The problem with empiricism is that you cannot, by empiricism, explain what is empirically received. You cannot move from sensation to explanation; as Hume put it, we are witness to one event occurring, and then another, and what of it? We cannot, by the principle of observation alone, provide an understanding of that which is observed. It is a body without legs to run, as it were, a set of objects grouped arbitrarily and not by any principle which proposes an adequation to the mind.
Some would take this as my meaning that there is no use to observation, as if we might understand what there is in the world apart from going out and looking at it. This is not my meaning. I will draw an analogy to geometry. By pure rationalism, we can construct theoretical systems; that, from the positing of certain axioms and definitions, the mind can recognize these things for themselves as well as perceive certain logical consequences of the postulated axioms. But knowing whether they represent one’s own world is a different matter. Consider the question “Is Euclidean geometry true?” Literally, the question is nonsense. It doesn’t ask anything, that is, whether something is the case of something. You may as well ask “Is 5 apples true?” Maybe, maybe not, it depends on what you are asking the question of. “Does Euclidean geometry describe our own universe?” would be a better question, and in order to answer it, one would need to undertake experiments. (Now, even if Euclidean geometry were not true of our universe, its theorems would still be true within the system of Euclidean geometry. It is theory, a description of what might be in some world, even if that possible world is not our own.)
But recognize that we are still being firmly rationalistic, or a priori/metaphysical in our examination of the question so far. In fact, answering “What experiment and its results would show us that the world is Euclidean?” is still not an empirical pursuit.
We can take this model of “spatial understanding,” as it were, and apply it to the whole of science. We can build in our minds models of the world, and then we test whether those models “map onto” or are “in accordance” with the world. Science boils down to answering questions like “Is there milk in the fridge” by figuring out how to open the refrigerator.
I bring up all this about rationalism because I want to apply it to the explanation of social phenomena. I would contend that without a rationalistic social theory, one cannot explain why social events take place as they do. Social phenomena are events like prices on oil rising, certain politicians coming to power, monarchs abdicating their thrones, Truman dropping the bombs, the spreading of Internet memes, and so on. Without a rationalistic, a priori/metaphysical social theory in place, we are powerless to try and explain for what reasons they occurred. We are left in the Humean problem of inducting from observations; without an a priori framework which puts together and gives meaning to our senses, there is nothing which justifies our taking together of disparate occurrences in the world and marking them down in our minds as propositions which are true or false.
But note this as peculiar. A rationalistic system is observationally unfalsifiable. This allows propositions of a rationalistic character to wield a particular kind of power; that power is of explanation. Falsifiable propositions are not explanatory; “There is milk in the fridge” explains nothing. (Now, I recognize that we might offer sentences in everyday conversation which are grammatically like this. “Why did he buy milk?” “There was no milk in his fridge.” However, these statements are implicitly married to additional propositions, like “He wanted to have milk in his fridge” or something of that sort.) “There is milk in the fridge because it was found desirable to have milk in the fridge,” on the other hand, does provide some explanation, because it positions the state of affairs as resting on another which are essentially capable of doing so. In other words, it provides explanation because desire has as its end to manifest in the achieving of concrete states of affairs. That is just what desire is.
When it comes to considering desire or what we will be technically referring to as “rational action,” we recognize intuitively* certain axioms and definitions, and thus can perceive logical consequences that come about from this. We are in the same place as with geometry. We can build up a system of rational action, what has been called by Mises praxeology, which serves as a deductive system which provides explanation to social phenomena. The only question left is whether, as we are most interested in knowing, humans are rational actors.
*I recognize that there is some baggage to the word “intuition.” For here, I mean precisely that an idea is understood for itself by the powers of the mind, and the mind is capable of doing so by its own power because that is what the mind is. I don’t mean something like “recognized as true,” because that requires postulating an “intuitively understood proposition” as true of some particular state of affairs, i.e. “space in our world” or “people in our world.”
Rational action is behavior committed for a purpose. A purpose is some end in which the actor understands themselves to be made better off by engaging in this behavior. It does not matter what the particular end is; only that the actor has some end in sight. The actor will by necessity find this end to be of a greater good for oneself from among other options understood and considered.
Now assuming that humans are rational actors (I will leave the demonstration of this to another time), then praxeology would provided explanation for social phenomena. An example of a praxeological proposition is that “As demand for a good increases, price increases.” I wish to analyze this proposition as an example in the broadest praxeological sense. As such, I am divorcing it from its usual economic connotation. The meaning comes out as this; if something is desired more, it follows that one is willing to give up more of other things in order to have it. It does not matter what one is getting and giving up (be it money, time, the pleasure of reading a book, composing a song, or writing this blog post) and for what reasons one weighs the goods gained and given up. We simply understand it to be the case that, if you demand (or desire) something more, then it follows you are willing to give up more to have it. You find it (relatively) more desirable than another thing.
This praxeological law of demand cannot be falsified, but it follows from the action principle, that our actors are rational. Of the principle itself, we see that there is a positive correlation between demand and willingness to give up other things (“price”). That is important to understand when we do a praxeological analysis of social phenomena and conditions. Of the essence of a praxeological proposition, it must be understood and weighed by itself; it is a common reflex for people to try and falsify the principle by describing some case in which people seemed to not give up as much as they would have for something due to other conditions that were present. But this misses the point and represents a misunderstanding.
It is easier to show the misunderstanding if we zoom out and look at more concrete instances of human action. Usually in economics propositions are expressed in reference to the market, meaning that typically the praxeological proposition is expressed explicitly in terms of money. Hence, the law of demand becomes, by economics, “when demand for a good increases, its monetary price increases, ceteris paribus.” Two things are added. One, it is explicitly expressed that money forms an element; take out money, and it is no longer economics. (This might be misguided, but I’m not attempting any meta-economic critique right now.) Two, the qualifier of ceteris paribus is attached, which means “other things held equal.” This is in order to express the principle of itself. What is meant is that, assuming every other factor that influences the monetary price of a good remains the same, then what will occur when demand increases is that the price increases. So, if we witness that demand for a product increases and the price falls, this does not form a falsifying example of the (economic) law of demand. It simply means that the law of demand was not the dominant factor influencing the monetary price of the good; perhaps, among other things, the good in question became much cheaper to produce due to increase in technology. (Economics-qua-economics is a descriptive science. It can only tell you the effects in principle of certain policies or conditions in the economy. It cannot tell you which are preferable. That is a question of morality; however, economics can help inform one in which policies/conditions ought to be adopted in order to achieve one’s moral end. This is why economic illiteracy of well-meaning people perpetually and consistently produces bad results.)
Let’s zoom in again to praxeology, where we are not concerned with stating these laws in terms of money. Can a thoroughgoing social theory go without engaging in a rationalistic system? I believe no. Now, some might choose other principles than the action principle (aka the founding principle of praxeology) to base the rationalistic elements of the their social theory on, but that there must be rationalistic elements is a foregone conclusion, because without them we are powerless to explain social phenomena. We must at some point analyze and embrace rationalistic principles, for otherwise our social theory will be powerless, and like the economically illiterate, we will be unable to provide solutions for the problems that strike us as being in need of solving.
If one takes a dim view of the idea of rationalistic principles in social theory, then they will be in principle unable to critique or prescribe certain policies and conditions for their own or others’ societies, adrift at sea without a rudder. We can later come back to proving the truth of praxeology in particular, but for here my point is that a social theory requires a commitment to some level of rationalism and apriorism/metaphysics.
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