Culture, Political Economy

Our Land of Plenty

Our Land of PlentyWalking through those doors is always a mind-blowing experience. I’m not exaggerating when I say I believe the sight behind those glass gates is one of the most incredible our country has to offer.

I am talking, of course, about the grocery store.

“The grocery store?” you ask. “That seems a bit melodramatic, don’t you think?”

“No,” I reply. “I don’t think so at all.”

While I have perhaps exaggerated a little, I’ve only done so in the sense that my mind isn’t always blown every time I pass through the doors of the local Cub Foods or Hy-Vee. But this is only because I, like most Americans, have become so accustomed to the superabundance of food with which our nation has been blessed that I often take it for granted. When I stop and think about it though, I am truly amazed.

Walking down the breakfast aisle alone, I count over 200 kinds of cereal, 97 kinds of jelly and jam, and nearly 30 varieties of peanut butter. Then there’s the produce section, overflowing with fresh fruits and vegetables, even in the middle of winter with subzero temperatures outside. There are fresh oranges from Florida and fresh bananas from Guatemala. There are sweet potatoes from Canada and berries from Mexico.

There is also the meat section, with every cut imaginable, both fresh and frozen. There’s beef and pork and poultry and seafood. If I so choose, I can purchase and consume filet mignon or lobster or ribeye or octopus.

My point is that we in the United States today have access to a greater amount and greater variety of food than the people of any other civilization in the entire history of the world. For the last several thousand years of human existence, most of mankind—or rather all of mankind—has only been able to dream about the variety of foods on the shelves in our grocery stores.

Let’s be honest, we are living like kings. Even the poorest among us can eat better than many of the wealthiest men of ages past.

A case in point is meat. It used to be that most people didn’t get to eat meat on a regular basis because it was too expensive. In many societies it was considered a luxury item to be consumed only on special occasions. Today, however, we get to eat meat, if not every day, at least multiple times a week. Even dirt-poor history teachers can pick up a Big Mac or throw some pre-pattied burgers on a $10 mini-grill from Walmart.

It’s hard to deny that we have it pretty good. While our ancestors used to have to go out and hunt and forage if they wanted to eat anything, we today can simply pick up the phone, order a pizza, and have it delivered—hot and delicious—right to our doorstep.

I’ll say it again: we in the United States today have access to a greater amount and greater variety of food than the people of any other civilization in the entire history of the world.

And how do we celebrate this superabundance of food?

Well, by wasting a lot of it, unfortunately.

It’s estimated that Americans throw away 6 billion pounds of food every month. That’s about 20 pounds of food per month for every man, woman, and child in the country. Of course not all of this waste happens at the consumer level. Plenty of food gets discarded at the source or at the retail level as well.

Still, that’s a pretty astonishing amount of waste.

I think a big part of the problem is the need for Tort reform. Many caterers, for example, won’t even let their own customers take home leftovers for fear of being sued if they happen to become ill after eating them.

Even more important though, I think, is a change in attitude. We need to stop taking this abundant food supply for granted. Most people in history haven’t had nearly this level of prosperity, and we might not always have it either. We need to be more grateful for it. And more amazed by it.


Nicholas Kaminsky

Philosophy, Political Economy

Heresy, Alchemy, & Economics

Inventers of the Modern World

“In Newton’s universe, bodies have no telos because they have no substance other than mathematically described extension. As a result, all motion results from external force, which is ultimately attributable to arbitrary will.

The change in motion Newton wrought by making force the central concern of his physics would have profound political and economic implications. Once inertia became the fundamental principle of the universe, strife would become central to all subsequent expressions of the English ideology based on Newtonian physics. According to Adam Smith’s reading of Newton, greed or self love is an instinct which is analogous to inertia in that each body in space seeks its own good without regard to any other body. Greed, which would lead to chaos, is held in check by competition, and the result is Smith’s version of perfect motion, otherwise known as the ‘invisible hand’ which assures that private vice is transformed magically (or alchemically) into public good.

Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution is another example of the English ideology derived from Newton, which also claims that strife – or, as Darwin would say, competition for scarce resources leading to natural selection – is the fundamental principle of the universe. Darwin, like Newton, ‘frames no hypotheses.’ He looks at nature and discovers that ‘strife’ is its fundamental law.”

“This brings us to the mendacity at the heart of the English ideology. Proponents of British empiricism claim with Newton that they frame no hypotheses, while at the same time smuggling covert occult principles into their systems. They subvert the notion of essence; they promote the destruction of substance; and then at the last moment, rather than accept the consequences of what they have wrought, introduce some mathematical deus ex machina or scientific ‘law’ which saves the universe from the chaos which is the natural consequence of their subversion, and reintroduces an order which is totally confected (or framed) and which turns out to be nothing more than a projection of the English economic status quo, which began with theft, onto the universe. The common denominator of the various projections of the English ideology which Newton, Smith, Malthus, and Darwin share is Capitalism, the economic version of strife, which is the fundamental principle of the universe.

Confronted by increasingly strident complaints from the continent which accused him of smuggling occult forces into his system, Newton responded by declaring apodictically, ‘hypotheses non fingo.’ Subsequent proponents of the English ideology would make the same rhetorical move, by claiming that ‘science’ allowed them to view nature as it actually was, without any intervening conceptual framework. In reality, the proponents of the English ideology were doing nothing but projecting their own culture onto the very thing that needed to be explained. This is precisely the charges which Mirowski levels, when he claims that the physicists in question (and this certainly applies to Newton as well as the economists who imitated him) were guilty of ‘reconceptualizing the universe as a reflection of our social and somatic selves.’ In fact, Mirowski continues, ‘physicists have been doing just that for centuries.’”

– E. Michael Jones, Barren Metal – 

– Lucas G. Westman

* These passages are taken from the chapter, Newton and the Capitalist Universe

Political Economy, The Franciscans

Franciscan Principles of the Economy

Franciscans and their Finances“In 2007 I published a text on a Franciscan approach to economics. The book originated in a challenge posed to the Capuchin Order by three African Capuchins at the Order’s General Chapter of 2000. The three friars were reviewing the state of the Order in Africa, trying to contextualize the political and ecclesial challenges facing Africans, when they humbly and pointedly accused the worldwide fraternity of ‘not hearing the cry of the poor in Africa.’ The charge stung and confused the delegates listening to them. Hadn’t the Order sent legions of missionaries and developed hundreds of parishes, schools and clinics? Hadn’t the Order supplied financial resources for the establishment of the Order, along with churches and schools, in both Eastern and Western Africa? Hadn’t hundreds of European and North American priests and brothers labored intensively and for decades to make a positive difference in the lives of Africans? What had we not heard? What had we not seen? The three friars were clear. We had not understood the poverty of the poor of Africa. We did not understand its roots and its causes, its origins in a Western economic system and worldview that valued competition over compassion, individualism over community, and materialism over the spirit. The friars asked us to listen more closely to their concerns and to work with them to develop solutions that would heal and mutually benefit both sides of the growing global economic divide.

This challenge accelerated the Capuchin Order’s analysis of its own economic models, already in progress and led by then Minister General, now Bishop, John Corriveau, OFM. Cap. In a series of 20 circular letters to the Order, Corriveau had enunciated a vision for a new way of living our common life and sharing our resources in a more globalized world. Rejecting the underlying aggression and competition of late 20th century market fundamentalism, Corriveau called on Capuchins to rebuild our local, provincial and international economies on more solid and more secure principles of communion and compassion. Calling on friars to develop a ‘fraternal’ economy, Corriveau suggested that we could build stronger economic ties and a more stable network of international relationships, if we were willing to forego the spasms of fear that classical capitalism’s ‘scarcity thinking’ (as opposed to classical Bonaventurian ‘abundance thinking’) promotes. My book traces the history of this line of thought and provides formators with some tools on how to begin training the next generation for this new economic paradigm.

The first thing we have to learn is that Franciscans have something vital to say about contemporary economics. This is not new. Franciscans have always been involved in the economic questions of the day. The early friars were intimately involved in the debates about currency and the proper use of resources and power in the 12th and 13th centuries. Francis’ teaching on poverty was never meant to reject the world and jettison the friars into some parallel, disembodied universe without commerce or common good. Quite the contrary! Francis’ intent was to have friars understand the troubled roots of the economy of his day and to have them face the violence and the greed that fueled the development of the rising feudal economy. Francis’ penitential humanism was to be a stimulus to a new economic security among the brothers and in society, fueled not by greed but by a humble recognition of a common heritage as sisters and brothers under one good and loving God.

Capuchins believe it is time to take another look at the Franciscan tradition for help in developing a more relational economic paradigm for the 21st century. In my book, I outline five principles that we believe can help us construct a more relational experience of economic activity than is presently displayed in the ‘pick yourself up by your own bootstrap’ idiom of aggressive capitalism. The five principles are:

  1. Transparency – mutuality in all things. All the goods, economic activities, and ministerial decisions are at the service of the whole. There are no hidden schemes by leadership or membership.
  1. Equity – Individuals and communities get what they need and contribute what they have for the common good and building up of communion. Service replaces entitlement.
  1. Participation – Build mechanisms of cooperation and communion of persons without domination or deprivation.
  1. Solidarity – Those who have more give more to those deprived. All work to undo structures of sin that serve as obstacles to communion.
  1. Austerity – The minimum necessary, not he maximum allowed. Live and work simply, so that others can simply live and work.

Think about the present financial crisis. Had any of these five principles been working in the financial system, we would not have gotten into the traumatic global situation we are in. These principles are derived from the wellspring of Franciscan theology, specifically meditations on the Trinity and our participation in God’s inner life of communion. Franciscans are asked to use these five principles when working through their economic decisions, both privately and communally.”

– David B. Couturier, OFM Cap., Franciscans and Their Finances – 


– Lucas G. Westman

Economic Method, Epistemology, Metaphysics, Philosophy

A Critique of Misesian Economic Methodology: Part III – The Heart of the Matter

  1. ludwig-von-mises The Anti-Realist Foundation and the Conflict of Realism

In the previous section we examined the influence that Kantian philosophy had on Wittgenstein’s work in his Tractatus. The conclusions made in the Tractatus provided the positivists a basis for advancing their ideas. These ideas were a form of radical empiricism, the natural sciences were the only way to attain knowledge of the world, and metaphysical claims were entirely meaningless. Moreover, elements of anti-realism are found in the work of the positivists. These considerations give us the evidence we need to question why Mises chose a Kantian route in his attempt to deflect positivist influence in the field of economics.

In this section my aim is to pin down the discord at the heart of the Misesian praxeological system. This discord occurs in two places; first, it takes place in the praxeological foundation itself; second, it takes place when we separate praxeology from how Mises practices economics. We have already witnessed various Austrian scholars recognizing the Kantian nature of Misesian thought.[1] In order to locate the anti-realism in Misesian Praxeology I turn to his book, The Ultimate Foundations of Economic Science (UFES),

“A new epistemology of rationalism aimed at the refutation of this integral empiricism. Leibniz added to the doctrine that nothing is in the intellect that has not previously been in the senses the proviso: except the intellect itself. Kant, awakened by Hume from his “dogmatic slumbers,” put the rationalistic doctrine upon a new basis. Experience, he taught, provides only the raw material out of which the mind forms what is called knowledge. All knowledge is conditioned by the categories that precede any data of experience both in time and in logic. The categories are a priori: they are the mental equipment of the individual that enables him to think and – we may add – to act. As all reasoning presupposes the a priori categories, it is vain to embark upon attempts to prove or to disprove the.”[2] (Emphasis added)

Mises Continues,

“Following in the wake of Kant’s analysis, philosophers raised the question: How can the human mind, by aprioristic thinking, deal with the reality of the external world? As far as praxeology is concerned, the answer is obvious. Both, a priori thinking and reasoning on the one hand and human action on the other, are manifestations of the human mind. The logical structure of the human mind creates the reality of action. Reason and action are congeneric and homogenous, two aspects of the same phenomenon.”[3] (Emphasis added)

Finally, in Human Action, Mises says, “Like logic and mathematics, praxeological knowledge is in us; it does not come from without.”[4] (Emphasis added) It is rather evident from these passages that Mises is more than a rhetorical Kantian. These statements are the pinnacle of explicitly Kantian proclamations about the categories of the mind in relation to the world. The category of action in the human mind is fundamental for Mises. Human action is the categorical axiom from which he constructs all of economics. Indeed, this axiom implies the categories of logic, regularity in nature, causality, time, and value.[5] Boettke strengthens this view by highlighting these and three other prerequisites of action as distinct categories of the mind. These prerequisite categories Boettke highlights are temporality, causality, uncertainty, dissatisfaction, an imagined preferred state of affairs, and beliefs or expectations with regards to the means utilized for achieving ends.[6] Mises is adding to the Kantian conception of categories of the mind, the categories of action he considers vital for the science of economics. Just as Kant removed the laws of logic from the external world by putting them in the mind safe from the attacks of Hume’s empiricism; Mises removed the prerequisite laws of action needed for economics from the external world by putting them in the mind safe from the attacks of positivism. This is the explicitly anti-realist nature of the Misesian praxeological foundation.

As soon as we have identified the perspicuous anti-realist component of Misesian thought, a realist component can be discovered as well. Mises says, “The starting point of all praxeological thinking is not arbitrarily chosen axioms, but a self-evident proposition, fully, clearly and necessarily present in every human mind.”[7] (Emphasis added) This statement seems coherent with the previously referenced material but later Mises says, “Although logic, mathematics, and praxeology are not derived from experience, they are not arbitrarily made, but imposed upon us by the world in which we live and act and which we want to study.[8] (Emphasis added) Boettke also references this position of Mises, but does not recognize it as being problematic – quoting Mises Boettke states,

‘The starting point of praxeology is not a choice of axioms and a decision about methods of procedure, but reflection about the essence of action.’ In our efforts to understand reality we do not choose the axiom we wish to begin with so much as it is chosen for us by the world in which we live. The axiom of action is in a sense imposed on us by the world.” (Original emphasis)[9]

Boettke continues,

“As the ‘filter’ through which we make sense of our surroundings, we must necessarily begin our understanding processes with the concept of purposeful action. It is the only means available to us for this purpose, as we cannot help but see the world through the ‘lenses’ conditioned by the unavoidable structure of our minds. If we desire to ground economics in the reality of the world, Mises maintained, we have no choice but start with the axiom of action. No other starting point can yield theory that illuminates the behavior of real individuals.”[10]

It is quite telling that Boettke, within the same paragraph, utilizes the language of realism and anti-realism in order to describe Misesian praxeology from which the action axiom is derived. How is it that our minds create the reality of action while at the same time the axiom of action is imposed on us by the world? How is it that the axiom of action is chosen for us by the world (external reality) and at the same time our perception of the world is conditioned by the unavoidable structure of the human mind? How is it that we can abstract off of the world that which the mind has already put on it? The answer of course, is it cannot. This conflict is not a nuanced interpretation in order to find a problem, rather, the problem is a contradiction located at the heart of the Misesian praxeological foundation – to claim that we put onto the world the very axiom that the world forces onto us is no different than saying that A is ~A.

The realism/anti-realism tension is more poignant when we move from the praxeological foundation to the actual practice of economics, or as Mises called it catallactics. Recall that Jorg Guido Hulsmann argued when we examine how Mises practices economics he is more in line with Aristotelian realism; Hulsmann encourages us to examine the economic work of Mises to validate this claim.

Following the suggestion of Hulsmann, I will examine Misesian economics rather than Misesian praxeology to find further elements of realism. In the first part of The Theory of Money and Credit, Mises discusses the origin and nature of money. In this section we find Mises discussing direct and indirect exchange,[11] supply and demand,[12] the division of labor,[13] the development of a medium of exchange,[14] gold and silver as money,[15] and finally the secondary functions of money.[16] All of the economic insights Mises elucidates in this section are discussed absent any reference to categories of the mind, the imposition of structural features of the mind onto the world, or any other kind of vocabulary suggestive of anti-realism. The language employed can be entirely recognized as realist since Mises is discussing all of these various facets of economics existing firmly in the external world independent of the perceptual capacities of the human mind. Furthermore, in part II, chapter II of the same book, we find more evidence of realism. While Mises, following the tradition of Menger and Bawerk, understand economic valuation of means and ends to be entirely subjective, this subjectivity leads to an independent objective exchange value of monetary functioning. Speaking of monetary exchange value as something independent and objective carries with it realist implications of understanding the economic world humans interact.

Additional evidence of realism can be found in the manner Mises refutes socialism and Marxism.[17] Mises argues the failure of these economic systems is the result of their inadequacy to conform to economic reality as we experience it. In his famous work, Socialism, he argues that centrally planned economies do not allow proper economic calculation and are destined to fail. When arguing against Marxism, Mises claims this system of economics is a revolt against reason,[18] Marxism is unable to withstand the devastating critiques of economists,[19] Marxist ideological – doctrine aims not at discovering economic truths of the world but rather to destroy the reputation of economic teachings discovered thus far in economic history,[20] and that Marxism is a purely mystical doctrine.[21] All of these arguments against Marxism are employed in order to lucidly expose the failure of this economic system to explain the economic reality of the external world. According to the critique of Mises, Marxism fails as an economic system due to the fact that it violates the economic laws discovered in reality, rather than violate the praxeological axioms introspectively discovered in the human mind.

Truths of the economic reality of the external world are what Mises was truly passionate about. This is what motivated him to build a system protecting the most important element of economics – purposive acting man – from the positivist philosophy he considered to be launching insidious attacks upon such a vitally important field of study critical for human flourishing. Although Mises was passionate, we cannot ignore the choice the Misesian system forces us to make given the realism/anti-realism tension embedded in the system itself. Indeed, it is more than a tension; it is a contradiction that must be eradicated. The Misesian praxeological foundation is saliently anti-realist and yet contains seeds of realism.   The evidence provided above thoroughly establishes the Misesian realist practice of economics when offering theory and refuting opponents. The unfortunate state of affairs Austrian adherents are now required to confront is the choice to either abandon the distinctive praxeological foundation of the contemporary ASE, or keep the praxeological foundation while abandoning the practice of economics from a realist perspective.

  1. What is the Path Forward for the Austrian School of Economics?

In the previous section, I exposed the contradiction at the heart of the Misesian praxeological foundation. Austrians are now forced to make a choice, either give up the anti-realist praxeological foundation so dear to contemporary ASE, or abandon the practice of economics from the realist tradition. These are their only options if philosophical cogency is virtue they would like to appeal.

While difficult for the contemporary adherents of the ASE, the correct choice at this juncture is to abandon the anti-realism of the Misesian praxeological system. Indeed, Mises was not a philosopher, but an economist. His primary concern was protecting the truths of economic reality from philosophies that would undermine them. Remember that by giving up the anti-realism in the praxeological foundation, I am not giving up the conviction that economics requires the appropriate philosophical interpretation. In my view, this interpretation must be committedly realist in the classical metaphysical tradition of the Ancients, the Patristics, and the Scholastics. A realist practice of economics requires a coherent metaphysical understanding of reality. It is my contention that classical realist metaphysics, combined with the appropriate moral philosophy informed by the teleological aspect of human action is necessary for the salvation of economics as a science.


– Lucas G. Westman

[1] “We provide evidence to show how Mises was influenced in his attempt to show how Mises was influenced in his attempt to justify pure theory by the philosophy of Immanuel Kant and also demonstrate that Mises’s application of this idea to the science of economics moves beyond Kant.” (Living Economics, Boettke, Pg. 195)

[2] The Ultimate Foundation of Economic Science, Mises, Pg. 10

[3] The Ultimate Foundation of Economic Science, Mises, Pg. 37

[4] Pg. 64

[5] The Ultimate Foundation of Economic Science, Mises, Pg. 31

[6] Living Economics, Boettke, Pg. 204

[7] The Ultimate Foundations of Economic Science, Pg. 4

[8] The Ultimate Foundations of Economic Science, Pg. 12

[9] Living Economics, Pg. 203

[10] Living Economics, Pg. 203

[11] The Theory of Money and Credit, Mises, Pg. 30

[12] The Theory of Money and Credit, Mises, Pg. 31

[13] The Theory of Money and Credit, Mises, Pg. 31

[14] The Theory of Money and Credit, Mises, Pg. 32

[15] The Theory of Money and Credit, Mises, Pg. 33

[16] The Theory of Money and Credit, Mises, Pg. 34 – 37

[17] If there is at least one area we are indebted to the Austrians it is their thorough and systematic refutations of socialism and Marxism.

[18] Human Action, Scholars Edition, Pg. 72

[19] Human Action, Scholars Edition, Pg. 74

[20] Human Action, Scholars Edition, Pg. 74

[21] Human Action, Scholars Edition, Pg. 80

Economic Method, Epistemology, Metaphysics, Philosophy

A Critique of Misesian Economic Methodology: Part II – Historical Considerations

  1. Anti-Realism and Misesian Praxeology: Historical Considerations

ludwig-von-misesI have concluded the previous section by highlighting the fact that there is a conflict at the heart of the Misesian praxeological system. This conflict is between metaphysical realism and anti-realism. In order to understand why this conflict has arisen, I am going to examine the historical roots of this problem and how they influenced Mises.

The Misesian project motivated to overcome positivist influence in economics echoes a previous philosophical discussion between David Hume and Immanuel Kant. Hume argued in favor of a radical and revolutionary form of empiricism in order to challenge what he considered to be epistemological misconceptions advanced by the rationalist thinkers of the Enlightenment. Hume’s arguments concerned Kant deeply, awakening him from his “dogmatic slumbers.”[1]

Hume argued that reason was entirely inadequate to tell us anything about the external world. Far from an authoritative tool for discovering and validating truths about reality, reason was merely an instrument able to detect relations between ideas.[2] These ideas are acquired through the senses by detecting patterns in the external world, but these patterns were by no means necessary. This is most strikingly evident by Hume’s attack on causality. On Hume’s view, causality is not a necessary connection of experience between substances; rather, it is a pattern of sensory experience identified in events with no necessary connection between these sensory impressions. If we experience A, and B follows every time we experience A, we infer based on this pattern that A is causing B. Hume rejects this inference because he thinks we are not justified in making it. In fact, there is no justification for inferring that B will always and necessarily follow A, because all we have is a pattern telling us that event B follows the experience of event A. For all we know A could occur and event C will follow. Since this is the case, the law of causality undergirding the scientific method of examining cause and effect in nature is reduced to a sequence of impression whereby B is expected to follow A, but there is no justified and/or necessary connection between the pattern itself.

Kant was deeply troubled by the arguments of Hume because they strike at the belief of a rational universe that can be studied and understood by scientists utilizing the scientific method. If event B does not necessarily follow event A when conducting a controlled scientific experiment, the scientist would not be discovering essential truths about the natural world when discovering that event B follows event A. If Hume is correct, rather than discovering essential truths about the natural world, the scientist is only discovering instrumental truths that are merely useful, pragmatic postulations about the natural world.

Kant’s critical system, especially the Critique of Pure Reason, is a rigorous examination of the features that make thought about a world possible. Kant’s focus in the Critique of Pure Reason is on what can be known and what cannot be known.[3] The Critique was the culminating work of philosophy during the Enlightenment period in history. Although Kant agreed with Hume that sensory experience is vitally important, as well as primary in temporal order of attaining knowledge, he did not concede that it was the only way for us to move forward in our cognitive capacities when continually attaining knowledge.[4] Moreover, Kant concedes the Humean position that causality is not a part of our experience of the world. Nor are other laws of logic that have been routinely abstracted off the world of experience by traditional philosophers preceding the Enlightenment. Although the laws of logic are not in the world, they exist nonetheless in our minds as the logical categories that make experience of a world like ours possible. Instead of receiving the data of the world onto our minds tabula rasa, the world conforms to the categories of the mind. Kant believed that science and reason itself had suffered a serious blow due to the critical analysis of Hume,[5] but he also believed he was able to rescue science from the skepticism of Hume’s radical empiricism.

Kant’s aim in the Critique of Pure Reason, was to combine the necessary components of rationalism and empiricism, as well as realism and idealism. For Kant, rationalism and empiricism were closed systems that were unable to tell us anything about the world. Rationalism was a closed system because it could not get us outside of ideas in the mind, and empiricism was a closed system because it could not get us outside of the impressions we received from sensory data.[6] According to Kant, in order to get us to a world that is meaningful there needed to be a compromise.

The first move Kant makes in his system of thought was not against rationalism and empiricism, rather, it was against the methods of doing philosophy during his time. The new method Kant introduces is what he calls a “Copernican Revolution” in philosophy. Kant says,

Up to now it has been assumed that all our cognition must conform to the objects; but all attempts to find out something about them a priori through concepts that would extend our cognition have, on this presupposition, come to nothing. Hence let us once try whether we do not get farther with the problems of metaphysics by assuming that the objects must conform to our cognition, which would agree better with the requested possibility of an a priori cognition of them, which is to establish something about objects before they are given to us. This would be just like the first thoughts of Copernicus, who, when he did not make good progress in the explanation of the celestial motions if he assumed that the entire celestial host revolves around the observer, tried to see if he might not have greater success if he made the observer revolve and left the stars at rest.[7]

Kant continues to explain that in metaphysics, if we regard our intuitions as conforming to extended objects then there is really no way of knowing anything about these objects a priori; but if the objects of our senses conform to the “constitution of our faculty of intuition” then knowledge of objects a priori is quite possible.[8] Instead of the mind playing a passive role in the cognitive process, Kant views the mind as being active. Our minds do not conform to the world external to us; rather, the external world conforms to the activities of the mind.

Kant’s “Copernican Revolution” leads him to claim that the world has structural features that have never been considered. The most important structural feature of the reality as Kant sees it, is the separation of the noumenal world and the phenomenal world.[9] The noumenal world contributes content to the phenomenal world, and the noumenal self contributes form, structure, concepts, and categories to the phenomenal world through the transcendental activities of our mind. Two of the critical transcendental activities of the mind are the Aesthetic and Analytic components. The Transcendental Aesthetic contributes space and time, while the Transcendental Analytic contributes the categories. The result of this is the phenomenal world, the world of experience, the world that awakens our senses, must conform to the structural requirements of the noumenal self. The noumenal self brings order to the chaotic contribution of the noumenal world, and without the noumenal self or the noumenal world there would be no phenomenal world. There must be both in order to make sense of anything. This is why Kant says, “Thoughts without content are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind.”[10]

The result of this analysis is that the phenomenal world is empirically real but transcendentally ideal, and it is because of these two fundamental features of the world that if we do not exist, the world does not exist either. Since the world exists for us we must be present in order to give it order, and if we are not there to put it together through the transcendental activities of the mind, then there is no world at all. It is from this initial discovery and analysis of synthetic a priori judgments, that Kant is able to come to these foundational conclusions about the nature and structure of the mind and reality.

If we move to the twentieth century, we find that Kant’s concerns with Humean empiricism become Mises’s concerns with logical positivism. Although Mises has great apprehensions with positivist philosophy, it seems his only concern was with regard to positivism’s influence in economics. He gives no indication that he is worried about positivism becoming wedded to physics or chemistry, but only the social sciences.

I am sympathetic to the concern of Mises with regard to the metaphysical and epistemological claims made by the positivists. Although sympathetic, I am perplexed with his adoption of Kantian philosophy to combat the empiricism of the positivists. Indeed, it is Hume and Kant that give us much of the philosophical literature of the Vienna Circle in the first place. The positivists were heavily influenced by Hume’s empiricism, as well as the conclusion of Kant that we can only acquire knowledge of the phenomenal realm of reality.[11] Although Kant believed in more than the phenomenal realm of experience, the positivists saw no reason to hang onto the mystical and unknowable noumenal realm important to Kant’s system.[12] In addition to this, contrary to popular conceptions of Kant maintaining his epistemological rationalism, some philosophers argue that Kant was actually an empiricist.[13]

This section is important for our investigation of the Misesian system because the moves that Kant makes against Hume’s radical empiricism are the same moves Mises makes against the logical positivists.

  1. Kant, Wittgenstein, and Positivism

I have just examined the relevance of the debate between Hume and Kant. Now I am going to examine the influence Kant had on Wittgenstein, and in turn, the influence Wittgenstein had on the logical positivists. This is an important consideration because it demonstrates that Mises utilizes the incorrect philosophical tools to argue against the positivists.

The Misesian use of Kantian philosophy is even more difficult to understand when we consider the Kantian influence on the naturalist and empiricist[14] philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein. In the Tractatus Wittgenstein is concerned with what can be said and cannot be said about reality, while Kant’s focus in the Critique of Pure Reason was on what can be known and what cannot be known.[15] Kant’s central question was: What are the conditions necessary in order to have thought about a world? Wittgenstein’s central question was: What are the necessary conditions in order to say something about a world? While Kant approached his task in terms of physics, Wittgenstein approached his task from the perspective of logic and linguistics.[16] Despite the Kantian component in Wittgenstein’s thought their conclusions differed with regard to their emphasis. Kant believed that physics and mathematics were true a priori, and Wittgenstein’s picture theory claims there are no pictures true a priori; physics pictures the world but is not true a priori and mathematics is true a priori but does not picture anything.[17]

In order to develop the picture theory of meaning, Wittgenstein begins by asserting things about the world. In sections 1 – 2.0121 he argues the world is all there is, and within the world there are facts. These facts are either the case or they are not the case, but given the structure of the world we can know there is a case to be known based on the existence of atomic facts. Wittgenstein begins with facts and not objects (or things), because objects stand in logical relation to one another. Objects can only be known within states of affairs depicted, and what is depicted is a fact. For example, “the computer is on the desk” is a picture of a state of affairs where “computer” and “desk” stand in relation to one another via “is on the.” Moreover, this proposition can also be falsified if it is the case the computer is not on the desk but underneath it. Another way to understand why Wittgenstein begins with facts and not objects (or things), is if all we had were a list of things in the world we wouldn’t know anything about them. We can only know something about the objects when examined in relation to one another.

In sections 2.0141 – 2.062, Wittgenstein continues building on his previous account of the world. When analyzing the atomic facts of the world a structure begins to reveal or show itself.[18] This structure can only be meaningful if we can break complex propositions down to more simple propositions revealing the atomic facts that are being spoken about. States of affairs analyze to a structured arrangement of simple objects, and these objects can combine in all sorts of ways. If we cannot get to the atomic facts following analysis of atomic propositions, then analysis would not end in simples. If our analysis failed to accomplish this, we could not determine the meaning of a proposition. On Wittgenstein’s view, analysis of propositions and their structure leads to simples, and because of this, we can either say that X is the case or X is not the case. After analysis, the proposition can be found to be either true or false.

The notion of simples is significant for the picture theory of meaning. For Wittgenstein, atomic propositions are connected to atomic facts. A proposition is a logical picture, and this picture depicts a state of affairs in the world. On Wittgenstein’s view, the shared structure of a state of affairs depicted, and the proposition must resolve into a structured arrangement of structured names and objects. For example, n – n – n is an atomic proposition that shares a logical structure with the atomic facts o – o – o. If the proposition, “the computer is on the desk” is true it is the case that n – n – n corresponds with the truth condition of o – o – o. If the proposition, “the computer is on the desk” were false, it would be the case that n – n – n does not correspond with o – o – o. Moreover, if the proposition, “the computer is on the desk” were false, it would need to be the case that its falsity is understood by the truth of other propositions such as, “the computer is on the chair” and “the phone is on the desk,” which are also analyzable in the form of n – n – n/o – o – o as their verifying truth conditions. This will proceed until we are able to offer a proposition that corresponds to a state of affairs, because a proposition must connect to the world.

This is important because Wittgenstein is trying to get us to the world, and unless atomic propositions get connected to atomic facts, then our propositions can only be understood by using other propositions. In this case, where propositions are only understood by other propositions, we are never able to get to a world and we find ourselves trapped in a kind of meaning skepticism. In this form of meaning skepticism, propositions acquire meaning based on agreement between agents, and not there shared structural correspondence to states of affairs – meaning is interpretation all the way down.

After giving us an account of the world, and determining that the world consists of facts, he moves us forward by defining what a picture is. In sections 2.1 – 2.1511 Wittgenstein explains that pictures of objects depict states of affairs. Pictures give us the ability to express atomic propositions that are connected with atomic facts, and they derive their sense in denoting simple objects in a structure that is shared with our thoughts, language, and reality.[19] In other words, a picture representing reality can be expressed through language, and since the proposition shares a structure with the picture we can know whether the picture is true or false. Sharing a structure requires a structured arrangement of names and objects, and on Wittgenstein’s view, a proposition must connect to the world via this shared structure. This is why Wittgenstein says, “For the totality of facts determines both what is the case, and also all that is not the case.”[20]

The essence of what Wittgenstein is saying about a picture as representation is similar to his predecessors, but he also differs from them in an important way. His predecessors believed they could say something meaningful about the structure of language that is representative of reality. Wittgenstein’s picture theory of meaning differs from this view because the picture being expressed by language cannot say anything about the structure of reality; it merely shows it.[21] What is being expressed in language is what the picture is showing and what the picture is showing are the atomic facts of reality that exist in a state of affairs.[22] Since this is the case, the picture, language, and reality all share a structure and you cannot get out from behind the structure to say something about it. In order to do so, you would have to use the structure you are attempting to say something about in the first place.

What can we conclude from this theory? Propositions proceed from pictures of reality and these pictures are models for reality as we think it is.[23] All pictures are of states of affairs, and these states of affairs can be expressed by atomic propositions, which in turn can be broken down into atomic facts. If we cannot succeed in breaking down a complex proposition into simples then we cannot know whether a proposition is true or false. Everything else that can be derived from reality can be found in language when understood in this way. Since, this is the case, we can now understand that whatever can be said about reality can be said clearly, and whereof one cannot speak we should pass over in silence.[24]

The in depth examination of Wittgenstein’s picture theory of meaning is significant for demonstrating that 20th century adaptation of Kantian philosophy is not the tool to be utilized if defeating positivism is your goal philosophically. It can be clearly seen that like Kant, Wittgenstein thinks there is a fixed form that brings order to the content contributed to the world. On Wittgenstein’s view, the world consists of objects in relation to one another. The objects alone do not get us to a world, but only objects in relation to each other in a structured arrangement give us a world. When the form of the logical structure is combined with the content contributed from the world there is a state of affairs that can be determined to be true or false. Since this is the case, Wittgenstein concludes the natural sciences alone provide propositions about the world that satisfy his picture theory of meaning. The way Wittgenstein speaks of the form of the logical structure combining with the content of the world, stylistically mirrors the Kantian combination of the noumenal and phenomenal world.

Needless to say, the members of the Vienna Circle were quite euphoric over the Tractatus. Indeed, the interpretation they gave to the Tractatus provided the foundation needed to advance their positivist system of thought.[25]

These historical considerations demonstrate that Mises utilizes the incorrect philosophical tools to combat what he considered to be a system of philosophy that is dangerous for the social sciences. Moreover, the positivists were largely anti-realist so Mises should have been able to recognize that an anti-realist foundation for economics will not result in a complete overthrow of positivist influence in the social sciences. By adopting Kantian philosophy for the praxeological foundation Mises desired he unwittingly undergirded the threat of positivism he looked to defeat – anti-realism begets anti-realism, and mechanistic metaphysics begets mechanistic metaphysics. Mises has trapped himself in the modernist philosophical circle that provided the very basis for the positivist movement in the social sciences.


– Lucas G. Westman

[1] “Among Hume’s contemporaries Kant was almost alone in recognizing the destructive force of this attack on reason. As is evident from What Is Enlightenment? Kant was deeply committed to the Enlightenment ideal. Hence he was deeply disturbed by Hume’s argument.” (Kant and the Nineteenth Century, Jones, Pg. 12, 13)

[2] Kant and the Nineteenth Century, Jones, Pg. 12

[3] The Twentieth Century to Quine and Derrida, Jones, Pg. 217

[4] Critique of Pure Reason, Kant, pg. 136

[5] Kant and 19th Century Philosophy, Jones, pg. 10

[6] Critique of Pure Reason, Kant, pg. 170

[7] Critique of Pure Reason, Kant, pg. 110

[8] Critique of Pure Reason, Kant, pg. 110

[9] “These notions indicate Kant’s grand division of reality into the sensible and intelligible realms. The former concerns the domain of experience, and in this way is a synthesis of representations in the temporal, spatial and conceptual world. This is the domain of proper knowledge. The noumenon (Ding an sich), on the other hand, does not exist in the empirical realm of the phenomenon, but serves in the First Critique as its intelligible ground. It is not capable of being known however, but can only be thought.” (Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, Luchte, pg. 25)

[10] Critique of Pure Reason, pg. 193, 194

[11] Indeed, the philosophy of Hume and Kant were deeply anti-metaphysical. Hume famously argued to cast metaphysical works into the fire and “Kant’s attack on ‘speculative metaphysics,’ which purports to assert necessary truths about ultimate reality, is even more devastating than Hume’s.” (The Twentieth Century to Quine and Derrida, Jones, Pg. 10) This is yet another way the positivists were similar to Human and Kant for they to were anti-metaphysical.

[12] For example, “Kant believed that the transcendental deduction not only validates physics but also makes a secure place for ethics and religion; he had, he believed, limited knowledge to make a place for faith. No such line of reasoning was available to Wittgenstein.” (The Twentieth Century to Quine and Derrida, Jones, Pg. 218)

[13] For instance, Laurence Bonjour argues, “Thus, in summary, Kant’s apparent insistence in the existence of synthetic a priori knowledge entirely evaporates, and his position turns out not to be a rationalist position to any serious degree at all. The Kantian view of a priori justification, if consistently elaborated, provides no basis for even a restricted sort of synthetic a priori knowledge that would apply only within the realm of appearances: the original proposition P turns out not to be knowledge of any kind and very possibly not even true, while the implicit substitute P* must turn out, assuming that the Kantian account of the supposed synthetic a priori is itself justified a priori, to be analytic a priori.

Of course this last claim is extremely implausible, raising the possibility that if Kant had ever faced clearly the problem of the epistemological status of his own philosophical claims, he might have retreated into a more traditional rationalism. As things stand, however, it is clear that Kant is not a rationalist, but, most strikingly, does not even regard rationalism as a significant option. Whereas Hume, the supposed paradigm of empiricism, at least feels some need to argue (though not in these terms) that pure reason cannot yield knowledge of an sich reality, Kant does not seem to entertain such a possibility even momentarily. On the contrary, it appears to be from him self-evident that we can have no a priori knowledge of independent reality except that which is analytic and hence ultimately trivial.

For this reason, a Kantian view, in my judgment, doe not constitute a significant further alternative with respect to the issue of a priori justification and accordingly need not be accorded any further consideration. In particular, such a view has no apparent resources beyond those of moderate empiricism for dealing with the general problem, discussed in 1.1 above, of how observation-transcending inference and reasoning generally are to be justified.” (In Defense of Pure Reason, Bonjour, Pg. 25, 26.)

[14] Wittgenstein’s naturalism is best exhibited in this propositions, “The right method of philosophy would be this. To say nothing except what can be said, i.e., the propositions of natural science, i.e., something that has nothing to do with philosophy: and then always, when someone else wished to say something metaphysical, to demonstrate to him that he had given no meaning to certain sings in his proposition. This method would be unsatisfying to the other – he would not have the feeling that we are teaching him philosophy – but it would be the only strictly correct method.” (Tractatus 6.53, Pg. 153) His empiricism, although not as explicitly stated, is exhibited in this proposition, “This is connected with the fact that no part of our experience is also a priori. Everything we see could also be otherwise. Everything we can describe at all could also be otherwise. There is no order of things a priori.” (Tractatus 5.634, Pg. 121) Moreover, on Wittgenstein’s view, “As regards the ‘laws of nature,’ Wittgenstein did not hold that they are not laws, but that they do not hold of nature. Or, more exactly, he held that we have and can have, no evidence that they hold of nature. We are justified in using them when and to the extent that they ‘work’ – that is, we re justified in using them when they enable us to make prediction from what has happened to what will happen; to this extent Wittgenstein was a pragmatist. But that they are useful now is not evidence that they will be useful in the future; nor is the idea that they may turn out to be useful in the future evidence that there is any necessity, or ‘compulsion,’ in things that makes them happen as they do happen.” (The Twentieth Century to Quine and Derrida, Jones, Pg. 230)

[15] The Twentieth Century to Quine and Derrida, Jones, Pg. 217

[16] The Twentieth Century to Quine and Derrida, Jones, Pg. 218

[17] The Twentieth Century to Quine and Derrida, Jones, Pg. 232

[18] Although Kant would not have used the language of “revealing” or “showing” these words utilized by Wittgenstein are Kantian. The a priori form of the picture is what is shown and we can know this because it is expressed in the proposition used to describe the state of affairs. Just as we can examine our language and discover the a priori structure of a proposition, Kant believed we could discover the a priori categories of the mind by introspection. The same can be said of Mises. Mises held that we can discover the categories of action and hence the categories necessary for economics through introspection.

[19] Tractatus 2.221 – 2.222, Pg. 19

[20] Tractatus 1.12

[21] Tractatus 2.172

[22] Tractatus 3.11 – 3.2

[23] Tractatus 4.01

[24] Tractatus 7

[25] The Twentieth Century to Quine and Derrida, Jones, Pg. 246