Help! I am Being Assailed by a Bizarre and Shocking Notion Involved in a Theory of History!

Few things can shock the worldly epistemologist. Even those folks who insist the Red Herring is not a proper fallacy of logic must fail to scandalize the man or woman who has seen it all.

Seen the careless confusion of analytic and synthetic propositions. Seen operational definitions rise and fall in faddish favor.  Seen whole and entire epistemologies come and go.

No, the most experienced epistemologists are very much like old sailors who have been to nearly every major port: Not many sights are left to shock either one of those old hands.

Yet, I must confess to being horrified by Hans-Hermann Hoppe's notions of historical truth.  Horrified!
  • Hoppe begins his argument by asserting that history "reveals nothing about causes and effects" since "each sequence of empirical events is compatible with any number of rival, mutually incompatible interpretations." 
  • He then goes on, "To make a decision regarding such incompatible interpretations, we need a theory. By theory I mean a proposition whose validity does not depend on further experience but can be established a priori."
  • And then he follows up his strange argument by reasserting that, "Experience may thus illustrate a theory. But historical experience can neither establish a theorem nor refute it."

If you're like me, you must now -- despite your worldliness -- feel significantly more shocked than if someone were to suggest to you that you might someday wake up with a hang-over in a South China Sea whorehouse to find yourself in bed with a grinning orangutang -- and not a truth-table in sight!  That's to say, Hoppe has suggested a notion of history no less bizarre! 

So, let's put Hoppe's notion in perspective.  Every science in one way or another makes use of experience to test and collaborate its hypotheses. But Hoppe is insisting that experience cannot be used to test and collaborate hypotheses in history.  Why?

Well, Hoppe argues that any sequence of historical events is open to multiple, mutually exclusive interpretations, and that historical experience cannot provide a way to chose between those interpretations.

Now, if that is true -- genuinely true -- then history can tell us nothing beyond mere fact. "In the centuries following Columbus' arrival, many native Americans died from diseases of Old World origin."  Presumably, Hoppe would allow that history could establish the die-off as fact.

But suppose we had an hypothesis: "The presence of Europeans in the Americas brought about a flourishing of native American well-being."  According to Hoppe, no set of facts -- no matter how great their number, nor how relevant their meaning -- could ever establish that hypothesis or refute it.

That's because, for Hoppe, historical facts are always compatible with mutually exclusive interpretations of them.  In other words, for his notion to be more than mere noise, Hoppe must argue that the die-off of native Americans is a fact that is just as compatible with the hypothesis, "The presence of Europeans in the Americas brought about a flourishing of native American well-being", as it is compatible with the competing hypothesis, "The presence of Europeans in the Americas brought about a decrease in native American well-being."

If he cannot show the fact of the die-off is just as compatible with the one hypothesis as it is with the other, then he cannot logically demonstrate his notion that historical experience is unable to provide a means to choose between mutually exclusive interpretations.

For that, and for other reasons, I submit that Hoppe's bizarre notion of history is mere noise.

Yet, why, if it is mere noise, does Hoppe advance his notion of history in the first place?  I am largely speculating here, but I suspect Hoppe does it in order to support his political, social, and economic theories.

You see, Hoppe wants to argue that the "natural order" of humanity is a stateless society of private property owners.  But what we know of history renders that notion absurd -- even more bizarre than the notion we've just discussed.  So -- and here is my speculation -- Hoppe decided to redefine how hypotheses are tested in history, rather than admit his "natural order" is a joke.

Bottom Line: Regardless of his motives for them, Hoppe's ideas are bad enough that, like McDonald's "hamburgers" and Ayn Rand's "philosophy", they are bound to become popular.


  1. I may be wrong ('cause I'm not that smart about these things), but in your shocked commentary refuting HH's three bullets, you use the term 'hypothesis' while he does not. He uses the term 'theory,' and he further expounds, "By theory I mean a proposition whose validity does not depend on further experience but can be established a priori." As I understand a priori knowledge (for instance, 'parallel lines never touch each other'), your hypothesis ("The presence of Europeans in the Americas brought about a flourishing of native American well-being") does not qualify. No?

  2. That's a good question, Garnet, because it allows me to make clear something odd about HHH's use of the word "theory".

    Most historians speak of certain cause and effect statements as "theories" or "hypotheses" (It doesn't really matter whether you call something a theory or an hypothesis here. The two terms are almost interchangeable in actual practice). Statements like, "The presence of Europeans in the Americas brought about a flourishing of native American well-being."

    HHH rejects the widely accepted notion that such theories can be meaningful. In my opinion he does so because it's the only way he can advance his radical political, social, and economic ideas. IF he admitted that historians can disprove cause and effect theories based on historical evidence, he would need to concede that his radical political, social, and economic ideas are poppycock.

    So, to avoid doing that, he comes up with the silly notion that a priori propositions are "theories".

    But I don't know of another person on earth -- outside of HHH's circle of friends and supporters -- who uses such a strange name for a priori propositions. That is, no one else that I know of calls them "theories".

  3. My understanding of the terminology is that an hypothesis needs to be proved while a theory has been proven. Maybe this is only in mathematics or geometry?

    I like McDonald's hamburgers but prefer A&W. Don't like Ayn Rand at all and from what you have written, this guy Hoppe knows nothing about history. Of course ignorance has never stopped the American right from revising history as they see fit.

  4. @ The Blog Fodder: So far as I know, there are proofs in mathematics, logic, and alcohol, but not in science. That is, you can never say with absolute certainty that science has proved something to be the case.

    I don't know where the notion that a theory is a confirmed hypothesis got started. I've heard that notion, of course. But the notion does not jive with how many scientists actually use the terms. So, I suspect whoever came up with the notion that a theory is a confirmed hypothesis was not paying attention to how scientists themselves often us those words.

  5. Paul - I just found your Wordpress website, gee I wish you and Jon were there as much as on Eblogger! I started out here, but moved to Vox and then WP after Vox closed. How funny.

    Anyway, I think Hoppe has to define "wellbeing" before we can move forward with that discussion. So many times people expect to come to an agreement while speaking different languages.

    As for theory, there is a brilliant short video that explains it, I highly recommend it. To give a glimpse of what they say: a hypothesis is a statement of relationship. There must be some evidence present to make it testable. A collection of anecdotes (for History) could certainly work, but again, terms must be defined.

    A theory to scientists means "explanation". For example evolution is a theory because 150 years after Darwin died there is still evidence pouring in with new technologies. Theory is the best explanation available to the present date. Theories explain facts, laws and any other natural event.

  6. Oops, forgot the video

  7. @ Amelie: What HHH wants to do prevent hypotheses in history from being tested against historical facts. So, if you said, for instance, that the presence of Europeans in the New World after Columbus led to a decline in Native American populations, you could not -- according to HHH -- use any facts you gleaned from history to test that hypothesis. Instead, you could only test that hypothesis by checking to see if it jived with HHH's a priori notions, which he misleadingly calls, "theories".


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