Oakeshott and Mises on Understanding Human Action

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Michael Oakeshott and Ludwig von Mises were arguably two of the twentieth century's most profound theorists of human action. Unarguably, both of them regarded the nature of the social sciences in a way that differed significantly from the positivist views prevalent during their lives. One result of their outsider status is the scores of scholars, popular political commentators, and politicians who consider one or the other of the two thinkers as a--or even the--major influence on their intellectual development. Another outcome has been the academic mainstream's neglect of their distinctive--or, as their critics might say, idiosyncratic--views. If one attempted to gauge either Mises's or Oakeshott's influence by tallying citations to his work in academic journals, one would conclude that it has been slight. However, most scholars cited more frequently have not had think tanks or scholarly associations established to focus on their thought, well-attended conferences devoted to discussing their ideas, and dozens of books commenting on some aspect of their work.

I am not aware of any comparative studies of Mises and Oakeshott, despite the compatibility of many of their views. The small overlap between those who are students of Mises's thought--typically economists and libertarians--and those who are versed in Oakeshott's ideas--most often political theorists, philosophers of history, and political conservatives--is probably the most straightforward explanation for the lack of comparative studies.

I maintain, however, that the social theorizing of each of these thinkers provides an illuminating perspective in which to regard the other's ideas. We find, for example, that each arrived quite independently at very similar answers to fundamental questions about the nature of the social sciences, such as: the a priori nature of the postulates of human action; the characteristics that differentiate genuinely historical thought from other ways of regarding the past; the inherent methodological difference between theorizing about unintelligent processes and theorizing about intelligent activity; the notion that statistical studies of social phenomena can produce only partial explanations, which must be completed by the application of historical understanding to their findings; and the central importance of the meaning an agent assigns to his own circumstances and actions for the study of human conduct. Even when Oakeshott's and Mises's intellectual explorations brought them to the same terminus, however, they usually traveled there by different routes. Comparing their presuppositions may help us to uncover a common ground for theorizing about human action, which can be arrived at from distinct philosophical points of departure. Moreover, scholars studying Oakeshott's works will see some of his ideas from a new vantage point if they contrast them with Mises's works, and vice-versa.

Furthermore, despite their broad areas of agreement, on some topics Mises and Oakeshott reached quite different conclusions. They disagreed about whether human experience is composed of fundamentally distinct modes of theorizing; about the relationship between rationality and practice--Mises regarded reason as the basis of all human activity, whereas Oakeshott saw it as abstracted from existing practices; and about the philosophical justification for holding that universal truths about human conduct can be discovered deductively. That Mises and Oakeshott arrived at similar views on the nature of the social sciences, despite having launched their inquiries from different philosophical perspectives, suggests that their common conclusions do not depend on any particular metaphysical or epistemological stance. Nonetheless, contemplating their philosophical differences may spur both "Misesians" and "Oakeshottians" to explore more deeply the ontologies underlying each of their approaches.

Because adequate consideration of all the points just mentioned probably requires a book-length treatment, I consider in this article only Mises's and Oakeshott's views on the fundamental nature of human action; on how, as a result of that nature, theorizing about human conduct differs from theorizing about mechanical processes; and on what that difference implies about the essential character of the social sciences. …