Carl Menger’s method of research

There are fascinating passages from preface to “Principles of economics” by Carl Menger. What makes them fascinating is that they have been true for 140 years. What makes these passages even more fascinating is that one could change economics to software development, and they still would be true.

The impartial observer can have no doubt about the reason our generation pays general and enthusiastic tribute to progress in the field of the natural sciences, while economic science receives little attention and its value is seriously questioned by the very men in society to whom it should provide a guide for practical action.

Never was there an age that placed economic interests higher than does our own. Never was the need of a scientific foundation for economic affairs felt more generally or more acutely. And never was the ability of practical men to utilize the achievements of science, in all fields of human activity, greater than in our day. If practical men, therefore, rely wholly on their own experience, and disregard our science in its present state of development, it cannot be due to a lack of serious interest or ability on their part. Nor can their disregard be the result of a haughty rejection of the deeper insight a true science would give into the circumstances and relationships determining the outcome of their activity. The cause of such remarkable indifference must not be sought elsewhere than in the present state of our science itself, in the sterility of all past endeavors to find its empirical foundations.

Every new attempt in this direction, however modest the effort, contains its own justification. To aim at the discovery of the fundamentals of our science is to devote one’s abilities to the solution of a problem that is directly related to human welfare, to serve a public interest of the highest importance, and to enter a path where even error is not entirely without merit.

In order to avoid any justifiable doubts on the part of experts, we must not, in such an enterprise, neglect to pay careful attention to past work in all the fields of our science thus far explored. Nor can we abstain from applying criticism, with full independence of judgment, to the opinions of our predecessors, and even to doctrines until now considered definitive attainments of our science. Were we to fail in the first task, we would abandon lightly the whole sum of experience collected by the many excellent minds of all peoples and of all times who have attempted to achieve the same end. Should we fail in the second, we would renounce from the beginning any hope of a fundamental reform of the foundations of our science. These dangers can be evaded by making the views of our predecessors our own, though only after an unhesitating examination, and by appealing from doctrine to experience, from the thoughts of men to the nature of things.

This is the ground on which I stand. In what follows I have endeavored to reduce the complex phenomena of human economic activity to the simplest elements that can still be subjected to accurate observation, to apply to these elements the measure corresponding to their nature, and constantly adhering to this measure, to investigate the manner in which the more complex economic phenomena evolve from their elements according to definite principles.

This method of research, attaining universal acceptance in the natural sciences, led to very great results, and on this account came mistakenly to be called the natural-scientific method. It is, in reality, a method common to all fields of empirical knowledge, and should properly be called the empirical method. The distinction is important because every 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.

Past attempts to carry over the peculiarities of the natural-scientific method of investigation uncritically into economics have led to most serious methodological errors, and to idle play with external analogies between the phenomena of economics and those of nature. Bacon said of scholars of this description: “Similitudes and sympathies of things that have no reality,  . . . they describe and sometimes invent with great vanity and folly,” a statement which, strangely enough, is still true today of precisely those writers on economic subjects who continue to call themselves disciples of Bacon while they completely misunderstand the spirit of his method.

If it is stated, in justification of these efforts, that the task of our age is to establish the interconnections between all fields of science and to unify their most important principles, I should like to question seriously the qualifications of our contemporaries to solve this problem. I believe that scholars in the various fields of science can never lose sight of this common goal of their endeavors without damage to their research. But the solution of this problem can be taken up successfully only when the several fields of knowledge have been examined most carefully, and when the laws peculiar to each field have been discovered.

It is now the task of the reader to judge to what results the method of investigation I have adopted has led, and whether I have been able to demonstrate successfully that the phenomena of economic life, like those of nature, are ordered strictly in accordance with definite laws.

Carl Menger’s method of research