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July 15, 2013 / Adam Knott

The Categories of Action – Binary Nature

Categories of Action – Binary Nature

The categories of social science in their most universal aspect exhibit a binary form: supply/demand, means/ends, pleasure/pain (satisfaction/dissatisfaction, happiness/unhappiness, etc.).  The law of marginal utility, the central law of Austrian economics, is also binary in nature, and expresses a relationship between supply and value.  This binary structure seems to be a feature of consciousness not limited to our apprehension of social phenomena.  Our description of the world around us is often expressed in binary concept pairs such as here/there, higher/lower, internal/external, more/less, larger/smaller, sooner/later, closer/farther, dark/light, etc.

We thus postulate two fundamental categories of apprehension.  Whether we refer to the two categories as categories of consciousness, or of action, or of intentionality, etc., makes no difference.  Our intention is to consider these categories as the most fundamental categories of our conscious awareness.  We will assume that the particular or specific binary concept pairs such as supply/demand, supply/value, means/ends, satisfaction/dissatisfaction, etc., “derive” from a fundamental binary structure of consciousness. The various differentiated binary concept pairs are merely concrete instantiations or concrete manifestations of a more general binary consciousness structure.

Categories of Action – Relationship

Regarding these two categories, we will assume that they differ from one another in a fundamental way.  As an example, let us consider the categories means and ends.  As we would typically conceive things, an object such as a hammer can be a means or an end.  I can use the hammer as a means to drive nails into wood.  The hammer is then considered a means of my action of driving nails.  I can also seek to locate or purchase a hammer.  The hammer is then considered an end of my action of locating or purchasing. In this conception, we conceive that a concrete object such as a hammer may have different “meanings” to the actor concerned.  In one instance, the actor considers the hammer a means, and utilizes the hammer toward some end.  In another instance, the actor considers the hammer and end, and utilizes means in order to achieve his end, a hammer.

In this conception, the category means and the category ends may both have concrete or perceptual content.  The actor may view or consider a given concrete object in various ways.  When the actor views the hammer in a defined way (X), we call the hammer a means.  When the actor views the hammer in a differently defined way (Y), we call the hammer an end.  For our current purpose, the pertinent aspect of this conception is that a given concrete object of action, such as a hammer, can occupy either the ends category or the means category.  In this conception, both the means category and the ends category can have concrete or perceptual content.

In sharp distinction to the above conception, we will employ a conception in which only one of the two fundamental categories can have concrete or perceptual content.  In this conception, when a concrete object appears or is present for an actor, by virtue of its appearance or presence to the actor, it is assigned to a singular “category of appearance” or “category of presence.”  In other words, we propose that one of the two primary categories of consciousness is a category of concrete or perceptual content. In our theory, any supposed concrete object or content of action (or of consciousness), as such, will be assigned to a category of concrete content (the category of concrete or perceptual “presence”).  The objects or content of action are not and cannot be assigned to the second fundamental category, as the second category cannot, by definition, have concrete or perceptual content.

For example, with respect to the categories means and ends, we are saying that an object such as a hammer, as a concrete content of action, can only be assigned to one of the categories, namely, the one which we have designated as our category of concrete or perceptual content.  In the present theory we designate the category of means as the category of concrete content, and thus, if we suppose that a hammer is a content of an actor’s action (or of his consciousness), the hammer can only be a means for the actor.  In our theory, a hammer, as a concrete content of action or consciousness, cannot be an end but can only be a means.

In the typical conception of means and ends, an actor views the same concrete object or situation in different ways, and depending on how the actor views this object or situation, we classify the object a means or an end.  In our proposed conception of means and ends, any concrete object or situation present for an actor can only be a means.  Our definition of a means does not depend on how the actor views the content of his action.  Rather, our definition of means is identical to the content of the actor’s action.  In our theory, a “means” is an object or situation that is perceptually, sensually, or differentiably “present” to the actor in any way.  The distinction is not between different ways a supposed object may appear to an actor; the distinction is whether a supposed object appears to an actor.

Categories of Action – The Category of Nonperceptible Presence

In opposition to the contentual category of action stands a noncontentual category of action.  To this category of “nonperceptible presence” we assign those “things” which, from the point of view of the actor are “present,” but not perceptually or sensually present.  For example, when we see an object in front of us, we typically believe that the back of that object is “present.”  We believe that the back of the object is “there now,” but just not visible from our current location.  However, the back of the object which we consider now present (which we believe to “be there now”), is not now present in a perceptual or sensual sense, as is the front of the object (that part of the object which constitutes our current visual perception or sensation).  And thus, we categorize those things present to the actor, but not present in a contentual sense (those things present, but not presently manifesting in a perceptual or sensual content) as belonging to a category of nonperceptible presence.  This second category is a category of “things” which are currently present to the actor, but not present as a current perception or sensation.

Objects of action which we would assign to this category are such things as:

  • The inside of a billiard ball
  • The other side of things
  • Another person’s mind or consciousness
  • The formal mathematical concept “line” (as distinct from a drawn or visually imagined line)
  • Things which we believe are located behind us though we have no current perception or sensation of them
  • Universals, generalities, and concepts (i.e., “classes,” as distinct from concrete members which we may sense, perceive, or observe)
  • London (the city, to the extent an actor may consider London to “exist” presently while not presently observing London)

Here, we will not attempt to provide an exhaustive list of things an actor may consider to exist cotemporaneously with those things he perceives, senses, or observes.  The main purpose here is to indicate the nature of this category of action and the nature of the entities that comprise it.  This second category of consciousness is comprised of those entities which, from the point of view of the actor, are “attached” to the things he presently observes, but which themselves are not presently observed.

Categories of Action – Some Implications

Given our original assumption—that all of the specific or concrete binary concept pairs derive from this more fundamental binary concept pair—this suggests a reconception of the various concrete binary concept pairs in terms of a structure analogous to the structure of the fundamental binary concept pair.  Recall some of the important concept pairs of social science: supply/demand, supply/value, means/ends, satisfaction/dissatisfaction (happiness/unhappiness, pleasure/pain, etc.).  If we were to reconceive each of these concept pairs so that their structure was the same as the fundamental concept pair, this means that we would designate one of the categories (for example: supply, means, and satisfaction) as a category of perceptual or sensual or observable content, and we would designate the other category (for example: demand, value, ends, and dissatisfaction) as a category of nonperceptible presence.  Given the fundamental concept pair which we defined in terms of (1) perceptual presence and (2) presence that is nonperceptual, and assuming that the important concept pairs of science and philosophy derive from the fundamental pair, this suggests a fundamental reconception of the derivative concept pairs of social science.

With respect to means and ends, as indicated, “means” would refer to that aspect of conscious awareness that is presently perceived, sensed, or observed, while “ends” would refer to that aspect of conscious awareness that is “present” but not presently perceived, sensed, or observed.  For example, a seen wall (a perception, sensation, or observation of an actor) we would classify as a means of the actor’s action, while the back of the wall (the assumption the actor “attaches” to his perception, sensation, or observation, but which is not itself perceived, sensed, or observed) we would classify as an end of the actor’s action.  In this construct, the actor’s apprehension of any given object or phenomenon is comprised of two categories of consciousness: (1) the category of that which is perceptually present, and (2) the category of that which is present not perceptually.

This conceptual structure in which means are perceptible or observable while ends are not perceptible or observable is consistent with the Misesian means/ends conception in which only means (not ends) are open to rational examination.

The ultimate judgments of value and the ultimate ends of human action are given for any kind of scientific inquiry; they are not open to any further analysis.  Praxeology deals with the ways and means chosen for the attainment of such ultimate ends.  Its object is means, not ends. (HA, p. 21)

As soon as people venture to question and to examine an end, they no longer look upon it as an end but deal with it as a means to attain a still higher end.  The ultimate end is beyond any rational examination.  All other ends are but provisional.  They turn into means as soon as they are weighed against other ends or means. (TH, p. 14)

As soon as we start to refute by arguments an ultimate judgment of value, we look upon it as a means to attain definite ends.  But then we merely shift the discussion to another plane.  We no longer view the principle concerned as an ultimate value but as a means to attain an ultimate value, and we are again faced with the same problem. (TH, p. 23)

Strictly speaking, only the increase of satisfaction (decrease of uneasiness) should be called the end, and accordingly all states which bring about such an increase means.  In daily speech people use a loose terminology.  They call ends things which should be rather called means.  (MM, p. 22)

In fact, he who passes judgment of an alleged end, reduces it from the rank of an end to that of a means.  He values it from the viewpoint of an (higher) end and asks whether it is a suitable means to attain this (higher) end. (MM, p. 22-23)

In the Misesian means/ends conception, only means can be examined.  There is no way to appraise the suitability of ends.  We cannot evaluate an end (X) other than by showing how it will benefit or harm one who aims for it or attains it.  In doing that, we show how attaining or aiming for X will result in Y, the benefit or harm.  What we have evaluated then is a means of bringing about Y.

Our proposed conception of the means/ends relationship, in which means can be perceived and observed (and thus appraised) while ends cannot be perceived or observed (and thus cannot be appraised), is consistent with the Misesian means/ends conception.  Our proposed conception provides an underlying epistemological explanation of Mises’s insight that “As soon as people venture to question and to examine an end, they no longer look upon it as an end but deal with it as a means to attain a still higher end.  The ultimate end is beyond any rational examination.  All other ends are but provisional.  They turn into means as soon as they are weighed against other ends or means.”

(It is worth noting in passing that imagined or envisioned objects (mental apparitions) are here considered perceptual content to the extent they are objects of consciousness with differentiable attributes.  A mental picture or apparition is thus considered a means.  We do not interpret such objects to be mental representations of ends.)

Regarding the concept pairs supply/demand, supply/value, satisfaction/dissatisfaction, etc., our intention would be to reconceive them in terms of the same essential structure (i.e., in terms of a category of perceptual presence, and a category of presence not perceptual).  Thus, for example, we would conceive the category “supply” as the category of that which is perceptual, sensual, and observable in action, and we would conceive the category “value” as the category of the nonperceptible or unobservable aspect of action.  This is consistent with conceptions of value such as that provided by Hulsmann:

In particular, nobody has solved the problem of comparing non-extended entities like value, utility, preference ranks, etc. (HUL)

Here, value is described as a “non-extended” entity.  This description is consistent with a category of “entities” which have no perceptible or observable attributes; entities that are considered “present” (the actor considers such entities to be “here now”) but not in a perceptual or observational sense, and which therefore cannot be measured or compared to one another.

Categories of Action – Some Implications

In our proposed conception of the categories of action, we will not conceive that the categories are instruments through which our mind apprehends a world external to itself.  In the Misesian conception, one imagines an objectively existing world or universe, and a human mind positioned in some region of this universe.  The structure of this external world is then revealed to the human mind to the extent that the mental categories—combined with human reasoning—allow.  Those aspects of the external world which the human mental categories have not evolved to apprehend, and those aspects of the external world which human reason cannot grasp, remain hidden to the human mind.  The image we form is that of an object possessing various attributes (the mind and its categories) positioned within a surrounding environment.  The mental categories are analogous to probing instruments.  They probe the surrounding environment (perhaps like the antennae of an insect, or the sonar of a bat) and thus reveal to the human mind, at least partially, the structure of this surrounding environment.  The probing instruments can only reveal the structure of that portion of the surrounding environment they are suited to interact with.  The antennae can reveal some tactile aspects of the surrounding environment; the sonar can reveal some other aspects of the surrounding environment.  Those aspects of the surrounding environment for which the mind has no probing instruments remain hidden to the human mind.

Our proposed interpretation of the mental categories differs markedly from the one just described in that the categories are conceived only in relation to one another, not in relation to any assumed external world or universe.  In our conception, the two categories of action constitute the entirety of conscious experience, and no additional assumption is made about a world or environment that may exist independent of these two categories.  The unitary consciousness is comprised on the one hand of tangible and physical content (sensations, perceptions, observations, etc.), and on the other hand of entities present not perceptually (the inside of things, the back side of things, etc.)  No other entities enter the narrative or analysis.  In this conception, my perception of another person, or of a distant mountain, is not interpreted as indicating an “external” world.  Rather, we conceive that the object in question (the other person or the mountain) exists as two categories of my consciousness.  For example, the part of the person I can see or hear or touch is the contentual aspect of my consciousness.  The part of the person that is present not perceptually (e.g., the person’s mind, the inside of his body, the back side of his body, etc.) is the nonperceptual or nonobservable category of my consciousness.  In other words, all things present to me (anything I may perceive or conceive) are interpreted as aspects of me; none are interpreted as aspects of an assumed external world. The analysis is completely solipsistic, which is simply analysis by consistent methodological individualism.  An external, real, or objective world existing independent of the categories of consciousness is neither affirmed nor denied.  The theory is entirely neutral with respect to an assumed objective world.  Though my life experiences may lead me to the strong conviction that an external world independent of my consciousness exists, and though I may perform my daily activities as though an objective world exists, the most fruitful theoretical method for understanding my experiences and activities is not thereby revealed.

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
HUL = “Economic Science and Neoclassicism,” Hulsmann, The Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics, Winter 1999.
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
TH = Theory and History, Mises, 1985
UF = The Ultimate Foundation of Economic Science, Mises, 2002

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