Mises’ Synthetic a Priori Quote Overplayed

The in quotation in question comes from Mises’ Ultimate Foundations of Economic Science:

“Only experience can lead to synthetic propositions. There is an obvious objection against this doctrine, viz., that this proposition that there are no synthetic a priori propositions is in itself a — as the present writer thinks, false — synthetic a priori proposition, for it can manifestly not be established by experience.” (p. 5).

I go on a few asides for background information for this quote. I ultimately break it down at the end.

 

An aside:

Before breaking down this quote as an exercise, I think it pertinent to mention that I believe out of the whole of Mises’ writings, this is the only instance of him ever mentioning the word ‘synthetic’ (in relation to a proposition). If this is true, it strongly suggests that Mises was uninterested in this topic, because in the very next paragraph of the quotation, he says, “The whole controversy is, however, meaningless when applied to praxeology.” How can anyone state with a straight face say his entire system is based on Kantian synthetic a priori knowledge, when he never said this himself, in addition to only mentioned the word “synthetic” one time out of his entire career in a quotation referring to logical positivism? The whole controversy is nothing to do with praxeology, but with realism.

The topic contains a deep philosophical discussion that has been going on for perhaps centuries. This discussion relates to whether analytic systems such as pure mathematics (i.e. non-applied) applies to the real, outside, objective world. I will not venture into this dense forest where I can get lost. It will suffice to say that whatever foundations you accept for math and geometry, may apply to praxeology. To make it simple (perhaps I am over simplifying), if you believe geometry applies to the outside world, then for the same reasons you may accept that praxeology applies to the outside world, because praxeology is a deductive system based on the notion of action. Praxeology is based on a definition of a word and the concept that exists in the brain. It is what some may call ‘tautological’. Everything in PURE praxeology is just a *rearrangement*. This concept of action itself is grasped through experience, just like how the concept of a line and a point in geometry are grasped through experience. Perhaps using the word ‘experience’ is pushing to far. Experience in this sense would just be thinking. If you think about it, the brain somehow grasps these concepts. This is what philosophers have termed ‘the power of abstraction’, or the power to take concrete events and objects and separate them into concepts. It is a power innate inside the human mind. A strong mind should want to question and analyze these topics. However, it is an aside that deserves to be explored by itself (and has been assiduously and constantly throughout the years), disconnected from praxeology.

 

Back to the quote aforementioned. Some assert that Mises is asserting in this quote that synthetic a priori propositions exist. I cannot attempt to support the truth in such an assertion, because it relies on Immanuel Kant’s logical system, which is a system in which I am not well versed. I have read many refutations of the Kantian system, but haven’t ventured to study it on its own merits (mostly because Kant is such a difficult read). I am well versed in traditional logic, because I have taken courses based on traditional logic. I will show why the quote is not an admission of the existence of the synthetic a priori.

Another layer of complexity should be revealed before continuing, viz. the actual context of this sentence. Mises is describing what may be a non-nuanced and simplified version of the logical positivist position. The contention it may not be a 100% fair representation is described here:

http://socialdemocracy21stcentury.blogspot.com/2014/03/mises-versus-ayer-on-analytic.html

However, the topic discussed is not new. This is a debate that has been going on for a very long time. Within a pure analytic system, no outside information (‘synthetic’) is taken. Any outside concepts brought in and analyzed in may be termed various “contents” (More on contents vs. categories: praxeology.org/2013/06/22/deduction-from-the-categories-of-action-versus-deduction-from-the-content-of-action/). Not much is deduced from the category of action on its own, i.e. pure praxeology. You may define action: a means to an end. The end is contained in the means. Ends don’t exist in within the context of an action. You may not have means without having an end to be sought after. But notice the end is not manifest, i.e. not present. It is the ‘seeking’ or ‘striving’ that is present and in focus for study. Some may have called it a “science of means” (I am pretty sure that is a quote from somewhere). This binary nature of action is discovered through thinking about the meaning of action. Thinking is merely having an experience inside your own brain. I believe Locke used the term ‘inner-reflection’. Perhaps our brain grasps these concepts though complex cognitive and psychological processes. I ultimately cannot say with absolute confidence where this power originates, nor do I think anyone currently possesses this knowledge. For the complexities of consciousness there exists tons of spilled ink I am sure one could explore with the use of Google.

Since no new information is contained within the *pure* system, a simpleton might say, our knowledge is not increased and the whole matter is useless. This contention has obvious faults that I may assume needs no more elaboration (just think about why math is not useless). While this is not a false statement to make, one could at least say its an outright pessimistic view. Perhaps it just comes down to a perversion of how certain knowledge is valued. John Stuart Mill is one who was famous for his extreme empiricism. He went so far as to say that the law of non-contradiction is true by virtue of our constant experience of never finding an example that disproves it. Here is Thomas Case on the subject, who was the head of the department of philosophy at Oxford University in England in the early 1900s. His arguments struck me as similar to those expressed by Mises against the logical positivists. From Physical Realism:

“The conceptualistic and nominalistic theories of analytical judgments have each its peculiar error. The former theory was caused by the Cartesian confusion of the sensible and conceivable. Since the objects of sense were supposed to be concerned with ideas, it followed that analytical judgments, requiring no new experience, could not go beyond our ideas. We have destroyed this error from the foundation by separating sensible objects from ideas. The latter theory, as it exists in Mill’s ‘Logic,’ is founded on a false disjunction. He supposes that all propositions are either verbal or real, and finding that analytical judgments, often expressing the meaning of a name, are verbal, concludes that they are not real. But the division of propositions into verbal and real is defective. A verbal is not necessarily opposed to a real proposition, a predicate does not cease to be characteristic of a thing by becoming the meaning of a name, and there are some propositions which are verbal and real, such as all bodies are extended, the whole is greater than its part. Mill pokes fun at such a proposition as Omnis homo est raionalis, which expresses part of the meaning of the name, man. But does that prevent men from being rational? Again, his remark that analytical judgments convey no information about the thing, betrays a sad ignorance of human nature; for most men’s simple apprehensions are miserable confused, as you may find by asking them what is a substance, an attribute, a body, a unit, a whole, a circle; and one of the main uses of analytical judgments is to make a confused apprehension distinct by dividing it into a subject and the predicates contained in it. In short, the division into analytical and synthetical does not correspond to the imperfect distinction of verbal and real; analytical judgments are sometimes about names, sometimes about conceptions, but also sometimes about objects distinct from both; and these latter are real. Sometimes the same analytical judgment is at once real, notional, and verbal, e.g. the whole is, is conceived, and means, that which is the sum of its parts.” pg. 339-340

 

Finally, let us break down the quotation from The Ultimate Foundations of Economic Science. The purpose of the sentence is to express (what Mises thinks) is a common and obvious objection -against a perhaps simplified version of logical positivism- about the non-existence of synthetic a priori propositions:

There is an obvious objection against this doctrine, viz., that this proposition that there are no synthetic a priori propositions is in itself a — as the present writer thinks, false — synthetic a priori proposition, for it can manifestly not be established by experience.

To reconstruct the sentence in its logical form, we will need to reduce the sentence into its simple subject-predicate form, i.e. *blank* is *blank*. Finding the subject will serve as the first step. Of course, the subject is the “objection” referred to and expressed specifically after the “viz.”

Subject: that this proposition that there are no synthetic a priori propositions is in itself a — as the present writer thinks, false — synthetic a priori proposition.”

I will substitute this as variable S.

There is an obvious objection against this doctrine, viz., S, for it can manifestly not be established by experience.

The conjunction, “for,” splits up the two main clauses:

There is an obvious objection against this doctrine, viz., S.

it can manifestly not be established by experience.

Of course, “it” serves as a substitute for our subject, S. The two propositions rewritten:

1. There is an obvious objection against this doctrine, viz., S.

2. S can manifestly not be established by experience.

Proposition 1 is easily rewritten in subject-predicate form as:

S is an obvious objection against this doctrine.

However, proposition 2 was more tricky because Mises chose to express the modality of the proposition, through his use of the words ‘can manifestly not’. To express the modality, I decided to keep S as the subject and qualify the copula with ‘necessarily’, dropped the ‘manifestly’ and changed ‘not established’ to ‘unestablished’:

S is necessarily unestablished by experience.

Now that these propositions are split up, its easier to see how they fit into subject-predicate form:

1. S is an obvious objection against this doctrine.

2. S is necessarily unestablished by experience.

Therefore, we have our two predicates:

Predicate 1: an obvious objection against this doctrine.

Predicate 2: necessarily unestablished by experience.

Again, I will not personally vouch for the truth contained in in any of these propositions here. I am only clarifying why the synthetic a priori is not admitted by breaking the quote down into its logical propositions.

The subject contained in these 2 propositions is again shown:

Subject: that this proposition that there are no synthetic a priori propositions is in itself a — as the present writer thinks, false — synthetic a priori proposition.”

Of course, this subject is a proposition in of itself, which may also be transformed into its simple logical forms. There is also a parenthetical which may be expressed as its own, separate proposition. Lets visit the parenthetical last and separate it out from the rest for now:

that this proposition that there are no synthetic a priori propositions is in itself a synthetic a priori proposition.”

There is some recursion (a reference to the movie, Inception) in this sentence – a proposition within a proposition. I will substitute the inner proposition with the variable A.

that this proposition A is in itself a synthetic a priori proposition.”

A: “that there are no synthetic a priori propositions”

We have finally come to the inner most ‘proposition’ of the quote. That took longer than expected. I will remind you that Mises is not expressing his own personal view at this point. This is still a part of his larger elaboration about the logical positivist position, or to be more specific, the so called objection to the so called logical positivist position. I say “so called” to separate my own personal beliefs from what is being expressed (or attempted expression) by Mises.

When existence (or non-existence) is predicated. Its simplest expression is to simply say:

A: “No synthetic a priori propositions exist.”

Treating A as a subject within its larger proposition:

that this proposition A is in itself a synthetic a priori proposition.”

I will remove the unnecessary qualifiers to express S  in its simplest logical form:

S: “A is a synthetic a priori proposition.”

or

S: “‘No synthetic a priori propositions exist’ is a synthetic a priori proposition.”

And we may finally reinsert the subject into the two main propositions:

Proposition 1: “”No synthetic a priori propositions exist’ is a synthetic a priori proposition’ is an obvious objection against this doctrine.

Proposition 2: “”No synthetic a priori propositions exist’ is a synthetic a priori proposition’ is necessarily unestablished by experience.

Thus far, we have not come to any admission of the existence of the synthetic a priori by Mises. Again, he is merely describing (or attempting to describe) what may be a possible objection to the logical positivists. This leaves the parenthetical contained in the unadulterated subject:

that this proposition that there are no synthetic a priori propositions is in itself a — as the present writer thinks, false — synthetic a priori proposition.”

A is again separated:

that this proposition A is in itself a — as the present writer thinks, false — synthetic a priori proposition.”

The word “false” may be inserted as a adjective to “synthetic a priori proposition.”

that this proposition A is in itself a false synthetic a priori proposition.”

Broken down into its simplest form:

A is a false synthetic a priori proposition.”

Expansion of variable A:

“‘No synthetic a priori propositions exist’ is a false synthetic a priori proposition.”

We have finally come the only personal view of Mises in this entire demonstration in its simple subject-predicate form. The case that Mises affirms the existence of synthetic a priori propositions seems compelling at first glance. If Mises means the proposition is false (A is false), the law of excluded middle impels Mises to accept the contradictory proposition: “Some synthetic a priori propositions exist.” Consequently, Mises affirms the existence of synthetic a priori propositions!

The law of excluded middle would definitely apply if proposition in question was:

“‘No synthetic a priori propositions exist’ is a false proposition.”

Here, there are only two possible options, and this proposition must necessarily follow:

“‘Some synthetic a priori propositions exist’ is a true proposition.”

However, this was not the proposition made by Mises. His proposition, as it stands, only excludes the possibility of A being a true synthetic a priori proposition through the principle of non-contradiction. The structure of this proposition does not exclude the possibility of A being a true analytic a priori proposition. Nor does the exclusion of the synthetic or analytic a posteriori designations follow from this, though these may be rejected for other reasons. Let us demonstrate the conundrum with what may be the most popular example:

Proposition:

“‘All bachelors are unmarried’ is a false synthetic a priori proposition”

Allegedly True Proposition Following from a Misapplication of the Law of Excluded Middle:

“‘Some bachelors are not unmarried’ is a true synthetic a priori proposition”

False Proposition Following from the Law of Non-contradiction:

“‘All bachelors are unmarried’ is a true synthetic a priori proposition”

I am perfectly aware that this is not a synthetic proposition in any sense. This fact makes the first proposition true. Interestingly, all of the other “implied” propositions are false. Notice how the correct position is not excluded through any of this erroneous reasoning:

“‘All bachelors are unmarried’ is a true analytic a priori proposition”

This proposition, along with the first proposition are the only two true propositions in this bachelor group. The false propositions come from a straightforward misapplication of the laws of thought. This same misapplication of these laws are used when people try to advance Mises’ alleged admission the existence of synthetic a priori propositions through the quote:

“There is an obvious objection against this doctrine, viz., that this proposition that there are no synthetic a priori propositions is in itself a — as the present writer thinks, false — synthetic a priori proposition, for it can manifestly not be established by experience.”

It was shown that the quotation contains the following propositions:

Proposition 1: “”No synthetic a priori propositions exist’ is a synthetic a priori proposition’ is an obvious objection against this doctrine.

Proposition 2: “”No synthetic a priori propositions exist’ is a synthetic a priori proposition’ is necessarily unestablished by experience.

Furthermore, the parenthetical contains the proposition:

“‘No synthetic a priori propositions exist’ is a false synthetic a priori proposition.”

As can be seen, no significant omissions were made from the quotation. The rearranged propositions retain meanings identical to the original quote, utilizing almost all of the original words.

Final thoughts:

It remains to be asked, how would Mises designate the proposition, “No synthetic a priori propositions exist.” Although only conjecture may be advanced regarding this, it would make the most sense for Mises philosophy, in my view, for him to accept this proposition as an analytic a priori proposition. Logic itself is a analytic apriori discipline in which these notions of analytic and synthetic are defined. The realist tradition invented these terms, which changed over the years, partly due to the philosophical giants such as Kant.

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3 thoughts on “Mises’ Synthetic a Priori Quote Overplayed”

  1. The general belief that Mises believed in synthetic a priori truths is about far more than a single sentence. Let’s put aside whether Mises believes in a type of truth that exactly corresponds to what Kant meant by synthetic a priori (in fact, I’m happy to agree that he almost certainly did not). It still remains that Mises made numerous statements asserting the existence of a set of “truths” about human action that are necessarily a priori and also have practical/experiential truth (to be used in reasoning about human motivation, describing human events, developing the science of praxeology). The weakness of this position has some (perhaps not all) of the weaknesses of Kant’s conception of the synthetic a priori.

  2. Interested to see your take on the comparison of praxeology to geometry. I think it is entirely too optimistic. I suspect you will not. One thing I strongly recommend you consider: non-Euclidian geometry. I didn’t think that he allowed for any equivalent in a theory of action when I last really studied him about 15 years ago.

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