Sunday, 17 June 2012

Human Action

We all have our little pleasures don’t we? Momentary satisfactions such as that brief sense of release when you wake up on a Saturday morning knowing you don’t have to go to work. The aroma of fresh coffee when you first open a new pack, fresh snow, a job well done or the sight of an old friend. They help keep the world of crappiness at bay.

One of mine is deciding which book to read next after I’ve just finished the last one. I used to be a rather undisciplined reader. Some years back my wife complained about all the part-read books I tended to leave all around the house.

Indignantly I counted them and to my surprise found I was reading seventeen books at once, judging by the number with bookmarks. This rather deflated my indignation as you may imagine.

Since then I’ve been much more sensible and tend to read one book at a time. The Kindle helps, although I’d largely cured myself before I bought the Kindle.

Now I actually enjoy this brief bit of decision-making. What to read next? It's rather like looking forward to a good meal or a glass of wine. Anyhow, after Pendennis I chose Human Action by Ludwig von Mises, the great Austrian School economist. I’ve been meaning to read this book for a while because some seem to regard it as one of the most significant books of the twentieth century. So I downloaded it onto my Kindle and dived in.

Oh dear...

I’m no economist, but I only managed a few pages. Unreadable, bloated, repetitive, jargon-riddled dross in my view. It’s like reading Kant. I'm not opposed to free market economics and no doubt there are some good ideas buried somewhere in that vast heap of words, but I’m not prepared to dig them out. Life really is too short.

First - part of an Amazon reviewer’s comment.

In the first section of this masterwork, Mises gets right down to laying a solid philosophic and epistemological foundation for the study of the social sciences. The ideas in this section could be Mises' most powerful contribution to mankind's body of ideas, and I consider it one of the most fascinating discoveries of my adult life.

Second – three quotes from the book.

1... Choosing determines all human decisions.

2... The system of economic thought must be built up in such a way that it is proof against any criticism on the part of irrationalism, historicism, panphysicalism, behaviourism, and all varieties of polylogism.

3... It is no longer enough to deal with the economic problems within the traditional framework. It is necessary to build the theory of catallactics upon the solid foundation of a general theory of human action, praxeology. This procedure will not only secure it against many fallacious criticisms but clarify many problems hitherto not even adequately seen, still less satisfactorily solved. There is, especially, the fundamental problem of economic calculation.

To me this is strongly Kantian – misguided system-building. For all I know there may be insights in there somewhere, but these quotes taken from the beginning of the book suggest to me that Mises hoped to build a permanent edifice almost as grandiose as the notorious settled science of climate change.

It’s not for me. Zola next I think.


duffandnonsense said...

Thanks for the warning, AK, otherwise I might have been tempted to add it to the leaning tower of 'waiting-to-be-read' books that blocks the sunlight through the window!

I recommend you stick to Hayek, at least he writes clearly and precisely.

Roger said...

Was it a new book or one of those second-hand books that is scarcely opened? If the latter that should have been warning enough.

A K Haart said...

David - I've tried Hayek and find him a good deal more lucid than Mises.

Roger - It's a Kindle book so you don't get these useful clues. I once bought one of Kant's tomes published in 1896 which had obviously never been read in a hundred years because numerous pages were uncut. I read it and found out why.

James Higham said...

Oh I don't know - it's nice to have a few books part read and you come back to them as is your wont However, a wife is a formidable barrier - I understand that principle too.

A K Haart said...

James - you can part read very easily with the Kindle but I'm resisting the temptation. The memory isn't what it was for one thing.

Woodsy42 said...

Personally I mistrust any idea or theory that is not explained in plain english. Hiding behind complex terminology and peppering the text with long unusual words is not generally a sign of cleverness but more usually a sign that the author hasn't a clear understanding.
The clever author is the one who can make his complex subject easy to understand.

A K Haart said...

Woodsy - I agree, it's something a physics teacher taught me at school. He said that if we ever read a book we don't understand, then the author doesn't understand it either.