12 Apr 2012

Old-School Mises

Economics, Mises 65 Comments

Vaughn Kraft, one of my frequent Mises Academy students, sent me this email (and gave permission to reprint):

A gentleman friend of mine had recently told me a story about his interview with Von Mises to enter the Austrian master’s program. This took place around 1959 or 1960, when Von Mises interviewed him for the program. My friend told me that Von Mises only asked him two questions: first he asked, “Do you “read” German?”, and next he asked, “Do you “read” French”? My friend answered “No” to both questions–end of interview! However, Von Mises allowed my friend to enter the master’s program anyway; nevertheless, my friend knew that Von Mises would not think of him as an Economist, because he thought for one to fully understand the depth of the marginal revolution, one would have to be able to read and understand both German and French to comprehend this technical economic concept.

65 Responses to “Old-School Mises”

  1. Uncle Sam says:

    This does not surprise me. In “Human Action” Mises is always dropping French, German and Latin quotes without bothering to translate them. Doesn’t everyone speak the classic languages?

    • SDG says:

      You would think the LvM institute publishers could have bothered with translated footnotes for us uncultured folk, but even the footnotes are in French, German & Latin; so how could they if they wanted to?

      • Uncle Sam says:

        I just think of it as an opportunity to learn some vocabulary. 🙂
        I have a list of words and phrases that I’ve had to look up while reading “Human Action”.

        Non liquet—it is not proven
        Lucubrate–to study or write intensively, especially at night

      • Major_Freedom says:

        I actually enjoy it when I read a book and the author drops Latin and French phrases without translating them. It leads me to then look them up, find out what they mean, and because of that, there is a greater chance of retention, so that the next time I see it, I know what it means.

        • Ken B says:

          When I read Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain in translation all the dirty bits, which were in French in the German, were left in French in the English. Some them I remember … 🙂

      • Ash says:

        They actually do translate them for the audio book, which is useful.

  2. Martin says:

    “nevertheless, my friend knew that Von Mises would not think of him as an Economist, because he thought for one to fully understand the depth of the marginal revolution, one would have to be able to read and understand both German and French to comprehend this technical economic concept.”

    I would be curious as to know why that friend ‘knew’ that Mises would not think of him as an economist? He did allow him to enter the program after all.

    As I don’t see why Mises would think this: “because he thought for one to fully understand the depth of the marginal revolution, one would have to be able to read and understand both German and French to comprehend this technical economic concept.”

    • Vaughn Kraft says:

      Hello Martin,

      When I talk to my friend next time, it probably won’t be soon, I will ask him to further elaborate on your question.

      I’m no scholar and I would never profess to be one, but I’m sure I read somewhere a long time ago that Mises thought that one couldn’t even thoroughly understand Karl Marx’s ideas unless you read his original work in German. Mises thought there was just way to much lost in the translation to English. I’m sure Mises was fluent in five different languages; he was a BIG proponent of being fluent in many languages.

      Lastly, I guess that’s why Rothbard had a photograph of Mises on his office wall, even though Mises wasn’t a full blown anarchist like Murray, because I’m sure there were few scholars as brilliant as Mises.

      Regards, Vaughn Kraft

      • Gene Callahan says:

        “Mises thought that one couldn’t even thoroughly understand Karl Marx’s ideas unless you read his original work in German.”

        Of course he is correct. You can get a passing knowledge of Marx by reading the people who can read the original, but forget about being an expert on his work without reading German.

        • Ken B says:

          Do you speak Hebrew Gene?

      • Martin says:


        thanks for your answer. I am near fluent in English, am a native in two and studying to learn another language, but I have difficulty to see how you cannot be a competent economist whilst being fluent in just one. I won’t deny it has no benefits, but that those benefits are of that magnitude I find to be questionable. Hence my question.

        regards, Martin

        • Martin says:

          Come to think of it, it might have to do that in Mises’ time the economic conversation was carried on in different languages whilst today English is dominant. If you wanted to be an economist then, to take part in that conversation so to speak, you had to be able to communicate in those languages. Today this foreign language is of course, math.

    • MamMoTh says:

      I would be curious as to know why that friend ‘knew’ that Mises would not think of him as an economist? He did allow him to enter the program after all.

      Because the program wasn’t about economics.

    • Gene Callahan says:

      This is certainly the way Mises thought. I recall another student of his asking, “How can you ask me to learn all of these languages?” Mises replied, “No one is asking you to be an economist at all.”

      In other words, just one language? You ain’t no scholar.

  3. joeftansey says:

    The original hipster.

  4. von Pepe says:

    Does krugman read german and french?

  5. Tom says:

    No french fries!
    No French Wine!
    No Saddam Hussein!

    The above was written on a sign in front of a fishing/booze store I went to in 2003. I almost died laughing.

  6. gienek says:

    I am not entirely sure, but too bad for Rothbard then? Or could he read those two languages?

  7. Bob Roddis says:

    We know that Keynes couldn’t read German or Mises’s Theorie des Geldes und der Umlaufsmittel. Big deal, says “Lord Keynes”.


    • Lord Keynes says:

      Did you even read the post?

      (1) Keynes had two German governesses in the 1890s, who, according to Skidelsky (1983: 55), gave him a “good grounding in German.”

      (2) Keynes clearly had enough German to read (or at least plan to read) an astonishing 3,000-4,000 pages of the German literature for his work on probability theory (Moggridge 1992: 172; Skidelsky 1983: 178).

      (3) Around 1907, Keynes had his father send him many books in German relevant to probability, and he himself said in a candid private letter to his father that his reading speed for English, French and German bore a ratio of 1:2:3 (letter of Keynes to John Neville Keynes, 22 March 1907; cited in Moggridge 1992: 172; Skidelsky 1983: 178).

      (4) In August 1911, Keynes told Lytton Strachey that he was “reading endless and appalling books in German” (letter cited in Skidelsky 1983: 259) – undoubtedly German books on probability, logic or induction.

      (5) Even a cursory look at Keynes’s bibliography and notes of A Treatise on Probability (1st edn.; London, 1921) shows a vast range of German works cited and used.

      (6) The pages of the Economic Journal show a number of works in German Keynes reviewed, including “Theorie des Geldes und der Umlaufsmittel”, and he even appreciated and agreed with some chapters.

      (7) When Keynes said “if my knowledge of the German language was not so poor (in German I can only clearly understand what I know already!—so that new ideas are apt to be veiled from me by the difficulties of language),” this does not mean he couldn’t read German – only that he couldn’t read it with ABSOLUTE fluency – and probably used dictionaries when he translated things, as many people do who have a reading knowledge of foreign languages.

      Also, given the overwhelming weight of evidence from his private correspondence showing he did read incredible amounts of German, there is most likely just some degree of self-deprecation in the remark a quite British trait.


      Again: Roddis is either a (1) liar or (2) incompetent and doesn’t read the posts he links to.

      • Bob Roddis says:

        Neither you nor the original pedophile ever exhibited any understanding of Mises’ new, earth shattering and definitive theory of money as explained, for example, by Bob Murphy. I can’t read Maynard’s mind. Maybe he understood the whole thing and lied about it. Mises’ explanation undermined the entirety of the Keynesian “system” in advance so I suppose it’s smart for you guys to never let it see the light of day and pretend it does not even exist. Maybe you really understand it too, but I doubt it.


        • Lord Keynes says:

          Maybe he understood the whole thing and lied about it.

          In other words, your original statement:

          “We know that Keynes couldn’t read German or Mises’s Theorie des Geldes und der Umlaufsmittel. Big deal, says “Lord Keynes””

          Is a pure lie or proof of your incompetence.

          • Major_Freedom says:

            Ad hominem risible contemptible rubbish straw man!

      • von Pepe says:

        I’m pretty sure I could read german books on probability today. I know Silas could – page after page of equations.

        When I think back to grad school and I was reading probability books I learned very little from the written text. I either followed the equations or I didn’t.

        • Stan Kwiatkowski says:

          Same here. That doesn’t prove I know German. I know a bit of German, but not nearly enough to read econ stuff, yet it’s sufficient for math etc.

        • Ken B says:

          In grad school I had to pass a second language proficiency exam to prove I could read math papers in it. If you ever hear me speak French you will know the required proficiency to read math papers is not that high ….

  8. Marc says:

    I had the very same conversation when I first met Ralph Raico.

  9. Joseph Fetz says:

    I cannot read, write, speak or understand German or French. However, strangely I can understand spoken Spanish, though I cannot speak it. Don’t ask… Granted, I cannot understand it perfectly, but certainly enough to get the gist of a conversation.

    • Bharat says:

      That’s how I am with my native language as well (tamil). I can understand what people are saying, but I can’t speak myself.

      It makes sense if you ask me. It’s much easier to know the definition of a word than be able to recall the word based on its definition.

      • Joseph Fetz says:

        Yeah, except I am German-Hungarian-Irish-Sicilian, and nobody in my family speaks Spanish. There’s a linguistic explanation for this, but I cannot remember it right now.

        I think it actually has something to do with the way my brain processes sounds, for some reason. Because another strange thing is that when I hear a polyphonic musical instrument play a chord, I don’t hear it as one sound like most people. I actually hear each voice (note) of the chord separately. I actually have to concentrate to hear the chord as one complete sound (i.e. as a chord rather than 3-4 distinct notes). It’s weird and difficult to explain.

        • Uncle Sam says:

          Fascinating. Do you also have perfect pitch?

          • Joseph Fetz says:

            No, I wish that I did. I am usually within a half step, though. Now, if I am in a particular key, then I can play/hum whatever intervals of that key as I hear it in my head, but I cannot do it without a reference point (i.e. another instrument playing the root). However, that didn’t come naturally, it took many years of playing scales through the circle of fifths in every key and in every position. I still flub it sometimes.

  10. Gene Callahan says:

    Yeah, these guys had standards that embarrass me. I can read a bit of French, German, Spanish, Latin, and Greek, and am slowly approaching fluency in Italian, but the scholars of 100 years ago would have considered my language abilities pathetic. Michael Polanyi mentioned getting his morning mail in half-a-dozen languages, and not even noticing which language a letter was written in.

    • Joseph Fetz says:

      As you know, I’ve been trying Mandarin, but boy is that language hard. I am getting pretty good with the characters, but certainly nowhere near being able to really communicate effectively. I’m at the point where I don’t know if I should continue on or try my hand at a different language. I figured after a year I’d be a little further along. It does suck that I don’t know anybody else that speaks it, though.

      • Gene Callahan says:

        Joe, I see what you mean about how just seeing my name makes some of these guys froth at the mouth: I post an unremarkable comment about or general loss of language knowledge, and it is somehow the impetus for a bunch of childish insults!

        • Richie says:

          This is sweet since this is coming from the king of childish insults. You know, like calling people mentally retarded or saying that someone reminds you of an old man drooling at the mouth. Go back to being non-productive and read a philosophy book.

          • Gene Callahan says:

            Richie, it’s posting here that is less productive: I’m going back to preparing my presentation for the conference this weekend, finishing the edits on my third book, writing up the proposal for my fourth, and helping my students graduate.

            Old man drooling at the mouth: I said the post reminded of that: and that was entirely accurate, and thus not childish in the least.

            • Beefcake the Mighty says:

              You’ll probably need to help your students fill out an application at Starbuck’s, given the “knowledge” you’ve likely imparted to them.

              Then again, Starbuck’s is probably a more fruitful use of their time than their tutelage with you, so for once you’d be doing them a favor.

            • Ken B says:

              Please tell me you are not the Callahan who wrote ‘Economics for Real People’, which didn’t suck.

              • Beefcake the Mighty says:

                He is, and it did. Gene never met a metaphor, however inapt, that he didn’t like. I pity anyone who learned Austrian “insights” from that [guy whom I dislike–edited by RPM].

              • Beefcake the Mighty says:

                Bob, you’re destroying the continuity of my comments here.

            • Joseph Fetz says:

              Let’s be honest, you have hurled insults quite a bit, usually implying or outright saying that somebody is stupid.

            • Richie says:

              Oh wow! Now I’m impressed! NOT. Like I said, go back to being non-productive, academic hack.

        • Joseph Fetz says:

          Gene, I cannot say that my first impression of you was entirely favorable, or that I wasn’t at least somewhat of a jerk early on. I like to think that I am a little above that, though.

          To be honest, this is somewhat tame compared to other instances I’ve seen. LOL

    • Beefcake the Mighty says:

      They would have considered much of your thought process to be pathetic, frankly.

      • Gene Callahan says:

        Oooh, I know you are, but what am I, Beefcake?

      • Joseph Fetz says:

        Hey, where’d that GIANT BIRD go?

        Bob Murphy strikes again. LOL

        • Beefcake the Mighty says:

          I know, Bob’s no fun.

          • Joseph Fetz says:

            Well, it does make sense that he project some semblance of professionalism to keep his clientele. For some reason, I think a massive middle finger on one of his blog posts might interfere with that slightly.

            • Beefcake the Mighty says:

              Fair enough, but since Bob freely admits that someone like Callahan is a friend of his, how does that look to potential clients?

              • Bob Murphy says:

                Hey! I don’t freely admit it, I reluctantly admit it.

              • Beefcake the Mighty says:

                Gotta admit, that was a good one, Bob.

              • Bob Murphy says:

                I can die now.

    • Bob Roddis says:

      Everyone knows that the problem is caused by the slashing of public school budgets, that ominous type of Austro-austerity that causes perpetual depressions and which leaves no one able to read Latin, German and French on the same day. Clearly, much higher taxes and public school spending would solve this terrible problem.

      • Gene Callahan says:

        Bob, I never knew you as such an advocate of public education! I would have thought that many of the scholars in the old days would have learned most of their languages in private schools.

    • Lord Mises or Lord Rothbard? says:

      Learning languages is easy when all a person has to do is sit around and pretend to be smart.

      • Gene Callahan says:

        Are you claiming that Mises learned languages easily because he only pretended to be smart?!

    • Vaughn Kraft says:

      Dear Mr. Callahan,

      Thanks for supporting my friend. I loved your retort; “I know you are…” to the silly Marxist, “Beefcake the Mighty”. He probably spends his whole career trying to figure out who is speaking in the evil language of the bourgeoisie!!!

      Regards, Vaughn Kraft

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