Gene Callahan has a relatively old paper that I just recently found, entitled Oakeshott and Mises on Understanding Human Action.
Although Michael Oakeshott and Ludwig von Mises were arguably two of the more
profound theorists of human activity in the twentieth century, there has been remarkably
little comparative study of their ideas. That is especially surprising when one considers
how compatible those ideas were in a number of areas, such as the a priori nature of the
postulates of human action, the nature of historical thought, the fundamental dichotomy
between explaining not- intelligent goings-on and intelligent activity, the ambiguous
character of the statistical social sciences, and the importance of meaning in theorizing
human conduct. Comparing their formulations of common concepts permits new,
illuminating perspectives into each thinker's work.
Despite such compatibility, their ideas also contain interesting and important differences:
on the modality or lack thereof in human thought, the nature of rationality and its
relationship to tradition, and the character of economics as a science. This paper will
explore both the similarities and differences between the ideas of Mises and Oakeshott.
Because a full consideration of all of the areas mentioned above would likely result in a
book rather than a paper, I will restrict myself here to examining their views on the
general principles of human action and how those principles relate to the character of the
Callahan starts by elaborating upon Ludwig von Mises’s idea of praxeology: from the fact that humans engage in purposeful activity, we may derive a number of things (1). Mises spent much of his career diving deep into the science of human action—science in the old European sense of an “organized body of knowledge” rather than the modern notion of a quantitative natural science. Although Oakeshott never directly engaged with Mises’s ideas, Callahan argues that the two share a number of similarities. For example, both find vital the notion that actors understand their own circumstances and assign their own meaning to these circumstances. A person acts because something “as he understands it, must appear to be unsatisfactory to him.” In addition, there is an expectation for both that this action will improve the individual’s circumstances (2).
For both philosophers, values are not “given” and certainly neither believed that human action was nothing more than maximization subject to constraints (3). Beyond that, though, there are certain strands which are compatible even though the two were not in contact. Callahan argues that Mises understands what praxeology implies, whereas Oakeshott “puts them on the broader philosophical basis” (4). Neither had a required ontology regarding how postulates come to be—they could come from G-d, biological evolution, or even random guesses (4). What is important simply is that they exist, not necessarily how we get there.
What’s interesting is that Callahan argues that Mises was a methodological dualist: Mises subscribed to the idea that intelligent action needs completely different theories compared to “non-intelligent goings-on” and that these are “fundamentally different activities” (5). Oakeshott seems a little fuzzier, but you could make an argument that his thoughts are compatible with that notion as well. Both believed, as Nardin wrote on Oakeshott, that “the social sciences, like the natural sciences, are explanatory, not prescriptive” (7). In other words, we may use the social sciences to explain how people behave, not necessarily how people should behave. This is where normative individualism comes into play. Both also reject the notion of social holism, placing them squarely in the methodological individualist tradition (7-8).
I’ll end this with a quotation from Mises which I like a lot and wish would get broadcast in every econometrics course:
If a statistician determines that a rise of 10 per cent in the supply of potatoes in Atlantis at a definite time was followed by a fall of 8 per cent in the price, he does not establish anything about what happened or may happen with a change in the supply of potatoes in another country or at another time. He has not “measured” the “elasticity of demand” of potatoes. He has established a unique and individual historical fact. No intelligent man can doubt that the behavior of men with regard to potatoes, and every other commodity is variable. Different individuals value the same things in a different way, and valuations change with the same individuals with changing conditions. (11)