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CHAPTER 2: The Activistic Basis of Knowledge - 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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The Activistic Basis of Knowledge
Man and Action
The characteristic feature of man is action. Man aims at changing some of the conditions of his environment in order to substitute a state of affairs that suits him better for another state that suits him less. All manifestations of life and behavior with regard to which man differs from all other beings and things known to him are instances of action and can be dealt with only from what we may call an activistic point of view. The study of man, as far as it is not biology, begins and ends with the study of human action.
Action is purposive conduct. It is not simply behavior, but behavior begot by judgments of value, aiming at a definite end and guided by ideas concerning the suitability or unsuitability of definite means. It is impossible to deal with it without the categories of causality and finality. It is conscious behavior. It is choosing. It is volition; it is a display of the will.
Action is sometimes viewed as the human variety of the struggle for survival common to all living beings. However, the term “struggle for survival” as applied to animals and plants is a metaphor. It would be a mistake to infer anything from its use. In applying literally the term struggle to animals and plants one would ascribe to them the power to become aware of factors threatening their existence, the will to preserve their own integrity, the mental faculty of finding means for its preservation.
Seen from an activist point of view, knowledge is a tool of action. Its function is to advise man how to proceed in his endeavors to remove uneasiness. At the higher stages of man’s evolution from the conditions of the Stone Age to those of the age of modern capitalism, uneasiness is also felt by the mere prevalence of ignorance concerning the nature and the meaning of all things, no matter whether knowledge about these fundamental things would be of practical use for any technological planning. To live in a universe with whose final and real structure one is not familiar creates in itself a feeling of anxiety. To remove this anguish and to give men certainty about the last things has been from the earliest days the solicitude of religion and metaphysics. Later the philosophy of the Enlightenment and its affiliated schools promised that the natural sciences would solve all the problems involved. At any rate, it is a fact that to brood over the origin and essence of things, man’s nature and his role in the universe, is one of the concerns of many people. Seen from this angle, the pure search for knowledge, not motivated by the desire to improve the external conditions of life, is also action, i.e., an effort to attain a more desirable state of affairs.
Another question is whether the human mind is fitted for the full solution of the problems involved. It may be argued that the biological function of reason is to aid man in his struggle for survival and the removal of uneasiness. Any step beyond the limits drawn by this function, it is said, leads to fantastic metaphysical speculations which are liable neither to demonstration nor to refutation. Omniscience is forever denied to man. Every search for truth must, sooner or later, but inevitably, lead to an ultimate given.1
The category of action is the fundamental category of human knowledge. It implies all the categories of logic and the category of regularity and causality. It implies the category of time and that of value. It encompasses all the specific manifestations of human life as distinguished from the manifestations of man’s physiological structure which he has in common with all other animals. In acting, the mind of the individual sees itself as different from its environment, the external world, and tries to study this environment in order to influence the course of the events happening in it.
What distinguishes the field of human action from the field of external events as investigated by the natural sciences is the category of finality. We do not know of any final causes operating in what we call nature. But we know that man aims at definite goals chosen. In the natural sciences we search after constant relations among various events. In dealing with human action we search after the ends the actor wants or wanted to attain and after the result that his action brought about or will bring about.
The clear distinction between a field of reality about which man cannot learn anything else than that it is characterized by a regularity in the concatenation and succession of events and a field in which purposeful striving after ends chosen takes place is an achievement of a long evolution. Man, himself an acting being, was first inclined to explain all events as the manifestation of the action of beings acting in a way that was essentially not different from his own. Animism ascribed to all things of the universe the faculty of action. When experience moved people to drop this belief, it was still assumed that God or nature acts in a way not different from the ways of human action. The emancipation from this anthropomorphism is one of the epistemological foundations of modern natural science.
Positivist philosophy, which nowadays styles itself also scientific philosophy, believes that this rejection of finalism by the natural sciences implies the refutation of all theological doctrines as well as that of the teachings of the sciences of human action. It pretends that the natural sciences can solve all the “riddles of the universe” and provide an allegedly scientific answer to all the questions that may trouble mankind.
However, the natural sciences did not contribute and cannot contribute anything to the clarification of those problems with which religion tries to cope. The repudiation of naive anthropomorphism that imagined a supreme being either as a dictator or as a watchmaker was an achievement of theology and of metaphysics. With regard to the doctrine that God is wholly other than man and that his essence and nature cannot be grasped by mortal man, the natural sciences and a philosophy derived from them have nothing to say. The transcendent is beyond the realm about which physics and physiology convey information. Logic can neither prove nor disprove the core of theological doctrines. All that science—apart from history—can do in this regard is to expose the fallacies of magic and fetishistic superstitions and practices.
In denying the autonomy of the sciences of human action and their category of final causes, positivism enounces a metaphysical postulate that it cannot substantiate with any of the findings of the experimental methods of the natural sciences. It is a gratuitous pastime to apply to the description of the behavior of man the same methods the natural sciences apply in dealing with the behavior of mice or of iron. The same external events produce in different men and in the same men at different times different reactions. The natural sciences are helpless in face of this “irregularity.” Their methods can deal only with events that are governed by a regular pattern. Besides, they do not have any room for the concepts of meaning, of valuation, and of ends.
Valuing is man’s emotional reaction to the various states of his environment, both that of the external world and that of the physiological conditions of his own body. Man distinguishes between more and less desirable states, as the optimists may express it, or between greater and lesser evils, as the pessimists are prepared to say. He acts when he believes that action can result in substituting a more desirable state for a less desirable.
The failure of the attempts to apply the methods and the epistemological principles of the natural sciences to the problems of human action is caused by the fact that these sciences have no tool to deal with valuing. In the sphere of the phenomena they study there is no room for any purposive behavior. The physicist himself and his physical research are entities outside the orbit he investigates. Judgments of value cannot be perceived by the observational attitudes of the experimenter and cannot be described in the protocol sentences of the language of physics. Yet they are, also from the viewpoint of the natural sciences, real phenomena, as they are a necessary link in chains of events that produce definite physical phenomena.
The physicist may laugh today at the doctrine that interpreted certain phenomena as the effect of a horror vacui [Medieval Latin, “horror of a vacuum,” a supposed attribute of nature]. But he fails to realize that the postulates of panphysicalism are no less ridiculous. If one eliminates any reference to judgments of value, it is impossible to say anything about the actions of man, i.e., about all the behavior that is not merely the consummation of physiological processes taking place in the human body.
The Chimera of Unified Science
The aim of all brands of positivism is to silence the sciences of human action. For the sake of argument we may abstain from analyzing positivism’s contributions to the epistemology of the natural sciences both with regard to their originality and to their soundness. Neither do we have to dwell too long upon the motives that incited the positivist authors’ passionate attacks upon the “unscientific procedure” of economics and history. They are advocating definite political, economic and cultural reforms which, as they believe, will bring about the salvation of mankind and the establishment of eternal bliss. As they cannot refute the devastating criticism that their fantastic plans met on the part of the economists, they want to suppress the “dismal science.”
The question whether the term “science” ought to be applied only to the natural sciences or also to praxeology and to history is merely linguistic and its solution differs with the usages of various languages. In English the term science for many people refers only to the natural sciences.2 In German it is customary to speak of a Geschichtswissenschaft [science of history] and to call various branches of history Wissenschaft, such as Literaturwissenschaft [science of literature], Sprachwissenschaft [science of speech (or linguistics)], Kunstwissenschaft [science of art], Kriegswissenschaft [science of war]. One can dismiss the problem as merely verbal, an inane quibbling about words.
Auguste Comte postulated an empirical science of sociology which, modelled after the scheme of classical mechanics, should deal with the laws of society and social facts. The many hundreds and thousands of the adepts of Comte call themselves sociologists and the books they are publishing contributions to sociology. In fact, they deal with various hitherto more or less neglected chapters of history and by and large proceed according to the well-tried methods of historical and ethnological research. It is immaterial whether they mention in the title of their books the period and the geographical area with which they are dealing. Their “empirical” studies necessarily always refer to a definite epoch of history and describe phenomena that come into existence, change, and disappear in the flux of time. The methods of the natural sciences cannot be applied to human behavior because this behavior, apart from what qualifies it as human action and is studied by the a priori science of praxeology, lacks the peculiarity that characterizes events in the field of the natural sciences, viz., regularity.
There is no way either to confirm or to reject by discursive reasoning the metaphysical ideas that are at the bottom of the blatantly advertised program of “Unified Science” as expounded in the International Encyclopedia of Unified Science, the holy writ of logical positivism, panphysicalism, and intolerant empiricism. Paradoxically enough, these doctrines, which started from a radical rejection of history, ask us to look upon all events as part of the subject matter of a comprehensive cosmic history. What we know about natural events, e.g., the behavior of sodium and levers, may, as they say, be valid only for the period of cosmic aggregation in which we ourselves and earlier generations of scientists lived. There is no reason whatever to assign to chemical and mechanical statements “any kind of universality” instead of treating them as historical ones.3 Seen from this point of view, the natural sciences turn into a chapter of cosmic history. There is no conflict between physicalism and cosmic history.
We must admit that we do not know anything about conditions in a period of cosmic history for which the statements of what we call in our period the natural sciences will no longer be valid. In speaking about science and knowledge we have in mind only the conditions that our living, thinking, and acting permit us to investigate. What is beyond the conditions of this—perhaps temporarily limited—state of affairs is for us an unknown and unknowable region. In that sector of the universe which is accessible to our searching mind there prevails a dualism in the succession and concatenation of events. There is, on the one hand, the field of external events, about which we can learn only that there prevail mutual constant relations among them, and there is the field of human action, about which we cannot learn anything without resorting to the category of finality. All attempts to disregard this dualism are dictated by arbitrary metaphysical repossessions, bring forth merely nonsense, and are useless for practical action.
The difference that exists in our environment between the behavior of sodium and that of an author who in his writings refers to sodium cannot be wiped out by any reference to the possibility that there were once or will be in the future periods of cosmic history about the conditions of which we do not know anything. All our knowledge must take into account the fact that with regard to sodium we do not know anything about final causes directing its behavior, while we know that man, e.g., in writing an essay about sodium, aims at definite ends. The attempts of behaviorism (or “behavioristics”)4 to deal with human action according to the stimulus-response scheme have failed lamentably. It is impossible to describe any human action if one does not refer to the meaning the actor sees in the stimulus as well as in the end his response is aiming at.
We know also the end that impels the champions of all these fads that nowadays parade under the name of Unified Science. Their authors are driven by the dictatorial complex. They want to deal with their fellow men in the way an engineer deals with the materials out of which he builds houses, bridges, and machines. They want to substitute “social engineering” for the actions of their fellow citizens and their own unique all-comprehensive plan for the plans of all other people. They see themselves in the role of the dictator—the duce, the Führer, the production tsar—in whose hands all other specimens of mankind are merely pawns. If they refer to society as an acting agent, they mean themselves. If they say that conscious action of society is to be substituted for the prevailing anarchy of individualism, they mean their own consciousness alone and not that of anybody else.
The Two Branches of the Sciences of Human Action
There are two branches of the sciences of human action, praxeology on the one hand, history on the other hand.
Praxeology is a priori. It starts from the a priori category of action and develops out of it all that it contains. For practical reasons praxeology does not as a rule pay much attention to those problems that are of no use for the study of the reality of man’s action, but restricts its work to those problems that are necessary for the elucidation of what is going on in reality. Its intent is to deal with action taking place under conditions that acting man has to face. This does not alter the purely aprioristic character of praxeology. It merely circumscribes the field that the individual praxeologists customarily choose for their work. They refer to experience only in order to separate those problems that are of interest for the study of man as he really is and acts from other problems that offer a merely academic interest. The answer to the question whether or not definite theorems of praxeology apply to a definite problem of action depends on the establishment of the fact whether or not the special assumptions that characterize this theorem are of any value for the cognition of reality. To be sure, it does not depend on the answer to the question whether or not these assumptions correspond to the real state of affairs that the praxeologists want to investigate. The imaginary constructions that are the main—or, as some people would rather say, the only—mental tool of praxeology describe conditions that can never be present in the reality of action. Yet they are indispensable for conceiving what is going on in this reality. Even the most bigoted advocates of an empiricist interpretation of the methods of economics employ the imaginary construction of an evenly rotating economy (static equilibrium), although such a state of human affairs can never be realized.5
Following in the wake of Kant’s analyses, philosophers raised the question: How can the human mind, by aprioristic thinking, deal with the reality of the external world? As far as praxeology is concerned, the answer is obvious. Both, a priori thinking and reasoning on the one hand and human action on the other, are manifestations of the human mind. The logical structure of the human mind creates the reality of action. Reason and action are congeneric and homogeneous, two aspects of the same phenomenon. In this sense we may apply to praxeology the dictum of Empedocles γνῶσις τοῦ ὁμοίου τῷ ὁμοίῳ [“knowledge of like is by like”* ].
Some authors have raised the rather shallow question how a praxeologist would react to an experience contradicting theorems of his aprioristic doctrine. The answer is: in the same way in which a mathematician will react to the “experience” that there is no difference between two apples and seven apples or a logician to the “experience” that A and non-A are identical. Experience concerning human action presupposes the category of human action and all that derives from it. If one does not refer to the system of the praxeological a priori, one must not and cannot talk of action, but merely of events that are to be described in terms of the natural sciences. Awareness of the problems with which the sciences of human action are concerned is conditioned by familiarity with the a priori categories of praxeology. Incidentally, we may also remark that any experience in the field of human action is specifically historical experience, i.e., the experience of complex phenomena, which can never falsify any theorem in the way a laboratory experiment can do with regard to the statements of the natural sciences.
Up to now the only part of praxeology that has been developed into a scientific system is economics. A Polish philosopher, Tadeusz Kotarbiński, is trying to develop a new branch of praxeology, the praxeological theory of conflict and war as opposed to the theory of cooperation or economics.6
The other branch of the sciences of human action is history. It comprehends the totality of what is experienced about human action. It is the methodically arranged record of human action, the description of the phenomena as they happened, viz., in the past. What distinguishes the descriptions of history from those of the natural sciences is that they are not interpreted in the light of the category of regularity. When the physicist says: if A encounters B,C results, he wants, whatever philosophers may say, to assert that C will emerge whenever or wherever A will encounter B under analogous conditions. When the historian refers to the battle of Cannae, he knows that he is talking about the past and that this particular battle will never be fought again.
Experience is a uniform mental activity. There are not two different branches of experience, one resorted to in the natural sciences, the other in historical research. Every act of experience is a description of what happened in terms of the observer’s logical and praxeological equipment and his knowledge of the natural sciences. It is the observer’s attitude that interprets the experience by adding it to his own already previously accumulated store of experienced facts. What distinguishes the experience of the historian from that of the naturalist and the physicist is that he searches for the meaning that the event had or has for those who were either instrumental in bringing it about or were affected by its happening.
The natural sciences do not know anything about final causes. For praxeology finality is the fundamental category. But praxeology abstracts from the concrete content of the ends men are aiming at. It is history that deals with the concrete ends. For history the main question is: What was the meaning the actors attached to the situation in which they found themselves and what was the meaning of their reaction, and, finally, what was the result of these actions? The autonomy of history or, as we may say, of the various historical disciplines consists in their dedication to the study of meaning.
It is perhaps not superfluous to emphasize again and again that when historians say “meaning,” they refer to the meaning individual men—the actors themselves and those affected by their actions or the historians—saw in the actions. History as such has nothing in common with the point of view of philosophies of history that pretend to know the meaning that God or a quasi-God—such as the material productive forces in the scheme of Marx—attaches to the various events.
The Logical Character of Praxeology
Praxeology is a priori. All its theorems are products of deductive reasoning that starts from the category of action. The questions whether the judgments of praxeology are to be called analytic or synthetic and whether or not its procedure is to be qualified as “merely” tautological are of verbal interest only.
What praxeology asserts with regard to human action in general is strictly valid without any exception for every action. There is action and there is the absence of action, but there is nothing in between. Every action is an attempt to exchange one state of affairs for another, and everything that praxeology affirms with regard to exchange refers strictly to it. In dealing with every action we encounter the fundamental concepts end and means, success or failure, profit or loss, costs. An exchange can be either direct or indirect, i.e., effected through the interposition of an intermediary stage. Whether a definite action was indirect exchange has to be determined by experience. But if it was indirect exchange, then all that praxeology says about indirect exchange in general strictly applies to it.
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.
The Logical Character of History
History in the broadest sense of the term is the totality of human experience. History is experience, and all experience is historical. History comprehends also all the experience of the natural sciences. What characterizes the natural sciences as such is the fact that they approach the material of experience with the category of a strict regularity in the succession of events. History in the narrower sense of the term, i.e., the totality of experience concerning human action, must not and does not refer to this category. This distinguishes it epistemologically from the natural sciences.
Experience is always experience of the past. There is no experience and no history of the future. It would be unnecessary to repeat this truism if it were not for the problem of business forecasting by statisticians, about which something will be said later.7
History is the record of human actions. It establishes the fact that men, inspired by definite ideas, made definite judgments of value, chose definite ends, and resorted to definite means in order to attain the ends chosen, and it deals furthermore with the outcome of their actions, the state of affairs the action brought about.
What distinguishes the sciences of human action from the natural sciences is not the events investigated, but the way they are looked upon. The same event appears different when seen in the light of history and when seen in the light of physics or biology. What interests the historian in a case of murder or in a fire is not what interests the physiologist or the chemist if they are not acting as experts for a court of law. To the historian the events of the external world that are studied by the natural sciences count only as far as they affect human action or are produced by it.
The ultimate given in history is called individuality. When the historian reaches the point beyond which he cannot go farther, he refers to individuality. He “explains” an event—the origin of an idea or the performance of an action—by tracing it back to the activity of one man or of a multitude of men. Here he faces the barrier that prevents the natural sciences from dealing with the actions of men, viz., our inability to learn how definite external events produce in the minds of men definite reactions, i.e., ideas and volitions.
Futile attempts have been made to trace back human action to factors that can be described by the methods of the natural sciences. Stressing the fact that the urge to preserve one’s own life and to propagate one’s own species is inwrought in every creature, hunger and sex were proclaimed as the foremost or even as the only springs of human action. However, one could not deny that there prevail considerable differences between the way in which these biological urges affect the behavior of man and that of nonhuman beings and that man, besides aiming at satisfying his animal impulses, is also intent upon attaining other ends that are specifically human and therefore usually styled higher ends. That the physiological structure of the human body—first of all the appetites of the belly and of the sex glands—affects the choices of acting man has never been forgotten by the historians. After all, man is an animal. But he is the acting animal; he chooses between conflicting ends. It is precisely this that is the theme both of praxeology and of history.
The Thymological Method
The environment in which man acts is shaped by natural events on the one hand and by human action on the other. The future for which he plans will be codetermined by the actions of people who are planning and acting like himself. If he wants to succeed, he must anticipate their conduct.
The uncertainty of the future is caused not only by uncertainty concerning the future actions of other people, but also by insufficient knowledge concerning many natural events that are important for action. Meteorology provides some information about the factors that determine atmospheric conditions; but this knowledge at best enables the expert to predict the weather with some likelihood for a few days, never for longer periods. There are other fields in which man’s foresight is even more limited. All that man can do in dealing with such insufficiently known conditions is to use what the natural sciences give him, however scanty this may be.
Radically different from the methods applied in dealing with natural events are those resorted to by man in anticipating the conduct of his fellow men. Philosophy and science for a long time paid little attention to these methods. They were considered as unscientific and not worthy of notice on the part of serious thinkers. When philosophers began to deal with them, they called them psychological. But this term became inappropriate when the techniques of experimental psychology were developed and almost all that earlier generations had called psychology was either altogether rejected as unscientific or assigned to a class of pursuits contemptuously styled as “mere literature” or “literary psychology.” The champions of experimental psychology were confident that one day their laboratory experiments would provide a scientific solution of all the problems about which, as they said, the traditional sciences of human behavior babbled in childish or metaphysical talk.
In fact, experimental psychology has nothing to say and never did say anything about the problems that people have in mind when they refer to psychology in regard to the actions of their fellow men. The primary and central problem of “literary psychology” is meaning, something that is beyond the pale of any natural science and any laboratory activities. While experimental psychology is a branch of the natural sciences, “literary psychology” deals with human action, viz., with the ideas, judgments of value, and volitions that determine action. As the term “literary psychology” is rather cumbersome and does not permit one to form a corresponding adjective, I have suggested substituting for it the term thymology.8
Thymology is a branch of history or, as Collingwood formulated it, it belongs in “the sphere of history.”9 It deals with the mental activities of men that determine their actions. It deals with the mental processes that result in a definite kind of behavior, with the reactions of the mind to the conditions of the individual’s environment. It deals with something invisible and intangible that cannot be perceived by the methods of the natural sciences. But the natural sciences must admit that this factor must be considered as real also from their point of view, as it is a link in a chain of events that result in changes in the sphere the description of which they consider as the specific field of their studies.
In analyzing and demolishing the claims of Comte’s positivism, a group of philosophers and historians known as the südwestdeutsche Schule [southwestern German school] elaborated the category of understanding (Verstehen) that had already in a less explicit sense been familiar to older authors. This specific understanding of the sciences of human action aims at establishing the facts that men attach a definite meaning to the state of their environment, that they value this state and, motivated by these judgments of value, resort to definite means in order to preserve or to attain a definite state of affairs different from that which would prevail if they abstained from any purposeful reaction. Understanding deals with judgments of value, with the choice of ends and of the means resorted to for the attainment of these ends, and with the valuation of the outcome of actions performed.
The methods of scientific inquiry are categorically not different from the procedures applied by everybody in his daily mundane comportment. They are merely more refined and as far as possible purified of inconsistencies and contradictions. Understanding is not a method of procedure peculiar only to historians. It is practiced by infants as soon as they outgrow the merely vegetative stage of their first days and weeks. There is no conscious response of man to any stimuli that is not directed by understanding.
Understanding presupposes and implies the logical structure of the human mind with all the a priori categories. The biogenetic law represents the ontogeny of the individual as an abbreviated recapitulation of the phylogeny of the species. In an analogous way one may describe changes in the intellectual structure. The child recapitulates in his postnatal development the history of mankind’s intellectual evolution.10 The suckling becomes thymologically human when it begins faintly to dawn in his mind that a desired end can be attained by a definite mode of conduct. The nonhuman animals never proceed beyond instinctive urges and conditioned reflexes.
The concept of understanding was first elaborated by philosophers and historians who wanted to refute the positivists’ disparagement of the methods of history. This explains why it was originally dealt with only as the mental tool of the study of the past. But the services understanding renders to man in throwing light on the past are only a preliminary stage in the endeavors to anticipate what may happen in the future. Seen from the practical point of view, man appears to be interested in the past only in order to be able to provide for the future. The natural sciences deal with experience—which necessarily is always the record of what happened in the past—because the categories of regularity and causality render such studies useful for the guidance of technological action, which inevitably always aims at an arrangement of future conditions. The understanding of the past performs a similar service in making action as successful as possible. Understanding aims at anticipating future conditions as far as they depend on human ideas, valuations, and actions. There is, but for Robinson Crusoe before he met his man Friday, no action that could be planned or executed without paying full attention to what the actor’s fellow men will do. Action implies understanding other men’s reactions.
The anticipation of events in the sphere explored by the natural sciences is based upon the categories of regularity and causality. There are in some byroads bridges that would collapse if a truck loaded with ten tons passed over them. We do not expect that such a load would make the George Washington bridge tumble. We firmly trust in the categories that are the foundations of our physical and chemical knowledge.
In dealing with the reactions of our fellow men we cannot rely upon such a regularity. We assume that, by and large, the future conduct of people will, other things being equal, not deviate without special reason from their past conduct, because we assume that what determined their past conduct will also determine their future conduct. However different we may know ourselves to be from other people, we try to guess how they will react to changes in their environment. Out of what we know about a man’s past behavior, we construct a scheme about what we call his character. We assume that this character will not change if no special reasons interfere, and, going a step farther, we even try to foretell how definite changes in conditions will affect his reactions. Compared with the seemingly absolute certainty provided by some of the natural sciences, these assumptions and all the conclusions derived from them appear as rather shaky; the positivists may ridicule them as unscientific. Yet they are the only available approach to the problems concerned and indispensable for any action to be accomplished in a social environment.
Understanding does not deal with the praxeological side of human action. It refers to value judgments and the choice of ends and of means on the part of our fellow men. It refers not to the field of praxeology and economics, but to the field of history. It is a thymological category. The concept of a human character is a thymological concept. Its concrete content in each instance is derived from historical experience.
No action can be planned and executed without understanding of the future. Even an action of an isolated individual is guided by definite assumptions about the actor’s future value judgments and is so far determined by the actor’s image of his own character.
The term “speculate” was originally employed to signify any kind of meditation and forming of an opinion. Today it is employed with an opprobrious connotation to disparage those men who, in the capitalistic market economy, excel in better anticipating the future reactions of their fellow men than the average man does. The rationale of this semantic usage is to be seen in the inability of short-sighted people to notice the uncertainty of the future. These people fail to realize that all production activities aim at satisfying the most urgent future wants and that today no certainty about future conditions is available. They are not aware of the fact that there is a qualitative problem in providing for the future. In all the writings of the socialist authors there is not the slightest allusion to be found to the fact that one of the main problems of the conduct of production activities is to anticipate the future demands of the consumers.11
Every action is a speculation, i.e., guided by a definite opinion concerning the uncertain conditions of the future. Even in short-run activities this uncertainty prevails. Nobody can know whether some unexpected fact will not render vain all that he has provided for the next day or the next hour.
[1. ]See below, p. 54.
[2. ]Says R. G. Collingwood (The Idea of History [Oxford, 1946], p. 249): “There is a slang usage, like that for which ‘hall’ means a music hall or ‘pictures’ moving pictures, according to which ‘science’ means natural science.” But “in the tradition of European speech . . . continuing unbroken down to the present day, the word ‘science’ means any organized body of knowledge.” About the French usage, see Lalande, Vocabulaire technique et critique de la philosophie (5th ed.: Paris, 1947), pp. 933–940.
[3. ]Otto Neurath, Foundations of the Social Sciences (International Encyclopedia of Unified Science, Vol. II, No. 1 [3rd impression; University of Chicago Press, 1952]), p. 9.
[4. ]Ibid., p. 17.
[5. ]Mises, Human Action, pp. 237 ff.
[* ]The passage is actually from Aristotle, who is referring to Empedocles, in Metaphysics and De Anima. (Translation by Professor Patricia Curd of Purdue University.)
[6. ]T. Kotarbiński, “Considérations sur la théorie générale de la lutte,” Appendix to Z Zagadnien Ogólnej Teorii Walki (Warsaw, 1938), pp. 65–92; the same author, “Idée de la methodologie générale praxeologie,” Travaux du IXe Congrès International de Philosophie (Paris, 1937), IV, 190–194. The theory of games has no reference whatever to the theory of action. Of course, playing a game is action, but so is smoking a cigarette or munching a sandwich. See below, pp. 89 ff.
[7. ]See below, p. 67.
[8. ]Mises, Theory and History, pp. 264 ff.
[9. ]When H. Taine in 1863 wrote, “L’histoire au fond est un problème de psychologie” (Histoire de la litérature anglaise [10th ed.; Paris, 1899], Vol. I, Introduction, p. xlv), he did not realize that the kind of psychology he had in mind was not the natural science called experimental psychology, but that kind of psychology we call thymology and that thymology is in itself a historical discipline, a Geisteswissenschaft in the terminology of W. Dilthey (Einleitung in die Geisteswissenschaften [Leipzig, 1883]). R. G. Collingwood (The Idea of History [Oxford, 1946], p. 221) distinguishes between “historical thought” that “studies mind as acting in certain determinate ways in certain determinate situations” and a problematic other way of studying mind, viz., by “investigating its general characteristics in abstraction from any particular situation or particular action.” The latter would be “not history, but mental science, psychology, or the philosophy of mind.” Such “a positive mental science as rising above the sphere of history, and establishing the permanent and unchanging laws of human nature,” he points [out] (p. 224), is “possible only to a person who mistakes the transient conditions of a certain historical age for the permanent conditions of human life.”
[10. ]Language, Thought and Culture, ed. by Paul Henle (University of Michigan Press, 1958), p. 48. Of course, the analogy is not complete, as the immense majority stop in their cultural evolution long before they reach the thymological heights of their age.
[11. ]Mises, Theory and History, pp. 140 ff.