Was Ludwig Von Mises a Conventionalist? A New Analysis of the Epistemology of the Austrian School of Economics

By Scheall, Scott | Erasmus Journal for Philosophy and Economics, Autumn 2017 | Go to article overview

Was Ludwig Von Mises a Conventionalist? A New Analysis of the Epistemology of the Austrian School of Economics


Scheall, Scott, Erasmus Journal for Philosophy and Economics


Review of Alexander Linsbichler's Was Ludwig von Mises a Conventionalist? A New Analysis of the Epistemology of the Austrian School of Economics. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017, ix + 151 pp.

Alexander Linsbichler's Was Ludwig von Mises a Conventionalist? marks a significant contribution to and advancement upon the existing literature concerning Mises's epistemology. Linsbichler reviews the primary and secondary literatures on Mises's epistemology through the lens of contemporary philosophy of science, and clarifies several confusions that have long confounded these literatures. Possessed of a seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of twentieth-century philosophy of science, Linsbichler shows what can happen when non-epistemologists try to do epistemology without an adequate understanding of the relevant philosophical history, theories, and methods.

After considering the possible interpretations, Linsbichler makes a compelling case that practicing Austrian economists should adopt conventionalism about Mises's assertion of the a priori nature of the socalled 'action axiom' ('Man acts') which underlies praxeology, Mises's general science of human action. Whatever the master himself may have believed about epistemology and economic methodology, Linsbichler argues that the action axiom is best interpreted as an analytic sentence-one of many in principle defensible definitions of the proper sphere of economic inquiry, to be defended by Austrians on pragmatic grounds, rather than a synthetic proposition about what humans do in the world of experience. This argument exemplifies the humble antidogmatic approach that Linsbichler brings to a literature too often riven by intransigence on all sides.

This well-deserved praise notwithstanding, however, a few worries remain. Elegantly executed though the project is-and, as the remainder of this review is mostly critical, I want to emphasize that I did learn much from Linsbichler's analysis-there are aspects of the argument that strike me as somewhat misconceived. Linsbichler offers a rational reconstruction of Mises's epistemology that is, as he acknowledges, mostly removed from Mises's historical context. Linsbichler reconstructs Mises's position according to a taxonomy of epistemologies due to Karl Popper and further developed by Karl Milford. It is not obvious that this classification scheme is relevant to the problem of categorizing Mises's epistemology.1 Surely, if we wish to reconstruct Mises's epistemology, we want a categorization that expresses the epistemological possibilities as Mises understood them. If the Popper-Milford taxonomy reflects Mises's epistemological understanding, then all to the good. But, if this categorization includes epistemological possibilities that Mises failed to recognize, or excludes epistemological possibilities that he did recognize, then its significance for the problem at hand is dubious.

The grounds that Linsbichler adduces for the relevance of the Popper-Milford scheme in this regard are, I think, not adequate. No case is made that this categorization reflects Mises's epistemological milieu. Instead, Linsbichler argues that, as a methodologist, Mises was primarily concerned with finding a solution to the problem of induction in the social sciences. The Popper-Milford taxonomy classifies epistemologies according to responses to the problem of induction. Therefore, the argument seems to go, the Popper-Milford classification scheme is applicable to the problem of reconstructing Mises's epistemology.

However, saying that a methodologist is concerned with the problem of induction in their respective field of inquiry is a bit like saying an economist is concerned with prices-it does little to distinguish the methodologist in question from any other methodologist. Linsbichler provides no evidence that Mises was more profoundly disturbed about the significance of the problem of induction for the social sciences than any other methodologist of his own, or any other, era. …

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