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Some Fundamentals of Human Action and Praxeology

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Adam Knott Posted: Mon, Feb 11 2013 2:19 PM

Some fundamentals of human action and praxeology.   Please note that the subject is human action in general (all forms of human action) and general or universal praxeology (not limited to the branch of praxeology that studies market phenomena).



Classes of Action

According to Ludwig von Mises, human action is conscious behavior on the part of a human being.[1] We can divide the general phenomenon of action into three broad and recognizable classes: physical actions, mental actions, and interpersonal actions.  Physical actions are those actions in which an actor interacts with physical nature, including his own body.  When I lift an object or lift my arm, these are examples of physical actions.  Mental actions are mental activities such as thinking, contemplating, imagining, deliberating, reasoning, hoping, and wishing.[2] Finally, interpersonal actions are those actions in which I address the mind of another person or actor.  Having a conversation with someone is an interpersonal action.  Trying to figure out what someone else is thinking is also an interpersonal action.  The essential characteristic of an interpersonal action is that another person’s mind is the object of my conscious activity.

Routine or Spontaneous Action

An action need not entail a process of conscious deliberation.  We do many things without deliberately weighing the doing of them against other possible courses of action.[3] I may gaze out the window.  Deliberation about the relative merits of doing so need not be a part of my action.  In fact, we may conceive both conscious deliberation and the weighing of possible courses of action as examples of mental actions.  In previous theories, action has been conceived as bodily movement resulting from previous or cotemporaneous deliberation.[4] By contrast, we will conceive deliberation as a mental action and bodily movement as a physical action.  Here, the action is conceived according to the intention or purpose the actor is acting with, not necessarily according to the actor’s observed physical movement.[5]

When action is associated with physical or bodily exertion, this results in a normative instead of a formal conception of action.

He who only wishes and hopes does not interfere actively with the course of events and with the shaping of his own destiny.  But acting man chooses, determines, and tries to reach an end.[6]

Here it is implied that one who only wishes or hopes does not act because he does not “actively interfere” with the course of events.  A normative standard for action has been introduced.  The actor did something—he performed a conscious activity—but the activity does not meet the normative standard of “active interference” and thus is not an action.  In this approach one makes an implicit judgment about the efficacy of the means employed (physical agitation toward X is more likely to bring about X than merely wishing for X) and classifies those activities employing means deemed efficacious actions, and those activities employing means deemed nonefficacious nonactions.  This way of looking at things results in a conception of “intermittent action” or “sporadic action” in which the total duration of the actor’s conscious awareness alternates between periods of action and periods of nonaction.  That time during which an actor merely wishes for something or merely contemplates doing something is a temporal duration of conscious awareness during which he does not act.  That time during which an actor performs physical movement according to a predetermined goal is a temporal duration of conscious awareness during which he acts. 

In contrast, we will conceive those periods of conscious awareness during which an actor is not engaged in physical action as periods of conscious awareness during which an actor is engaged in other types of action, primarily mental actions or interpersonal actions.  One who wishes, or hopes, or contemplates a future action acts; he performs the action of wishing, of hoping, and of contemplating.[7]  One who wishes for rain acts just as much as one who performs a rain dance or one who climbs in a plane and seeds the clouds with silver iodide.  In analyzing action formally, it is not important what means an actor employs, only that he employs them.[8]

Our conception then is not one of intermittent or sporadic action, but one of continuous action.  Action in this conception becomes identical to conscious awareness.  Here we conceive that consciousness is intentional in nature.  The goals or ends of action result from the intentional structure of consciousness and are inseparable from conscious awareness.  We do not conceive that ends are produced by a process of deliberation and absent when deliberation is absent.  We conceive instead that ends, goals, intentions, and purposes, indicate of a category of consciousness—a permanent structural feature of conscious awareness. 

Observation as an Action

The recognition that observation is an action has far-reaching consequences for the theory of action.[9]  If we conceive observation as an action, then we may interpret those things deemed objective by natural science and objective social science as parts of actions.  Rather than conceiving the observed thing as having an objective existence, we may conceive the observed thing as the content of an action.  Instead of the conception “X exists,” we conceive “I observe X” or “I imagine X” or “I assert X.”  The object or situation, formerly considered an objective one, is now seen as the content of an action.  Instead of the conception “London exists,” we conceive “I see London” or “I visit London” or “I think of London.”[10]

Acts of Judgment and Appraisal

In a formal analysis of action, actions cannot be judged as right or wrong, correct or incorrect.[11] The reason is simple once we replace the concept of physical and intermittent action with the concept of continuous action comprised of several classes including mental actions.  In the former conception, in the period between actions, actions may be appraised or judged by an independent mental activity which itself is not considered an action.  However, once a category of mental actions is acknowledged, we then conceive the activities of judging or appraising as actions.  These actions, as actions, are no different from all other actions in their essential means/ends structure.  In the formal analysis of action, our task is not to judge concrete actions by an adopted standard of efficacy or by an adopted standard of ethical goodness.  Our task is to discover the universal attributes of all forms of action.[12]

Theoretical Implications of Mental and Interpersonal Actions

Those activities we conceive as mental actions—reasoning, deliberating, thinking, etc.—correspond roughly to what has hitherto been the domain of descriptive psychology (in contrast to psychology as a branch of natural science).[13] The “inner mental events” or “inner mental states” which were the subject matter of psychology, we now treat as mental actions and as the subject matter of praxeology.  Similarly, those activities we conceive as interpersonal actions—for example, lying to someone, commanding someone, coercing someone, helping someone, etc.—correspond roughly to what has hitherto been the domain of ethics and politics.  The conduct which the individual aims at other people, and which was the subject matter of ethics and politics, we now treat as interpersonal actions and also as the subject matter of praxeology.

Thus, as the theory of action expands to include forms of action which have not been the subject matter of traditional economics,[14] it provides an analytical framework for understanding phenomena that were previously the exclusive domain of other disciplines.  As opposed to a conception wherein the theory of action treats market phenomena; the discipline of ethics treats interpersonal conduct; and descriptive psychology treats mental activities, we conceive instead that the theory of action treats mental actions, interpersonal actions, as well as those actions conducted on the basis of monetary calculation.[15] In this sense the distinction between psychology and praxeology noted by Mises becomes unnecessary.

The theme of psychology is the internal events that result or can result in a definite action.  The theme of praxeology is action as such…Whether an action stems from clear deliberation, or from forgotten memories and suppressed desires which from submerged regions, as it were, direct the will, does not influence the nature of the action.[16]

However, if the internal events referred to are conscious activities executed with a goal in mind—deliberating about alternatives, reasoning toward an answer, weighing pros and cons, considering or studying a situation, reflecting on possible consequences, speculating about possibilities, etc.—then we may conceive these events as actions, and the theme of praxeology includes these internal events. 

Theory of Action: General Characteristics

The theory of action is a logical or conceptual construct that is derived from the assumption of the phenomenon of action.[17] The theory is independent of assertions implying the existence of action in a given location in nature, and independent of assertions claiming that action is a biological fact.  The Proposition “man acts” expresses that action is a characteristic of certain animals and may therefore be located in nature where those animals are located.  The proposition “he acts” expresses that I have located action at a specific place in extended nature.  My assertion that action somehow exists as part of the animals I observe in nature is independent of my attempt to build a formal or conceptual construct of the essence of my actions, one of which is observing objects in nature.  If I undertake to study the objects of my action, this is a different undertaking than one in which I study only the categories of my action where a category of objects is one of the categories.  I need not study the objects of my action guided by the assumption that action exists in or among these observed or perceived objects.  I may instead study the perception or observation of objects as a category of my own consciousness.[18]

The theory of action is a theory of the essential structure of action—those aspects or attributes common to all actions—and not an analysis of social events in terms of a sequence of several actions.[19] The goal of the theory is to express the experienced or intuited regularities of action (of consciousness) in terms of exact laws.[20] An exact law is a statement of a relationship between two nonidentical phenomena, A and B, such that when A happens or occurs, B must also happen or occur, either simultaneously with A or following A.[21] The goal is not to demonstrate that A is identical to A, but rather to demonstrate the sense in which A is identical to B.[22] As an illustrative example we may consider the action of walking toward a location.  In walking toward a location (phenomenon A), I necessarily walk away from a different location (phenomenon B).  Walking away from a different location (B) is “implied” or “entailed” in the action (A) of walking toward a location.  Whenever I walk toward a location (action A), walking away from a different location (B) “happens” or “occurs.”  This illustrative example will serve as our initial conception of the nature of exact laws.


EP = Epistemological Problems of Economics, Mises, 1976
EPV = The Economic Point of View, Kirzner, 1976
ESA = Economic Science and the Austrian Method, Hoppe, 1995
FM = The Free Market and its Enemies, Mises, 2004
HA = Human Action, Mises, 1966
I = Investigations Into the Method of the Social Sciences, Menger, 1985
IEO = Individualism and Economic Order, Hayek, 1948
LR = An Essay on the Nature & Significance of Economic Science, Robbins, 1945
MBS = Minds, Brains and Science, Searle, 2003
MES = Man, Economy, and State, Rothbard, 1993
MM = Money, Method, and the Market Process, Mises, 1990
MOP = A Man of Principle, Essays in Honor of Hans F. Sennholz, 1992
POAE = “The Philosophical Origins of Austrian Economics,” Gordon, 1996
PP = Physics and Philosophy, Heisenberg, 1958
PSW = The Phenomenology of the Social World, Schutz, 1967
UF = The Ultimate Foundation of Economic Science, Mises, 2002


[1] EP-23 “Human action is conscious behavior on the part of a human being.”


[2] HA-99 “Thinking itself [is] an action, proceeding step by step from the less satisfactory state of insufficient cognition to the more satisfactory state of better insight.” POAE-5 “Thinking is an action, a mental “doing,” as it were.


[3] HA-46, 47 “Most of man’s daily behavior is simple routine.  He performs certain acts without paying special attention to them.” “The fact that an action is in the regular course of affairs performed spontaneously, as it were, does not mean that it is not due to a conscious volition and to deliberate choice.  Indulgence in a routine which possibly could be changed is action.”


[4] ESA-70 “Acting is a cognitively guided adjustment of a physical body in physical reality.”


[5] MBS-59, 66, 67 “There is more to types of action than types of physical movements, actions have preferred descriptions, people know what they are doing without observation,…” “What the person is really doing, or at least what he is trying to do, is entirely a matter of what the intention is that he is acting with.  For example, I know that I am trying to get to Hyde Park and not trying to get closer to Patagonia, because that’s the intention with which I am going for a walk.  And I know this without observation because the knowledge in question is not knowledge of my external behavior, but of my inner mental states.” “The explanation of an action must have the same content as was in the person’s head when he performed the action or when he reasoned toward his intention to perform the action.”


[6] HA-12


[7] HA-12 “To express wishes and hopes and to announce planned action may be forms of action in so far as they aim in themselves at the realization of a certain purpose.  But they must not be confused with the actions to which they refer.”


[8] MM-21 “Not what a man chooses, but that he chooses counts for praxeology.”


[9] PSW-32 “For it is obvious that an action has only one subjective meaning: that of the actor himself.  It is X who gives subjective meaning to his action, and the only subjective meaning begin given by F and S in this situation are the subjective meanings they are giving to their own actions, namely, their actions of observing X.”  And thus, what for natural science and objective social science is an objective situation, i.e., the notion “that person exists,” is for praxeology the subjective situation “I observe that person.”  And thus the objective situation can always be translated to the subjective situation, and vice versa, by substituting “I observe X” for “X exists.”


[10] This answers Heisenberg’s assertion. PP-55 “We know that the city of London exists whether we see it or not.”


[11] EP-80 “The most common misunderstanding consists in seeing in the economic principle a statement about the material and the content of action.  One reaches into psychology, constructs the concept of want, and then searches for the bridge between the want, the presentation of a feeling of uneasiness, and the concrete decision in action.  Thus the want becomes a judge over action: it is thought that the correct action, the one corresponding to the want, can be contrasted to the incorrect action.  However , we can never identify the want otherwise than in the action.  The action is always in accord with the want because we can infer the want only from the action.  Whatever anyone says about his own wants is always only discussion and criticism of past and future behavior; the want first becomes manifest in action and only in action. EP-149 “It was forgotten that we are able to infer the need only from the action.  Hence, the idea of an action not in conformity with needs is absurd.  As soon as one attempts to distinguish between the need and the action and makes the need the criterion for judging the action, one leaves the domain of theoretical science, with its neutrality in regard to value judgments.  It is necessary to recall here that we are dealing with the theory of action, not with psychology, and certainly not with a system of norms, which has the task of differentiating between good and evil or between value and worthlessness.  Our data are actions and conduct.  It may be left undecided how far and in what way our science needs to concern itself with what lies behind them, that is, with actual valuations and volitions.  For there can be no doubt that its subject matter is given action and only given action.  Action that ought to be, but is not, does not come within its purview. HA-102 “People have often failed to recognize the meaning of the term “scale of value” and have disregarded the obstacles preventing the assumption of synchronism in the various actions of an individual.  They have interpreted man’s various acts as the outcome of a scale of value, independent of these acts and preceding them, and of a previously devised plan whose realization they aim at.  The scale of value and the plan to which duration and immutability for a certain period of time were attributed, were hypostatized into the cause and motive of the various individual actions.  Synchronism which could not be asserted with regard to the various acts was then easily discovered in the scale of value and in the plan.  But this overlooks the fact that the scale of value is nothing but a constructed tool of thought.  The scale of value manifests itself only in real acting.  It is therefore impermissible to contrast it with real acting and to use it as a yardstick for the appraisal of real actions.  It is no less impermissible to differentiate between rational and allegedly irrational acting on the basis of a comparison of real acting with earlier drafts and plans for future actions.  It may be very interesting that yesterday goals were set for today’s acting other than those really aimed at today.  But yesterday’s plans do not provide us with any more objective and nonarbitrary standard for the appraisal of today’s real acting than any other ideas and norms. TG-315 “But both the moral and the immoral are economic actions; which means that the economic action, taken by itself, is neither moral nor immoral.” “The economic fact is the practical activity of man, in so far as it is considered as such, independent of any moral or immoral determination…”


[12] HA-44 “[praxeology] does not concern itself with the accidental and environmental features of this action and with what distinguishes it from all other actions, but only with what is necessary and universal in its performance.” MES-258 “praxeology proper [is] the complete formal analysis of human action in all its aspects.”


[13] HA-v “…in the last decades  the meaning of the term “psychology” has been more and more restricted to the field of experimental psychology, a discipline that resorts to the research methods of the natural sciences.  On the other hand, it has become usual to dismiss those studies that previously had been called psychological as “literary psychology” and as an unscientific way of reasoning.  Whenever reference is made to “psychology” in economic studies, one has in mind precisely this literary psychology…”


[14] EPV-181-183 “To be sure, the praxeological perspective embraces a range of human action far wider than that usually treated in economic theory.  All human actions, motivated though they may be by the entire range of the purposes that have inspired and fired men to act, come within the sway of the ideal praxeological discipline.” “Economic theory has traditionally dealt with the phenomena of the market, prices, production, and monetary calculation.  In these spheres of human activity, theorists have developed constructions that help to explain the regularities these phenomena evince and to bring into clear focus the tendencies for change in these phenomena consequent upon given autonomous changes in the data.”  “The subject matter of economics came to be connected with the material things that are the objects of traffic in the market; it came to be linked peculiarly with the use of money in market transactions or with the specific social relationships that characterize the market system.  Where writers came closest to the recognition that these criteria were only accidental characteristics of the affairs upon which economic analysis could be brought to bear, where they were able to glimpse the congenerousness of the specifically economic type of analysis with the underlying actions of men, they were unable to follow this clue to the conclusion to which it pointed.  Precisely because those features in action that made it susceptible of economic analysis seemed common to all human activities, these writers were driven back to look for some other defining characteristic.  And this meant again the search for some arbitrary quality to justify selecting the particular slice of pie that made up economic theory; but it meant in addition the relegation yet further into the background of the true recipe of that larger pie from which their conception of economics was being arbitrarily hacked.” 


[15] HA-234 “Economics is mainly concerned with the analysis of the determination of money prices of goods and services exchanged on the market.” “…the field of catallactics or of economics in the narrower sense is the analysis of the market phenomena.  This is tantamount to the statement: Catallactics is the analysis of those actions which are conducted on the basis of monetary calculation.”


[16] HA-12


[17] FM-16 “In an a prioristic science, we start with a general supposition—action is taken to substitute one state of affairs for another.”


[18] HA-64 “The scope of praxeology is the explication of the category of human action.  All that is needed for the deduction of all praxeological theorems is knowledge of the essence of human action.” “The only way to a cognition of these theorems is logical analysis of our inherent knowledge of the category of action.  We must bethink ourselves and reflect upon the structure of human action.  Like logic and mathematics, praxeological knowledge is in us; it does not come from without.”  HA-67 “…the starting point of all praxeological reasoning [is] the category of human action…From the unshakable foundation of the category of human action praxeology and economics proceed step by step by means of discursive reasoning.”  HA-68 “Praxeology—and consequently economics too—is a deductive system.  It draws its strength from the starting point of its deductions, from the category of action.”


[19] HA-47 “Praxeology is not concerned with the changing content of acting, but with its pure form and its categorical structure.”


[20] I-59 “The aim of this orientation, which in the future we will call the exact one, an aim which research pursues in the same way in all realms of the world of phenomena, is the determination of strict laws of phenomena, of regularities in the succession of phenomena which do not present themselves to us as absolute, but which in respect to the approaches to cognition by which we attain to them simply bear within themselves the guarantee of absoluteness.  It is the determination of laws of phenomena which commonly are called “laws of nature,” but more correctly should be designated by the expression “exact laws.” MOP-241 “Mises suggested that I explore the changing views about individual behavior which economists had, since the time of Adam Smith, adopted in order for them to grasp the possibility of a science of economics.  Given the apparent unpredictability of individual behavior it is intuitively difficult to account for the economic regularities which seem to occur.  It was necessary to somehow “understand” individual behavior in a way consistent with the possibility of “scientific laws.” EP-68 “…a theoretical science of human action, i.e., a science that aims at the ascertainment of universally valid laws of human action.”


[21] Regarding exact laws and their utility, Menger writes: I-55/56 “The purpose of the theoretical sciences is understanding of the real world, knowledge of it extending beyond immediate experience, and control of it.  We understand phenomena by means of theories as we become aware of them in each concrete case merely as exemplifications of a general regularity.  We attain a knowledge of phenomena extending beyond immediate experience by drawing conclusions, in the concrete case, from certain observed facts (A) about other facts (B) not immediately perceived.  We do this on the basis of the laws of coexistence and of the succession of phenomena.  We control the real world in that, on the basis of our theoretical knowledge, we set the conditions of a phenomenon (A) which are within our control, and are able in such a way to produce the phenomenon (B) itself.” (A’s and B’s added for clarification) Following Menger, Mises writes: UF-20 “The starting point of experimental knowledge is the cognition that an A is uniformly followed by a B.  The utilization of this knowledge either for the production of B or for the avoidance of the emergence of B is called action.  The primary objective of action is either to bring about B or to prevent its emergence.”


[22] LR-122 “Economic laws describe inevitable implications.  If they data they postulate (A) are given, then the consequences they predict (B) necessarily follow.”  “The analytic method is simply a way of discovering the necessary consequences (B) of complex collocations of facts (A)—consequences whose counterpart in reality is not so immediately discernible as the counterpart of the original postulates.” (A’s and B’s added for clarity)  IEO-34/35 Hayek conceives exact laws as tautological transformations and refers to praxeology (or the Pure Logic of Choice) as “…the system of tautologies—those series of propositions which are necessarily true because they are merely transformations of the assumptions from which we start…”  For example, if we consider the mathematical proposition 24 = 12 x 2, we may consider this a tautological transformation (an exact law), where the assumption from which we start is A (i.e., 24), and by tautological transformation (by analysis) we demonstrate the sense in which B (i.e., 12 x 2) is entailed or implied in our original assumption A.


"It would be preposterous to assert apodictically that science will never succeed in developing a praxeological aprioristic doctrine of political organization..." (Mises, UF, p.98)

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Adam Knott replied on Mon, Feb 25 2013 12:34 PM

One of the very few people currently interested in extending Mises's system beyond market phenomena is Konrad Graf.   In a recent post, Graf asks:

What if praxeology (deductive action theory in the tradition of Ludwig von Mises) is conceived as something much larger than merely the backstop for Austrian economics or a sort of pre-Austrian-economics warm-up act? In that case, economics ought to be better defined as one branch of praxeology among others. Since Mises kept mentioning economics as the “thus-far best-elaborated part” of praxeology, shouldn’t more thinkers be taking this up and working on advancing other such parts?

In this conception, economics is considered the study of market phenomena, as Graf writes:

...economics as that part of praxeology that deals with action that uses economic calculation. On this basis, I might suggest for economics: the study of aspects of action as they arise uniquely only within the context of an exchange economy in that the latter enables economic calculation.

This is exactly what Mises conceived and suggested, as we know from Human Action.  It's not clear why Graf doesn't directly attribute this insight to Mises.

Economics is mainly concerned with the analysis of the determination of money prices of goods and services exchanged on the market....Not logical or epistemological rigor, but considerations of expediency and traditional convention make us declare that the field of catallactics or of economics in the narrower sense is the analysis of the market phenomena.  This is tantamount to the statement: Catallactics is the analysis of those actions which are conducted on the basis of monetary calculation. (HA, 3rd rev. p. 234)

Mises conceived that what distinguised praxeology from other scientific disciplines was the phenomenon of action: the actor's attempt to substitute a more satisfactory state of affairs for a less satisfactory state of affairs.  The actions that we perform in buying and in selling, in setting prices and interest rates, and in granting and obtaining loans, are only a sub-set of actions that we perform.  There are other kinds and classes of action aside from market-related actions, some of which are described in the post above.  Graf has taken this insight of Mises and has begun to bring it to our attention.

My most recent thinking on the general issue is that praxeology is a tool that we can use as one element in the study of just about anything involving human action. The parts or branches should then simply be defined by the sets of subject matter that we are using praxeology to investigate.

So we’re out here investigating what praxeology/thymology can show us if we apply it to issues x, y, and z, extending to all the things in the social sciences that we are interested in understanding better. This could become useful in the entirety of the social sciences—as opposed to the natural sciences—which I think is more what Mises had in mind with praxeology/thymology vis-à-vis natural science methods.

In other words, there ought to be plenty of work to do to carry forward the actual “program” that Mises launched, which was much larger than economics. It was a call for a revolution out of historicism (see especially Theory and History) and positivism (see especially The Ultimate Foundation of Economic Science) in the social sciences as such and was by no means limited to economics. Economics was Mises’s own primary specialization within praxeology; it doesn’t have to be everybody else’s.

Thus Graf understands Mises's conception that econmics is that branch of the science of human action that deals with market phenomena, while other branches of the science of human action deal with other kinds of actions such as physical actions, mental actions, and interpersonal actions.

Graf wrote a paper in 2011in which he touched on some of these issues:    I wrote a response to Graf's paper which can be found here:

The two primary problems with Graf's conception as he describes it are:

1.  Graf is/was attempting to conceive praxeology as normative in character, in which case his proposed conception of praxeology has nothing to do with extending Mises's system.   As Mises writes:

It is necessary to recall here that we are dealing with the theory of action, not with psychology, and certainly not with a system of norms.

(Epistemological Problems of Economics, 1976, p. 149)

As I wrote in my response, in Graf's opening discussion about praxeology, he refers to the terms "norm" or "normative" fifty times, and does not refer to the terms "law," "economic law," "exact law," or "praxeological law," a single time.  Thus, Graf is or was obviously trying to enlist praxeology in support of a normative program.  This quest flows from Hoppe's social theory which is an attempt to demonstrate a quasi-scientific "justification" for Rothbardian ethical and legal norms.  As Hoppe explained when he introduced his argumentation ethics:

But given that truth claims are raised and decided upon in argumentation and that argumentation, aside from whatever is said in its course, is a practical affair, it follows that intersubjectively valid norms must exist....

Hence, one reaches the conclusion that norms must indeed be assumed to be justifiable as valid.

(A Theory of Socialism and Capitalism, 1989, p. 130)

Thus, Graf's goal, working within the confines of Rothbardian ideology, and following Hoppe, was to try to lend the support of Mises's praxeology to Rothbardian legal or ethical norms as those are described in Rothbard's The Ethics of Liberty, or as those norms have been modified by Rothbard's followers.  This program which seeks to distinguish between just and unjust conduct has nothing to do with praxeology in the Misesian sense, and Mises was clear to note the distinction in the opening pages of Human Action:

The discovery of the inescapable interdependence of market phenomena overthrew this opinion. Bewildered, people had to face a new view of society. They learned with stupefaction that there is another aspect from which human action might be viewed than that of good and bad, of fair and unfair, of just and unjust. In the course of social events there prevails a regularity of phenomena to which man must adjust his actions if he wishes to succeed. It is futile to approach social facts with the attitude of a censor who approves or disapproves from the point of view of quite arbitrary standards and subjective judgments of value. One must study the laws of human action and social cooperation as the physicist studies the laws of nature. Human action and social cooperation seen as the object of a science of given relations, no longer as a normative discipline of things that ought to be--this was a revolution of tremendous consequences for knowledge and philosophy as well as for social action.

The object of praxeological study is the aspect of regularity in social phenomena, not a theory of justice or a theory of norms.  Specifically, praxeology is concerned with exact laws of human action.  This was not Mises's invention.  The praxeological vision comes from the founder of Austrian Economics:

The aim of this orientation, which in the future we will call the exact one, an aim which research pursues in the same way in all realms of the world of phenomena, is the determination of strict laws of phenomena, of regularities in the succession of phenomena which do not present themselves to us as absolute, but which in respect to the approaches to cognition by which we attain to them simply bear within themselves the guarantee of absoluteness.  It is the determination of laws of phenomena which commonly are called "laws of nature," but more correctly should be designated by the expression "exact laws."

(Menger, Investigations Into the Method of the Social Sciences, 1985, p. 59)

2.  Graf sought to lend praxeological support to the Rothbardian and Hoppean normative program by implying an objective rather than a subjective conception of social interaction.  As Graf wrote:

Similarly, since interaction must involve two or more actors, it is natural to look to an action-based consideration of two people to locate the most fundamental, universal, and general features that all interaction must include. (p.14)

Is it true that in praxeological analysis, two people are required for social interaction?    First, let's recall that praxeological analysis does not take place from the point of view of an observer, but rather from the point of view of the actor whose action we are discussing.  Even Rothbard understood this to some extent at some point in his career: is very important to recognize that what is significant for human action is not the physical properties of a good, but the evaluation of the good by the actor. (MES, p. 19)

In other words, in praxeological analysis, we are not concerned with what the object of the actor's action "is" in an objective sense (i.e., as it is seen from the point of view of an observer).  Instead, we are concerned with what the object is to the actor concerned as he performs the action in question.

As Kirzner explained while studying under Mises:

This [praxeological] point of view makes possible the construction of chains of reasoning that are purely formal, in the sense that they refer to goods, services or factors of production only abstractly; they depend for their validity not on the specific objects with which human action may be concretely concerned, but only on postulated attitudes of men towards them. (The Economic Point of View, 1976, p. 179)

Hayek, while studying with Mises, reached the same conclusions:

It is important to remember that the so-called “data,” from which we set out in this sort of analysis, are…all facts given to the person in question, the things as they are known to (or believed by) him to exist, and not, strictly speaking, objective facts.  It is only because of this that the propositions we deduce are necessarily a priori valid and that we preserve the consistency of the argument. ("Economics and Knowledge")

...whenever we interpret human action as in any sense purposive or meaningful, whether we do so in ordinary life or for the purposes of the social sciences, we have to define both the objects of human activity and the different kinds of actions themselves, not in physical terms but in terms of the opinions or intentions of the acting persons....("The Facts of the Social Sciences")

If we wish, we could say that all these [social] objects are defined not in terms of their "real" properties but in terms of opinions people hold about them.  In short, in the social sciences the things are what people think they are.("The Facts of the Social Sciences")

These insights concerning the subjective nature of human action are not exclusive to Mises and Austrian theorists.  In his classic book Minds, Brains and Science (1984) John Searle arrived at similar insights:

If I am going for a walk to Hyde Park, there are any number of things that are happening in the course of my walk, but their descriptions do not describe my intentional actions, because in acting, what I am doing depends in large part on what I think I am doing. (p.58)

Now we can see that the preferred description of an action is determined by the intention in action.  What the person is really doing, or at least what he is trying to do, is entirely a matter of what the intention is that he is acting with. (p.66)

The explanation of an action must have the same content as was in the person’s head when he performed the action or when he reasoned toward his intention to perform his action. (p.67)

For a large number of social and psychological phenomena the concept that names the phenomenon is itself a constituent of the phenomenon.  In order for something to count as a marriage ceremony or a trade union, or property or money or even a war or revolution people involved in these activities have to have certain appropriate thoughts.  In general they have to think that’s what it is.  So, for example, in order to get married or buy property you and other people have to think that that is what you are doing. (p.78)

“Money” refers to whatever people use and think of as money.  “Promise” refers to whatever people intend as and regard as promises.  I am not saying that in order to have the institution of money people have to have that very word or some exact synonym in their vocabulary.  Rather, they must have certain thoughts and attitudes about something in order that it counts as money and these thoughts and attitudes are part of the very definition of money. (p.78)

As all these passages indicate, the object of praxeological analysis is a subjective fact not an objective fact.  The "situation" we treat in this kind of analysis is not the "objective situation" (i.e., the situation as it appears from the point of view of an observer) but rather the "subjective" situation (the situation as it appears to the actor himself).  Here is the important distinction as described by Alfred Schutz in his book The Phenomenology of the Social World:

For it is obvious that an action has only one subjective meaning: that of the actor himself.  It is X who gives subjective meaning to his action, and the only subjective meaning being given by O and P in this situation are the subjective meanings they are giving to their own actions, namely, their actions of observing X. (p.32)

Thus, in praxeological analysis, we are not concerned with the "real" or "objective" situation (the situation as described from an observer's point of view), but only with the "subjective" situation (the situation as understood by the actor at the time of his action).

For example, if in a park, I am talking to a person who has painted himself bronze in order to look like a statue, this is social interaction for me (social interaction in the subjective sense).   It makes no difference that a person who observes me believes that I am objectively mistaken, and that the object of my action is really a statue and not a person.

It follows therefore, that social interaction in the subjective sense does not require two people in the objective sense.  It only requires that the actor believes the object of his action has a mind.  When another mind is the object of my action, that is social interaction for me, regardless the physical proximity to me of other human beings.  In other words, the essential characteristic of social interaction in the praxeological sense is not the presence of another body, but rather the presence, to the subject concerned, of another mind.   In short, subjective social interaction does not require the objective presence of another body.

Graf's discussion of praxeology in normative terms, and his implying that a praxeological analysis of social interaction requires two people in the objective sense were the primary shortcomings of his paper.  These shortcomings are directly attributable to his having taken up the Rothbardian quest to provide a quasi-scientific justification for specific ethical and legal norms.  Of course, Mises dismissed the notion of a scientific discipline of norms.

It must be emphasized again: there is no such thing as a scientific ought. (Socialism, 1951, p. 581)

There is no such thing as a normative science, a science of what ought to be. (Theory and History, 1985, p. 55)

Graf is on to something in realizing the full potential of Mises's praxeological vision.  But in his investigations he is severely handicapped when he tries to glimpse or extend Mises's vision while staying entirely within the ideological confines of Rolthbard and his followers.  There is no bridge that leads from Mises's formal praxeology to Rothbard's or Hoppe's normative theorizing.


"It would be preposterous to assert apodictically that science will never succeed in developing a praxeological aprioristic doctrine of political organization..." (Mises, UF, p.98)

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Raoul replied on Mon, Feb 25 2013 4:03 PM

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Not a native speaker - you may correct my spelling errors.
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