Rand and Mises on the Importance of Philosophy

It is common knowledge that Ayn Rand and Ludwig von Mises held the same, or at least very similar, ideas on such issues as the superiority of laissez-faire capitalism and limited government. It is also common knowledge that their philosophical frameworks were rather different. (For example, there is a strong Kantian influence in Mises’ philosophy, and that is anathema to Ayn Rand and her followers.) Ayn Rand even went so far as to say that Mises had no philosophy. I quote from Ayn Rand Answers:

Q: What do you think of the Austrian School of Economics?

A: I think they are a school that has a great deal of truth and proper arguments to offer about capitalism – especially von Mises – but I certainly don’t agree with them in every detail, and particularly not in their alleged philosophical premises. They don’t have any, actually. They attempt – von Mises particularly – to substitute economics for philosophy. That cannot be done. (P. 43; from the Q&A session after a Ford Hall Forum lecture in 1977.)

This does not say that Mises had the wrong philosophy; it says he had no philosophy at all. But this is, to put it diplomatically, a gross exaggeration. Even the scantest perusal of his books would tell one that he does have a philosophy. Whether this philosophy is true or false, or to what extent it clashes with Objectivism, is a different matter. (I have discussed those differences elsewhere.[i])

Ayn Rand also stressed that philosophy is inescapable and that every human being does have a philosophy, even though it most often is held implicitly and subconsciously:

As a human being, you have no choice about the fact that you need a philosophy. Your only choice is whether you define your philosophy by a conscious, rational, disciplined process of thought and scrupulously logical deliberation – or let your subconscious accumulate a junk heap of unwarranted conclusions, false generalizations, undefined contradictions, undigested slogans, unidentified wishes, doubts and fears, thrown together by chance, but integrated by your subconscious into a kind of mongrel philosophy and fused into a single, solid weight: self-doubt, like a ball and chain in the place where your mind’s wings should have grown. (Philosophy: Who Needs It, p. 6.)

But this flatly contradicts her answer in the Q&A session above. If Mises (or any Austrian economist) is a human being, he cannot avoid having some philosophy. Or are we to assume that has only a subconscious philosophy that is a “junk heap of unwarranted conclusions [etc.] “? But then, where is the “solid weight of self-doubt” in Mises? I have read most of Mises major writings, and some writings of other “Austrians” as well; and whatever is screaming from those pages, it is not self-doubt.

But I am actually poking fun here; because one obviously cannot expect total intellectual precision in a short, improvised answer in a Q&A session.

But what about the allegation that Mises down-played the importance of philosophy and, in effect, tried to substitute economics for philosophy? Well, there is at least one objection to this: Mises regarded economics as one branch of a more general theory of human action (what he called “praxeology”), and that theory is obviously philosophical in nature; it deals with such things as the relation of means to ends, which is clearly a philosophical issue. And whatever the differences are between Rand and Mises, Ayn Rand’s own ethics deals with the same subject.

What made me think about this is that I recently bought two posthumous books by Mises. (They are transcriptions of lectures he delivered.) One of them is called Marxism Unmasked: From Delusion to Destruction and is a transcription of a lecture series he delivered in New York in 1952. In the very first paragraph one can read the following:

Philosophy is important because every man, whether or not he knows it, has a definite philosophy, and his philosophical ideas guide his actions.

Although it is shorter than the Rand quote above, it is basically the same thought!

And Rand and Mises must have arrived at this idea independently of one another. I am fairly certain Ayn Rand did not listen to those lectures in 1952 (she was busy writing Atlas at that time), and Mises cannot be influenced by Rand, since the Rand quote is many years later.

But there is one allegation against Mises that can now be laid to rest: the idea that he down-played the role and importance of philosophy.