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On Immanuel Kant’s 300th birthday: Kant’s Epistemology and Its Influence on Ludwig von Mises’s Praxeology

300 years ago, on April 22, 1724, the German philosopher Immanuel Kant was born in Königsberg, East Prussia. He is not only an outstanding historical figure in philosophy, but Kant’s profound influence continues to shape modern philosophical discourse, resonating strongly even today.

While Galileo Galilei and Issac Newton undoubtedly made significant contributions to their respective fields, their theories have long been surpassed by the theory of relativity and quantum physics. However, with Kant, things are different. Especially today, amidst the myriad challenges of our world, Kant’s writings offer a beacon of guidance.

Especially because Kant epitomised the ideals of the “Enlightenment.” Amidst the intellectual currents of his era, he confronted the opposing forces of the “anti-Enlightenment” – a struggle that unfortunately continues today, anti-Enlightenment persisting with vigour. In fact, it has returned with a bang. In his seminal 1784 essay “Answering the Question: What is Enlightenment?“, Kant boldly confronted these challenges from the outset:

“Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s understanding without guidance from another. This immaturity is self-inflicted, not from a lack of understanding but from the lack of resolve and courage to use it without guidance from another. Sapere Aude! “Have the courage to use your own reason!” is the motto of enlightenment.“

Kant explains that laziness and cowardice are why large swathes of people resign themselves to external intellectual guidance, allowing themselves to be dominated by self-appointed “guardians.” He emphasizes that the path to enlightenment demands courage to overcome cowardice and laziness, necessitating independent thought and taking the liberty to exercise one’s own understanding.

Yet, given the prevailing lack of enlightenment in his era, Kant cautioned against rash, revolutionary responses to the forces of anti-enlightenment. He astutely recognized that genuine progress could only happen once people attain enlightenment and learn to freely wield their reason. As Kant puts it:

„Perhaps a revolution can overthrow autocratic despotism and profiteering or power-grabbing oppression, but it can never truly reform a manner of thinking; instead, new prejudices, just like the old ones they replace, will serve as a leash for the great unthinking mass.“

To Kant, enlightenment is the indispensable means for people to escape from the “mental cage” in which they have been locked by their self-appointed guardians. Kant had no doubt that people possess the capacity to enlighten themselves, yet he observed deliberate efforts by authorities to stifle this process. In today’s context, Kant would likely align deeply and firmly with the advocates of unrestricted free speech, especially given his own experiences with censorship.

What stands out from his extensive oeuvre is his “Critique of Pure Reason,” first published in 1781. In this seminal work, he grapples with three fundamental questions: “What can I know?,” “What should I do?” and “What can I hope for?” These questions delve into the realm of epistemology, ethics, and theology, respectively.

Of particular interest to us at this point are Kant’s epistemological considerations – the origin, scope and limits of human knowledge. At their core lies Kant’s endeavor to ascertain the viability of metaphysics – the realms beyond sensory experience, such as God, the immortality of the soul, and free will – as legitimate science.

In this context, Kant introduces two categories of knowledge: a posteriori and a priori knowledge. A posteriori knowledge, derived “after the fact,” stems from experience, while a priori, meaning “in advance,” is knowledge independent from experience. Kant’s conclusion is stark: metaphysical knowledge must be a priori, it cannot be derived from a posteriori sources.

Expanding on the notion of a priori knowledge, let’s examine the statement: “Bachelors are unmarried.” According to Kant, it qualifies as an “analytical” a priori proposition. Here, the word “analytical” suggests a process akin to “dissection”: the predicate “unmarried” is inherently contained within the subject “bachelor.”

Thus, one does not need empirical observation to recognize the truth of the analytical a priori statement “bachelors are unmarried.” The veracity of such analytical a priori knowledge can neither be confirmed nor refuted through experience. It is solely determined by the principle of contradiction, a cornerstone of logic.

Kant is particularly interested in a particular variant of the a priori” the “pure” a priori, as underscored in the title of his main work. By “pure a priori,” Kant refers to concepts devoid of any empirical elements, their content solely originating from our faculty of understanding (“Verstand”).In the case of the analytical a priori statement, “Bachelors are unmarried,” one must undoubtedly grasp the concept of what a bachelor is and understand the defining characteristics. However, the pure a priori operates differently: its content emanates solely from our faculty of understanding.For example, Kant would classify a mathematical proposition, such as “All points on the circle are equidistant from its center,” as pure a priori knowledge. Its truth cannot be conclusively confirmed or refuted by experience; it can only be validated through logical, experience-independent reasoning. The concepts within such propositions derive exclusively from the realm of understanding. Now, onto Kant’s groundbreaking insight: his introduction of a “Copernican revolution” in thought. His iconic assertion states: “But even though all our knowledge begins with experience, it does not mean that all of it arises from experience.“ In essence, Kant concludes that our perception of objects does not reflect their intrinsic nature. Instead, we impose properties or conditions on objects of experience based on exercising our cognitive faculties. According to Kant, all objects of experience must meet these conditions. And statements asserting that objects of experience are subject to these conditions are what Kant terms “synthetic” statements (or judgments) a priori. Here, the term “synthetic” denotes the expansion or augmentation of knowledge.

In Kant’s own words:

„... The conditions of the possibility of experience, in general, are at the same time conditions of the possibility of the objects of experience, and therefore have objective validity in a synthetic judgment a priori.“

Synthetic a priori judgments expand our understanding beyond the concepts already present a priori. If such synthetic judgments exist – and Kant indeed explores their possibility and identifies the conditions for their existence – then we can acquire knowledge about the world without relying directly or indirectly on empirical evidence.

In the epistemological works of Ludwig von Mises (1883–1971), there are not only clear parallels with but also lines of reference to Kant’s theory of knowledge: Mises not only employs the term a priori and occasionally references Kant, but also rationalizes the use of a priori knowledge as the appropriate method for the social and economic sciences – the logic of human action (“praxeology”).

According to Mises, social and economic science can only be conceptualized as a priori sciences of human action rather than empirical science. The pivotal point of his considerations lies in the sentence “Human acts.” While it may sound mundane, it is anything but trivial.

The statement “Human acts” stands irrefutably true, as denying it would inherently contradict itself. To assert “Human does not act” is an act in itself, directly contradicting the statement. Thus, “Human acts” holds a valid a priori position, serving as the foundation for which further true statements, or “categories” of human action, can be deduced.

For instance, human action is inherently goal-oriented, necessitating the employment of means. Time emerges as an indispensable means for any actor, with scarcity being an inherent characteristic of means. Furthermore, human action presupposes the principle of “causality,” wherein actions have discernible causes and effects. Additionally, every agent exhibits a positive time preference, which manifests as the originary interest rate, which is also always positive, cannot disappear, and cannot become negative.

Mises gives economics the most robust epistemological foundation, rooted in a priori reasoning, allowing the formulation of unequivocally true propositions. Through action-logical or praxeological reflection, it becomes evident, for example, that socialism is an inherently unviable economic system and that interventionism, if persistently practiced, inevitably paves the way to socialism.

Similarly, praxeological insight reveals the disruptive consequences of issuing fiat money through bank lending, concluding that the initial boom must culminate in a bust. Furthermore, it elucidates that the emergence of the state (as we know it today) was not the result of voluntary agreements but rather coercion and violence. Additionally, praxeological analysis demonstrates that protectionism undermines the prosperity of all involved.

The truth of these and numerous other a priori propositions is verifiable through pure reflection alone; it does not necessitate empirical validation or trial and error to ascertain their veracity.

While there are diverse opinions about the epistemological status of Mises’s assertion “Human acts,” they all agree on its truth value. Hans Hermann Hoppe categorizes “Human acts” as a synthetic judgment a priori in the Kantian tradition; Murray N. Rothbard also sees it as a priori, albeit not in the same vein as Kant but rather in the sense of an Aristotelian, neo-Thomistic interpretation.

Rolf W. Puster and Michael Oliva Cordoba classify “Human acts” as an analytical a priori proposition. Jörg Guido Hülsmann sees Mises’s position as having “affinities” with Kant’s philosophy but cautions against overestimating them, characterizing them more as representative of “Aristotelian realism.”

My personal epistemological interpretation aligns with Hoppe’s perspective. Furthermore, I contend that “Human acts” exemplify a “pure” a priori proposition. Allow me to provide a brief explanation:

As previously noted, Kant’s keen interest lies in the realm of “pure” a priori concepts. By “pure a priori,” Kant denotes a priori concepts untouched by empirical elements, their content originating solely from understanding. Kant also refers to this type of a priori as “pure intellectual concepts.”

Moreover, Kant delves into the search for the origin of the unity, or synthesis, of all the diversity of perception concerning the objects of our experience. This quest entails identifying the original unity that precedes all other forms of unity – the one foundational unity from which categories and categorical unity arise.

Kant identifies this foundational unity in the “original synthetic unity of apperception” within self-consciousness. Here, Kant identifies the perceiving recognition, the unifying idea inherently accompanying all perception and experience, encapsulated in the statement “I think,” thus situated within the self-consciousness of the subject.

“I think,” as Kant asserts, represents an irreducible idea essential to the diversity of perception. However, Kant’s “I think” resonates with Mises’s concept of “Humans act,” particularly when applied to the individual actor: “I act.” It is the latter that embodies the genuine, original-synthetic apperception in the Kantian sense.

Kant recognized, and Mises echoed his sentiment, that genuine understanding of the world transcends mere empirical observation – it necessitates a quasi-higher level of knowledge: a priori knowledge. This form of knowledge supersedes empirical knowledge; it precedes it, serving as its presupposed foundation and, in particular, immunizing us against arbitrary interpretation.

While experience remains subject to various interpretations – including deliberate misinterpretations –, a priori knowledge stands immutable. It serves as a steadfast beacon in the tumult of human experience and understanding, guiding us to discern what is right, what is wrong, or what is beyond conclusive judgment.

So, as we commemorate the 300th anniversary of Kant’s birth, it presents a poignant opportunity to reflect on the profound significance of Kant’s epistemological contributions, particularly to the logic of human action established by Ludwig von Mises as the scientific method proper. Let us not only recognize but also champion and propagate the merits of a priory thinking in social and economic science.

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Thorsten Polleit
Dr. Thorsten Polleit, Chief Economist of Degussa and macro-economic advisor to the P&R REAL VALUE fund. He is Honorary Professor at the University of Bayreuth.
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