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How Praxeology Helps Us Understand the Real World

Critics of praxeology often claim that it is isn’t really one of the sciences. It isn’t about the empirical world but is mere idle play with words. In this week’s column, I’d like to look at some remarks that the philosopher and linguistics scholar Jerrold Katz makes about rationalism and empiricism in his important and controversial book Language and Other Abstract Objects (Rowman and Littlefield, 1981) which praxeologists can use. The book isn’t much read these days, as it defends a thesis that hasn’t gotten much traction. Katz thinks that human languages are Platonic universals, a view that strikes many people as absurd. Needless to say, I’m not going to defend that view here—how could I, when I don’t understand it, let alone agree with it? Nevertheless, Katz, who died in 2002, had a sharp mind and Bob Nozick recommended the book to me.

In the book, Katz distinguishes two senses of “empiricism.” He says, “The term ‘empirical’ has the unfortunate use in current linguistics of referring to claims for which there could exist evidence to decide their truth: ‘non-empirical claims’ on this use are claims for which no evidence could be relevant, claims that are metaphysical in the worst sense. There is also the standard use of ‘empirical’ on which it refers to claims for evidence from sense experience, and equivocation between these two uses encourages some linguists to think that claims to which empirical evidence in the sense of evidence from experience is irrelevant are ipso facto metaphysical in the worst sense” (p. 73n6).

Applied to praxeology, what Katz is saying is this: critics of praxeology are equivocating when they claim that praxeology isn’t an empirical science. They may mean that its claims are just arbitrary assertions to which no evidence is relevant, like Heidegger’s famous remark, mocked by Rudolf Carnap, that “the not itself nothings.” If they mean this, though, they have to show that something is wrong with the deductions praxeologists make from the action axiom. Why don’t these count as evidence? If the critics respond that rationalist deductions just don’t count as evidence, they are begging the question against the rationalists. Katz draws an interesting analogy in this connection. John Stuart Mill thought that mathematics was an empirical science, an unusual position, though it has its contemporary defenders. Katz compares critics of rationalism in linguistics (and, we may add, in economics as well) to “a Millian philosopher of mathematics who tried to settle the scientific question about the proper interpretation of theories in mathematics by dismissing approaches that make no claim about empirical validity.” (p. 48) (In this article, I’m concerned only with praxeologists like Mises who take a rationalist approach. The Aristotelian view of Rothbard, to which I am myself inclined, that takes the theorems of praxeology to use concepts drawn from the senses but to be necessary truths as well, isn’t my topic this week. As I said last week, one argument at a time.) I should also clarify that the application of Katz’s comments to praxeology is my own. He doesn’t say anything at all about praxeology.

Ludwig von Mises makes a similar argument in The Ultimate Foundation of Economic Science. He says, “If one accepts the terminology of logical positivism and especially also that of Popper, a theory or hypothesis is ‘unscientific’ if in principle it cannot be refuted by experience. Consequently, all a priori theories, including mathematics and praxeology, are ‘unscientific.’ This is merely a verbal quibble. No serious man wastes his time in discussing such a terminological question. Praxeology and economics will retain their paramount significance for human life and action however people may classify and describe them.”

In the remainder of this article, I’d like to consider a point made by another philosopher that helps us deal with whether praxeology is about the world. As it happens, this philosopher, Jerry Fodor, was a colleague and collaborator of Katz.

Fodor says that in logic, reasoning is purely formal. By this, he means that logic operates on symbols that considered on their own don’t have an interpretation. There is thus an apparent problem of how such reasoning gives us true statements about the world. Fodor puts the point in this way:

It’s a remarkable fact that you can tell, just by looking at it, that any sentence of the syntactic form P and Q (“John swims and Mary drinks”, as it might be) is true only if P and Q are both true. “You can tell just by looking” means: to see that the entailments hold, you don’t have to know anything about what either P or Q means and you don’t have to know anything about the non-linguistic world. This really is remarkable since, after all, it’s what they mean, together with how the non-linguistic world is, that decide whether P or Q is itself true. This line of thought is often summarised by saying that some inferences are rational in virtue of the syntax of the sentences that enter into them; metaphorically, in virtue of the “shapes” of these sentences.

Praxeologists use deductive reasoning, but their reasoning isn’t “formal” in the sense Fodor has identified, that of mathematical logic. Its deductions involve meaning at every step. We know that praxeology is about the world, because we are talking about actions in the real world. When praxeologists talk about the “form” of any action, they mean something else—we have another case of equivocal meaning to cope with. In praxeology, we aren’t concerned with particular actions; we are instead interested in what all actions have in common. This can be discovered by thinking about any action we like and then evacuating it of its factual content. All that will be left is the form or structure of an action. Mises calls this procedure “methodological singularism,” a term that has attracted much less attention than “methodological individualism” but is also a key principle of praxeology. Mises says about it in Human Action: “No less than from the action of an individual praxeology begins its investigations from the individual action. It does not deal in vague terms with human action in general, but with concrete action which a definite man has performed at a definite date and at a definite place. But, of course, it does not concern itself with the accidental and environmental features of this action and with what distinguishes it from all other actions, but only with what is necessary and universal in its performance.”

Praxeology has many critics, but as Etienne Gilson said of philosophy, it always buries its undertakers.