Academic journal article The Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics

Ludwig Von Mises, Sociology, and Metatheory

Academic journal article The Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics

Ludwig Von Mises, Sociology, and Metatheory

Article excerpt

Ludwig von Mises's contributions to economics are widely known. For instance, his application of Carl Menger's subjective theory of value to money (Mises [1912] 1953), his description of the necessary economic failure of any socialist regime (Mises [1920] 1963; [1922] 1951), and his reconstruction of economics as a theory of human action (Mises [1949] 1998) all stand as important contributions to the development of Austrian economics. But Mises was more than an economist; he was also a philosopher and sociologist. However, many of his insights to these fields of study are less well known. There is the work of Salerno (1990), which identifies reason, ideology, and the division of labor as the main vectors for social change in the Misesian interpretation of history. There is also the more recent comparison between the social rationalism of Mises and that of the French Ideologue Destutt de Tracy by Dorobat (2015), as well as a comparison between the social theories of Mises and of French sociologist Raymond Boudon by Fillieule (2014). Finally, we can find studies in which Mises's work is compared to Max Weber's work (Schutz 1967; Boettke and Storr 2002; Anderson 2004; Callahan 2007; Zafirovski 2010). However, there still lacks a more general analysis linking Mises's epistemology with his answers to the particular questions sociologists have attempted to address. This general analysis will allow us to see the extent to which the study of Mises's work can help sociologists understand the social world.

This article is therefore guided by two different but interconnected goals. In the first section of this paper, I want to explain how sociology can be understood in light of Mises's general epistemological distinction between theory and history. Second, I want to present an outline of the general answers he provided to some of the most important questions that sociologists sought to address. From this, it will become possible to understand how a Misesian sociological investigation can be conducted.


Ludwig von Mises's distinction between theory and history is perhaps one of his most general and useful epistemological insights. In short, theory constitutes the set of all praxeological categories (and a priori laws) framing our knowledge whereas history constitutes the description and analysis of particular or general empirical events or trends (Mises 1962, 44-6).

Theory and history are complementary. Indeed, Mises writes: "The fullness of reality can be mentally mastered only by a mind resorting both to the conception of praxeology and to the understanding of history" (Mises [1949] 1998, 642-43). Without theory, social scientists cannot meaningfully grasp and understand the empirical data of history (1); without history, they are condemned to know what limits their knowledge of the social world without ever using (applying) those limits to understand specific empirical events. In other words, theory (praxeology) provides boundaries to the set of possible interpretations about historical (empirical) reality. One cannot make sense of history if one does not know how to frame one's interpretations. (2) Praxeology therefore provides the conditions of possibility of the understanding of history: "Experience concerning human action," Mises writes, "presupposes the category of human action and all that derives from it. If one does not refer to the system of the praxeological a priori, one must not and cannot talk of action" (Mises 1962, 42). Also, "Understanding presupposes and implies the logical structure of the human mind with all the a priori categories." (Mises 1962, 48).

As Hoppe (1995, 20, 81) indicates, following Mises, it is because action is both a mental and an external process that one can acquire theoretical (a priori) knowledge about what frames historical (empirical) understanding. (3) Mises (1962, 42) indeed writes: "Both, a priori thinking and reasoning on the one hand and human action on the other, are the manifestations of the human mind. …

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