Front Page Titles (by Subject) Max Weber and Human Action - The Economic Point of View
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Max Weber and Human Action - Israel M. Kirzner, The Economic Point of View 
The Economic Point of View: An Essay in the History of Economic Thought, ed. with an Introduction by Laurence S. Moss (Kansas City: Sheed Andrews McMeel, 1976).
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Max Weber and Human Action
The great sociologist's views on the nature of economics and, in particular, the significance of his ideas for the development of praxeology are closely related to his views on the social sciences in general. These in turn revolve around the concept of Verstehen, which is the epistemological tool that Weber used to distinguish the Geisteswissenschaften from the natural sciences. It is of some interest to compare Weber's way of achieving this distinction with the method used by Croce.
Like Croce, Weber sees purpose as the most conspicuous feature in action, and, because it is the foundation for the notion of Verstehen, as the source of the possibility of separating the social from the physical sciences. A motive is “a meaningful complex ... which appears to the actor himself or the observer to be an adequate ... ground for his attitudes or acts.” The significance of purpose in the scientific analysis of action is its introduction of a new notion of causality. It permits the grasping of the cause of an action through the understanding (Verstehen) of its motive. A correct causal interpretation of concrete action implies that “the outward course and the motive are each correctly grasped and that their relationship to each other is ‘understandable.’”10 And it is the possibility of making this kind of statement regarding the causation of a phenomenon of interest to the Geisteswissenschaften that marks these disciplines as distinct from the physical sciences. In the latter, events can be only “externally” observed, while the teleological orientation of social phenomena permits their being grasped completely.
Economics, like verstehende Soziologie in general, becomes in this way, for Weber as for Croce, a science of human action. That which is understood is purposeful human action.11 But it is here that Weber and Croce part company and that Weber's progress in praxeological thought becomes diverted. Croce had not understood the economic aspect of human action to consist merely in the simple fact that action is aimed at a purpose. In perceiving the economic aspect, Croce recognized the constraint that purposefulness imposes on action, i.e., that action actually tend to achieve the purposes that serve as its inspiration. Economics, for Croce, is the science that investigates the extensive implications and consequences of precisely this tendency. But this aspect of purpose in action plays no role in Weber's conception of economic activity or of the nature of economic science. Weber's science takes notice of the teleological character of human action merely because this purposive feature opens a window on the “internal” nature of the act, not at all because it implies that the action is constrained to follow a specific path. The fact that human actions are motivated is in itself sufficient only to invest them with the property of being “understood”; it is not sufficient to set up a category of “economy,” still less to establish an economic science.
Weber, indeed, is able to extend the concept of Verstehen to grasp the behavior of the most unreasonable or emotional human beings. To approach the construction of an economic science, it is necessary first for Weber to introduce the notion of the “ideal type,” i.e., the formulation of abstract, arbitrary models of acting man. Only one of Weber's four ideal types finds a place in his concept of economics. This is the ideal type of rational action, the model of a coldly calculating human being conscious of ends and means. Within the range of actions that can be intuitively grasped because of their motivations there exist patterns of action that are distinguished in that they are in fact suited to the attainment of the chosen goals. Among these patterns are to be found the materials to be studied by the economist as Weber conceives him.
The necessity that Weber felt of introducing rationality into economic activity as a specific assumption limiting the general concept of human action reveals the limited extent to which he appreciated the praxeological content of action. For Weber, the common denominator of all human actions that are “understandable” is not their conformity to a rational pattern of utilizing given means towards a desired end, but simply their conscious “direction” towards an end as such. We can understand an action, not necessarily because we ourselves would, under similar circumstances, act likewise, but because we can sense and appreciate the possibility that such an action could be induced by the agent's mental posture of desire towards the end. For Weber, there is no presumption that the action so induced will at all hasten the attainment of the end concerned. A man seeking a desired object may, in his anger at being thwarted, or in the excitement of pursuit, act in a manner that, in the judgment of both the cool observer and subsequent history, is supremely capable of frustrating the attainment of the sought-for end. Such a conception of action is, of course, incapable in itself of serving as a foundation for economic science. Only by imposing an artificial abstraction of the ideal type is Weber able to reach economics. And it is apparent that when conformity to an ideal type must be assumed for the deduction of the propositions of economics, these propositions cease to be the logical implications of human action, and economics ceases to be a branch of praxeology.12
[]M. Weber, “Die Objektivitat sozialwissenschaftlicher und sozialpolitischer Erkenntnis,” Archiv fur Sozialwissenschaft und Sozialpolitik, 1904; translated in Shils and Finch, eds., Max Weber on the Methodology of the Social Sciences (Glencoe: Free Press, 1949), p. 83.
[]See, e.g., M. Weber, “Die Grenznutzlehre und das ‘psychophysische’ Grundgesetz,” Archiv fur Sozialwissenschaft und Sozialpolitik, 1908; reprinted in Gesammelte Aufsatze zur Wissenschaftslehre von Max Weber (Tübingen, 1922), pp. 364–365.
[]For criticism of Weber's conception of economics, see L. Mises, “Soziologie und Geschichte, Epilog zum Methodenstreit in der Nationalökonomie,” Archiv fur Sozialwissenschaft und Sozialpolitik, 1929, pp. 465 ff. See further T. Parsons, The Structure of Social Action, ch. XVI, and Essays in Sociological Theory, Pure and Applied (Glencoe, 1949), pp. 67–147.