Shayne Wissler
“… to understand is, above all, to unify.” – Albert Camus

Is Misesean praxeology nonsense?

November 13 2013

In this post I will focus on praxeology as seen through its chief defender, Ludwig von Mises.

Even if you have never heard about praxeology, you should care about it, for the simple reason that it has been strongly associated with the ideas of liberty, via Austrian economics and Ron Paul. If praxeology is a good thing, then we should applaud it, but if it is nonsense, then endorsing it sullies our credibility and brings into question just how susceptible we are to scam artists and pseudoscience.

Mises anoints praxeology as the science of “human action”. The idea of studying “human action” as such seems plausible enough, but what he means by “action” one can immediately see as being peculiar:

Praxeology rests on the fundamental axiom that individual human beings act [Mises claims that only human beings act], that is, on the primordial fact that individuals engage in conscious actions toward chosen goals. This concept of action contrasts to purely reflexive, or knee-jerk, behavior, which is not directed toward goals.

— Murray Rothbard

In other words, by “human action”, Austrians do not mean the physical action of human beings; i.e., even though they use the phrase “human action”, they do not mean human action in the commonsense conception of it. Mises also excludes a wide range of purposeful behavior from his definition, by stating that only human beings act[1]. A lion stalking its prey would not be considered to be “action”, it is not considered by him to be “purposeful behavior”. Evidently what he has in mind as purposeful is rather more abstract than ordinary animal behaviors.

Before I get too technical, let me point out that what praxeology is touching on here is a well-established subject known as teleology. Furthermore, it is clear that we need to have some idea of purpose in human action in order to explicate any system of law that would uphold individual rights, including property rights, which any legitimate science of economics is necessarily dependent on and subordinate to. For example, if there were no concept of “purpose” or “goal-oriented behavior”, then the idea of “your home” could only refer to your home at the time you are occupying it; there would be no way to rationally explain the fact that when you’ve left it to go on vacation, you didn’t “abandon” the home, that you have a wider purpose in returning and continuing to live there[2]. Without teleological concepts, there can be no concept of property, and therefore, no science of economics.

So clearly, teleology of some kind is necessary. To the extent that praxeology is endorsing the idea that we need some idea of purpose in order to have human sciences at all it is certainly good. But, in that respect it is not unique either. The idea of teleology goes back to Ancient Greece, for example, it was listed in one of Aristotle’s Four Causes, the aspects of a thing we need to understand in order to truly understand the thing.

What is unique about praxeology seems to be more than a little weird. I say “seems,” since I am still open to the idea that I’ve somehow misunderstood it. That said, I’ve spent quite a bit of time trying to understand it, in particular, I have tried to engage people who have studied it for years, and invariably the engagement leads to one of these outcomes, none of which suggest to me that I’m mistaken about praxeology:

  1. I get told that if I don’t get it, I must be stupid;
  2. I’m told I’m holding praxeology to an unreasonably high standard, or that my questions are arcane or overly technical, or that “gray areas” are to be expected in any science, but especially in praxeology;
  3. They change the subject or ignore my questions;
  4. I’m told that my analysis here makes sense, that praxeology falls apart under close scrutiny.

So, in what unique way is praxeology nonsense? My analysis of it is that Misesean teleology is rooted in a very basic epistemological confusion, such that he attempts to sunder the purposeful and non-purposeful aspects of action, thereby eviscerating his notion of any possible referent. To make an analogy: it would be as if a botanist claimed to be studying trees, but had no interest in bark, trunks, leaves, or roots. Similarly, Mises claims to be studying human action, but explicitly precludes the “reflexive” behavior, the trouble being that all actual human action includes “reflexive”, i.e. automatic, unconscious, behavior. In fact there are many layers of this unconscious behavior: we have habits and skills; we are conscious in terms of “lift my arm” not in terms of activating each nerve fiber; our cells respire without direct conscious intervention (and this is obviously a necessary component of any real human action); etc. Furthermore, our purposeful actions extend beyond ourselves. This is most obvious with medical prostheses, but in principle, any tool that does our bidding is, with respect to our purposes, an extension of our purposeful action, even when the tool is doing things automatically, or when we are sleeping.

Now, if you point this out to a fervent praxeologist, he certainly won’t deny that cells must respire in order for humans to act. This is obvious to everyone. What he does is claim that that’s not what is meant by “human action.” But how can he coherently claim such a thing? If you hammer a nail in order to build a home in order to sell it, the praxeologist will confidently claim that hammering the nail counts as human action, since it is “purposeful behavior.” But it is a plain fact that cellular respiration (a “reflexive” behavior) is an integral component of hammering nails, that if you took that away, you’d no longer have any hammering of nails whatsoever. So this “reflexive” behavior is not the contrary domain praxeologists say it is, it’s actually integral to what is being studied, if indeed we are studying real human action.

At this point, what I have found is that most praxeologists seem to get confused, flustered, or angry. The problem seems to be that they actually have no clear idea at all what they mean, but aren’t happy with the idea of dispensing with praxeology either. Further evidence for this interpretation comes from the fact that the answers at this point tend to diverge. Some praxeologists are grudgingly willing to concede that cellular respiration is included as part of human action, but others go in the opposite direction, claiming that human action is only to be found in the will, i.e. in the choice to put some kind of mental effort into some activity. (A third response, which I consider to be starkly dishonest, is to allege that these fundamental matters are “gray areas.”) I see this flailing around as a symptom of a fundamental confusion they do not wish to admit to, and both paths are hopelessly incoherent.

Let us suppose they take the path where they admit that human action is real. That is, “human action” means to refer to the real act of you hammering a nail, which includes the full extent of the physical action, from the act of the mind controlling the body, down to the cellular respiration and physical architecture of the body. On this view, something is human action when there is an overall conscious purpose causing the behavior. This would actually be fine as far as it goes, but they will immediately experience cognitive dissonance if you ask: is living your life human action? The problem is that, on the one hand, living your life is everything you do, whereas Mises clearly intended to divide those parts of living your life that match his notion of “purpose” from those he thought do not match. Throw out this weird procedure that wrongly presumes to be able to dissect life into purposeful and non-purposeful action and you throw out praxeology.

The other (and I think more consistent) path they can take is to refuse to allow non-conscious processes to belong to “human action” at all. When you hammer a nail, you’re not really conscious of the work the joints, tendons, bone, and muscle are doing; you aren’t conscious of your posture; you aren’t conscious of the nerve impulses, nor even of the skills you developed for hammering. When it comes right down to it, all you’re really conscious of is that you are willing and trying and intending to do something. By this process they are dissecting not one act from another, but the mind from the body. What they really mean by “human action” then is not action at all, it is a disembodied human will. But how can that be economically relevant to anything?

These dissecting procedures are incoherent. On the one hand, if we are talking about real human action, we are talking about the full complex reality of the action: the human purpose, will, effort, the nerve impulses, the heart pumping blood, the muscles, tendons, joints – everything. On the other hand, if we are talking purposeful action, then that includes any and all purposes, including that overarching purpose of living your life, whose substance is every single act you as a real human being take, in all of its vivid detail.

  1. Quoting Mises from Human Action: “Action is the essence of [man’s] nature and existence, his means of preserving his life and raising himself above the level of animals and plants.” … “Thinking and acting are the specific human features of man. They are peculiar to all human beings. They are […] the characteristic mark of man as man.” … “Then there is the case of the animals. We are fully aware of the unbridgeable gulf separating our reason from the reactive processes of their brains and nerves. … They are like prisoners anxious to break out from the doom of eternal darkness and inescapable automatism.” … “The real thing which is the subject matter of praxeology, human action, stems from the same source as human reasoning. Action and reason are congeneric and homogeneous; they may even be called two different aspects of the same thing.” (This last quote indicates an interesting, if loose, relation of Mises’ praxeology and my theory of natural rights, which I identify as a type of human action that is inextricably endorsed by human reason.)

  2. See REASON and LIBERTY, chapter 4.