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July 3, 2013 / Adam Knott

Categories of Action – Initial Sketch

Categories of Action – Initial Sketch

We will take the first path described by Mises.  We will not attempt to attain praxeological knowledge by examining the propositions of economic science.  Instead, we will attempt to attain praxeological knowledge by a direct examination of the categories of action.

The categories of action are simply the various classifications of phenomena that are contained in the original supposition of action.  For example, consider the bolded portion of the following passage from Mises:

In an a prioristic science, we start with a general supposition—action is taken to substitute one state of affairs for another. (FM, p. 16)

This proposition, as written, refers to various entities and activities.  We can begin by calling each different entity or activity referred to a “category.”  The proposition refers to things such as action, taking, substitution, one state of affairs, and another state of affairs.  Thus, initially, we have at least five categories.  There is a category of action; there is a category of taking; there is a category of substitution; there is a category of one state of affairs; there is a category of another state of affairs, etc.  By “the categories of action” we mean the various classes of entities that constitute action.

Let’s say we define action as the attempt to alleviate dissatisfaction.  Then, at least three categories are referred to: the category of attempting, the category of alleviation, and the category of dissatisfaction.

It is important to note that in praxeological thought, the categories are not derived exclusively from an examination of the written proposition.  The original written proposition “action is XYZ” is a symbolic expression of a recognizable aspect of consciousness.  It is an approximate, unrefined, and nonsystematized starting point.  The categories and their relations, which eventually form the completed formal system, are a refinement and systematization of the original proposition.  They result from our adjusting the original symbolic approximation to express the universal form of intentionality with systematic consistency.  This entails repeated reflection on the nature or form of the intentional aspect of consciousness.[i]  Our procedure is not merely discursive reasoning applied to various premises.  Our reasoning is guided by a “reference phenomenon”: the intentional aspect of consciousness.

Let’s say we define action as the attempt to change a state of affairs not yet attained into a state of affairs attained.  At least four categories are referred to: the notion of the attempt, the notion of change, the notion of a state of affairs not yet attained, and the notion of a state of affairs attained.  As mentioned, this conception of action is an initial starting point that will be refined in the course of the theoretical investigation.  It is “pre-scientific” in the sense that it has not yet been subjected to rigorous systematization.  This original proposition is pre-scientific in another sense also.  It does not require and does not account for the ontological assumptions or conclusions drawn by other branches of knowledge such as physics, mathematics, biology, astronomy, evolution theory, etc.  The reasoning that we employ proceeds from a “direct” examination of our conscious experience of wanting something (attempting something, trying something, etc.).[ii]  Our reasoning neither requires nor conforms to hypotheses taken from the developed sciences about the nature or structure or genesis of our conscious experience of wanting something.  We are not concerned with the biological genesis of action or the physical constitution of action or the location in extended space where action takes place.  The phenomenon of action or intentionality is the starting point of our reasoning; we do not fashion our conception of action from the conclusions or assumptions of the physical sciences.  We approach the conscious experience of the attempt to reach an end “directly” and our reasoning proceeds step by step from this point.  The theory is in this sense not based on “science.”  It is based on an analysis of an aspect of consciousness.

Phenomena as described by our construct of action then have “ontological priority” over phenomena as described by other branches of knowledge.  The praxeological theory will interpret all phenomena, including physical and natural process and events, as phenomena of intentionality.  As explained previously, the preexisting formal sciences (e.g., arithmetic, geometry, propositional logic) we will consider formal sciences of various kinds of action:

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.

And we will consider physical or natural phenomena to be phenomena of action.  For example, a lightning strike is seen, or observed, or heard.  A chemical reaction is seen, or observed, or initiated, or described.  And thus, our praxeological theory will be comprehensive in two important senses.  First, it will comprehend all forms of action including mental actions, physical actions, interpersonal actions, and catallactic (economic) actions.  Second, it will comprehend all phenomena of conscious awareness by interpreting them as various aspects of intentionality.

Let’s assume that consciousness is intentional in nature such that the “structure” of consciousness is a means/ends structure.  Then any aspect of consciousness we isolate or differentiate we will classify as some aspect of this means/ends structure.[iii]  Instead of a conception wherein praxeology only treats a differentiable subset of phenomena of which we are consciously aware (e.g., humans, human tools, human constructions, etc.) we will employ a conception wherein praxeology treats all phenomena of which we are consciously aware as aspects of intentional consciousness.


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-64: “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.”

[ii] UF-5: “The starting point of praxeology is a self-evident truth, the cognition of action, that is, the cognition of the fact that there is such a thing as consciously aiming at ends.”

[iii] IEO-59: “though all the social phenomena with which we can possibly deal may have physical attributes, they need not be physical facts for our purpose.  That depends on how we shall find it convenient to classify them for the discussion of our problems.  Are the human actions which we observe, and the objects of these actions, things of the same or a different kind because they appear as physically the same or different to us, the observers—or for some other reason?”

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