Smith explains methodological subjectivism and how it applies to the study of human action.

George H. Smith was formerly Senior Research Fellow for the Institute for Humane Studies, a lecturer on American History for Cato Summer Seminars, and Executive Editor of Knowledge Products. Smith’s fourth and most recent book, The System of Liberty, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2013.

In essays posted late last year, such as “What are the Human Sciences?” “Methodology of the Human Sciences,” and “Tracking Freedom with the Human Sciences,” I discussed various aspects of those cognitive disciplines that study human action – or the human sciences, as I call them. (I recommend that readers consult the first two linked essays before tackling this series.) I shall now proceed with more detailed treatments of some traditional methodological controversies that have attended economics, sociology, and history.

My primary purpose in this series is to determine in what sense, if any, we can properly speak of social laws. When, for example, we speak of a “law” of economics, are we using the term “law” in the same sense as when we speak of a “law” of physics or a “law” of chemistry? Or, to invoke another common controversy, can we properly speak of “laws” of history?

This is obviously a complex field, so I can do no more than to offer some brief analyses and suggestions that I hope will prove useful to those readers who may wish to explore these controversies in greater detail. (It is with this possibility in mind that, contrary to my usual practice, I have provided bibliographic details for quotations.) But even my abbreviated treatments require a fair amount of background, so let’s begin with the controversy over methodological holism versus methodological dualism.

How do the human sciences differ from the physical (or “natural”) sciences? Even if we concede that the study of human action differs significantly from the study of physical (i.e., nonhuman) nature, does this necessitate a radical difference of method between the human sciences and the physical sciences? This question, which has been debated for many decades, is of fundamental importance for our understanding of the human sciences. Attempts to answer it generally fall into one of two categories: monism or dualism.

Methodological monism, which has been associated with a school of thought known as “positivism” and a cognitive ideal called “the unity of science,” maintains that the scientific method is (or should be) essentially the same in both the physical and the human sciences. Methodological dualism, in contrast, maintains that there exists (or should exist) a radical difference of method between these two fields of study. Human action, according to dualism, has a subjective meaning for the acting agent, and this unique feature, which is not exhibited by atoms, molecules, and other non‐​human entities, imposes upon the human sciences a distinctive method of inquiry that does not apply to the physical sciences. The human sciences are “subjective” in the sense that they must take into account the inner, or subjective, meanings of actions, as understood by the acting agents. (Throughout this series, when I use the terms “subjective” and “subjectivism,” it must be understood that I am referring to a methodological approach to the human sciences, an approach that has no necessary connection to moral, epistemological, or other kinds of subjectivism.)

The sociologist Alfred Schutz (a friend of Ludwig von Mises who shared his general perspective) explained some implications of methodological dualism as follows:

[T]here is an essential difference in the structure of the thought objects or mental constructs formed by the social sciences and those formed by the natural sciences. It is up to the natural scientist and to him alone to define, in accordance with the procedural rules of his science, his observational field, and to determine the facts, data, and events within it which are relevant for his problem or scientific purpose at hand. Neither are those facts and events pre‐​selected, nor is the observational field pre‐​interpreted. The world of nature, as explored by the natural scientist, does not ‘mean’ anything to the molecules, atoms, and electrons therein. The observational field of the social scientist, however, namely the social reality, has a specific meaning and relevance structure for the human beings living, acting, and thinking therein. By a series of common‐​sense constructs they have pre‐​selected and pre‐​interpreted this world which they experience as the reality of their daily lives. It is these thought objects of theirs which determine their behavior by motivating it. The thought objects constructed by the social scientist, in order to grasp this social reality, have to be founded upon the thought objects constructed by the common‐​sense thinking of men, living their daily lives within their social world. Thus, the construct of the social sciences are, so to speak, constructs of the second degree, namely constructs of the constructs made by the actors on the social scene, whose behavior the social scientist has to observe and to explain in accordance with the procedural rules of his science. (On Phenomenology and Social Relations, University of Chicago Press, 1970, p. 273.)

This stress on the subjective meaning and significance of human action (known as the interpretive method) was defended by Max Weber, Georg Simmel, and other members of the “German School” of sociology. It has also played a key role in the methodological arguments of “Austrian” economists, such as F.A. Hayek and Ludwig von Mises, so we should understand what is at stake in the ongoing debate between monists and dualists.

A good deal of confusion has been injected into this venerable debate by a failure to distinguish between epistemology and methodology. Epistemology studies the fundamental features of human knowledge – the nature of concepts and propositions, for example, and the meaning of “truth.” The discipline of epistemology is more fundamental than methodology, which investigates how epistemological standards should be applied to a particular field of study. Epistemology does not dictate a specific method of investigation; our choice of method will depend on what we wish to investigate.

Insufficient appreciation of the foregoing distinction has generated considerable confusion in the debate between monism and dualism. Epistemology and methodology pertain to different levels of analyses, so an epistemological monist may also be a methodological dualist. The methodological dualist needn’t uphold a similar dualism in the realm of epistemology; he needn’t argue that our knowledge of human action, qua knowledge, differs fundamentally from our knowledge of physical nature or that it should fulfill different epistemological criteria. He may argue instead that the human and physical sciences, while operating from the same epistemological foundation, require different applications of the same epistemological concepts and criteria to their respective disciplines, owing to fundamental differences between human and nonhuman phenomena.

An illustration may clarify the point. In his defense of a “unity of method” in the physical and human sciences, Karl Popper (The Poverty of Historicism, Harper Torchbooks, 1964) maintains that Carl Menger, a founding father of Austrian economics, also defended methodological monism and, consequently, rejected dualism. This is an intriguing claim because it attributes to Menger a position that differs radically from that of later Austrians, such as Hayek and Mises.

Contrary to Popper, however, Menger was neither a methodological monist nor an opponent of dualism. If Popper failed to understand Menger, this is largely because he failed to differentiate Menger’s general epistemology from his views on methodology. Menger was at once an epistemological monist andmethodological dualist. The former position is contained in Menger’s discussion of the conceptual methods that every science must employ when formulating general laws. From this epistemological standpoint, “no essential difference between the [human] and the natural sciences exists, but at most only one of degree.” (Investigations into the Method of the Social Sciences, 3rd ed., Libertarian Press, 1996, p. 27.) Menger’s “empirical method,” which he applied to every kind of science, both physical and human, is based on his theory of concepts and general propositions. This is an epistemological theory, not a methodological one; and Menger pointed out that the specific application of his theory of knowledge will vary according to the cognitive demands of a particular sphere of investigation. Menger rejected the monism, or “unity of method,” defended by Popper, as we see in the following passage.

[E]very method of investigation acquires its own specific character from the nature of the field of knowledge to which it is applied. It would be improper, accordingly, to attempt a natural‐​scientific orientation of our science [of economics]. Past attempts to carry over the peculiarities of the natural‐​scientific method of investigation uncritically into economics have led to most serious methodological errors…. (Principles of Economics, Libertarian Press, 1994, p. 47.)

It would be difficult to find a more concise statement of the difference between epistemology and method. The method appropriate to a particular science is determined, not by our general epistemological principles (which apply to every science, indeed, to all knowledge), but by the appropriate application of those principles to the subject matter of a particular science. This, according to Menger, is true empiricism – not the uncritical application of a universal method to every science but, rather, the careful adaptation of method to subject matter, based on one’s theory of knowledge, as a means to attain the cognitive goal of knowledge.