Rejoinder to David Gordon

Over at Mises Daily, David Gordon offers a critique of my paper with Gabriel Zanotti, The Epistemological Implications of Machlup’s Interpretation of Mises’s Epistemology. We are certainly grateful for Gordon to take the time to not only read our paper, but also to write his critical remarks. We think, however, that his critique is as well intended as is misplaced. We just don’t hold the position that is target of Gordon’s criticisms. We should clarify a few key misconceptions as well as offer some replies to his arguments.

First, a few clarifications about our paper:

  • As we explicitly state in the title of our paper, our work is not about Machlup’s position on epistemology. Our paper is about Machlup’s intepretation of Mises’s apriorism, which may or may not be the same position than the one Machlup holds. Any criticism aimed at Machlup’s own position misses the target.
  • The matter of fact is that Rothbard reacts directly and explicitly to Machlup’s interpretation of Mises. There is, then, two of Mises’s students arguing that Mises hold an a priori position, but they differ on how this should be interpreted. We think is fair to put both at the same level of initial plausibility and go back to Mises’s work and see which one of these authors were closer to Mises’s own position (The reasons why we think this history of though exercise is valuable should be clear as we approach the conclusions in the paper.) We focus on Machlup’s paper because it offers a good initial bridge to modern epistemology in Austrian economics (something that we think is needed.) Again, it is not that Machlup’s paper has not received the attention it actually did. And is not Machlup’s own position, but his interpretation of Mises what is the focus of our paper. Little is gained by criticizing Machlup per Machlup.
  • No one here, not Rothbard, not Machlup, and certainly not us, question the a priori in Mises epistemology. We are not questioning the certainty of the praxeological axiom.

It is to avoid these confusions that in the introduction we say that «[o]ur argument is not that Machlup’s (1955) presentation is at face value a representation of Mises’s position, but that Mises was not an extreme aprioristic thinker and that Machlup’s work offers a bridge between Mises and Lakatos that has been unexplored.»

Regarding Gordon’s remarks. We are not saying that Rothbard follows an extreme a priori position. We say, instead, that Rothbard says he is going to defend the extreme a priori position but then he doesn’t. What Rothbard says he’s going to do is not what he does. We would be surprised to see this is find to be an odd interpretation of Rothbard’s work. The title of his own article is «In Defense of ‘Extreme Apriorism’.» What is «Extreme Apriorism»? Is a direct reference to Machlup’s paper, where he defines Extreme Apriorism as the theoretical construction where all subsidiary assumptions can be derived from the a priori categories and therefore are not open to empirical verification (pp. 5-7). If Rothbard wants to step into a debate and use the same terms with a different meaning, he needs to be very clear about it. But he is not. That’s not Machlup’s fault, that’s Rothbard’s fault. It is our impression that Rothbard missed Machlup’s point when he refers to Mises as an example of what extreme apriorism is not (a very different thing that referring to Mises as an example of what apriorism is not.)

In page 1 (first paragraph), Rothbard says that «Professor Mises and extreme apriorism go undefended in this debate» (and this is the defense that Rothbard says is going to do in this paper.) If there are any doubts about Rothbard’s own position, towards the end of the page he describes himself as an «ultra-apriorist.» But in page 2 Rothbard already steps back from the «Extreme Apriorism» position and sustains that «[a]ctually, despite the ‘extreme a priori’ label, praxeology contains one Fundamental Axiom-the axiom of action-which may be called a priori, and a few subsidiary postulates which are actually empirical.» It is not, then, as Gordon argues, that we have undermined Rothbard’s intepretation. Is Rothbard who undermines his own position. And is Rothbard contradictory position why we thought a note was needed in our paper. This inconsistenty in Rothbard as an authoritative reference to Mises’s position created a long standing confusion about what apriorism means in the context of praxeology in the economic profession at large.

There may well be good reasons to criticize what would be Machlup’s hard-core. But that’s not what our paper is about. We’re not making a case for Machlup’s own position, we’re making a case for Machlup’s interpretation of Mises’s epistemology next to Rothbard’s interpretation.

Gordon misinterprets our position when he argues that the point of controversy lies «elsewhere.» He sustains that for Machlup what is considered a priori is a matter of convention, but that this is not the case for Mises. He argues that «Mises again and again makes clear that he does not look at matters in this way. He thinks that his a priori claims are incontrovertibly true, not just artifacts of a theory.» Then he challenges us to find quotes where Mises says or implies that the a priori claims are merely conventional. But we don’t have to find any of these quotes because we don’t say that for Mises what is considered a priori is a matter of convention (certainly not in the sense Gordon is using the term.) This is an example of Gordon criticizing Machlup rather than the content of our paper. It seems that Gordon overlooked this passage from p. 19:

There are two things we are not saying in this paper. First, we are not denying the axiomatic characteristic of human action in the hard core of praxeology; we sustain, like Rothbard, the presence of auxiliary hypothesis or conditional assumptions. But this implies that the method is not that of extreme apriorism. Second, we are not saying that monetary maximization (example used by Machlup) is the central axiom. It should be noted that on the problem of the fundamental assumptions Machlup refers to Schütz, a reference one would expect Rothbard to endorse but that he seems to have missed.

It is not the objective of our paper to discuss whether or not the claims of praxeology are mere conventions or more than this. Gordon is barking at the wrong tree. We don’t question Mises’s claims on praxeology, we question Rothbard’s extreme apriorism (and its implications). To question Rothbard extreme apriorism is not the same thing than to question Mises’s apriorism. The whole point of the paper. In pages 30-31 we also say:

The geometry example brings to surface the question of where does the empirical assumptions come from. In the case of geometry it can be inferred from observation or assumed [«mere convention»]. In Mises, however, it is neither of them; it is inner, rather than outer, observation where the assumption of purposeful behavior ‒free will‒ comes from. The concept of human action is open to discussion in the sphere of philosophical anthropology, not in the sphere of empirical testing.

Sure, we say that the claims of praxeology, because they involve purposeful behavior, are open to discussion in the sphere of philosophical anthropology. But this is a different thing than saying they are «merely conventions» in the way Gordon uses the term. If the claims of praxeology weren’t subject of philosophical anthropology, Mises wouldn’t have to deal with these topics to make his case.

What follows in Gordon’s critique, then, is a criticism to a position we don’t hold. Of course, once we know that money is being used for exchange, all «praxeological laws applied to money hold.» Where do we say otherwise? But the point is that we cannot know a priori if we are dealing with a barter economy or with a monetary economy. The problem is that Mises own words challenges the extreme apriorism that Rothbard says is going to defend but then he doesn’t. Gordon says that «[a]mazingly, Zanotti and Cachanosky quote part of this very passage, as if it supported rather than refuted them.» As a matter of fact, these passages support our case because we don’t question the a priori, we point to the presence of empirical assumptions, the content of the quotes that Gordon says contradicts our paper. In our paper we discuss at length, with the aid of geometry as an analogy, why «this reference to experience does not impair the aprioristic character of praxeology and economics.» The exact same position Gordon says contradicts our paper.

There is a difference most of our critics are missing between using Popper-Kuhn-Lakatos-Feyerabend methodological instruments to clarify a position with using their methodological instruments and holding their same position.

To summarize, all we are saying is that in order to go from praxeology to catallactics we need a set of subsidiary assumptions that are not directly deductible from human action’s central axiom. This is what Mises called real world conditions. Even Rothbard (yes, we know) talked about them. The point is why, if this is so, he defended an «extreme apriorism» position, producing a terrible misunderstanding with the entire economic profession that we are still paying its price. Our work intends to clarify this confusion and move Austrian epistemology more up to date.

In fact, Gordon agrees with us more than he thinks.

PS1: As a side note, Gabriel’s PhD dissertation consists in developing a neo-thomistic foundation of Mises’s praxeology. Surely, Popper and Lakatos would have disagreed with this position. But the point is to use their work and terminology to clarify and advance different positions.

PS2: Also note that in Figure 1 in the paper, where we compare the epistemological position of Lakatos, Machlup, and Mises, we label Mises’s real world conditions as «assumptions», not as part of what is hold (or argued to hold) a priori. This separation may be open to debate. Still, is not the case that we put empirical assumptions (open to «mere conventions»?) as part of the praxeological a priori structure when we discuss Mises’s position.

2 comentarios en “Rejoinder to David Gordon

  1. Re: «In our paper we discuss at length, with the aid of geometry as an analogy»

    = Why?

    «Yet praxeology is not geometry. It is the worst of all superstitions to assume that the epistemological characteristics of one branch of knowledge must necessarily be applicable to any other branch. In dealing with the epistemology of the sciences of human action, one must not take one’s cue from geometry, mechanics, or any other science.

    The assumptions of Euclid were once considered as self-evidently true. Present-day epistemology looks upon them as freely chosen postulates, the starting point of a hypothetical chain of reasoning. Whatever this may mean, it has no reference at all to the problems of praxeology.

    The starting point of praxeology is a self-evident truth, the cognition of action, that is, the cognition of the fact that there is such a thing as consciously aiming at ends. There is no use cavilling about these words by referring to philosophical problems that have no bearing upon our problem. The truth of this cognition is as self-evident and as indispensable for the human mind as is the distinction between A and non-A.»
    — Ludwig von Mises, The Ultimate Foundation of Economic Science, p.5

    Perhaps get a better analogy?

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    • Hi Conza,

      In fact, that’s one of the reasons why we use the geometry analogy:
      1-. Mises (and Hoppe and others) use this example.
      2-. It is also an example of Mises not being clear when he compares praxeology with geometry.
      3-. We quote the passages you mention precisely to point the difference between Mises and other sciences. Namely, for Mises the «ultimate given» is not just convention, but a necessary true axiom. This is not the case of geometry (and refereed as «a priori» by many.)

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