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Philosophical Foundations of Carl Menger

There has been a lot of interest in the philosophical foundations of Carl Menger.  Many Objectivist writers have emphasized Menger’s Aristotelian training, while other have suggested that Menger’s ideas align with Kant and Popper.  Most scholars agree that Franz Brentano, who was an Austrian Philosopher, had a big influence on Menger.

Carl Menger was an Aristotelian although not a pure one. He read Aristotle and studied the works of Franz Brentano (1838-1917), a contemporary of Menger at the University of Vienna, who taught Aristotelian philosophy there. Brentano has been considered to be the leading Austrian philosopher of the late nineteenth century.

In order to obtain a better understanding of Menger’s philosophy, it is important to understand Franz Brentano’s philosophical ideas.  Brentano’s work focused mainly on the philosophy of psychology.  Sigmund Freud was his student and highly influenced by Brentano.[1]

Brentano argued that philosophy should be scientifically rigorous, as rigorous as the natural sciences.[2]  However, Marx and many others Mengerhave said they were doing science.

He emphasized that all our knowledge should be based on direct experience. He did not hold, however, that this experience needs to be made from a third-person point of view, and thus opposes what has become a standard of empirical science nowadays. Brentano rather argued a form of introspectionism: doing psychology from an empirical standpoint means for him to describe what one directly experiences in inner perception, from a first-person point of view.[3]

This passage starts strong with knowledge based on direct experience, but then shifts making the observer part of the experiment and then it redefines empirical to mean “inner perception”.  This inner perception is the means to absolute truths according to Brentano.

Brentano argues, “that they (mental phenomena) are only perceived in inner consciousness, while in the case of physical phenomena only external perception is possible” (Psychology, 91).  According to Brentano, the former of these two forms of perception provides an unmistakable evidence for what is true.

Brentano says that it (inner perception) is the only kind of perception in a strict sense.[4]

According to Webster’s Dictionary, science is “knowledge about or study of the natural world based on facts learned through experiments and observation.”  By observation, Webster’s does not mean inner perception.  While Einstein was famous for his “thought experiments”, they were a way of conceptualizing a problem in physics.  They were not actual experiments nor did they substitute for actual experiments.  Brentano is not doing or proposing to do science, despite his statement.

Brentano is widely regarded as Aristotelian and studied Aristotle extensively.  He also was fascinated with the Scholastics and Descartes, but disliked Kant and the German idealists.[5]  Brentano and Aristotle appear to agree on Universals, which Peikoff explained as:

Universals, he (Aristotle) holds, are merely aspects of existing entities, isolated in thought by a process of selective attention; they have no existence apart from particulars. Reality is comprised, not of Platonic abstractions, but of concrete, individual entities, each with a definite nature, each obeying the laws inherent in its nature. Aristotle’s universe is the universe of science. The physical world, in his view, is not a shadowy projection controlled by a divine dimension, but an autonomous, self-sufficient realm. It is an orderly, intelligible, natural realm, open to the mind of man.[6]

Brentano’s rejection of Platonic abstractions may have accounted for his distaste for Kant.

Despite the appearance of agreement with Aristotle on metaphysics, Brentano’s position in epistemology significantly differs from Aristotle.  Brentano rejects that our senses are how we initially obtain knowledge about the world.

In fact he maintained that external, sensory perception could not tell us anything about the de facto existence of the perceived world, which could simply be illusion. However, we can be absolutely sure of our internal perception. When I hear a tone, I cannot be completely sure that there is a tone in the real world, but I am absolutely certain that I do hear. This awareness, of the fact that I hear, is called internal perception.

External perception, sensory perception, can only yield hypotheses about the perceived world, but not truth. Hence he and many of his pupils (in particular Carl Stumpf and Edmund Husserl) thought that the natural sciences could only yield hypotheses and never universal, absolute truths as in pure logic or mathematics.

Franz Brentano maintained that our senses were invalid and could not tell us anything about the world. [7]

This is the exact opposite of Aristotle.

[H]e (Aristotle) thinks that we can and do have knowledge, so that somehow we begin in sense perception and build up to an understanding of the necessary and invariant features of the world. This is the knowledge featured in genuine science (epistêmê).

Brentano and Aristotle are completely opposite on one of the most fundamental points of epistemology.  Because this issue is foundational, it will affect everything else the two men have to say on science and philosophy.  I think it is a mistake to argue that Brentano was Aristotelian.

With this background this paper will examine Menger’s epistemological positions.  Menger lays out his epistemology in a book entitled Investigations into the Method of Social Sciences.[8]  Lawrence H. White in the introduction to the book, explains.

Fortunately, Menger draws and even emphasizes a suitable distinction between the “realist-empirical orientation of theoretical research” and the “exact” orientation (p. 59). The search for so-called, ”exact laws” alone is more appropriately considered the task of purely theoretical research in economics. We can make sense of “exact laws” as theoretical propositions which (necessarily) take an “if-then” form: if conditions A and B hold, then condition C must also obtain. Menger rightly insists (pp. 70, 215) that realist-empirical generalizations (e.g., A and B are usually accompanied by C) can by their nature never attain the strictness that necessarily characterizes logical implications. The two sorts of “laws” are on different epistemological planes. So without too much dissent from Menger’s thought we may divide economic theory from economic history where he divided strict theory from what he considered an empirical sort of theory. What is empirical is really historical, and this accounts for its different status from what is deductive.[9]

Lawrence H. White goes on to explain:

But this is not because, like some economists, he (Menger) sees empiricism or positivism or falsificationism as the only proper method for both social science and natural science. Instead he argues (p. 59 n. 18) that both the search for empirical regularities and the formulation of non-empirical, non-falsifiable (“exact”) theories are methods common to both economics and such natural science fields as chemistry. In viewing theoretical research in every field as having a non-empirical proposition at its core, Menger’s position bears some resemblance to that of modern philosophers of science. [10]

Menger is arguing that science involves a theoretical side that is impervious to empirical data.  This sounds a lot like Brentano’s idea of “inner perception”, which “provides an unmistakable evidence for what is true.”  Menger says there is a second side of economics (science) which is empirical and never provides “exact” true theories in economics or science generally.  This is very similar to the explanation of Brentano’s ideas on empirical evidence: “External perception, sensory perception, can only yield hypotheses about the perceived world, but not truth.”[11]

Brentano’s and Menger’s ideas match up fairly well.  Neither of their positions fit Aristotle’s epistemological ideas.  Both of them have misappropriated the word science.  In science reality is always the final judge.  There is nothing that man knows that did not start with our perceptions and nothing in science that is “exactly true”, i.e., independent of empirical observation.

While Bentano and Menger appear to be opposed to Kant, their epistemological positions are a lot closer to Kant than Aristotle.  Menger’s theoretical-empirical split fits Kant’s noumenal and phenomenal realm when translated to epistemology, which results in the analytic-synthetic distinction.  “Analytic propositions are true by virtue of their meaning, while synthetic propositions are true by how their meaning relates to the world.”[12]

Menger and Brentano’s empirical side is a precursor to Karl Popper’s mistaken ideas on science.  Popper appeared to accept David Hume’s skepticism of induction and his response is the same as Menger’s and Brentano’s, which is that empirical evidence never gives us the truth, just closer approximations.  This is not the philosophy of science and is based in-part on an incorrect understanding of what knowledge is.  Knowledge does not mean being omniscient or having “perfect knowledge”.  It is impossible to gain knowledge by just thinking about things (Without reference to the reality).

Menger’s ideas are inconsistent with Objectivism.  They undermine science and economics.



[1],  Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Franz Brentano (First published Wed Dec 4, 2002; substantive revision Tue Aug 26, 2014)

[2],  Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Franz Brentano (First published Wed Dec 4, 2002; substantive revision Tue Aug 26, 2014)

[3],  Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Franz Brentano (First published Wed Dec 4, 2002; substantive revision Tue Aug 26, 2014)

[4],  Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy Franz Brentano (First published Wed Dec 4, 2002; substantive revision Tue Aug 26, 2014)

[5],  Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Franz Brentano (First published Wed Dec 4, 2002; substantive revision Tue Aug 26, 2014)

[6] Leonard Peikoff, The Ominous Parallels, 29,

[7], accessed November 11, 2015, Wikipedia, Franz Brentano




[11], accessed November 11, 2015, Wikipedia, Franz Brentano

[12] Wikipedia, Analytic–Synthetic Distinction, Accessed  October 21, 2016,


December 6, 2016 - Posted by | -Economics, -History, philosophy | , , , , , ,

1 Comment »

  1. […] to FEE reason and capitalism are incompatible, which is why they promote the works of Mises, Hayek, Menger, and Rothbard.  You cannot defend capitalism successfully while attacking reason and a rational […]

    Pingback by FEE: Ayn Rand Predicts its Intellectual Bankruptcy « State of Innovation | January 1, 2017 | Reply

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