apriorism vs empiricism

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    I’m copying my question from the austrian economics forum by suggestion from Prof. Herbener. He also referred me to a mises daily article by david gordon, “The Philosophical Origins of Austrian Economics”.

    After reading human action I was so convinced that apriorism was obvious as the way to go specifically because the empirical method can’t narrow the variables to a workable experiment or study that I took it for granted that it wasn’t something people would argue with. But in recent weeks I’ve been seeing some very defiant bloggers and references to many critiques of apriorism. I’m hoping to get something specific to demonstrate both why the empirical method is so seriously flawed but more specifically either a defense of the existence of the synthetic a priori, or why analytic a priori isn’t merely tautologous or better yet why a tautology can be learned from. And how to refute the argument that analytic a priori statements are based on defInitions and not necessarily reality.

    Thanks this has been all consuming for a while now.


    Hi PatSzar,

    Are you being specific to human action or taking empiricism vs. apriorism in a more general sense?
    Professor Casey has asked for a quick email to let him know if someone has posted a question. I don’t remember where it is posted I will see if i can find it for you.

    Personally, I believe the distinction between a priori knowledge and empirical knowledge is somewhat questionable given that the idea that one can even have empirical knowledge starts from and as you intimated the problem of variables, often ends in a priori reasoning. I think it is fair to say they both have merit but to prove one is superior to the other (general sense) is beyond the scope of my intellect.

    Analytic a priori statements are based on definitions and not necessarily reality. Take the statement: Shmoos are delicious, and eager to be eaten. To say that is not based on reality is saying the definition is false. The argument it self seems to be a non sequitur.

    If you are looking for specific answers, it might help professor Casey if you give him some examples so he can know exactly what you’re looking for. Sorry I couldn’t be of any help but I look forward to his answer.


    Here it is, gerard.casey@ucd.ie


    The question of the a priori, and whether or not here can be such things as synthetic a priori, is one of the most vexed in philosophy. The topic and the terminology was introduced into philosophy by Kant in his Critique of Pure Reason and it has been controversial ever since.

    One of the things that attracted me when reading Human Action was precisely the application of the notion of the a priori to the realm of human action. Normally, examples are taken from the refined area of mathematics.

    Very crudely, for something to be a priori means that we can come to know it in advance of or apart from experience. For it to be synthetic is for it to convey information that is not merely definitional. Let’s see how this might work.

    Take the proposition “All un-coerced exchanges are positive-sum”. Now, of course, you need experience to know what the terms in this proposition mean, not least the ability to use and understand language which is experientially-based. The a priori bit comes from the fact that once you grasp what ‘un-coerced exchange’ means and what ‘zero sum’ means, you realise that this proposition not only is true but that it has to be true. No empirical evidence is pertinent to establishing this claim. There’s no point in setting up an expedition to some remote unexplored area of the world to see what its inhabitants do vis-a-vis exchange. You already know that however they conceive of value (which may be culturally very different from how you conceive of it) they will nonetheless make un-coerced exchanges only if each of the parties to the exchange subjectively judges that he will benefit from them.

    The synthetic bit comes from the fact that the two core concepts in this proposition – ‘un-coerced exchange’ and ‘zero sum’ are not just two ways of referring to the same phenomenon, as would be the case with ‘bachelor’ and ‘unmarried man’ in the proposition ‘All bachelors are unmarried men’. So the proposition conveys genuine information. it is thus both synthetic and a priori.

    It’s been a while since I thought about this topic so I hope I’ve haven’t made any appalling blunders in my account.

    Best wishes,

    Gerard Casey


    Thanks for getting back. I was afraid my question had been swept under the rug.

    I was being specific to human action. I have no quarrel with the physical sciences. I think you successfully answered my question. At the least I’m feeling more confident in my understanding.

    I appreciate your help.


    PatSzar, another particular tactic you can use when confronted by your “defiant bloggers” is to ask whether they also deny the validity of the Ricardian Law of Comparative Advantage. After all, this is a pure thought experiment, devoid of any empirical verification – so it should surely be treated with similar suspicion.

    If they attempt to bypass this by pretending that they are indeed skeptical of the Law of Comparative Advantage, you can remind them that none other than Paul Samuelson – certainly no friend of the Austrian approach – once identified this as an example of a true and non-trivial proposition that had been discovered by economic science.

    Of course, none of this is intended to deny the philosophical contribution of Mises’s writings, which Professor Casey elucidated in his response. The point I am making is that much of the mainstream fuss against a priori reasoning in economics is no more than empty posturing.

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