Human Action 2

Chapter 2

Summary and Study Questions




What follows is a rough summary of Mises's ideas in Chapter 2, parts 1-7 (p. 30-51) of Human Action (1966). It may provide the basis for further discussion. At the end are some study questions.

The apparent aim of this chapter is to deal with a number of epistemological problems related to the notion that praxeology is a form of knowledge that has various uses. The chapter defines history and shows the relationship between it and praxeology; it tells what is meant by the aprioristic character of praxeology; it introduces methodological individualism and tells why it must be used in descriptions of collectives of actors; it distinguishes between the methods of praxeology and the methods of history (conception and understanding, respectively); it defines the ideal type; and it describes the procedure of economics.

I have decided to break the chapter into two parts only because it is 40 pages long and contains many ideas that members of this group might regard as novel and/or controversial.



Praxeology and History

In the first section, "Praxeology and History," Mises begins by saying that there are two main branches of the sciences of human action: praxeology and history. History is the "systematic arrangement of all the data of experience concerning human action."(30) Every field of human endeavor, including the academic subjects at universities, have a history. However, the "historical science" can tell us nothing that "would be valid for all human actions."(30)

Mises compares the natural sciences, which also study the past, with history. Whereas the former owe all their success to the experiment that enables isolation of "the individual elements of change," history (and praxeology) deal with "complex phenomena." Experiments are impossible and "every historical experience is open to various interpretations."(31) Mises concludes on this basis that the "postulates of positivism and kindred schools of metaphysics are therefore illusory."

A clue to the definition of "complex phenomena": various causal chains are _interlaced_ in the production of such phenomena.(31)

An interesting comparison: In explaining natural phenomena, the natural scientist is constrained by the fact that his interpretations "cannot be at variance with the theories [that have been] satisfactorily verified by experiments." The constraint in human history is due to the fact that the interpretations cannot be at variance with the statements and propositions of praxeology.(31-32)

Mises goes on to describe praxeology more fully by pointing out that its scope is human action as such (pure human action?) As opposed to the environmental, accidental, and individual circumstances of concrete acts. Historical acts cannot be grasped without it.(32)



The Formal and Aprioristic Character of Praxeology

The aim of this section seems to be to describe the notion of a priori as it is used in the praxeology and to deal with related ideas that might be used as a basis for objecting to apriorism.

He first discusses what he calls a "fashionable tendency in contemporary philosophy to deny the existence of any a priori knowledge." One objection is "Any assumptions are okay, so long as they lead to good predictions." (Friedman's naive positivism?) This is the view of empiricism and pragmatism. This is a correct characterization of natural science but not of logic, mathematics and praxeology. The philosophers, even Bergson, failed to perceive the true nature of economics.(32)

The problem of whether there are a priori elements of thought has nothing to do with how human beings came to develop the mental abilities associated with these elements, i.e., consciousness and reason.(33-34) Nor does it have to do with animals, with which we as beings "striving after unattainable perfect cognition" empathize.

Mises posits (assumes a priori) that there are fundamental logical relations of the human mind. This granted, every attempt to prove their existence presupposes their validity; their existence cannot be explained to a being (a non-actor) who does not possess them; without them, there can be no memory, which explains why people cannot remember early childhood; and in their daily behavior, everyone "again and again bears witness to the immutability and universality of the categories of thought and action."(34-35) Man "does not have the creative power to imagine categories at variance with the fundamental logical relations and with the principles of causality and teleology..." This "enjoins upon us what may be called methodological apriorism."(35)

Praxeology is human in a double sense. Its theorems have universal validity for all human action and praxeology is not interested in anything non-human.(36)

Mises spends a page and a half dealing with anthropological findings about the nature of primitive man, as presented by Levy-Bruhl.



The A Priori and Reality

A popular argument is that because aprioristic reasoning is "purely conceptual and deductive...it can add nothing to knowledge." However, "[t]he significant task of aprioristic reasoning is on the one hand to bring into relief all that is implied in the categories, concepts, and premises and, on the other hand, to show what they do not imply. It is its vocation to render manifest and obvious what was hidden and unknown before."(1966, p. 38) This is true of praxeology and geometry. It is also true of the quantity theory of money.""Nobody would deny the cognitive value of the quantity theory."(38)

Philosophers have approached the relation between reason and experience "only with reference to the natural sciences." As a result, they have failed to recognize that "[a]ction and reason are congeneric; they may even be called different aspects of the same thing."(39)

"The starting point of praxeology is not a choice of axioms and a decision about methods of procedure, but reflection about the essence of action."(39)

"If we had not in our mind the schemes provided by praxeological reasoning, we should never be in a position to discern and to grasp any action."(40)

"Experience concerning money requires familiarity with the praxeological category medium of exchange."(40)

"In asserting the a priori character of praxeology we are not drafting a plan for a future new science different from the traditional sciences of human action."

Whether [a particular interpretation of complex phenomena] is considered satisfactory or unsatisfactory depends on the appreciation of the theories in question established beforehand on the ground of aprioristic reasoning."(40, reference to E.P. Cheyney, 1927).



The Principle of Methodological Individualism

This section deals with the "vehement" attacks by various metaphysical schools on methodological individualism as an empty abstraction. Such writers argue that "[r]eal man is necessarily always a member of a social whole."(41)

One argument is that the whole is temporarily prior to its parts. This argument is in vain because the concepts are logical, not temporal.(42)

A second argument is that methodological individualists deny the real existence of such things as nations and political parties. This is an inappropriate argument because it is false. The methodological individualist aims to describe these collectives with the only satisfactory method available.(42) "There is no social collective conceivable which is not operative in the actions of some individuals."(42) This does not mean, of course, that "the individual is temporally antecedant."(43)

Pedantic talk about whether a collective is the sum of its elements or more is idle.(43)

Collectives are never visible, they can only be recognized through the method of historical understanding.(43)

"As a thinking and acting being man emerges from his prehuman existence already as a social being...But this process took place in individuals. It consisted of changes in the behavior of individuals."(43)

"Those who want to start the study of human action from the collective units encounter an unsurmountable obstacle..." Because the same individual can, and really does, belong to various collective entities, the "collectivists" must use methodological individualism to assign an individual to a particular collective.(43)

Mises (44) distinguishes between the use of _I_ and _we_ in speech and mentions the use of _we_ as a tool of persuasion as in: We must solve the world's pollution problem.



The Principle of Methodological Singularism

Mises does not define this term. However, he seems to regard it as the antithesis of "universalism, collectivism, and conceptual realism," which see only wholes and universals."(45) The difference between the two ideas is illustrated by the value-paradox of the classical economists.

"Every action has two aspects. It is on the one hand a partial action in the framework of a further-stretching action, the performance of a fraction of the aims set by a more far-reaching action. It is on the other hand itself a whole with regard to the actions aimed at by the performance of its own parts."(45) [Note: questions raised by this statement, it seems to me, are (1) what does Mises mean by the "properties of action"? and (2) what method should one use to elucidate those properties. Mises deals with the properties of action, beginning with chapter 4.



The Individual and the Changing Features of Action

"Only very few men have the gift of thinking new and original ideas and of changing the traditional body of creeds and doctrines." "Common man...is like a sheep in the herd...Yet the common man does choose...And he is ready to change his ideology and consequently his mode of action whenever he becomes convinced that this would better serve his own interests."(46)

Most of man's daily behavior is simple routine." "But...[a]s soon as he discovers that the pursuit of the habitual way may hinder the attainment of ends considered as more desirable, he changes his attitude."(46-47)



The Scope and the Specific Method of History

This section presents deals with three issues. First, it points out that to do history, one must possess the "knowledge provided by logic, mathematics, the natural sciences, and especially by praxeology."(49) Second, it deals with the issue of bias in the study of history. Third it describes the method of history -- verstehen, or "the understanding." An integrating statement is perhaps that although the study of history requires the four kinds of knowledge described above, the contribution of the historian, as praxeologist, is the proper and unbiased application of "the understanding."

Mises first points out that an exact duplication of history is not humanly possible because of complexity. As a result, the historian must make a decision regarding relevance. Which facts does he regard as relevant to the historical events he aims to understand? In making decisions like this, it is very difficult to be value-free. It is easy to be value free in praxeology (and, by implication, economic theory) but in history (and, by implication, economic history) it is "more difficult.(48) The reason is that the "specific task of history...is the study of...value judgments and the effects of the actions as far as they cannot be analyzed by the teachings of all the other branches of knowledge." What remains after the other knowledge has done is work is, says Mises, "an ultimate datum."(49) [Note, I believe that this is an important definition of the term "datum." Mises uses the term "datum" and its plural "data" throughout _Human Action_. But I think that this is the only place that he defines it so clearly.]

What is "the understanding"?

"The understanding establishes the fact that an individual or a group of individuals have engaged in a definite action emanating from definite value judgments and choices and aiming at definite ends, and that they have applied for the attainment of these ends definite means suggested by definite technological, therapeutical, and praxeological doctrines. It furthermore tries to appreciate the effects and the intensity of the effects brought about by an action; it tries to assign to every action its relevance, i.e., its bearing upon the course of events."(50)

[I have always expressed "the understanding" as putting myself in other peoples' shoes. But I have no direct reason to believe that this simplified way of saying it captures Mises's full meaning. On the other hand, I do not know what is missing by my expression.]

The understanding should not be confused with empathy.(50)



Thought Questions


1. Mises says that there are two branches of the sciences of human action: praxeology and history. But he also says that economics is a branch of praxeology. Where does economics fit into this scheme?

2. Is praxeology the "science" of human action? If so, how does Mises define "science?"

3. If economics is a branch of praxeology, is praxeology the same as what most academics call "social science?"

4. Compare history with natural science, given that both are concerned with the past.

5. Why is naive positivism (empiricism and pragmatism) right for natural science but not for praxeology? In your answer discuss the similarities between praxeology, logic, and mathematics.

6. Discuss the following Mises statement: "Nobody would deny the cognitive value of the quantity theory."(38)

7. True or false: Praxeology starts by choosing its axioms.

8. What does Mises mean when he says that the medium of exchange is a praxeological category?(p. 40)

9. Is praxeology a new science?

10. Methodological individualism should be rejected because the an individual does not become conscious of himself as a separate being until after social groups have formed and unless he is a member of a social group.

11. Use the value paradox to distinguish between methodological singularism and collectivism.

12. "The aim of the historian is to reconstruct history exactly as it happened. Therefore, the most important information he needs is the quantifiable facts."

13. Tell the difference between the ability to do value free praxeology, as opposed to value free history.

14. Define datum, or ultimate datum.

15. What is "the understanding" and why is it important.