Mises and the A Priori Not So Extreme

As I have noted, Mises' views on the a priori character of economic theorizing are rooted in the primordial concept of "human action," of human agents being perceived as purposeful individuals who are alert to opportunities that might prove beneficial to them. This writer once asked Mises how a person can know that human beings other than himself are indeed purposeful. How can we know that one is not the only purposeful human agent in existence? How can a priori reasoning generate the knowledge that society is made up of rational, goal-seeking persons? Mises' answer surprised me gready: it may perhaps soften the image of Ludwig von Mises as an extreme a priorist. Mises answered my query by saying, in effect, that we become aware of the existence of other human agents by observation.16 It is observation that convinces us not to be solipsists. It is ob servation that convinces us that the human race is a race of rational, purposeful, alert human beings.

If we take this oral response of Mises seriously, it becomes clear that Mises' a priorism must be understood as being rather less extreme than it is often believed to have been. Mises was not maintaining that an isolated economic thinker can explain what occurs in market society without leaving his cell. At the very least he must establish—on the basis of empirical investigation, it turns out—that a market society made up of purposefully acting human beings does in fact exist. Once, however, one has, on the basis of such empirical observation, convinced oneself that society is made up of purposeful human agents, one can then, in Mises' view, develop through deductive reasoning those chains of economic theorizing (based on introspective understanding of what it means to be a purposeful, rational, human being) that make up die core of economics.

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