Richard von Mises: Positivism – A Study in Human Understanding

Unlike his rationalist brother Ludwig von Mises, Richard von Mises had strong empiricist leanings, which found expression in hisfrequency interpretation of probability and his qualified endorsement of logical positivism (or logical empiricism).  His Kleines Lehrbuch des Positivismus was published in 1939 and translated and revised in English in 1956 as  Positivism: A Study in Human Understanding and carried the following subtitle, “How the aims and attitudes of science apply to all the intellectual endeavors of mankind – whether in science, the arts, or ethics.” Sadly, the last edition of the book was published in 1968 and has long been out of print, a fate which sets him apart from other major 20th century empiricists such as Rudolf Carnap, Hans Reichenbach, and Alfred J. Ayer, whose major expositions of their views are still in print. The preface of the English edition of Positivism closes with a remembrance of Otto Neurath, one of the co-authors of the original Vienna Circle statement, The Scientific Conception of the World: The Vienna Circle, and one of the most passionate advocates of empiricism and the unity of the sciences.

Contrary to popular opinion, 20th century empiricism was not a rigid set of beliefs, and many of the original logical empiricists kept revising their views in response to the reception of their work and further investigations. What united the original logical positivists was an unwavering commitment to empiricism and a firm rejection of dualism in the scientific method. In a sense, one could argue that many of the core beliefs of the Vienna Circle have become so accepted among many scientific practitioners that there is no longer a need to argue for them. On the other hand, the worldviews of public opinion makers and public officials are still largely shaped by modes of thought and superstitions that have remained fairly immune to the rise of  the experimental method and the rejection of metaphysics. In the case of politics, there is little reason to be surprised about this, because politics encourages irrational thinking, conformism, and atavism. Interestingly, Richard von Mises also offers his views on economic methodology and political economy and it will be rewarding to return to these views at the end of this review.

Positivism starts with a discussion of language. According to von Mises, many philosophical mistakes reflect misunderstandings about the function and limitations of language. He writes, “many problems of school philosophy are of this type: expressions, referring in ordinary language to a very vague and varying content of experience, are supposed to have some “objective” meaning and then attempts are made to “disclose” this meaning by kind of a definition.” For example, there is no God-given definition of the word “rationality.” But when a group of academics (such as economists) converge on the use of the word, it is a misunderstanding of the function of language to insist on a different definition of the word because its current use is “wrong.” Of course, when science evolves there is often a recognition that the original  language is too crude and finer distinctions are being introduced to replace the older vocabulary. One of the defining characteristics of positivist philosophy is clarification of the use and abuse of language.

Like most authors in the positivist tradition, von Mises is interested in the question of what distinguishes true, false, and meaningless statements. He rejects the idea (which he attributes to Rudolf Carnap) that statements that do not satisfy the rules of logical grammar should be considered “meaningless” because it is not “possible to anticipate the rules of language in any exhaustive manner before knowing the sentences that will have to be tested by them in order to decide their admissibility or inadmissibility.” As an alternative, von Mises proposes the concept of “connectibility.”  A sentence is connectible if  it is compatible with a system of statements that regulate the use of language in that system. The statements of metaphysics, at best, only connect to each other in a very narrow range (they do not connect to the rules of formal logic, the natural sciences, ordinary language, etc.) and are of little practical use. Using this concept of connectibility makes it possibles to characterize the movement for a “unified science” in terms of connectibility of all scientific statements. Positivism concerns itself largely with the exposition of the concept of connectibility.

Von Mises then devotes two chapters to Mach’s elements and protocol sentences. Despite his own admission that “it is utopic to think that, starting from a given complex of element sentences, one could, by carefully following all the syntactic rules, arrive at an “encyclopedia of the sciences” which could command a validity of higher rank than that possessed by any of the existing  individual sciences” he seems quite occupied with identifying the nature and structure of such element sentences. Instead of looking for such an Archimedean point it might be more practical to decide in favor of the language of the sciences that have been successful in understanding and predicting the observable world. Statements of chemistry can be reduced to statements in physics, statements in biology can be reduced to statements in (bio)chemistry, statements about behavior and psychology can be reduced to statements in biology etc. The remaining (social) sciences contain either statements that are of little descriptive or predictive value, or contain statements that have been successful in understanding and predicting human behavior but still cannot be connected to the statements of the exact sciences. The use of game theory in both the biological and economical sciences is a good example of an attempt to bridge that gap. As von Mises himself notes, “All we can attempt to do is by analysis and continuous criticism of linguistic usage to further the connectibility.”

In the chapter about probability, von Mises introduces his frequency interpretation of probability and distinguishes it from the use of probability in ordinary language and alternative conceptions of probability (subjective probability, logical probability). In this chapter, von Mises is quite insistent upon the view that an exact theory of probability can only refer to mass phenomena and repetitive events. It does not make sense to use the probability calculus for future unique events or single cases probabilities. He takes issue with attempts of logical empiricists like Hans Reichenbach and Rudolf Carnap to apply probability far beyond its range of validity. Considering the generally hostile attitude of Austrian economists towards positivism and empiricism, it is interesting to note that prominent Austrian economists who work in the Misesean tradition have endorsed Richard von Mises’ strict frequency interpretation of probability. In an article called The Correct Theory of Probability Murray Rothbard writes:

“While probability theory is generally thought of as a branch of mathematics, its foundations are purely philosophic, and Richard von Mises, in his great work Probability, Statistics, and Truth, developed the correct, objective, or “frequency” theory of probability….if one holds to the objective Mises theory, it is unscientific and illegitimate to apply probability theory to any situations where the events (like the tossing of a die) are not strictly homogenous, and repeated a large number of times. And since, outside of die tossing or roulette, all the events of human action, economic or political or in daily life are clearly not homogeneous and therefore not repeatable, the Mises view demonstrates that all use of probability theory in social science is illegitimate.”

Along the same lines, Hans-Hermann Hoppe writes approvingly that for Ludwig von Mises “there is no such thing as a priori probability. Nor is there such a thing as the probability of a singular event. Probability statements refer to “objective” probabilities of collectives (classes). They are based on empirical observations. And they are corrigible by such observations.” Whether the positions of Mises, Rothbard and Hoppe constitute a partial endorsement of positivism in case of the probability is a complicated matter because it is not unambiguously clear what the proper empiricist interpretation of probability should be, and in this chapter Richard von Mises is too partial to his own views (and too dismissive of the works of other empiricists) to offer a more systematic treatment of the question of the relationship between probability and his general positivist outlook.

In the chapters about deterministic physics, statistical physics, and miracles von Mises argues quite persuasively that positivism should not be identified with a set of dogmatic prohibitions or should rule out certain observations about reality when they do not conform with materialism or a deterministic outlook. What we should require from extraordinary statements (or miracles) is that they are subjected to the same kind of scientific investigation and corroboration as we expect from other claims to knowledge. This approach harks back to von Mises’s concept of “connectibility.” His open mindedness in this chapter is reminiscent of a statement by Rudolf Carnap in his seminal article Empiricism, Semantics, and Ontology (1950):

The acceptance or rejection of abstract linguistic forms, just as the acceptance or rejection of any other linguistic forms in any branch of science, will finally be decided by their efficiency as instruments, the ratio of the results achieved to the amount and complexity of the efforts required. To decree dogmatic prohibitions of certain linguistic forms instead of testing them by their success or failure in practical use, is worse than futile; it is positively harmful because it may obstruct scientific progress.

Perhaps the most interesting chapters in Positivism deal with his positivist outlook on the social sciences and ethics. Von Mises rejects methodological dualism; the idea that the approach and methods that are used in the physical sciences are inappropriate for the sciences that study man: “We find in all fields  a progression from single observations to comprehensive generalization which corresponds to the essence of scientific work…”.  As other logical  positivists writing in the same period, von Mises recognized that one day human action could be analyzed and explained by “organic processes,” but the rather premature state of fields like neuroscience in his age prevented von Mises from stating his position much more strongly than is possible now.

Today, when we compare the progress in fields that study man from a biological perspective with fields that claim a unique approach for the humanities,  it is clear that the case for dualism has further weakened. Humans are not exempt from the laws of physics and disciplines that recognize that fact clearly such as biochemistry, evolutionary biology, and neuroscience, have made significant progress in understanding man. Von Mises notes that progress in the study of man is slower because of “retardations due to organized prejudices.” In many places in the world (including the United States) evolution is still widely contested and it is only quite recently that scholars who approach human psychology from an evolutionary perspective are no longer meeting major obstacles to disseminating their work.

Richard von Mises has a distinctly different perspective on social science and economics than his brother Ludwig von Mises.  He has little patience for the idea that economic theories are not subject to empirical testing: “mental reconstructions of observed facts must be tested to determine how far their consequences agree with continued observations.” Similarly, he does not reject the use of mathematics in economics and actually credits mathematical economics for offering “promising starting points for a rational treatment of economic problems.” In particular, von Mises praises John von Neumann and O. Morgenstern for introducing strategic behavior and expectations into economic theory. New Classical economists like Robert Lucas, Jr., later recognized that expectations cannot be ignored in macroeconomics either.

Von Mises closes his book with a number of chapters on morals, law, and religion. Not surprisingly, von Mises states that “…in spite of centuries of endeavor  one has so far not been successful in demonstrating any substantial ethical theorems that would enjoy unanimous recognition; and there is no hope that the goal of a “normative” ethic will be reached in in the future.” He argues against the idea that reason can discover objective normative rules and highlights the conventional and pragmatic nature of morals.  There is little in these chapters that could not have been written by contemporary authors. He ends his book by situating his perspective in the broader empiricist tradition and with a succinct summary of his own perspective.

It is fair to say that this book cannot compare with the rigorous writings of scholars like Rudolf Carnap or Hans Reichenbach, but it is doubtful that he aimed at such a work. His book is basically a plea for the scientific view of the world and how this approach applies to various topics. As such, his basic outlook on knowledge deserves study and recognition.

Richard von Mises has now been largely forgotten as a writer about knowledge but his general outlook is still alive. For example, despite the fact that the writings of his brother have seen multiple editions and reprints, there is a broad consensus that economics, or any social science, should be conducted as an empirical science. On matters of morality, serious scholars have become more interested in the evolutionary, psychological and social sources of moral conduct than the futile search for categorical imperatives. Most of all, much progress has been made in connecting the physical sciences and the humanities through modern evolutionary biology. In this sense, Richard’s perspective has clearly prevailed, albeit not to the degree that he would have preferred.

The atheist conservatism of Gustave Le Bon

As more scholars start recognizing the emerging “Secular Right” (or atheist conservatism) there will be increased research into the historical precedents of this phenomenon. There can be little doubt that these scholars will take a renewed interest in Gustave Le Bon.

Aside from the obligatory nod to his work on crowd psychology, Gustave Le Bon is all but forgotten in the history of science and political thought. This is quite ironic since Le Bon’s prolific output was in no small measure motivated by his desire to establish broad recognition for his work. His writings were quite well read during his lifetime by the French population and (conservative) politicians, but, with the exception of his anti-clericalism, the core ideas that make up Le Bon’s work are now surrounded by great controversy and taboos.

It should not be surprising that mainstream conservatives have largely ignored Gustave Le Bon. Like most conservatives, Le Bon was hostile to socialism and big government. However, one of the defining characteristics of his oeuvre is that he identifies socialism as the modern expression of religious instinct. To Le Bon, Socialism and Christianity reflect the same kind of backwards irrational human psychology.

One would think that such an outlook would make him more acceptable to classical liberals, and indeed, there has been some interest from those quarters in Le Bon’s work. For example, in 1979, Liberty Fund published a selection of his works called Gustave  Le Bon: The Man and His Works, with an introduction by Alice Widener.  There is little evidence that this publication was a great success. Yes, Le Bon was horrified by the growth of government and the welfare state, but he was not a starry-eyed optimistic rights-based liberal either. As such, he has little in common with the rationalist Rand-Rothbard strand of libertarianism that has dominated classical liberalism to date.

What really makes Le Bon’s work problematic for modern conservatives and libertarians, not to mention progressives, is that it is heavily informed by biological concepts and extensive discussions about race. To Le Bon, it makes little sense to talk about “politics” or “the economy” without situating these topics in their specific ethnic and cultural context. This was not controversial during the time he was writing, but the strong emphasis he puts on these concepts does not make him the poster-child of the kind of blank slate universalism that informs most political ideologies. What also does not help Le Bon’s case is his generous use of medical pathological terminology to characterize developments in society and politics. Le Bon was deeply concerned about the prospect that democracy and universal suffrage would give rise to an unhealthy combination of populism and socialism, culminating in the general decline of society.

To my knowledge, little serious analysis of his work has been conducted in the English language. A notable exception is Robert Allen Nye’s dissertation, An Intellectual Portrait of Gustave Lebon: a Study of the Development and Impact of a Social Scientist in his Historical Setting (1969). This work contains a lot of interesting biographical and bibliographical information about Le Bon, but the rather explicit left-wing aim for writing this study excludes a more balanced approach.

For a writer who published around 40 volumes and 250 articles, not much is known about the youth of Le Bon. Nye even mentions that there has been some controversy about the question of whether he was really a medical doctor or not, but adds that some of the claims to the contrary may have been motivated by political animosity. It is a fact, however, that Le Bon published widely on biological and medical matters and even conducted ongoing experimental research throughout his life (reportedly, costing him his eyesight during his old age). In a letter to Albert Einstein he even claimed to have anticipated relativity. In turn, Einstein responded that no experimental nor mathematical proofs were being offered by Le Bon. Such confrontations with specialists in other fields were a defining feature of Le Bon’s productive life. Nye mentions that it was typical of Le Bon that he corrected the proofs of his last published article on the very morning of his death.

One of the tensions in Le Bon’s work is his explicit aim to be an objective scientist (of the secular, positivist variety) and his obvious atheist-conservative leanings. Unlike most people with political ideals, Le Bon thought that free will is an unscientific metaphysical construct that has no place in the study of man and society. This perspective, combined with his evolutionary outlook, explains why Le Bon had little confidence in the transformative nature of grandiose abstract ideas.

His physiological investigations led him to reject the fashionable view that all men are equal and only separated by educational opportunities. In fact, his work anticipates the current debate about the “education bubble” when he argues that most modern education has few lasting benefits (while creating a mass of potential public servants and resentment against capitalism) and should be replaced by more emphasis on real science, practical matters, and vocational skills. He has little confidence in the emerging science of sociology and advocates the study of physical anthropology and the comparative psychology of people instead. Le Bon has little sympathy for the works of Rousseau and associated theories about the innocence of primitive cultures. Interestingly, his hereditarian outlook also makes him suspicious of attempts to impose abstract political Western ideas on other cultures.

Advocates of the idea of natural rights will return empty handed from consulting his works. Ness quotes from Le Bon’s L’Homme et les Societies:

The idea that an individual has certain rights by the very virtue of the fact that he has entered the world is one of those infantile conceptions which easily take root in the brains of ignorant socialists.

It would be a mistake to assume that Le Bon’s interests in ethnic diversity were confined to making superficial general statements. During his lifetime he conducted experimental investigations into comparative physiology and skull size, published book-length studies on the Indian and the Arabian people, and even envisioned a ten volume Histoire des Civilizations. He also published a small volume of his work in differential social psychology called Lois psychologiques de l’évolution des Peuples (translated in English as The Psychology of Peoples), which, reportedly, was one of Theodore Roosevelt’s favorite works.

With such a non-trivial output (most of which remains untranslated), it is difficult to exactly define Le Bon’s views on the role of the State. Le Bon was clearly influenced by the English classical economists and writers such as Herbert Spencer. In his view, “the true role of law is to codify custom” and the law should not be used to legislate happiness, impose confiscatory tax rates on the productive, or excessively interfere in people’s lives. Le Bon believed that by enforcing common law, which itself is the product of a gradual evolution to reconcile conflict of interest between people, the state will unify instead of divide people – as opposed to doctrines like socialism that preach inevitable conflict of interests between social classes. Nye writes, “the anti-socialist quest was, for Le Bon, something of a permanent character trait. It is not surprising that he became the symbol for many members of the French political and intellectual community of the struggle against collectivist ideology.”

Like many of his contemporaries, such as Vilfredo Pareto and even Ludwig von Mises (on von Mises and fascism, see Ralph Raico’s article), Le Bon at some point found himself forced to choose between Bolshevism and the growing fascist counter-movement. Not surprisingly, Le Bon sided with Benito Mussolini but his support was conditional and he retained his preference for a different kind of government:

It is better to undergo the anonymous dictatorship of the law than that of a chief – those who will not accept the first are compelled to undergo that of the second.

He hoped that the Fascism of Italy would simplify “the administrative machinery” while leaving “the maximum of liberty to private initiative.” Mussolini himself seemed to have been quite enamored with the works of Gustave Le Bon, strongly recommended his work to others, and considered The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind, “an excellent work, to which I frequently refer.”

Le Bon’s writings on crowd psychology have often been associated with the rise of fascism and modern propaganda techniques. And indeed, Le Bon himself was hopeful that his insights could be used favorably by politicians who shared his outlook. But a closer inspection of his output reveals that Le Bon was not a stereotypical advocate of the totalitarian state but an atheist conservative with strong individualist and anti-collectivist tendencies. His secular social outlook, which aimed to merge the biological and social sciences, combined with a distinct Burkean skepticism about radical social change, fits right in with the concerns of today’s Secular Right.

What became of the degenerate?

In 1956, Richard D. Walter wrote a peculiar article in the Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences called What Became of the Degenerate? A Brief History of a Concept, in which he reviews the use of the term degenerate as a biological and social concept. Most of the literature on this topic was produced in the late 19th and early 20th century.

In the field of sociology the topic of social degeneration was treated by Max Nordau in his famous book Entartung [Degeneration] (1892). Naturally, when this term is used in a social context there is room for vigorous debate. Nicholas Murray Butler, who wrote an introduction to a book called Regeneration, a reply to Max Nordau (1896), considered Nordau himself “an abnormality and a pathological type.”

The subject of degeneration was also important to the early 20th century eugenicists in books such as Charles Wicksteed Armstrong’s The Survival of the Unfittest (1929).

Walter concludes that “though the original concepts of Morel, Lombroso, and Nordau have become obsolete, the phenomena that degeneracy attempted to explain are still of great current interest and far from completely understood. In today’s concepts of the etiology of psychiatric disease, the old dichotomy of nurture versus nature still appears under more subtle terms, though today’s emphasis is upon nurture. This also applies to the subject of criminology, as well as the larger areas termed race and culture.”

In a 1902 textbook of zoology the authors can still write on the topic of human degeneration:

Human degeneration. It is not proposed in these  pages to discuss the application of the laws of animal life  to man. But each and every one extends upward, and can  be traced in the relation of men and society. Thus, among  men as among animals, self-dependence favors complexity  of power. Dependence, parasitism, quiescence favor degeneration. Degeneration means loss of complexity, the  narrowing of the range of powers and capabilities. It is  not necessarily a phase of disease or the precursor of death.  But as intellectual and moral excellence are matters associated with high development in man, dependence is unfavorable to them.

Degeneration has been called animal pauperism. Pauperism in all its forms, whether due to idleness, pampering,  or misery, is human degeneration. It has been shown that  a large part of the criminality and pauperism among men  is hereditary, due to the survival of the tendency toward  living at the expense of others. The tendency to live without self-activity passes from generation to generation.  Beggary is more profitable than unskilled and inefficient  labor, and our ways of careless charity tend to propagate  the beggar. That form of charity which does not render  its recipient self-helpful is an incentive toward degeneration. Withdrawal from the competition of life, withdrawal  from self-helpful activity, aided by the voluntary or involuntary assistance of others these factors bring about degeneration. The same results follow in all ages and with all races, with the lower animals as with men.

One can only wonder what the authors would  think about contemporary society in light of such phenomena as the “withdrawal from the competition of life” and “charity which does not render  its recipient self-helpful.”

Liberal creationism, the unity of nature, and ideology

In his book Feminism and Freedom the philosopher Michael Levin writes:

One usually thinks of creationism as a doctrine for religious fundamentalists, but from a methodological point of view, belief in the special creation of the human species is entailed by any refusal to apply evolutionary theory to man. It is irrelevant whether this refusal is sustained by a literalistic reading of scripture or committment to a secular ideology. Indeed, a case can be made that religious critics of Darwin display a stronger sense of the unity of nature than do scientific critics of innateness in man. This is most especially true of scientists like Richard Lewontin and Steven Jay Gould, who take a wholly naturalistic stance toward all living creatures apart from man (and are prepared to use the theory of evolution polemically in ideological debate), yet reject all but the most trivial comparisons of other living creatures to man. (p. 66-67)

In ‘Who is Against Evolution?’, the economist David Friedman also discusses the phenomenon that most people who are against teaching creationism tend to avoid and discourage discussing the human implications of evolution:

People who say they are against teaching the theory of evolution are very likely to be Christian fundamentalists. But people who are against taking seriously the implications of evolution, strongly enough to want to attack those who disagree, including those who teach those implications, are quite likely to be on the left.

To them evolution is good for explaining animal behavior, but using the same tools to explain human behavior, let alone letting it influence public policy, is considered repulsive. It may not be a coincidence that the taboo on discussing human behavior in an evolutionary context parallels the growth of government. A strict “environmentalist” position is more compatible with large scale tinkering  and calls for “change” than a view of human nature that accepts limits to the malleability of man.

In fact, all three major political ideologies mostly ignore man as a biological organism. Most conservatives object to evolutionary arguments due to religious convictions or out of fear of being labeled “reductionist.” Progressives generally abhor (and often suppress) biological arguments in political philosophy and public policy altogether. And libertarian-leaning economists feel more comfortable with discussing man as an undifferentiated rational agent despite the clear fact that biology (and associated disciplines like genetics and neuroscience) stands on much firmer scientific ground than many other sciences that inform contemporary public policy. One wonders whether this phenomenon should be attributed to a general aversion of ideologues to biology or whether this is just a transient, irrational, response to the abuse of biological arguments by totalitarian regimes during the first half of the 20th century.

Into the Darkness

In 1940 the American author Lothrop Stoddard published an account of wartime Nazi Germany called “Into the Darkness.” Although the book is supposed to be an objective account, it is not difficult to note the restraint the author needs to exercise to not be more critical, if not scathing, about many aspects of the Nazi regime. But with a few exceptions, the style of the book is clinical and dry, which make his descriptions of the effects of the Nazi economy even bleaker.

Because Stoddard devotes a lot of space to describe Germany as it is experienced by the average German family, we learn a lot about the  effects of the socialist war economy on the freedom and wealth of its citizens. Stoddard wrote his account in 1939 and one can only imagine the devastation the socialist war state was about to inflict on its citizens when the accumulated effects of socialism,  repression, war, and international isolation fully materialized. As such, Stoddard’s book makes a good empirical companion to Ludwig von Mises’ “Omnipotent Government: The Rise of the Total State and Total War. (1944),” a classical liberal critique of Nazi Germany.

The title of the book refers both to the perception of Nazi Germany in the US and the war imposed blackouts. The blackouts, the winter cold, and the shortages of even the most basic necessities (let alone luxury goods) do not always produce a content journalist. It is telling that when the author expresses sincere enthusiasm, it is when he leaves Nazi Germany for neutral Hungary:

“Until we reached the border, of course, the windows were kept tightly curtained. Then the train stopped, started, stopped once more. Cautiously I peeked past a corner of the curtain. We were in a brilliantly lighted station bearing the big neon sign Hegyeshalom. On the platform stood policemen and railway officials in strange uniforms. Through the uncurtained windows of the station I could see a restaurant with counters laden with foodstuffs. I was in Hungary–a land of peace and plenty! Standing up in my compartment, I gave three loud Ellyens! Which is Magyar for Hooray!

To enter Hungary from wartime Germany is literally to pass from darkness into light. The sense of this grew upon me with every kilometer the train made toward Budapest, the Hungarian capital….Another wonder was the approach to Budapest–a great city twinkling and sparkling with lights. To one fresh from blacked-out Germany, it seemed like fairyland.”

In the final chapter the author reflects:

There are so many genial aspects of American life which we thoughtlessly take for granted until we are suddenly deprived of them and are plunged into alien surroundings where we have to fuss and plan and almost fight to get the bare necessities of existence.