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1 The Criterion of Mises for Accepting a Statement A Priori

1 The Criterion of Mises for Accepting a Statement A Priori

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8  Methodological Apriorism


8.1.1 The Need for A Priori Statements

The quest for truth is said to require a proof for every proposition, and it has been

argued that it is the spirit of this notion that has been the driving force behind the

amazing scientific advances in the West (Popper 1965). However, the dilemma is that

if all knowledge depended on a proof then no knowledge would be possible and one

would succumb to radical skepticism (Weinberg 2007). This is because such dependence would mean that to know “a” one would need some proof for it, being “b”, but

then “b” would also need a proof “c”, and so on ad infinitum. This leads to a vicious

infinite regress, which is impossible to conclude (Bergmann 2004; Fumerton 2010).

Accordingly, one either admits that some propositions are necessarily and selfevidently true, or succumbs to the wholesale denial of the existence of any knowledge at all (Gillett 2003; Smith 2011; Williamson 1997). It may thus be argued

that there is a need for propositions that are taken for granted, accepted to begin

with, or self-justified and hence known a priori (Gordon 1993; Smith 2011). After

all, “from blank doubt, no argument can begin” (Russell 2001, p. 95).

However, it is important to note first that the need for a priori statements

implies not only a need for an a priori statement like the principle on noncontradiction. It also implies with more specific relevance to the current discussion

that any scientific methodology must ultimately obtain its own justification from

a source external to it. This is because methods of scientific investigation are not

self-justifying in the manner of the principle of noncontradiction. After all, the

methods of science are not themselves concerned with the questions of the conditions of cognition, let alone the ultimate nature of things. These are rather questions of epistemology, ontology, and metaphysics which are areas of philosophy

(O’Sullivan 1987, pp. 7–14). It is this field that attempts to carefully answer the

ultimate questions of knowledge (Russell 2001, p. 4). In contrast, other fields of

knowledge have certain assumptions that are not addressed as part of the field,

such as the existence of cause. It is the task of philosophy to affirm or reject these

assumptions through critical inquiry (Russell 2001, p. 95).

8.1.2 Establishing A Priori Claims

Aware of the need for a knowledge starting-point, Aristotle held that the most fundamental a priori is the principle of noncontradiction (Irwin 1989, pp. 179–180). He stated

we have now posited that it is impossible for anything at the same time to be and not to

be, and by this means have shown that this is the most indisputable of all principles. Some

indeed demand that even this shall be demonstrated, but this they do through want of education, for not to know of what things one should demand demonstration, and of what one

should not, argues want of education. For it is impossible that there should be demonstration of absolutely everything (there would be an infinite regress, so that there would still

be no demonstration); but if there are things of which one should not demand demonstration, these persons could not say what principle they maintain to be more self-evident than

the present one. (Aristotle n.d.-a, Sect. Book IV, Part 4)

8.1  The Criterion of Mises for Accepting a Statement A Priori


In other words, to avoid vicious infinite regress in any quest for knowledge, one

needs to accept at least one proposition a priori. Aristotle chose the principle of

noncontradiction as the best candidate. After all, no truth claims would be possible

otherwise, because a statement of the very same meaning could then be claimed

to be both true and false. Hence, this principle is “naturally the starting-point even

for all the other axioms” (Aristotle n.d.-a, Sect. Book IV, Part 3).

Moreover, the principle of noncontradiction allows one to reject performative

contradictions like “self-contradictions are valid”, or “there are no correct statements”. This is important because what may be the strongest argument for the

affirmation of an a priori fact is when denying it involves a performative contradiction in terms of words spoken or action taken. Examples would be denying the

world’s existence while planning for its provisions, or denying reason while

engaging in a scientific debate, or denying a table’s existence while eating at it. A

famous example in this regard is Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am”. That is, since

I think, I must exist, otherwise no thinking could take place, and one is not able to

deny this, because denying it would necessarily involve thinking. An a priori can

in this sense be considered a self-justifying axiom3 and the problem of vicious

infinite regress be avoided (Hoppe 1989, 1995; O’Sullivan 1987, pp. 12–13, 45;

Rothbard 1957).

In contrast to the argument for the principle of noncontradiction as an a priori,

some relativists hold that there are no absolute truths. This is clearly a selfcontradictory proposition as one cannot claim to know even this if there is no way

to know anything. Moreover, one can ask the important question as to how can a

relativist partake in scientific discourse, if there is no way to reach the truth about

anything, even the criteria for evaluating an argument? (Hoppe 1989; O’Sullivan

1987, pp. 17–30)

As a counter argument to being accused of contradicting themselves, some

relativists have stated that their stated principles are merely plausible opinions

(O’Sullivan 1987, pp. 17–30). However, this only continues the contradiction of

their position as one may ask one of them, “do you know that it is plausible?”. If

the answer is that he does not know, then there is nothing further to discuss. If the

answer is that he does indeed know, then by which criteria does he know? The subject must then either concede to those criteria being known or end up again with

nothing to discuss. No matter how the argument proceeds, it must eventually be

based on some premise he claims to be known if it is going to make sense. His situation becomes similar to the one of a positivist who denies a priori knowledge in

that he cannot provide empirical proof for this principle (Gordon 1993; Hoppe 1995;

O’Sullivan 1987, p. 17).

In summary, denying that some proposition must be accepted a priori leads to

bewildering situations of circular reasoning. Accordingly, it may be claimed that

Mises’ criterion for the acceptance of a priori statements, namely, that denying

3An axiom is self-evident when it must be used in order to be refuted. In the case of human

action an individual who wishes to refute Praxeology must use purposeful means to a specific

end which is the definition of Praxeology, i.e., self-evident (Henderson 2011).


8  Methodological Apriorism

them would imply self-contradiction, is indeed reasonable and does not reflect

a dogmatic and hard position. It certainly does not involve assuming too much

knowledge a priori, since the principle of noncontradiction is needed to establish

any knowledge at all. Hence, accepting this criterion could at least be argued to be

better than its alternative and certainly more pragmatic.

Accordingly, the important issue at this point is rather the specifics of Mises

a priori claims related to “human action”, namely, the notion that human beings

engage in cognitive and physical activities with a purpose (Hülsmann 1999;

Plauché 2006; Rothbard 1976). In particular, it remains to be discussed to what

extent these a priori claims comply with the criterion of noncontradiction.

8.2 Mises’ Two A Priori Principles of Cognition

In the above it has been argued that the most fundamental a priori of Mises’ apriorism is the principle of noncontradiction. Indeed, Mises holds that the mind’s

logical structure begins with “the very clear distinction between A and non-A,”

for without it, one cannot distinguish between truth and falsehood (Mises 1962,

p. 2). This principle along with the fundamental a priori propositions of logic and

mathematics are prerequisites for the formation of knowledge. Indeed, such logical principles are said to be “innate ideas” that cannot be proved by experience

“since all proof presupposes them” (Russell 2001, p. 47).

However, Mises goes beyond these purely logical principles and holds that in

“epistemology, the theory of human knowledge,” two principles must be considered permanent, namely

1. “the logical and Praxeology structure of the mind,” i.e., thinking, along with

2. “the power of the human senses” i.e., sense perception (Mises 1962, p. 1).4

4It may be noteworthy that the notion of innate principles and ideas or a logical structure of the

mind is commonly associated with rationalist philosophers, such as Descartes, Leibniz and Kant

(Russell 2001, p. 47). It is Kant who is said to have been the main influence on Mises for his

proposition that the mind has a mathematical and logical structure, and that natural science is

possible through this structure along with sensory perception. Similarly to Mises, Kant states that

logic is an a priori field of understanding and is necessary in order “to form a correct judgement with regard to the various branches of knowledge” (Kant 2010, p. 12). Mathematics, on the

other hand is an a priori science by which one may arrive at knowledge through “positive a priori

construction” such as “the properties of the isosceles triangle” (Kant 2010, p. 13). Finally, Kant

like Mises holds that physics combines a priori reason with empirical knowledge since reason

is a prerequisite for perceiving order in experience. He holds that scientists such as Galileo “…

learned that reason only perceives that which it produces after its own design; that it must not be

content to follow, as it were, in the leading-strings of nature, but must proceed in advance with

principles of judgement according to unvarying laws, and compel nature to reply its questions”

(Kant 2010, p. 14). Due to the similarity between the assertions of Kant and Mises regarding

logic, mathematics and the natural sciences, Rothbard (1976) states that Mises was an “adherent

of Kantian epistemology”.

8.2  Mises’ Two A Priori Principles of Cognition


Mises' Apriorism

does not assume

an unreasonable

degree of

knowledge a priori

Mises' criterion for

accepting an axiom

is reasonable

Mises' criterion is

that rejecting the

axiom would

imply a violation

of the principle of


or to a




The action



human action

implies means

to achieve



Mises' main axioms

comply with his

criterion of


The a priori

categories of

action are


logically from

the category

of meansends.



The a priori

of the power

of the human






Fig. 8.1  The argument for the reasonability of the axioms of praxeology—the a priori praxeological structure of the mind and the principle of sense perception. Source Tonsberg (2015).

Note Map nodes without text are introduced later due to space limitations. For a complete map

with all nodes see p. 76

Accordingly, one has two epistemological “spheres” (Mises 1962, p. 115). That is,

“the fundamental fact about the universe is that it is divided into two parts, res

extensa, the hard facts of the external world, and res cogitans, man’s power to

think” (Mises 1962, p. 125).5

From the sphere of thinking one obtains the a priori sciences of “logic, mathematics, and Praxeology” which “aim at a knowledge unconditionally valid for all

beings endowed with the logical structure of the human mind” (Mises 1996, p.

57). That is, the task in these sciences is to engage in “aprioristic reasoning” in

order to show what is implied or not in a priori “categories, concepts, and premises” and thus “to render manifest and obvious what was hidden and unknown

before” (Mises 1996, p. 38). On the other hand, through the sphere of the human

senses one obtains the empirical sciences.

To Mises the structure of the mind has both a logical and a praxeological part

as mentioned. The former is based on the a priori principle of noncontradiction

which has already been discussed in terms of whether it reflects a soft or hard apriorism. Hence, the discussion that follows is reserved for the a priori praxeological

structure of the mind and the principle of sense perception. The arguments presented are reflected in the argument map as shown in Fig. 8.1 in context of the

overall claim that the apriorism of Praxeology is soft.


from Latin, “res extensa” means “extended thing” and is Descartes’ term for corporeal substance. “Res cogitans” means in Latin “a thinking thing” and is Descartes’ term for

“thinking substance”. This dichotomy is the basis for Descartes’ dualism (Bunnin and Yu 2004).

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