Human Action 1

Chapter 1

Summary and Study Questions

What follows is a rough summary of Mises ideas in Chapter 1 (p. 11-29) of Human Action (1966). In this chapter, I believe that Mises intends to define "human action." In addition, he wants to deal with some of the issues that one might raise regarding his definition and regarding the methods of studying human action, so defined. I have arranged my summary according to different headings than those used by Mises. I also have skipped around some.


Human action, or purposeful behavior, "is in sharp contrast to unconscious behavior..."(11) Unconscious behavior is a datum, like other facts of the external world. The study of human action (praxeology) differs from psychology by the fact it is a science of means, not of ends.(12, 15)

Action always entails gain and sacrifice.("taking and renunciation", p. 12) Thus, there can be no action without opportunity cost.

To express a wish or a hope (12) and to smile may be actions. But they do not entail the use of labor and they should be distinguished from actions that do entail the application of labor.(12-13) As a rule (but not necessarily), action entails labor as a means.

We may say that action is a manifestation of man's will.(13)

Action has three prerequisites: (1) felt uneasiness, (2) an individual's image of a more satisfactory state, and (3) "the expectation that purposeful behavior has the power to remove or at least to alleviate the felt uneasiness."(14)


Mises says that a prerequisite for action is the "category of causality"(22) in the mind of the actor. In other words, if an individual was not cognizant of cause and effect, he could not act. Acting to Mises seems to imply a kind of human intervention in what otherwise would be "purely natural" (non-human) effects of causes. [The argument in this section (p. 22-23) is not altogether clear, or convincing, to me, the problem turning on Mises's use of the term "cause."]

As I understand Mises's definition of this term, causality refers to physical causation. It is studied by natural scientists. Teleology refers variously to the notion of a first cause or to the actor as a cause. These two references of teleology are compatible because when we posit a first cause, we presumably are attributing the "prime mover" with human characteristics.

My interpretation of Mises's meaning of causality comes from the third and fourth paragraphs on p. 25. Of significance is the following statement. "Change can be conceived as the outcome either of the operation of mechanistic causality or of purposeful behavior; for the human mind there is no third way available."(25)


Beings who are unfit for any action are, practically, not human.(14)

"What distinguishes man from beasts is precisely that he adjusts his behavior deliberatively."(17) Man is not a puppet of his appetites. When we interpret animal behavior, we think otherwise.(16)


"Human action is necessarily always rational."(19)

We say that praxeology is subjectivist because it "takes the ultimate ends chosen by acting man as data, it is neutral with regard to them, and it refrains from passing any value judgments on them."(21)

Praxeology is "objectivist" because it "is subjectivistic and takes the value judgments of acting man as ultimate data not open to any further critical examination..."(22)


It is possible that human beings will someday be able to trace thoughts, feelings, valuation, and purposeful action back to its physical cause(s). In the current state of knowledge, however, this is not possible. Thus, "reason and experience" force us "to face an insurmountable _methodological dualism._" There is the external world of physical, chemical, and physiological phenomena and the internal world of thought, feeling, valuation, and purposeful action." Thus, "[a]so -- as, at least under present conditions -- [human action] cannot be traced back to its causes, it must be considered as an ultimate given and must be studied as such."(18)

Primitive man and the infant adopt a naive anthropomorphic attitude that regards it as plausible that non-human objects can feel and act. At a later stage of evolution, man renounces this attitude. Man, as materalist and panphysicalist, turns to mechanicalism to solve all problems of thought and research. But he cannot use this method (or assumption) to solve the mind-body problem. The materialist and panphysicalist point to the success of their methods and research to vindicate their point of view. However, "the positivist must not overlook the fact that in addressing his fellow men he presupposes -- tacitly and implicitly -- the intersubjective validity of logic and thereby the reality of the realm of the alter Ego's thought and action, of his eminent human character."(24)

"For the comprehension of action there is but one scheme of interpretation and analysis available, namely, that provided by the cognition and analysis of our own purposeful behavior."(26)

Page 26 has a discussion of behaviorism and positivism. Mises claims that (in behaviorist psychology) every attempt to describe the stimuli (in the stimulus-response mechanism) "must refer to the _meaning_ which acting men attach to them."(26) Behaviorism is also discussed on the paragraph beginning at the bottom of p. 27.

Human beings create the word "instinct" to refer to the unexplained element of quasi-purposeful animal behavior that enables the organism to strengthen or preserve its vital forces. Later they may find that what they previously called instincts have a mechanistic explanation.(27)

We can distinguish between three forms of behavior: mechanistic behavior explainable by the methods of causal research; human action explainable by the methods of praxeology (and the assumption of teleology); and behavior that does not fit into these classes, which we label instinctive or quasi-action. Mises refers to the third of these by using the term "serviceable instincts."(27)


Mises ends the chapter with two considerations. First, praxeology and history do not "claim to reveal information about the true, objective, and absolute meaning of life and history." Second, praxeology is neutral with respect the philosophy that the sovereign good is the abandonment of thinking and acting (as in some types of Buddhism).(29)


I have not directly discusses Mises's thoughts on human action as the ultimate given (17-18).


1.What is Mises's methodological dualism and what objections can be raised against it?

2. Do animals possess the three prerequisites of action? What methods could be used to find out?

3. How does Mises use the terms "subjectivist" and "objectivist?" Is this use peculiar?

4. How does Mises use the terms "causality" and "teleology?" Is this use peculiar?

5. In what sense does the positivist presuppose thought and action, as defined by the praxeologist?

6. Is Mises correct in saying that when behaviorist psychologists describe a stimulus in the stimulus-response mechanism, they must refer to the _meaning_ of the stimulus to the actor?

7. What kind of behavior does the social biologist deal with?