?us, in the propaganda of economic and socio-political programs, and between the lines of historical, descriptive, and statistical studies. The politics and the science of the last decades have been completely dominated by the views of historicism and empiricism. When it is recalled that an author who, during his lifetime, stood in the highest regard in the German-speaking countries as a theorist of "the economic aspects of political science," explained the necessity to economize as a specific feature of production in a money economy,[8] one will certainly appreciate the need of emphasizing the untenability of historicism before embarking upon the task of setting forth the logical character of the science of human action.


[3] Sombart, Die drei National?konomien (Munich and Leipzig, 1930), p. 253.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Sombart, op. cit., p. 247.

[6] Sombart, op. cit., p. 298.

[7] Knies, Die politische Okonomie vom geschichtlichen Standpunkte (Braunschweig, 1883), p. 24.

[8] Cf. Lexis, Allgemeine Volkswirtschaftslehre (3rd ed.; Berlin and Leipzig, 1926), p. 14.

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