vol. 30, no. 2 (June), 1992
pp. 889-91 


The New Subjectivist Revolution: An Elucidation and Extension
of Ludwig von Mises's Contributions to Economic Theory
by J. Patrick Gunning
Savage, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1991, pp. xiii, 264

New Subjectivism is a recasting of the methodological insights of Ludwig von Mises as set forth in Human Action (1966), originally published in 1940 as Nationalkonomie. But it is identical, Gunning tells us, to Mises's methodological apriorism (p. 21), which is defined as the taking for granted that individuals "possess the social concepts of causality, time and uncertainty" (p. 33). Mises, however, may not have fully recognized the significance of his own method (p. 12) and may have sabotaged his methodological revolution by misusing the method, creating confusing terminology, and failing to integrate New Subjectivism with Old Subjectivism (p. 10).
         Old Subjectivism emerged in the nineteenth century as a subjectivist treatment of wants. It was eventually extended in the twentieth century to the realms of expectations, knowledge, and plans (p. 18). New Subjectivism has its roots in the writings of Max Weber and his philosopher predecessors (p. 18). The Old and the New, then, are only loosely distinguished by age. The crucial distinction, it turns out, is the epistemological status of the subjectivity. Where the Old proceeded on the basis of assumption, the New identified a priori categories of human action. "Intuition and experience" (a phrase used repeatedly by Gunning), reveal the prerequisites of human action and focus the New Subjectivist's attention on ends and means, causality and teleology, time and uncertainty. The task Gunning sets for himself is one of codifying the New Subjectivist Method and exposing as untenable the alternatives of statistical, institutional, and historical positivism (p. 23).
         The core chapters are inspired by a single chapter of Mises's magnum opus. Mises's twenty-five page treatment of "The Scope and Method of Catallactics" underlies seven of the author's chapters (Chapters four through ten), each of whose titles begin with the phrase "The Method of Contrasting Images of Functions." What is being contrasted, here (translated liberally), is some notion of equilibrium in which there is no human action and some notion of human action which results in equilibrium. Following these core chapters are three chapters whose titles begin with the phrase "The Method of Economic Teleology." According to Gunning (p. 3), Mises employed these two complementary methods but failed to identify clearly the second-mentioned one. In addition to the core-plus-three chapters, the book contains some introductory material, a concluding chapter, and nine short appendices, most of which deal with exegetical issues.
         Much of the book is an extended exercise in methodological pronouncement and prescription based upon stipulative definitions and taxonomies of actions suggested by "intuition and experience." "Economic interaction" is defined so as to exclude barter (p. 21). Barter is treated instead as a part of the "non-economic environment" (p. 26). Economic functions are identified as consuming, saving and factor supplying. Entrepreneurship "is not an economic function but a cause of the performance of the economic functions" (p. 82). Gunning does not mean that entrepreneurship, like barter, lies outside of economics but rather that it cannot or should not be thought of as a function. Functions can be performed by robots; entrepreneurship cannot. This distinction, however, gets blurred when Gunning introduces robot entrepreneurs, which are to be understood, possibly, as not-quite-entrepreneurs. The "robo-ents," as Gunning calls them, can earn only "robo-profits" (pp. 103-4 and passim).
         Private saving is contrasted not with corporate saving but with social saving. Social saving, which is defined so as to exclude hoarding money and holding durable goods, is also called economic saving (p. 121)—as if holdings of money and goods constitute non-economic savings. In a footnote Gunning indicates that "Since money and banking are beyond the concern of this book, private saving is disregarded" (p. 135, n 1). Using money distinguishes economic interaction from non-economic environment; holding money is disregarded. How this construction can be reconciled with Mises's celebrated integration of monetary and value theory is left as a puzzle for the reader.
         Although Gunning's theorizing is decidedly unMisesian, his eccentric phraseology comes directly from Human Action. For instance, instead of discussing consumption utilities, using this Old Subjectivist term, Gunning writes of "getting relief from a felt uneasiness" (p. 70). While Mises could get away with such phrasing in the original German and even in subsequent English editions, Gunning has the reader wondering whether he is talking about consumption or flatulence.
         Occasionally, the taxonomies and stipulative definitions give way to statements whose meanings will escape all readers. "Prediction is history pushed into the future" (p. 25). Whatever its intent, this pronouncement inspires the reviewer to compare forecaster, historian, and New Subjectivist: The forecaster looks straight ahead predicting what he can with the data he has; the historian turns his head 180 degrees to make what sense he can out of that same data; the New Subjectivist faces straight ahead but turns his eyeballs 180 degrees: "Consider the case," Gunning writes, "where an individual could know that he could pay attention to a particular behavior if he were only to pay attention to whether he was paying attention to his behavior" (p. 46). New Subjectivism is conducive to such inwardly regressive thinking. The New Subjectivist, according to Gunning, "strives to acquire an intersubjective understanding of individuals' intersubjective understandings of each others' actions and of their understandings" (p. 35). Had he not dropped the adjective from that last understanding, the regress would have gone on.
         Readers who have a high tolerance for this mode of thought may take the full dose of Gunning's New Subjectivism. All others who dip into this book are likely to be left with a felt uneasiness.

    Roger W. Garrison
    Auburn University

 1. Mises, Ludwig von, Human Action: a Treatise on Economics, third edition. Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, 1966.