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June 22, 2013 / Adam Knott

Deduction from the Category of Action versus Deduction from the Content of Action

Deduction from the Category of Action versus Deduction from the Content of Action

Action is the attempt to replace the present situation with a different one.[i] Action thus consists of at least two fundamental categories or classifications: 1) The situation presently confronting the actor (the present situation), and 2) The actor’s attempt to replace the present situation.  Objects or attributes that may be present in one action but not in another action may be referred to as concrete contents of action or simply as the content of action (also referred to as empirical content).  Generally, we conceive that praxeology is only concerned with the universal form of action and is not concerned with the concrete or empirical content of action.[ii] It is important to note that in Misesian praxeology, a distinction is made between those deductions or analytical implications that derive exclusively from the category of action (the actor’s attempt to replace the present situation) and those deductions or analytical implications that derive from the concrete or empirical content of action.

The logical unfolding of all these concepts and categories in systematic derivation from the fundamental category of action and the demonstration of the necessary relations among them constitutes the first task of our science…

The most general prerequisite of action is a state of dissatisfaction, on the one hand, and, on the other, the possibility of removing or alleviating it by taking action…Only this most general condition is necessarily implied in the concept of action.  The other categorial conditions of action are independent of the basic concept; they are not necessary prerequisites of concrete action.  Whether or not they are present in a particular case can be shown by experience only.  But where they are present, the action necessarily falls under definite laws that flow from the categorial determinacy of these further conditions…

The fact that the passage of time is one of the conditions under which action takes place is established empirically and not a priori…we must [therefore] attribute to [men’s] action everything that necessarily follows from the categorial nature of time.  The empirical character of our knowledge that the passage of time is a condition of any given action in no way affects the aprioristic character of the conclusions that necessarily follow from the introduction of the category of time.  Whatever follows necessarily from empirical knowledge—e.g., the propositions of the agio theory of interest—lies outside the scope of empiricism. (EP-24/25)

Thus, Mises conceives that the body of economic theory contains knowledge that is not deduced from the category of action, but is deduced instead from assumed or postulated contents of action.  As a noneconomic example, if we assume that a triangular figure is a concrete content of an action, then whatever is necessary with respect to triangles is also a part of that action.  If we assume that twenty four of something are present for an actor in a given action, then two twelves of the same thing are also present for that actor.  Triangular figures and twenty four of something are not necessary parts of every action and are in this sense empirical contents of action.  Mises conceives that once these objects or phenomena are assumed as contents of action, then “the action necessarily falls under definite laws that flow from the categorial determinacy of these further conditions.”  In this way, the body of economic theory—as distinct from praxeology proper—is comprised largely of deductions from assumed contents of action; not deductions that flow directly or exclusively from the category of action.[iii]

One could reasonably maintain that the assumed contents of action and the necessary relations entailed in them are not part of praxeology for at least two reasons.  First, one could simply argue that praxeology does not treat or address the concrete contents of action and that praxeology only treats the universal form of action.  Second, one could argue that the necessary relations entailed in (for example) triangles were not deduced from the category of action but were deduced from assumptions and axioms different from the category of action.  Though the necessary relations entailed in specific contentual aspects of action (such as triangles) may be valid in their context, the axioms or assumptions on which those necessities are based exclude or omit (at least explicitly) the essential axioms/assumptions of praxeology (means/ends, satisfaction/dissatisfaction, value, utility, etc.).  Thus, one could argue that the specific groups of necessary relationships constituting, for example arithmetic, geometry, and propositional logic, are not praxeology because they explicitly exclude the axioms or assumptions from which praxeology proceeds.  On the basis of these arguments one could maintain that  the empirical or concrete contents of action and the necessary implications of those contents are not the subject matter of praxeology.[iv]

There would seem to be two possibilities: 1. We can consider praxeology to be the body of only those analytical implications that flow directly from the category of action. Then, the body of those analytical implications that follow from various assumed contents of action would belong to a separate branch of knowledge. 2. We can consider praxeology to be comprised of the formal implications of both the category of action and various assumed contents of action.

If we choose the second route, we must clarify whether praxeology treats the formal implications of all contents of action or the formal implications of only a specific segment of contents of action.  Given this choice, we must select the former for the following reason.  We have already established that the content in question is the content of an actor’s action.  If we seek to discover the formal implications C-1 of a given specific content of action C, we do this because we believe the actor will benefit from knowing that C-1 must accompany C if he is successful in attaining C.  We seek to know C-1 because C-1 is or may be relevant to the goals or well-being or satisfaction of the actor.  If we were to claim that praxeology is limited to the study of only a limited subset of contents of the actor’s action, we would be claiming that there exists a second subset of contents of action for which the actor will not benefit from the knowledge of its formal implications. And we would be claiming that the general science that studies the relationship between the actor’s goals and the means he uses to attain those goals, is only concerned to study this relationship under a limited number of concrete conditions. It seems unlikely that a subset of contents of action can be defined such that knowledge of the formal implications of that content would provide no possible benefit to the actor.  And it would seem arbitrary to claim that praxeology studies the relationship between means and ends only with respect to concrete situation C and not with respect to concrete situation D.  Thus, we will assert that if praxeology is the formal study of not only the category of action but also of the contents of action, then praxeology must be the formal study of all conceivable contents of action.

If we accept this line of reasoning, then the following theoretical question arises:  What is the status of the preexisting formal sciences (e.g., arithmetic, geometry, propositional logic, etc.) that treat various assumed contents of action—contents that are present in some actions but not present in others (e.g., numbers, extended figures, propositions, etc.).  The answer is that we may consider such preexisting sciences formal sciences of various types or classes of actions.  Consider the following:

1. If I have two and I add two I will have four.

2. If I travel north by X distance and then travel east by X distance this is the same as travelling northeast by Z distance.

3. If I assert X and if I assert Y then I must assert Z.

Above, by emphasizing the actions “having,” “adding,” “travelling,” and “asserting,” we have simply made explicit the intentional or purposive aspect of the knowledge conveyed by these formal sciences.  We can thus conceive the preexisting formal sciences as formal sciences of various kinds or types of actions (e.g., the actions adding, travelling, asserting, etc.).  If we assume that praxeology is the formal study of the category of action and the formal study of the empirical contents of action, then we will hold that praxeology includes the formal study of all empirical contents of action, and we will consider the existing formal sciences to be formal sciences of various kinds or types of action.  On the other hand, if we assume that praxeology is limited exclusively to the formal study of the category of action, then we will place the other formal disciplines in a different branch of knowledge.  The general structure indicated by these two assumptions would be:

1. Praxeology = Formal study of the category of action exclusively.

Then:

Thymology = Formal study of contents of action + empirical study.

2. Praxeology = Formal study of the category of action + formal study of the contents of action.

Then:

Thymology = empirical study.

Key

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


[i] HA-97 “Action is an attempt to substitute a more satisfactory state of affairs for a less satisfactory one.” FM-16 “In an a prioristic science, we start with a general supposition—action is taken to substitute one state of affairs for another.”

[ii] HA-32 “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.” HA-51 “The cognition of praxeology is conceptual cognition.  It refers to what is necessary in human action.  It is cognition of universals and categories.” HA-47 “Praxeology is not concerned with the changing content of acting, but with its pure form and its categorical structure.” 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.”

[iii] HA-234 “…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.”  Thus, economics for Mises is the deductive or analytical study of action that has a specific kind of content.  The specific content of the actions studied by economics is money prices (or equivalently, exchange ratios).  On a more general level, the specific content of action that is the focus of economics is those valued or demanded goods (economic goods) which may form a homogeneous supply.  Monetary units may form a homogeneous supply and are thus subsumed under this definition.  A plurality of homogeneous units may be subjected to mathematical operations (to the a priori science of mathematics).  Thus, when Mises discusses the law of marginal utility or the law of returns—two examples of a priori economic laws—we see the introduction of simple mathematical symbols, n-1, p/c, p>c, etc.  His discussion of these two economic laws is a demonstration of Mises’s statement that “The other categorial conditions of action are independent of the basic concept; they are not necessary prerequisites of concrete action.  Whether or not they are present in a particular case can be shown by experience only.  But where they are present, the action necessarily falls under definite laws that flow from the categorial determinacy of these further conditions…” EP, p.24  Whether the conditions assumed by the law of marginal utility or the law of returns are present in a given situation is an empirical question.  But when those conditions are present, then the a priori operations or deductions that may be applied to those conditions provide a priori knowledge that is valid for the action in question.

[iv] Consider the following important passage wherein Hayek puts forth a conception of analytical social science:  IEO-62/63 “From the fact that 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 acting persons, there follow some very important consequences; namely, nothing less than that we can, from the concepts of the objects, analytically conclude something about what the actions will be.  If we define an object in terms of a person’s attitude toward it, it follows, of course, that the definition of the object implies a statement about the attitude of the person toward the thing.  When we say that a person possesses food or money, or that he utters a word, we imply that he knows that the first can be eaten, that the second can be used to buy something with, and that the third can be understood—and perhaps many other things.”  Here, Hayek envisions a procedure in which analysis proceeds from the assumed content of action, not strictly from the category of action (the actor’s attempt to replace the current situation with a different one).

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