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Some Preliminary Observations Concerning Praxeology Instead of an Introduction - Ludwig von Mises, The Ultimate Foundation of Economic Science: An Essay on Method 
The Ultimate Foundation of Economic Science: An Essay on Method, ed Bettina Bien Greaves (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2006).
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Some Preliminary Observations Concerning Praxeology Instead of an Introduction
The Permanent Substratum of Epistemology
Πάντα ῥει̑, everything is in a ceaseless flux, says Heraclitus; there is no permanent being; all is change and becoming. It must be left to metaphysical speculation to deal with the problems whether this proposition can be borne out from the point of view of a superhuman intelligence and furthermore whether it is possible for a human mind to think of change without implying the concept of a substratum that, while it changes, remains in some regard and sense constant in the succession of its various states. For epistemology, the theory of human knowledge, there is certainly something that it cannot help considering as permanent, viz., the logical and praxeological structure of the human mind, on the one hand, and the power of the human senses, on the other hand. Fully aware of the fact that human nature as it is in this epoch of cosmic changes in which we are living is neither something that existed from the very beginning of all things nor something that will remain forever, epistemology must look upon it as if it were unchanging. The natural sciences may try to go further and to study the problems of evolution. But epistemology is a branch—or rather, the basis—of the sciences of man. It deals with one aspect of the nature of man as he emerged from the eons of cosmic becoming and as he is in this period of the history of the universe. It does not deal with thinking, perceiving and knowing in general, but with human thinking, perceiving and knowing. For epistemology there is something that it must take as unchanging, viz., the logical and praxeological structure of the human mind.
One must not confuse knowledge with mysticism. The mystic may say that “shadow and sunlight are the same.”1 Knowledge starts from the clear distinction between A and non-A.
We know that there were ages of cosmic history in which there did not exist beings of the kind we call Homo sapiens, and we are free to assume that there will be again ages in which this species will not exist. But it is vain for us to speculate about the conditions of beings that are, in the logical and praxeological structure of their minds and in the power of their senses, essentially different from man as we know him and as we are ourselves. Nietzsche’s concept of a superman is devoid of any epistemological meaning.
Epistemology deals with the mental phenomena of human life, with man as he thinks and acts. The main deficiency of traditional epistemological attempts is to be seen in their neglect of the praxeological aspects. The epistemologists dealt with thinking as if it were a separate field cut off from other manifestations of human endeavor. They dealt with the problems of logic and mathematics, but they failed to see the practical aspects of thinking. They ignored the praxeological a priori.
The shortcomings of this approach became manifest in the teachings of natural theology as distinguished from revealed theology. Natural theology saw the characteristic mark of deity in freedom from the limitations of the human mind and the human will. Deity is omniscient and almighty. But in elaborating these ideas the philosophers failed to see that a concept of deity that implies an acting God, that is, a God behaving in the way man behaves in acting, is self-contradictory. Man acts because he is dissatisfied with the state of affairs as it prevails in the absence of his intervention. Man acts because he lacks the power to render conditions fully satisfactory and must resort to appropriate means in order to render them less unsatisfactory. But for an almighty supreme being there cannot be any dissatisfaction with the prevailing state of affairs. The Almighty does not act, because there is no state of affairs that he cannot render fully satisfactory without any action, i.e., without resorting to any means. For Him there is no such thing as a distinction between ends and means. It is anthropomorphism to ascribe action to God. Starting from the limitations of his human nature, man’s discursive reasoning can never circumscribe and define the essence of omnipotence.
However, it must be emphasized that what prevented people from paying attention to the praxeological issues was not theological considerations. It was the passionate longing for the realization of the utopian chimera of the land of Cockaigne. As the science of economics, the up-to-now best elaborated part of praxeology, exploded the fallacies of every brand of utopianism, it was outlawed and stigmatized as unscientific.
The most characteristic trait of modern epistemology is its entire neglect of economics, that branch of knowledge whose development and practical application was the most spectacular event of modern history.
The study of economics has been again and again led astray by the vain idea that economics must proceed according to the pattern of other sciences. The mischief done by such misconstructions cannot be avoided by admonishing the economist to stop casting longing glances upon other fields of knowledge or even to ignore them entirely. Ignorance, whatever subject it may concern, is in no case a quality that could be useful in the search for truth. What is needed to prevent a scholar from garbling economic studies by resorting to the methods of mathematics, physics, biology, history or jurisprudence is not slighting and neglecting these sciences, but, on the contrary, trying to comprehend and to master them. He who wants to achieve anything in praxeology must be conversant with mathematics, physics, biology, history, and jurisprudence, lest he confuse the tasks and the methods of the theory of human action with the tasks and the methods of any of these other branches of knowledge. What was wrong with the various Historical Schools of economics was first of all that their adepts were merely dilettantes in the field of history. No competent mathematician can fail to see through the fundamental fallacies of all varieties of what is called mathematical economics and especially of econometrics. No biologist was ever fooled by the rather amateurish organicism of such authors as Paul de Lilienfeld.
When I once expressed this opinion in a lecture, a young man in the audience objected. “You are asking too much of an economist,” he observed; “nobody can force me to employ my time in studying all these sciences.” My answer was: “Nobody asks or forces you to become an economist.”
The Starting Point of Praxeological Thinking
The a priori knowledge of praxeology is entirely different—categorially different—from the a priori knowledge of mathematics or, more precisely, from mathematical a priori knowledge as interpreted by logical positivism. The starting point of all praxeological thinking is not arbitrarily chosen axioms, but a self-evident proposition, fully, clearly and necessarily present in every human mind. An unbridgeable gulf separates those animals in whose minds this cognition is present from those in whose minds it is not fully and clearly present. Only to the former is the appellation man accorded. The characteristic feature of man is precisely that he consciously acts. Man is Homo agens, the acting animal.
All—apart from zoology—that has ever been scientifically stated to distinguish man from nonhuman mammals is implied in the proposition: man acts. To act means: to strive after ends, that is, to choose a goal and to resort to means in order to attain the goal sought.
The essence of logical positivism is to deny the cognitive value of a priori knowledge by pointing out that all a priori propositions are merely analytic. They do not provide new information, but are merely verbal or tautological, asserting what has already been implied in the definitions and premises. Only experience can lead to synthetic propositions. There is an obvious objection against this doctrine, viz., that this proposition that there are no synthetic a priori propositions is in itself a—as the present writer thinks, false—synthetic a priori proposition, for it can manifestly not be established by experience.
The whole controversy is, however, meaningless when applied to praxeology. It refers essentially to geometry. Its present state, especially its treatment by logical positivism, has been deeply influenced by the shock that Western philosophy received from the discovery of non-Euclidian geometries. Before Bolyai and Lobachevsky, geometry was, in the eyes of the philosophers, the paragon of perfect science; it was assumed that it provided unshakable certainty forever and for everybody. To proceed also in other branches of knowledge more geometrico was the great ideal of truth-seekers. All traditional epistemological concepts began to totter when the attempts to construct non-Euclidian geometries succeeded.
Yet praxeology is not geometry. It is the worst of all superstitions to assume that the epistemological characteristics of one branch of knowledge must necessarily be applicable to any other branch. In dealing with the epistemology of the sciences of human action, one must not take one’s cue from geometry, mechanics, or any other science.
The assumptions of Euclid were once considered as self-evidently true. Present-day epistemology looks upon them as freely chosen postulates, the starting point of a hypothetical chain of reasoning. Whatever this may mean, it has no reference at all to the problems of praxeology.
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. There is no use cavilling about these words by referring to philosophical problems that have no bearing upon our problem. The truth of this cognition is as self-evident and as indispensable for the human mind as is the distinction between A and non-A.
The Reality of the External World
From the praxeological point of view it is not possible to question the real existence of matter, of physical objects and of the external world. Their reality is revealed by the fact that man is not omnipotent. There is in the world something that offers resistance to the realization of his wishes and desires. Any attempt to remove by a mere fiat what annoys him and to substitute a state of affairs that suits him better for a state of affairs that suits him less is vain. If he wants to succeed, he must proceed according to methods that are adjusted to the structure of something about which perception provides him with some information. We may define the external world as the totality of all those things and events that determine the feasibility or unfeasibility, the success or failure, of human action.
The much discussed question whether physical objects can or cannot be conceived as existing independently of the mind is vain. For thousands of years the minds of physicians did not perceive germs and did not divine their existence. But the success or failure of their endeavors to preserve their patients’ health and lives depended on the way germs influenced or did not influence the functioning of the patients’ bodily organs. The germs were real because they conditioned the outcome of events either by interfering or by not interfering, either by being present in or by being absent from the field.
Causality and Teleology
Action is a category that the natural sciences do not take into account. The scientist acts in embarking upon his research work, but in the orbit of natural events of the external world which he explores there is no such thing as action. There is agitation, there is stimulus and response, and, whatever some philosophers may object, there is cause and effect. There is what appears to be an inexorable regularity in the concatenation and sequence of phenomena. There are constant relations between entities that enable the scientist to establish the process called measurement. But there is nothing that would suggest aiming at ends sought; there is no ascertainable purpose.
The natural sciences are causality research; the sciences of human action are teleological. In establishing this distinction between the two fields of human knowledge, we do not express any opinion concerning the question whether the course of all cosmic events is or is not ultimately determined by a superhuman being’s design. The treatment of this great problem transcends the range of man’s reason and is outside the domain of any human science. It is in the realm that metaphysics and theology claim for themselves.
The purpose to which the sciences of human action refer is not the plans and ways of God, but the ends sought by acting men in the pursuit of their own designs. The endeavors of the metaphysical discipline commonly called philosophy of history to reveal in the flux of historical events the hidden plans of God or of some mythical agency (as, for instance, in the scheme of Marx, the material productive forces) are not science.
In dealing with a definite historical fact, for instance with the first World War, the historian has to find out the ends sought by the various individuals and groups of individuals who were instrumental in organizing these campaigns or in fighting the aggressors. He has to examine the outcome resulting from the actions of all people involved and compare it with the preceding state of affairs as well as with the intentions of the actors. But it is not the historian’s business to search after a “higher” or “deeper” sense that manifested itself in the events or was realized by them. Perhaps there is such a hidden “higher” or “deeper” purpose or significance in the succession of historical events. But for mortal man there is no way open to learn something about such “higher” or “deeper” meanings.
The Category of Action
All the elements of the theoretical sciences of human action are already implied in the category of action and have to be made explicit by expounding its contents. As among these elements of teleology is also the category of causality, the category of action is the fundamental category of epistemology, the starting point of any epistemological analysis.
The very category or concept of action comprehends the concepts of means and ends, of preferring and putting aside, viz., of valuing, of success and failure, of profit and loss, of costs. As no action could be devised and ventured upon without definite ideas about the relation of cause and effect, teleology presupposes causality.
Animals are forced to adjust themselves to the natural conditions of their environment; if they do not succeed in this process of adjustment, they are wiped out. Man is the only animal that is able—within definite limits—to adjust his environment purposively to suit him better.
We can think of the evolutionary process that transformed the nonhuman ancestors of mankind into human beings as a succession of small, gradual changes spread over millions of years. But we cannot think of a mind in which the category of action would have been present only in an incomplete form. There is nothing in between a being driven exclusively by instincts and physiological impulses and a being that chooses ends and the means for the attainment of these ends. We cannot think of an acting being that would not in concreto distinguish what is end and what is means, what is success and what is failure, what he likes more and what he likes less, what is his profit or his loss derived from the action and what his costs are. In grasping all these things, he may, of course, err in his judgments concerning the role various external events and materials play in the structure of his action.
A definite mode of behavior is an action only if these distinctions are present in the mind of the man concerned.
The Sciences of Human Action
The German language has developed a term that would have been expedient to denote the totality of the sciences dealing with human action as distinguished from the natural sciences, viz., the term Geisteswissenschaften. Unfortunately some authors have heavily loaded this term with metaphysical and mystical implications that detract from its usefulness. In English the term pneumatology (suggested by Bentham2 as the opposite of somatology) would have served the purpose, but it was never accepted. The term moral sciences as employed by John Stuart Mill is unsatisfactory on account of its etymological affinity with the normative discipline of ethics. The term humanities is traditionally employed exclusively for the historical branches of the sciences of human action. Thus we are forced to employ the rather heavy term “sciences of human action.”
[1. ]R. W. Emerson, Brahma.
[2. ]Bentham, “Essay on Nomenclature and Classification,” Appendix No. IV to Chrestomathia (Works, ed. Bowring [1838–1843], VIII, 84 and 88).