Saturday, July 27, 2013

What is the Epistemological Status of Praxeology and the Action Axiom?

A reading of the opening chapters of Mises’s Human Action does not provide straightforward answers.

First, consider these statements:
“Praxeology is a theoretical and systematic, not a historical, science. Its scope is human action as such, irrespective of all environmental, accidental, and individual circumstances of the concrete acts. Its cognition is purely formal and general without reference to the material content and the particular features of the actual case. It aims at knowledge valid for all instances in which the conditions exactly correspond to those implied in its assumptions and inferences. Its statements and propositions are not derived from experience. They are, like those of logic and mathematics, a priori. They are not subject to verification and falsification on the ground of experience and facts. They are both logically and temporally antecedent to any comprehension of historical facts. They are a necessary requirement of any intellectual grasp of historical events” (Mises 2008: 32).

“Even the most faithful examination of a chapter of economic history, though it be the history of the most recent period of the past, is no substitute for economic thinking. Economics, like logic and mathematics, is a display of abstract reasoning. Economics can never be experimental and empirical. The economist does not need an expensive apparatus for the conduct of his studies. What he needs is the power to think clearly and to discern in the wilderness of events what is essential from what is merely accidental” (Mises 2008: 864).

“What assigns economics its peculiar and unique position in the orbit both of pure knowledge and of the practical utilization of knowledge is the fact that its particular theorems are not open to any verification or falsification on the ground of experience. Of course, a measure suggested by sound economic reasoning results in producing the effects aimed at, and a measure suggested by faulty economic reasoning fails to produce the ends sought. But such experience is always still historical experience, i.e., the experience of complex phenomena. It can never, as has been pointed out, prove or disprove any particular theorem. The application of spurious economic theorems results in undesired consequences. But these effects never have that undisputable power of conviction which the experimental facts in the field of the natural sciences provide. The ultimate yardstick of an economic theorem’s correctness or incorrectness is solely reason unaided by experience” (Mises 1949: 858).
So here we are told that the “theorems” of praxeology “are not open to any verification or falsification on the ground of experience.” The “statements and propositions” of praxeology are “not derived from experience.” If this means that the deductions that constitute praxeological theories are true a priori, then Mises is saying that praxeology knowledge has necessary, a priori truth.

But, in addition to being valid and sound, a deductive argument could only have absolute certainty if its axioms and premises are all necessarily true.

But Mises admits that praxeology uses synthetic a posteriori premises and assumptions in its arguments:
“Man … can never be absolutely certain that his inquiries were not misled and that what he considers as certain truth is not error. All that man can do is to submit all his theories again and again to the most critical reexamination. This means for the economist to trace back all theorems to their unquestionable and certain ultimate basis, the category of human action, and to test by the most careful scrutiny all assumptions and inferences leading from this basis to the theorem under examination. It cannot be contended that this procedure is a guarantee against error. But it is undoubtedly the most effective method of avoiding error” (Mises 2008: 68).

“Every theorem of praxeology is deduced by logical reasoning from the category of action. It partakes of the apodictic certainty provided by logical reasoning that starts from an a priori category. Into the chain of praxeological reasoning the praxeologist introduces certain assumptions concerning the conditions of the environment in which an action takes place. Then he tries to find out how these special conditions affect the result to which his reasoning must lead. The question whether or not the real conditions of the external world correspond to these assumptions is to be answered by experience. But if the answer is in the affirmative, all the conclusions drawn by logically correct praxeological reasoning strictly describe what is going on in reality” (Mises 1978: 44).
The idea that every “theorem of praxeology is deduced by logical reasoning from the category of action” and thus has “apodictic certainty” could only be true if all premises – both hidden and stated – in deductions are also absolutely true (as merely analytic a priori propositions) and all arguments were valid and sound.

But that argument will not work, because Mises has admitted that praxeological reasoning requires synthetic a posteriori propositions which can never be necessarily true or free from at least some small degree of doubt about their truth. Therefore no derived deduction or theory can have true “apodictic certainty”: this is a wild fantasy of Mises.

In Human Action (Mises 2008: 65–68) and The Ultimate Foundation of Economic Science (Mises 1978 [1962]: 44), Mises has tacitly conceded that praxeology’s deductive reasoning will sometimes rely on some empirical assumptions.

Now Mises believes in categories of the human mind and that the action axiom is a category:
“the problem of the a priori is of a different character. It does not deal with the problem of how consciousness and reason have emerged. It refers to the essential and necessary character of the logical structure of the human mind.

The fundamental logical relations are not subject to proof or disproof. Every attempt to prove them must presuppose their validity. It is impossible to explain them to a being who would not possess them on his own account. Efforts to define them according to the rules of definition must fail. They are primary propositions antecedent to any nominal or real definition. They are ultimate unanalyzable categories. The human mind is utterly incapable of imagining logical categories at variance with them. No matter how they may appear to superhuman beings, they are for man inescapable and absolutely necessary. They are the indispensable prerequisite of perception, apperception, and experience.” (Mises 2008: 34).

“The human mind is not a tabula rasa on which the external events write their own history. It is equipped with a set of tools for grasping reality. Man acquired these tools, i.e., the logical structure of his mind, in the course of his evolution from an amoeba to his present state. But these tools are logically prior to any experience.

Man is not only an animal totally subject to the stimuli unavoidably determining the circumstances of his life. He is also an acting being. And the category of action is logically antecedent to any concrete act.

The fact that 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 enjoins upon us what may be called methodological apriorism.

Everybody in his daily behavior again and again bears witness to the immutability and universality of the categories of thought and action.
He who addresses fellow men, who wants to inform and convince them, who asks questions and answers other people's questions, can proceed in this way only because he can appeal to something common to all men--namely, the logical structure of human reason. The idea that A could at the same time be non-A or that to prefer A to B could at the same time be to prefer B to A is simply inconceivable and absurd to a human mind. We are not in the position to comprehend any kind of prelogical or metalogical thinking. We cannot think of a world without causality and teleogy.” (Mises 2008: 35).

“Aprioristic reasoning is purely conceptual and deductive. It cannot produce anything else but tautologies and analytic judgments. All its implications are logically derived from the premises and were already contained in them. Hence, according to a popular objection, it cannot add anything to our knowledge.

All geometrical theorems are already implied in the axioms. The concept of a rectangular triangle already implies the theorem of Pythagoras. This theorem is a tautology, its deduction results in an analytic judgment. Nonetheless nobody would contend that geometry in general and the theorem of Pythagoras in particular do not enlarge our knowledge. Cognition from purely deductive reasoning is also creative and opens for our mind access to previously barred spheres. The 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.” (Mises 2008: 38).

“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. It is a knowledge that is our own because we are men; no being of human descent that pathological conditions have not reduced to a merely vegetative existence lacks it. No special experience is needed in order to comprehend these theorems, and no experience, however rich, could disclose them to a being who did not know a priori what human action is. 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.

All the concepts and theorems of praxeology are implied in the category of human action.” (Mises 2008: 64).

“… it is expedient to establish the fact that the starting point of all praxeological and economic reasoning, the category of human action, is proof against any criticisms and objections. No appeal to any historical or empirical considerations whatever can discover any fault in the proposition that men purposefully aim at certain chosen ends. No talk about irrationality, the unfathomable depths of the human soul, the spontaneity of the phenomena of life, automatisms, reflexes, and tropisms, can invalidate the statement that man makes use of his reason for the realization of wishes and desires. From the unshakable foundation of the category of human action praxeology and economics proceed step by step by means of discursive reasoning. Precisely defining assumptions and conditions, they construct a system of concepts and draw all the inferences implied by logically unassailable ratiocination. With regard to the results thus obtained only two attitudes are possible; either one can unmask logical errors in the chain of the deductions which produced these results, or one must acknowledge their correctness and validity.” (Mises 2008: 67).
From these statements, it is clear that Mises is influenced by a Kantian or, more correctly, neo-Kantian epistemology (Lachmann 1976: 56; Rothbard 2011: 108) of the Marburg school.

The human action axiom can be stated as follows:
(1) All human action is rational.
That statement when asserted without defining “rational” is likely to provoke derision, because if by “rational” we mean consistent with the laws of logic and characterised by valid and sound deductive and inductive reasoning, then there are manifestly many examples of irrational human behaviour.

But Mises has his own idiosyncratic definition of “rational”: he means with a purpose, or end in mind.

Therefore the proposition is to be rewritten:
(1) All human action is purposeful, in the sense of having a purpose or end in mind.
But even here problems exist. What about unconscious and involuntary behaviour? What about behaviour of mentally ill human beings? What about nervous tics?

Mises is already required to carefully limit what he means by “human action”:
Human action is purposeful behavior. Or we may say: Action is will put into operation and transformed into an agency, is aiming at ends and goals, is the ego’s meaningful response to stimuli and to the conditions of its environment, is a person’s conscious adjustment to the state of the universe that determines his life. Such paraphrases may clarify the definition given and prevent possible misinterpretations. But the definition itself is adequate and does not need complement of commentary.

Conscious or purposeful behavior is in sharp contrast to unconscious behavior, i.e., the reflexes and the involuntary responses of the body’s cells and nerves to stimuli. People are sometimes prepared to believe that the boundaries between conscious behavior and the involuntary reaction of the forces operating within man’s body are more or less indefinite. This is correct only as far as it is sometimes not easy to establish whether concrete behavior is to be considered voluntary or involuntary. But the distinction between consciousness and unconsciousness is nonetheless sharp and can be clearly determined.

The unconscious behavior of the bodily organs and cells is for the acting ego no less a datum than any other fact of the external world. Acting man must take into account all that goes on within his own body as well as other data, e.g., the weather or the attitudes of his neighbors. There is, of course, a margin within which purposeful behavior has the power to neutralize the working of bodily factors. It is feasible within certain limits to get the body under control. Man can sometimes succeed through the power of his will in overcoming sickness, in compensating for the innate or acquired insufficiency of his physical constitution, or in suppressing reflexes. As far as this is possible, the field of purposeful action is extended. If a man abstains from controlling the involuntary reaction of cells and nerve centers, although he would be in a position to do so, his behavior is from our point of view purposeful.

The field of our science is human action, not the psychological events which result in an action. It is precisely this which distinguishes the general theory of human action, praxeology, from psychology. 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. This also settles the relation of praxeology to the psychoanalytical concept of the subconscious. Psychoanalysis too is psychology and does not investigate action but the forces and factors that impel a man toward a definite action. The psychoanalytical subconscious is a psychological and not a praxeological category. 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.” (Mises 2008: 11–12).
It follows that “human action” is to be strictly limited to:
(1) the conscious behaviour of humans;

(2) to exclude unconscious and involuntary behaviour, and

(3) (presumably) to non-mentally ill human beings.
But Mises requires empirical evidence to demonstrate that all these things do not constitute voluntary behaviour with a purpose.

How does Mises know that normal functioning of the organs or blinking of the eyes is not conscious behaviour with a purpose? He might appeal to intuition and personal experience, but his critic can reply (rightly, in my view) that this is just a type of empirical evidence. And, ultimately, it is through empirically-based science that we have good grounds for understanding these things to be involuntary, or for understanding that certain mentally ill people do things with no conscious purpose in mind.

Another example is nervous tics: these are perfect examples of involuntary and compulsive behaviour with no discernible purpose or end in mind. Yet we can only know that nervous tics are involuntary neurological disorders after scientific investigation of such phenomena.

Let us now look at the proposition again:
(1) All human action is purposeful, in the sense of having a purpose or end in mind.
After these careful restrictions on the definitions of terms and the empirical evidence for excluding certain people and actions, the proposition cannot be considered as true a priori or as synthetic a priori: it is a synthetic a posteriori proposition.

It is, frankly, no surprise that the whole fairy tale of praxeology built on a neo-Kantian category or as synthetic a priori knowledge was abandoned by Murray Rothbard who regarded the axioms of praxeology as having a “broadly empirical nature” (Rothbard 2011: 65).

But once one admits that one’s starting axiom is only true a posteriori there is serious problem. Rothbard cannot then claim that all derived inferences and theories of praxeology have apodictic truth because something known a posteriori can never have absolute or apodictic truth: there must be always, even in the most convincing inductive argument, some small degree of doubt or uncertainty about the truth of the induction given the fact that the foundational axiom is not necessarily true. The further consequence that all other axioms of the system are only true a posteriori requires that the theory is indeed grounded in empirical matters of contingent fact, and that, ultimately, must be tested against reality and also describe reality.

I end with some serious questions about Mises’s competence in logic.

Hans Albert points out the following:
“Mises gives a Kantian answer to the question of how the a priori character of praxeological knowledge and its apodictic certainty is to be explained. This knowledge apparently can be reduced to the logical structure of the human mind which is supposed to be the basis for thought and action. ... On the one hand he seems to suggest that he is introducing with his principle of action a synthetic a priori proposition, as he ascribes informational content to the principle. On the other hand, he declares the question of whether the respective propositions are synthetic or analytic to be purely verbal and therefore uninteresting. This seems to show that he was not aware of the connection between analyticity and informational vacuity. He permanently compares his allegedly a priori knowledge with logical and mathematical knowledge and gives such a description of the respective propositions and their mode of derivation that one comes to suspect them to be analytic. He confounds the analytical character of propositions with the logical character of the relationships between propositions in a deduction. But the fact that particular propositions are deducible from particular sets of premises does not render them analytic. For instance, in physics propositions from geometry get an empirical interpretation, and, interpreted in this way, they are synthetic. But propositions which are the result of the ‘logical unfolding’ of certain concepts contain no information. They are analytic not because they are derived, but because they follow from definitions which do not carry information themselves. When Mises tells us that the concept of money already implies all theorems of the theory of money, the alleged certainty of the basis of this derivation does not help him to establish a nonvacuous economic theory. The theory of money as he envisages it here would be without informational content and could not be used to explain anything.” (Albert 1999: 131–132).
Finally, the human mind has been given a certain structure and way of interpreting the world and certain intuitions, which roughly correspond to Kant’s categories, but this structure is undoubtedly the product of Darwinian evolution (Albert 1999: 132), and has been adapted to the experience of an external environment to allow survival and success in that environment. Mises himself acknowledges the role of evolution in this respect (Mises 2008: 33). But our knowledge of these facts and the structure of the mind cannot consist of analytic propositions: it has been discovered by empirical science.

Albert, H. 1999. Between Social Science, Religion and Politics: Essays in Critical Rationalism, Rodopi, Amsterdam.

Barrotta, P. L. 1996. “A Neo-Kantian Critique of von Mises’s Epistemology,” Economics and Philosophy 12: 51–66.

Gontier, Nathalie. 2006. “Evolutionary Epistemology”

Lachmann, L. M. 1976. “From Mises to Shackle: An Essay on Austrian Economics and the Kaleidic Society,” Journal of Economic Literature 14.1: 54-62.

Martin, Anne. 1964. “Empirical and a Priori in Economics,” The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 15.58: 123–136.

Mises, L. 1978 [1962]. The Ultimate Foundation of Economic Science: An Essay on Method (2nd edn), Sheed Andrews & McMeel, Kansas City.

Mises, L. 2008. Human Action: A Treatise on Economics. The Scholar’s Edition. Mises Institute, Auburn, Ala.

Oakley, Allen. 1997. The Foundations of Austrian Economics: From Menger to Mises. Edward Elgar, Cheltenham, UK.

Rothbard, R. 1976. “Praxeology: The Methodology of Austrian Economics,” in Edwin Dolan (ed.), The Foundations of Modern Austrian Economics. Sheed & Ward, Kansas City. 19–39.

Rothbard, M. N. 2011. Economic Controversies. Ludwig von Mises Institute, Auburn, Ala.


  1. LK,

    you know what would be a great addition to your series on the 19th century US economy? A history of the sectoral financial balances during the 19th century.

    i.e: US govt budget surpluses/deficits, trade surpluses/deficits, private sector surpluses/deficits, level of private investment, etc. if such a thing is possible, it would be really, really interesting and useful. it would definitely help to put the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle together!

    Keep up the great work by the way.

  2. (1) I think you may have misread the intention of this paragraph:

    "Into the chain of praxeological reasoning the praxeologist introduces certain assumptions concerning the conditions of the environment in which an action takes place. Then he tries to find out how these special conditions affect the result to which his reasoning must lead. The question whether or not the real conditions of the external world correspond to these assumptions is to be answered by experience."

    I think what Mises is getting at is that the particulars from the environment that enter the "chain of praxeological reasoning" are sort of shaped by this reasoning. It's not that the reasoning relies on these particulars so much as the particulars are shaped using the praxelogical reasoning.

    (2) "The idea that A could at the same time be non-A or that to prefer A to B could at the same time be to prefer B to A is simply inconceivable and absurd to a human mind."

    This passage shows quite clearly that Mises' system lacks any idea of lived time; indeed, of time in general. Preferences can change and while is A is not already non-A, it can become it as time moves. Mises universe, like his economics, is static and timeless in a way even more constricting than Kant's.

    (3) General comments: you are right about Mises. He sneaks in empirics through the back door. He cannot help but do this. His "Human Action" really is not a great deal more sophisticated than Rand's work.

    There's also something weirdly self-assertive and personal about the way Mises writes about his theories that gives them a creepy quality. If you read Kant, for example, everything is all very abstract. With Mises you don't get that feeling. You get the feeling that he's putting forward something like a belief system rather than a philosophy. I know its hard to distinguish between the two, but nevertheless I think its worth pointing out. It really gives Mises' theories a sort of crazed feel. Like going into a padded cell and seeing a chalkboard covered in scrawled prose.

  3. Septeus7@gmail.comJuly 28, 2013 at 11:22 PM

    Mises' statements about geometry and mathematics being completely apriori are wrong as proved by Reimann.

    Quote from Reimann:

    The question of the validity of the hypotheses of geometry in the infinitely
    small is bound up with the question of the ground of the metric relations of
    space. In this last question, which we may still regard as belonging to the
    doctrine of space, is found the application of the remark made above; that
    in a discrete manifoldness, the ground of its metric relations is given in the
    notion of it, while in a continuous manifoldness, this ground must come
    from outside. Either therefore the reality which underlies space must form
    a discrete manifoldness, or we must seek the gound of its metric relations
    outside it, in binding forces which act upon it.
    The answer to these questions can only be got by starting from the conception of phenomena which has hitherto been justiØed by experience, and
    which Newton assumed as a foundation, and by making in this conception
    the successive changes required by facts which it cannot explain. Researches
    starting from general notions, like the investigation we have just made, can
    only be useful in preventing this work from being hampered by too narrow
    views, and progress in knowledge of the interdependence of things from being
    checked by traditional prejudices.
    This leads us into the domain of another science, of physics, into which
    the object of this work does not allow us to go today"

    The is no apriori in real time and space and therefore any system of logic based on such is flawed.

    Reimann and Kurt Gödel proved Mises and all this Aristotelian bs wrong more than century ago. The question is when will humanity stop listening to this anti-science and anti-human slavertarian crap.

    1. Agreed in substance, not in form.

      1. Riemann
      2. Could you please rid yourself of line breaks?


  4. Very interesting LK.
    So much of what I see over at Murphy's is nonsense on stilts.

    1. Thanks for the comment -- much appreciated, Ken B.

      I expect it's too much to hope that you might come over to the Keynesian "dark" side? :)

  5. Proabaly :)
    On the other hand over at Murphy's you and DK, and sometimes Gene, seem like the only ones not in cloud cuckooland.

    1. I enjoy Gene's blog, and also that brand of Austrian economics in the tradition of Lachmann.

      I've also said before that O'Driscoll and Rizzo's Economics of Time and Ignorance can be read with interest and profit by Post Keynesians.

      But these traditions seem almost unknown to those who comment over at Bob Murphy's blog.

  6. LK,

    I haven't read all your posts, and neither all of Mises' writings. That being said... Hoppe argues that Mises' axiom of human action - that "Men act" - is valid a priori because if you try to deny it, you'd be acting. Fair enough. Indeed I'm acting. What about you? And he? She? They?... What about when I'm not trying to deny it?

    Is that not a "logical error in the chain of his deductions"?