Sunday , August 18 2019
Home / Mises institute Canada / The Mises Brothers: Positivism and the Social Sciences Part 1

The Mises Brothers: Positivism and the Social Sciences Part 1

Summary:
Reprinted from Mises Brazil Few places have witnessed so many contributions to science, philosophy and the arts as Vienna during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Although most cultural centers of the time were comprised of fragmented communities of specialists, the small elite group of intellectuals responsible for this flowering in Vienna were concerned with all cultural fronts — and enthusiastically debated them in the famous cafes of the Austro-Hungarian capitol[1]. This phenomenon led to the development of a modern intellectual pastime: to trace personal relationships between major figures of a period. Consider a small sampling of this activity: Popper became friends with Hayek, who was a cousin of Wittgenstein. Mises was a classmate of Hans Kelsen. Gustav Mahler was Freud´s patient. His wife, Alma Mahler, after flirting with Gustav Klimt in her youth, became successively, after Mahler´s death, wife of the famous architect Walter Gropius and the writer Franz Werfel, aside from her romantic liaison with the painter Oskar Kokoschka. The cultural richness of the Austro-Hungarian Empire also gave rise to another pastime: exploring the differences of opinion, often radical, between two famous brothers.

Topics:
Fábio Barbieri considers the following as important: , , , , ,

This could be interesting, too:

Don Boudreaux writes Enslaved by Anti-Market Ideology

Don Boudreaux writes Quotation of the Day…

Don Boudreaux writes Some Links

Don Boudreaux writes On Exports Being Costs

The Mises Brothers: Positivism and the Social Sciences Part 1Reprinted from Mises Brazil

Few places have witnessed so many contributions to science, philosophy and the arts as Vienna during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Although most cultural centers of the time were comprised of fragmented communities of specialists, the small elite group of intellectuals responsible for this flowering in Vienna were concerned with all cultural fronts — and enthusiastically debated them in the famous cafes of the Austro-Hungarian capitol[1].

This phenomenon led to the development of a modern intellectual pastime: to trace personal relationships between major figures of a period. Consider a small sampling of this activity: Popper became friends with Hayek, who was a cousin of Wittgenstein. Mises was a classmate of Hans Kelsen. Gustav Mahler was Freud´s patient. His wife, Alma Mahler, after flirting with Gustav Klimt in her youth, became successively, after Mahler´s death, wife of the famous architect Walter Gropius and the writer Franz Werfel, aside from her romantic liaison with the painter Oskar Kokoschka.

The cultural richness of the Austro-Hungarian Empire also gave rise to another pastime: exploring the differences of opinion, often radical, between two famous brothers. One could analyze the differences between the socialist ideas of the juridical expert Anton Menger and the liberal ideas of his brother, the economist Carl Menger[2]. In the political sphere, it might be interesting to counter the liberalism of Michael Polanyi with the socialist views of his brother Karl. In this article, we will address the irreconcilable opinions about social science methodology espoused by brothers Richard and Ludwig von Mises.

Both went for posterity. Ludwig, as the economist who in the twentieth century systematized the doctrines of the Austrian School of Economics, and Richard as a mathematician with important contributions to probability theory. Theories of the first are more known to the modern reader and therefore may waive presentation, while the contributions of the second require a few words. Richard, a graduate in engineering and mathematics, became a director at the Institute of Applied Mathematics at the University of Berlin. However, when the Nazi ban on professors of Jewish origin was implemented, Richard moved to Turkey and later to the United States, where he became a professor at Princeton. During his career he made contributions to fluid mechanics, led a project to build an aircraft for the army during the First World War, as well as published a book on the theory of flight. He is most recognized however, for his contributions to the theory of probability. He based this theory on two axioms: the first defines probability as having a mathematical limit to the frequency of favorable outcomes, as the number of observations increases. The other stating that the determined limit should be the same for any subsequence of attempts. He was also known as the author that proposed the birthday problem. Which examines how many random people would need to be in a room before one can expect, with a certain probability, to encounter two of them having the same birthday. He determined that with only twenty three people, one could have a fifty percent chance of finding such a coincidence, and whose occurrence becomes almost certain in a room with fifty individuals. In addition to his contributions to the natural sciences and mathematics, Richard had a wide array of interests. Like with his older brother, he was an authority on the works of the poet Rainer M. Rilke. However, unlike his brother Richard was a defender of the positivist world view.

It is here where the contrast to which we refer lies: the two brothers have diametrically opposed views about the appropriate methodology for the social sciences. Richard[3] as a defender of positivism, argues for the unity of method or methodological monism: that social sciences should adopt the method supposedly used by the natural sciences, based on observation. Ludwig in contrast, known as the greatest enemy of positivism in economics, argues for the methodological dualism[4], saying that the economy would establish its results by deduction, starting with valid assumptions, a priori. The clash between these views was witnessed by Rothbard[5]. When Rothbard asked Ludwig what he thought of his brother’s book, the economist, with a stern face and glinting eyes, reportedly said: “I disagree with that book, from the first sentence to the last”.

The contrast between the philosophical ideas of the Mises brothers might also be colored with various aspects of the personal lives of those involved. Psychologists could try to explain the diametrically opposed views as another case of the sibling rivalry phenomenon. To do so, they might invoke psychological theories of two other famous Austrians: Sigmund Freud and Alfred Adler, who saw sibling rivalry respectively as something related to the Oedipus complex or as a result of competition for attention in the family. Despite the scarcity of information about the personal lives of the Mises brothers, which could allow this analysis, Skousen suggests[6], jokingly, that it could be precisely a case of sibling rivalry: Richard developed planes for the army while Ludwig was only an artillery officer. And unlike the latter, the younger brother always held prestigious positions at major universities.

For our part, we are interested only in the ideas themselves. Therefore, we will be discussing the rivalry only as it relates to their philosophical positions. To do so, we must say something about logical positivism — a doctrine universally criticized, which few of its detractors in the field of social sciences have studied seriously.

Logical positivism of the early twentieth century should be understood as a rationalist reaction to the obscurantism significantly present in the social and philosophical thoughts of the Germanic world. One of the favorite targets of positivism was the inscrutability of the pompous language typical of the Hegelianism prevalent in Germany, or the in vogue ideas of Leibnitz, Austria. Actually to logical positivism, terms like “absolute” or “entelechy” simply meant nothing. In the famous manifesto of the Vienna Circle[7], Neurath and his coauthors write: “Neatness and clarity are striven for, and dark distances and unfathomable depths dejected. In science there are no ‘depths’…” (p. 306).

Regarding philosophy, the main task for the members of the Vienna Circle consisted of critiquing the customary language and the development of something clearer, something more suitable for scientific discourse. By reducing the ambiguities inherent to the terms borrowed from the original language, which give rise to all sorts of pseudo-problems and hermetic rhetoric, one opens up the way for the exercise of reason, through an intersubjective understanding and critical examination of ideas.

Specifically, the positivist philosophers sought criterion that would separate propositions according to whether they have a meaning or not. Regarding such phrases as “This apple is red”, “Every apple is cylindrical” and “The absolute is perfect”, the first two do have meaning, although the first may be true and the second not, the third would be considered meaningless.

The science for this doctrine should purge phrases of the latter kind, merely metaphysical, in favor of only meaningful propositions. This brings us to the significance criteria suggested by logical positivism: verificationism. A proposition would have meaning if it can be verified empirically. The science would then admit two types of assertions: a) synthetic propositions — the “observational protocols”, which refer to sensorial observations, such as the first statement listed in the preceding paragraph; and b) analytical propositions — tautologies that although say nothing substantial about the observable world, are important in the treatment of empirical material, such as “an apple is either red or is not”.

The vision of science proposed by logical positivism thus fits within the empiricist tradition of Bacon, Hume, Mill and others: starting with impartial observations, from which generalizations of an inductive nature are made. Thereby using the basic principles and laws of science that evaluate these concepts, from which one can then derive predictions about observable facts. The advancement of reason could then export this model from physics to other disciplines, to achieve the ideal model of a “unified science”, as sought by Otto Neurath. It would thereby be crystallized around the thesis of the unity of method, the eternal tension between the positivist recipe for science and the practices adopted in the social sciences. This economic theory however, was initially well accepted. In the aforementioned manifesto of the Vienna Circle, Neurath and his coauthors salute (p. 303) both the Austrian School of Economics and Austro-Marxism as developments compatible with the scientific spirit, in contrast to the historical school that dominated Germany. Later in the same text (p. 315), both the classical economists such as Smith, Ricardo and Marx and the marginalist authors, such as Menger and Walras are associated with the empirical tradition. Ultimately, the economy would account for the tangible things like exports and imports, engaging in people, objects and their relationships, in contrast to the metaphysical notions of “folk spirit” (Mises, R, p. 73), which historically filled the writing of the German school.

This opinion however, would soon change. As shown by Popper and Bartley[8], ideas can also have unintentional consequences. Indeed, the positivist methodology would reveal its’ incompatibility with the practice of science in general and social science in particular. This incompatibility, combined with the popularity of positivism among scientists, would put the Mises brothers on opposing sides of the positivist assault on social science. When they wrote on the topic however, positivism had gone into decline among philosophers of science, becoming under the weight of criticism, a milder form known as logical empiricism. Richard von Mises could be classified as one of these logical empiricists, which requires that we devote some space to this doctrine before finally addressing the conflicting positions of the Mises brothers.

After positivism received criticism from several authors, among them Karl Popper, regarded by Neurath as the official opposition to the movement, the positivist world view began to decline. The verifiability criterion proved itself impractical, since it would require infinite observations to establish universal scientific propositions (consider a statement like “all swans are white”). The adoption of positivist standards by science, thus would exclude even physics, since it also employs unverifiable propositions. Similarly, it is too strict a requirement that except for logical operations, each proposition of a theoretical system must be verifiable. Despite the importance of criticism to obscurantism which characterizes much of philosophy, it would be an exaggeration to simply reject any metaphysical problem as a mere pseudo-problem. In this sense, critics ironically asked “what would be the empirical verification for the positivist philosophy?”. In addition, the inductive process inherent to the positivist ideology was heavily criticized. It was argued that all empirical data is impregnated with previous theories, which make impossible the ideal of impartial and impersonal observation as a foundation for the construction of hypotheses. Given this obstacle and the failure to logically justify the inductive procedures, an opposite model of science prevailed that dispenses with induction: science begins with problems, from which hypotheses are suggested with the purpose of solving them. From these hypotheses, consequences and testable predictions are derived through deductive reasoning, even if any initial hypothesis has been dreamt or contaminated by ideology (only its explanatory power counts). The rationality of science would then rest in the severity with which such hypotheses would be subject to criticism and not in the ability to conclusively establish truths.

Given these objections, logical empiricism now replaces the verificationist criteria with confirmacionist criteria, thus requiring only partial corroboration of hypotheses. Certainties are replaced by probabilistic knowledge. As such, new models of science are developed in which theories are evaluated in terms of their ability to generate a set of confirmable propositions. As well as abandoning the requirement that in the processing of analytic statements, all other propositions within the theory must be verifiable. Moving in this direction, the significance of criteria within the empiricist tradition oscillates between extremely prohibitive and relatively permissive. Aside from the search for criteria consistent with the prior concept of what science should be, logical empiricism continues the effort of analysis of the language, with the goal of developing more accurate ways of communication in which meaningless propositions would no longer be given expression.

Richard von Mises, in his book on philosophy[9], also seeks a new formulation for the positivist criteria of meaning. The goal is the same: isolate propositions that have meaning, from meaningless propositions like, “nothingness penetrates the universe”, a phrase common in the philosophical discourse. A sentence such as “on January 34 at the fourteen hours of the morning” could be dismissed as incompatible with the rules or conventions on the duration of the month and day. But the adoption of criteria based on agreement with the accepted rules of a logical grammar, as Carnap suggests, would not be satisfactory, because we cannot list all of the rules beforehand. This would require all past and future human knowledge. So for example, the square root of a negative number would be meaningless when the operator root is defined in positive real numbers, but becomes significant when the concept is later extended to complex numbers.

This difficulty is circumvented by the suggestion of the concept of connectability. For Mises (1951, p. 73), a sentence is connectable if it is compatible with a particular set of sentences that regulates the use of the words. Consider obscure statements like Hegel’s “Pure being and pure nothing are therefore the same”(p.249), or Heidegger’s “Nothingness itself is nothing”. Although the second might seem simply redundant grammatically, neither would be summarily dismissed, as they might make sense when considered within their own set of rules, created within their own intellectual tradition. However, we can say that such claims have an extremely limited connectability compared to most sets of rules, including the customary grammar rules of the common language.

At the other extreme of science, Mises seeks to associate the concept of connectability with a set of rules compatible to the verifiability of empirical propositions. Thus, after a superficial evaluation of the criticism regarding the verifiability criteria within logical positivism (p. 76), the same criteria is readmitted through the back door, by the notion of connectability, as Dettering noted (1953). Mises then adopts the classical empiricist view of science, with a few changes: starting from “observational protocols”, induction is used to generate theoretical propositions, which can be organized into axiomatic systems, and in turn used to deduce relevant predictions that could be empirically verifiable.

REFERENCES

BARTLEY III, W.W. & Radnitzky, G., (eds.) Evolutionary Epistemology, Rationality and the Sociology of Science.La Salle: Open Court, 1987.

CALDWELL, B.J. Beyond Positivism: Economic Methodology in the Twentieth Century. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1982.

DETTERING, R. The Criterion of “Connectibility”, 1953.

FRIEDMAN, M. “The Methodology of Positive Economics” in Essays in Positive Economics, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966.

HAYEK, F.A. The Counter-Revolution of Science: Studies in the Abuse of Reason. Indianapolis: The Free Press, 1979 [1955].

HAYEK, F.A. “The Theory of Complex Phenomena”, in HAYEK, F. A. Studies in Philosophy, Politics and Economics.London: Routledge, 1967.

KIRZNER, I.M. The Economic Point of View: An Essay in the History of Economic Thought. Kansas City: Sheed & Ward , 1976.

MENGER, C. Investigations into the Method of Social Sciences. Grove City: Libertarian Press, 1996 [1883].

MILL, J. S. “Da Definição de Economia Política e do Método de Investigação Próprio a Ela”. In: Os Pensadores. São Paulo: Abril Cultural, 1984.

MISES, L. The Ultimate Foundation of Economic Science: An Essay on Method. New York: Foundation for Economic Education, 1978 [1962].

MISES, L. Ação Humana. São Paulo: Instituto Mises Brasil, 2011.

MISES, R. Positivism: A Study in Human Understanding. New York: Dover Publications, 1951. Translated from Kleines Lehrbuch des Positivismus, Hage: von Stockum, 1939.

NEURATH, O. CARNAP, R. & HAHN, H. “The Scientific Conception of the World: The Vienna Circle [1929]” In: NEURATH, M. & COHEN, R.S. (eds.) O. Neurath: Empiricism and Sociology, Chapter 9, 1973.

SCHORSKE, C. E. Fin-de-Siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture. New York: Vintage Books, 1981.

SKOUSEN, M. The Making of Modern Economics. New York: ME Sharpe, 2001.

ROTHBARD, M. Ludwig von Mises: Scholar, Creator, Hero. Auburn: L v Mises Institute, 1988.

 


[1] Schorske, 1981, p. xxvii.

[2] Although Carl Menger, in his theoretical treatises had not explored the political consequences of his theory, he reveals his liberalism in the material he used when he tutored Rudolf (crown prince of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, who would later commit suicide).

[3] Mises, R. 1951.

[4] Mises, L. 2011 e 1979.

[5] Rothbard, 1988, n.r. 34, p. 79.

[6] Skousen, 2001, p. 290.

[7] Neurath, e outros, 1973.

[8] Bartley, e Radnitsky, (eds.), 1987.

[9] Mises, R., 1951.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *