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Epistemological Problems of Economics
Ludwig von Mises

The Task and Scope of
the Science of Human Action

III. Science and Value

5. The Errors of the Universalist Doctrine

Thus every argument of the universalist critique directed against the methodological individualism of sociology, and of economics in particular, proves unwarranted. Science cannot proceed otherwise than discursively. its starting points must have as much certainty as human knowledge is capable of, and it must go on from there, making logical deductions step by step. It can begin as an aprioristic science with propositions necessary to thought that find their support and warrant in apodictic evidence; or as an empirical science it can start with experience. But never can it take as its starting point the vision of a whole.

One would misunderstand the nature and function of cartography if one were to demand that maps show mountains and forests in all their beauty and grandeur. The most exquisite description of the loveliness of the countryside could not in the least compensate us for the map. It would not be able to show us the path that leads to the goals we want to reach. It is not for botany to discuss the beauty and the charm of flowers; it may not take its starting point from forests and meadows, but from the individual plants, and it studies plants from the standpoint of vegetable physiology and plant biology by basing its knowledge on that of the cell.

When universalism opposes the thesis that "natural laws of mechanistic causality" underlie social phenomena, we can agree in so far as there is a fundamental difference between the observation of nature and the comprehension of meaning that is characteristic of the sciences of human action. The view of behaviorism is just as untenable as the epistemological position taken by Schumpeter in his first book.[8] All mechanistic analogies are misleading.

However, we can no more do without the category of causality in our scientific thinking than in everyday thinking; it is the only category that cannot be thought away.[9] Indeed, a mode of reasoning that did not involve reference to causality could not arrive at the concepts of God and the whole. That science means, above all, conceptual thinking will not, of course, be disputed. But thinking must always be causal and rational.

Human reasoning does not have the power to exhaust completely the content of the universe. In the sciences of human action it goes as far as conceptual thinking can go. Beyond this point nothing more can be done than to determine what the irrational facts are by means of the specific understanding of the moral sciences.

The error of universalism, as well as of other doctrines that attempt to deal with the methodological and logical uncertainties of the moral sciences, consists in the failure to see that understanding?i.e., insight into form and quality?is not the sole or the preeminent method of the moral sciences, but on the contrary, that it must be logically and temporally preceded by conception, i.e., the intellectual comprehension of meaning.


[8] Wesen und Hauptinhalt der theoretischen National?konomie (Leipzig, 1908).

[9] Cf. Schopenhauer, Die Welt as Wille und Vorstellung (Collected Works, edited by Frauenst?dt, 2nd ed.; Leipzig, 1916), II, 531.

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