Courtesy of Peter Van Coppenolle @

Prof. Carl Menger dedicated an entire book to what he considered the appropriate methodology for the thinker in the human and social sciences, of which the field of theoretical economics is a subsection.

If the methodology has been handed to us, why expand on it? Times have not changed since Menger exposed the fallacies of positivist theories. The scorn heaped on subjectivism from positivist corners has increased, even after positivism was found wanting. And not only in the subsection of theoretical economics.

This contribution is intended for the scholar in the hope it will shed more light or provide a deeper understanding on the justification for a subjectivist methodology in theoretical economics. As a philosophy of science, subjectivism draws on a seasoned and proven track record, something Menger thoroughly realised. One hundred and fifty years after Menger, what is the score?

Whατ Δο ωΣ (κ)ποω ?

Evaluating the scientific tools on their appropriateness is not a task for the tools themselves. Obviously, that decision is a task for the philosophy of science to make. The quality of this philosophy will determine the quality of decision making about science and the quality of thinking within science.

One significant result of the Age of Enlightenment has been a marked narrowing of the field of reason to the sense realm. For pre-moderns, reason included in its field the moral and spiritual dimension of human life. For the majority of Western intellectuals since the Enlightenment reason is restricted to the empirical or quantifiable aspects of human existence.

Since time immemorial, it has been characteristic for human beings to recognise their consciousness as a property of being. It is no surprise then that Aristotle expresses this desire to know as a fundamental drive of human beings to determine their place in the world and even in the cosmos. Humans pursue this need by discerning order in the universe and in their own world. The hunger for knowledge is fundamental.

The quest for certainty of knowledge results in two extreme epistemological positions: the quagmire of scepticism (Hume) or the moral holiday of absolutism (Hegel). Each position reduces the Socratic paradox of knowing that one does not know, to an epistemological fallacy.

Ancient thinkers like Aristotle and Socrates rejected both scepticism and absolutism. They were lovers of wisdom (φιλοσοφοι) and knowledge (επιστημη) even when lacking a foundation in apodictic certainty, was superior to mere opinion (δοχα). To them, noetic knowledge is enabled by consciousness without restrictions.

The contemplative Aristotelian discernment of order was replaced during the Age of Enlightenment by radical rationalisations that dichotomised faith and reason, theology and metaphysics, religion and philosophy as the valid path to epistemic knowledge.

Rationalism did not stop there, for the spirit of human commonality and dignity as a basis for ethics, law, and politics was replaced with an agglomeration of posited if not arbitrary human order. This posited order is in sharp contrast to the discerned order of the ancients.

Comté, Durkheim and Spencer together representing early Anglo-French positivism, influenced by Saint-Simon who professed the secularisation of the world was in its final stage, did not just change the nature of scientific research in human science, they reversed direction. Characteristic for rationalism in human sciences is the underlying idea of “liberation” of the human from the imprisonment of his conditions within the professed natural order. Overthrowing existing institutions such as culture, art, science, trade, property, money and religion will ensure the fulfilment of the promise of an infinitely better future, posited order that is ossified forever more.

Scarcity, to name just one of the natural conditions of the human world had become an unmentionable and contemptuous idea. Technology, at any rate science, will liberate the human condition from all restrictions that humanity endures as a result of people being human instead of divine.

Plato, Aristotle and Socrates were banned from scientific life by violently dichotomising physical from noetic sciences, effectively reducing the respectability of gained knowledge to the knowledge obtained by empirical methods only. The empirical method has become the only scientific method to obtain valid meaningful knowledge.

The scientific method as we now know it is a circular dependence of methodology and empiricism. Logical positivism, espoused by Russel and Wittgenstein had risen to prominence. The criteria to be satisfied under the scientific method to count as science, are stringent. The scientific method generally requires:

  1. Clearly defined terminology.
  2. Quantifiability.
  3. Highly controlled conditions. “A scientifically rigorous study maintains direct control over as many of the factors that influence the outcome as possible. The experiment is then performed with such precision that any other person in the world, using identical materials and methods, should achieve the same result.”
  4. Reproducibility. “A rigorous science is able to reproduce the same result repeatedly. Multiple researchers on different continents, cities, or even planets should find the same results if they precisely duplicated the experimental conditions.”
  5. Predictability and Testability. “A rigorous science is able to make testable predictions.”

These characteristics set the bar for strict science high. Climate study cannot be science according to criteria three and four. Although most of physics and chemistry meets the standard, some branches wil not. Evolutionary biology does not satisfy the third and forth requirement either.

Although positivism in all its aspects outside physics was discredited (and both Heisenberg and Schrödinger seriously jolted positivism from inside physics), it has not disappeared. It is alive and well in educational institutions, even outside the field of hard sciences. The absurdity of logical positivism at its limits is demonstrated by a Scientific American article, entilted: Why Life Does Not Really Exist. (*)

...”Why is defining life so frustratingly difficult? Why have scientists and philosophers failed for centuries to find a specific physical property or set of properties that clearly separates the living from the inanimate? Because such a property does not exist. Life is a concept that we invented. On the most fundamental level, all matter that exists is an arrangement of atoms and their constituent particles. These arrangements fall onto an immense spectrum of complexity, from a single hydrogen atom to something as intricate as a brain. In trying to define life, we have drawn a line at an arbitrary level of complexity and declared that everything above that border is alive and everything below it is not. In truth, this division does not exist outside the mind. There is no threshold at which a collection of atoms suddenly becomes alive, no categorical distinction between the living and inanimate, no Frankensteinian spark. We have failed to define life because there was never anything to define in the first place.”

The preposterousness of this conclusion renders it beneath refutation. Unfortunately, these quality impaired contributions are ubiquitous, bearing testimony to their general and uncritical acceptance, despite the resulting quality impairment of the attribute “scientific”.The underlying fallacy of this Scientific American contribution is called the eliminativist fallacy. Faced with a problem one cannot solve — in this case the problem of crafting an adequate definition of life — the eliminativist denies the data responsible for the problem. In this case, the author denies that life exists. Seemingly unbeknownst to the author, he denies the very datum that got him thinking about this topic in the first place, rendering his philosophical view inconsistent with his own mode of thinking, lest the author would like to declare himself nonexistent.

Returning to the scientific method, the question whether political, economic or human science could be a science according to these criteria is an obvious negative. Yet it is equally hard to deny that these sciences do not provide us knowledge. The problem of applying scientific methodology to the study of human sciences lies not in the inability to adequately quantify the data. Rather, the problem is in the underlying assumptions.

The assumption that the methods of physics are appropriate to study human beings, leads the researcher to pass over the most important issues. The damage in human sciences suffered from the tendency of modernist theoreticians to emulate the criteria of the natural sciences is not necessarily due to an accumulation of irrelevant materials, but to interpretation. The content of a source may be reported correctly and nevertheless create an entirely false picture because essential parts are omitted. Because the uncritical principles of interpretation do not allow recognising those parts as essential. Hence, uncritical opinion (δοχα) cannot substitute for theory in science.

The principles of uncritical interpretation widely held today ( e.g. rational Wiki as just one example) can be highlighted by examining the underlying assumptions on which they rest.

  • The first assumption is that the theoretician has to separate facts from values. Once the theoretician believes he has separated statements of fact from normative judgments, he tends to uncritically assume that he will be able to attain knowledge which possesses the same status as the kind of knowledge pursued by the natural sciences.
  • The second assumption is that one can attain knowledge of something like a hard fact when they study human beings, so long as he makes use of scientific methodology.
  • The third underlying assumption is the assumption that the method utilised in the natural sciences is inherently virtuous.
  • Finally, still underlying, this further assumption leads one to conclude that the methodology of the hard sciences should be the basis for judging a proposed object of study as ‘theoretically relevant’. In other words, because the assumption is made that empirical methodologies are valid, the researcher will be inclined to favour studying those aspects of human existence which are amenable to this method.

Holding this complex of assumptions should strike one as questionable. Rarely are these assumptions challenged. What should be considered questionable, is the fact that the methodological issues end up determining whether a particular subject being studied is considered worthy of attention, if any.

Constructionism or interpretive sociology, historically rooted in German Idealism, is based on Kant who laid down its ontological and epistemological foundations by postulating that human actors were directly involved in the process of human sciences. After the romanticism of Goethe and Schiller the concepts of Kant were nevertheless hidden behind the rise of Anglo-French objectivism and positivism.

As a proponent of constructionism, Weber originaly articulated the fact-value distinction to distance himself from positivism in the humanities. His distinction is one of the reasons for the above related still widely held opinion that methodology should determine what is studied. It has harmed Western civilization morally, spiritually and intellectually. The acceptance of the fact-value distinction results in practise to an artificial limitation of the scope of reason so that it ends up dealing merely with those aspects of reality which have no essential relation to humans endowed with reason.

Mene mene tekel ufarsin

The terms ‘value judgment’ and ‘value free’ science were not part of the philosophical vocabulary before the second half of the nineteenth century. The notion of a value-judgment (Werturteil) is meaningless in itself. It can only gain any meaning by opposing it to a situation calling for judgments concerning facts (Tatsachenurteile).

Under positivism only propositions of the objective type can be considered ‘scientific’, while the propositions of the subjective type should be considered personal preferences and decisions, incapable of critical verification and therefore devoid of objective validity.

A simple demonstration: to the positivist, the statements:

that torturing children or widows for fun is morally wrong;
that ‘ought’ implies ‘can’;
that moral goodness is a higher value than physical strength;
that might does not make right;
that the punishment must fit the crime;
that a proposition and its negation cannot both be true;
that what is past was once present;
that if A remembers B’s experience, then A = B. **
are neither true nor false, but cognitively meaningless. Empirical investigation inspired by positivism as a handmaiden to philosophy, cannot answer normative questions.

Internalising the fact-value distinction increases the likelihood that the scientist will equate the scientific method with virtue. The equation of scientific methodology with virtue is capricious and self-sustaining. Judgments about whether the subject matter has any value to human beings are ‘subjective’ and consequently, not only will such judgments not be made, but questions as to the relevance of the subject matter will not be posed. Yet these are precisely the judgments and questions that have to be made by any researcher in the social sciences and humanities. Paradoxically, once this definition of objectivity is accepted as posited, the theoretician is henceforth unable to question the assumptions he made and which led him to make methodological issues paramount or why he has chosen the particular subject matter that he has.

Insofar as he internalises the fact-value distinction and then makes methodology the determining factor in his approach to research, he will define objects which fall within the method as ‘objective’ and those which don’t as ‘subjective’ and hence not valid for consideration. The practical consequence is a separation of his own judgment about what matters from the very act of reasoning he is involved in. Once a possible object of study is viewed as a ‘fact’ and therefore as scientifically objective or independent of reason itself, the possible irrelevance of the assumed fact to man in his capacity as a human being becomes very difficult to question.

Ironically the most important factor shielding this scientific epistemological approach from scrutiny is precisely the kind of judgment proscribed by the fact-value distinction, namely the a priori identification of the method with virtue. A perfect scientistic trap.

Subordinating the choice of subject matter to be studied to methodology spuriously limits topics considered for serious inquiry. Making methodology the criterion for theoretical relevance requires that the identification of methodology with virtue remain unconscious and merely implicit. If what determines theoretical relevance is not made explicit and if substantive theoretical concerns are then subordinated to issues of methodology, the purpose and meaning of science is perverted.

If the adequacy of a method is not measured by its usefulness to the purpose of science and if a contrario, the use of a method is made the criterion of science, then the meaning of science as a truthful account of the structure of reality, as the theoretical orientation of man in his world, and as the great instrument for man’s understanding of his own position in the universe is lost.

Carl Menger understood only too well that restricting epistemology to empiricism threatened not only the quality of human and economic science, but also the philosophy of science that underpins the validity of meaningful knowledge. Ignoring other than empirical valid knowledge is debilitating the theoretician and is highly inconsistent for his reasoning, for there are questions of general metaphysics or ontology. Among them: questions about existence, identity, properties, relations, modality. To illustrate, consider these two claims: **

Principle of the Rejection of Nonexistent Objects: Necessarily, for any x, if x has properties, then x exists.
Principle of the Rejection of Unpropertied Objects: Necessarily, for any x, if x exists, then x has properties.
Both are true propositions of general metaphysics. They are items of knowledge about the structure of any possible world, and therefore items of knowledge about the structure of the actual world. But we do not know them by any empirical method: they do not belong in an empirical science. The principles are not truths of pure logic either. For their negations are not logical contradictions. They are irreducibly ontological truths. They belong to metaphysica generalis or ontology.

Menger in his rejection of positivism and constructionism and by embracing the ancient time honoured wisdom, was and still is only too right, if only because he knew that complexity and surprising emerging behaviour are part of reality, despite puerile attempts of ossification by illusionists. Philosophy of science, open to consciousness, rules over method. Not the other way round.

P. Van Coppenolle


* Scientific American 2013, December. For another dose of hubris: Post-Keynesianism on Austrian methodology.

E. Vögelin, The collected Works, 1989, Missouri Press.

C. Menger, Investigations into the Method of the Social Sciences with Special Reference to Economics, LVMI, translated by F. Nock, 1985

F. Van Dun, Natural Law, Liberalism and Christianity

** Maverick Philosopher: what is scientism ?

The Failed intellectuals


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