Stephen Hicks is a philosopher and author of “Explaining Postmodernism”. In a recent article, he answers the question “Is Austrian economics anti-empirical?” in the affirmative, stating “its roots and the tradition have been mostly anti-empirical.”
I commented on his FaceBook post that a better question would be “are empiricists anti-rational?” Professor Hicks responded:
“That's an interesting question, too, Jake. What makes it better?”
Here's my reply:
Thanks for your response. Empiricism is far more influential in economics than the Austrian School, so more deserving of scrutiny in my opinion. Popperian empiricism has been consciously adopted as the core philosophy of mainstream economics since Milton Friedman and others. The Austrian School’s emphasis on rational principles is a tiny holdout to this trend, and their rationalist approach is generally considered wacky and eccentric by the mainstream.
Empiricism’s victory has been so overwhelming that even the idea that some things can be known to be true or false based on reasoning from first principles is seen as “anti-empirical” (synonymous with bad). Yet one can hold that the answers to some questions about the world are knowable by reason alone, whilst other questions indeed can only be answered by checking empirical evidence. That’s the Austrian approach— not anti-empirical, just aware that reason shows us that some things can never be true. For example, when Mises demonstrated that central planning can never work in the socialist calculation debate, he did so by deductive argument from first principles, not by evidence.
Empiricism in economics is always vulnerable to radical skepticism, because empiricists hold that one can’t be sure of anything by reason alone (except, inconsistently, they are sure of that statement itself by reason alone). Will central planning work? Empiricism says the only way to know is to test it, and see if you can “falsify” it (and even then you are only provisionally accepting a hypothesis until the next test).
Of course, Popper argued that you can be sure if a hypothesis is proven wrong, but any competent empiricist can always use “immunising stratagems” to protect a failed hypothesis (for example, that old chestnut “Russia wasn’t true Communism, it was Stalinism… so we need to try central planning again”).
By the way, I hugely admire your book “Explaining Postmodernism” and I consider the continuation of the Enlightenment project a vital task for our times. My concern is that we’ve all assumed empiricism is the natural heir of the enlightenment (don’t we all want to be considered good empiricists?) but empiricism’s contradictions have undermined our ability to reason from first principles.
Professor Hicks responded:
Thanks for your explanation, Jake. Do you think the duality of empiricism versus principles can be overcome? That is, does empiricism have contradictions, or is is that we've not yet connected the basic empirical commitment to a good understanding of conceptualization, proposition-formation, and logic?
I appreciate the great questions. I’d love to hear your answer to them too. Here’s my take:
Empirical work is great, but empiricism as a philosophy is self-contradictory. Even committed empiricists rely on principles that aren’t dependent on sense data all the time. As Hume pointed out, you can’t derive a single causal relationship from the senses because all sense data ever shows is one thing happening, then another thing happening. Without rational principles, the evidence of the senses is meaningless. Empiricism always piggybacks on the deeper principles of reason.
Of course, it is vain to assume one could solve all questions with pure reason. But it does not follow that all questions about the real world can be answered with evidence from the senses. There are a-priori synthetic truths about the world, like the principle of causality and the laws of logic. I presume there is some kind of evolutionary explanation for how we acquired such rational principles, but ultimately how we got them doesn’t make a difference to the fact that they are true and useful. These principles are the ultimate foundation of rationality and failing to accept a-priori synthetic truths is a good definition for irrationality.
The Enlightenment philosophers lost their way when they assumed that empiricism could be the source of all truth. It led them away from developing rational ethics and towards utilitarianism, positive law, and relativism. When logic, causality, and other rational principles were assumed to be mere conventions, the Enlightenment lost it’s objective footing. That was a mistake we need to correct.
I think the task for continuing the Enlightenment project is to clean up rationalism. Rationalism doesn’t have to deny the existence of empirical questions, but empiricism as a philosophy must deny the existence of a-priori synthetic truths (which always leads to self-contradiction).