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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

6. "Objective" Meaning

The metaphysical systems of the philosophy of history presume to be able to detect behind the appearance of things their "true" and "real" essence, which is hidden to the profane eye. They imagine themselves capable of discovering the final purpose of all mundane activity. They want to grasp the "objective meaning" of events, which, they maintain, is different from their subjective meaning, i.e., the meaning intended by the actor himself. In this respect all systems of religion and all philosophies of history proceed according to the same principles. Notwithstanding the bitterness with which they fight one another, Marxian socialism, German national socialism, and the non-German movements related to it, which have taken a variety of forms, are all in agreement on logical method; and it is worth noting that they can all be traced back to the same metaphysical foundation, namely, the Hegelian dialectic.

The science of human action knows of no way that could lead reasoning men to knowledge of the hidden plans of God or Nature. It is unable to give any answer to the question of the "meaning of the whole" that could be logically established in the manner in which the findings of scientific thought must be in order to be acknowledged at least as provisional truths. It deliberately abstains from intruding into the depths of metaphysics.[10] It suffers lightly the reproach of its opponents that it stops at the "surface" of things.

It is not to be denied that the loftiest theme that human thought can set for itself is reflection on ultimate questions. Whether such reflection can accomplish anything is doubtful. Many of the most eminent minds of the past were of the opinion that thought and cognition overstep their domain of effectiveness when they apply themselves to such tasks. In any case, it is certain that differences of a fundamental nature exist between metaphysical speculations and scientific investigation?differences that may not be ignored without peril. It is the function of science to think out to their ultimate conclusions the a priori prerequisites of knowledge in their purity, to develop thereby a comprehensive theoretical system, and, with the aid of the results so obtained, to extract from the data of experience all that they can teach.

On the other hand, it is no part of the task of science to examine ultimate questions or to prescribe values and determine their order of rank. Nevertheless, one may call the fulfillment of these tasks higher, nobler, and more important than that of the simpler task of science, which is to develop a theoretical system of cause-and-effect relationships enabling us to arrange our action in such a way that we can attain the goals we aim at. One may hold poets, prophets, or promulgators of new values in higher esteem than scientists. But in no case is one free to confound these two fundamentally different functions. For example, one may not attempt, in compliance with Novalis' invitation, to "poetize" the science of finance.[11]

Metaphysics and science perform different functions. They cannot, therefore, adopt the same procedures, nor are they alike in their goals. They can work side by side without enmity because they need not dispute each other's domain as long as they do not misconstrue their own character. A conflict arises only when one or the other attempts to overstep the boundary between them. Positivism thought that, in place of uncertain speculations and poetry masquerading as philosophy, it would be able, through the application of the methods of science to the problems dealt with by metaphysics, to adopt a procedure guaranteeing the certainty of scientific demonstration to the treatment of the ultimate objects of knowledge. What it failed to see was that from the moment it undertook to treat of metaphysical problems, it itself also necessarily engaged in metaphysics. Precisely because it did not see this, its own metaphysics, notwithstanding its professions of scorn for everything metaphysical, was naive in the extreme.

On the other hand, securely established conclusions of scientific thought are again and again attacked on metaphysical grounds. Now, of course, nothing that is scientifically established can be brought against the assumption that things could present themselves to a mind other than human differently from the way in which we see and experience them, so that the science of this other mind would possess a different content from ours. Our own thinking is utterly powerless to discover anything whatever about what such a superhuman or divine being would think. But within the cosmos in which our action is effective and in which our thinking paves the way for action, the findings of our scientific reasoning are so securely established as to render meaningless the statement that, in a broader setting or in a deeper sense, they would have to lose their validity and yield to some other cognition.

Since we must concern ourselves here not with empirical science, but with the apriorism of the science of human action, we need not consider the encroachments of metaphysics upon the domain of the former. It is obvious that the attempts to use metaphysical arguments to refute what follows from a priori ratiocination are tantamount to replacing discursive reasoning by the arbitrariness of intuitive flights of fancy. No metaphysics is in any way able to undermine the concept of action. Consequently, metaphysics can detract nothing from whatever is necessarily deduced from that concept. When we seek to comprehend categorially the prerequisites of human action, one may criticize and correct our procedure, if it goes wrong, by resort to scientific reasoning. However, whatever firmly withstands the logical scrutiny of our reason can in no way be refuted by the assertions of metaphysics. It is no more permissible to deny recognition to any of the propositions of economics?for example, the theory of value and of price formation?by referring to the fact that one has a different "world view" or that one's "interests" give one a different?e.g., the "proletarian"?standpoint than it would be to use the statements of metaphysics to argue down the binomial theorem. No vision of totality, no universalism, and no "sociologism" can allow us to "understand" things differently from the way in which they must present themselves to our sober reasoning. If I am unable to show through arithmetical reasoning that arithmetic is contradictory in saying three times three equals nine, I am not warranted in asserting that in a "higher" or "deeper" sense another answer has to be true.

The conclusions that must be drawn from the findings of economics do not meet the approval of those whose immediate, momentary interests make it appear desirable that other teachings be recognized as correct. Inasmuch as they are at a loss to discover any error in the logical structure of economics, they call upon supramundane powers for help.


[10] Sulzbach, Die Grundlagen der politischen Parteibildung (T?bingen, 192 1), pp. v f.

[11] Quoted by Freyer in Die Bewertung der Wirtschaft im philosophischen Denken des 19. Jahrhunderts (Leipzig, 1921), p. 49.

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