Carl Menger and the proper subject-matter of economic science

Jens van 't Klooster

University of Antwerp

Abstract: 
The paper discusses Carl Menger's different arguments in his Grundsätze (1971) and Untersuchungen (1883) to motivate his conception of the proper subject-matter of economic science. As a discussion of both texts will show, Menger consistently uses arguments that are not suitable to establish conclusions with regard to this topic. While questions regarding scientific practices and styles of reasoning can be answered by invoking epistemic considerations, the question which phenomena should be of interest to the scientist involves a specific axiotic dimension that is not properly addressed by Menger. The rise of the social sciences as professional disciplines takes shape in the later decades of the nineteenth century (Ross, 2003). One of the central topics of debate in this period, one that is to a certain extent still open, is the institutional and professional set-up of a science particular to economic phenomena. An important early contribution to this debate can be found in the work of Carl Menger. Menger explains to an audience of historically-oriented economists, who understand a wide range of social science questions as a legitimate part of economic research, that a far more limited set of questions forms the correct topic of economic research. Economics is conceived of by Menger as a science of individual rational action aimed towards the efficient use of limited resources. By means of its endorsement by Robbins (1932), Menger's conception of the questions that an economist should or should not ask became an important part of the 20th century professional education of economists. The first part of the paper will focus on the argumentation that Menger uses in his Untersuchungen (1883). As I will show, the arguments that Menger actually uses are exclusively epistemic. They are therefore (in principle) suitable to establish that certain scientific practices and styles of reasoning would be appropriate to acquire knowledge about social phenomena. They are not relevant to establishing any prescriptive claims regarding the proper subject-matter of a specific social science discipline. In the second part of the paper, I will follow up on a suggestion by Menger that any doubts of the reader regarding his restrictive demarcation will be resolved by looking at the Grundsätze. In the Grundsätze, Menger presents a specific model of certain aspects of market-coordinated interaction. As I will argue, here too, the nature of the arguments that Menger introduces makes them inappropriate for defending the demarcation that Menger in fact introduces. In the concluding third part, I will briefly indicate how the problems faced by Menger are relevant to current debates on the content of economic science.