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Praxeology and Purpose - 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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Praxeology and Purpose
We shall begin the more detailed dissection of the category of human action and the discussion of its suitability to serve as the focus of the economic point of view with a survey of the role of purpose in action. It has already been noticed in this chapter that it is purpose that endows the behavior of men with the unique properties that praxeology finds in human action. The views of Croce and Weber have been cited in this connection as expressions of the discovery, in the act, of a phenomenon unlike anything coming within the range of observation of the physical sciences. Stones dislodged from a hillside by the elements and hurtling down on the unsuspecting traveller in the valley are part of a different “event” than stones hurled with intent by men waiting in ambush. The latter are hurled with purpose; they are—in this case literally—aimed by human beings. Stone-throwing by human beings is something that the scientist can in part “explain” by reference to an element not present in natural phenomena, viz., the conscious aim of the thrower. Praxeology takes this very element as its point of departure; it finds human actions amenable to analysis in that they bear the imprint of a constraint imposed by chosen goals.
Now, the recognition of purposefulness in economic activity did not begin with the emergence of praxeological ideas. It is, of course, true that the older conceptions of economic science, which saw it as concerned with an objective entity such as wealth or goods, did not require reference to the purposefulness of human action. The scope of their discipline was described completely by the character of the objects whose “laws” it investigated. But even here it was difficult to avoid the implication of purposefulness in men's attitude towards these objects. This implication was given tacit recognition in the substantive analysis that the classical economists employed, and it tended to be brought into the open in the more sophisticated of the classical attempts to define “wealth.”
With the tendency, during the nineteenth century, to place man at the center of economics, the recognition of the role of purpose became almost a matter of course. Political economy was, in fact, the extended exposition of the consequences of one of man's many purposes, the acquisition of wealth. Discussions of the character that was thrust upon homo oeconomicus could hardly avoid the central fact of his purposefulness. Towards the close of the century economics came to be identified explicitly as a “teleological” discipline.17 Wealth came to be endowed with a “teleological nature.” Discussions of the assumption of rationality made by economists necessarily involved the notion of purposive behavior, of “ends” and “means,” and consequently pointed to the distinction that this characteristic conferred on any human, as against physical, phenomena. The emergence, during the early decades of the present century, of the concept of Verstehen brought the teleological character of human action still further into the forefront.
However, it is of some importance to appreciate the quite different role that praxeology assigns to human purposefulness in economic activity from that assigned by other points of view. Wesley Mitchell could point out that economists cannot understand what men do if they treat them as molecules, leaving their purposes out of account. He and other economists could draw attention to the new element of causality introduced by teleology in human affairs. They could recognize a chain of cause and effect in which the usual temporal relation is reversed, the present being “caused” by the goals set up for the future.18 But all this does not necessarily lead to a praxeological position. The economic point of view could be held to imply any arbitrary criterion that might be imagined, without in any way ruling out recognition of the causal element introduced by the teleological character of economic activity. Mitchell, for example, saw economic activity as essentially connected with phenomena of money. This was perfectly consistent with his stress on the usefulness of referring to purpose in providing the economists with “explanations.” The phenomena of the real world are the products of a number of diverse chains of causes and effects. The investigation of any group of phenomena in the real world must take into account as many such causal relations as possible. In the class of phenomena constituted by “economic affairs,” there exists a causal relation, the consequence of human purposefulness, that is absent among phenomena of the physical world. But no attempt need necessarily be made to state explicitly the distinctive qualities of “economic affairs” in terms of this purposefulness or of the causality to which it is admitted to give rise.
The part played by purposefulness in the praxeological conception of economic activity is a far more important one. Purpose is not something to be merely “taken into account”: it provides the sole foundation of the concept of human action. When Engliš defined economics as a teleological discipline, he was attempting to place his finger on the very nerve center of the subject.19 There is place for a distinct science of economics only because the teleological quality of action makes possible a unique kind of “explanation.” The theorems of economics are derived for praxeology exclusively on the basis of the purposefulness of human behavior. Other determinants of behavior—heredity, environment, and the like—are on a completely different level of “explanation”; as such, they belong to other disciplines; they have no place in a “pure” economic science.
The crucial position that purpose fills in the praxeological system is intimately connected, of course, with the conception of human action as rational. Rationality in human behavior consists, after all, in the consistent pursuit of one's own purposes; in selecting the means that appear best adapted to the achievement of one's goals; in refraining from courses of action that might frustrate their achievement or promise only the attainment of less valued, at the expense of more highly prized, objectives. The place of the rationality of action is sufficiently important for the praxeological point of view to deserve separate discussion in a subsequent section of this chapter. It is sufficient at this point, for the appreciation of the praxeological importance of human purposefulness, to emphasize as much as possible that a concept of rationality exists for praxeology only as the expression of human purposes.20
Emphasis of this kind is called for, perhaps, in order to disassociate the praxeological approach from what may be called the “positivist” conception of rationality in human action. It was seen in the previous chapter that Professor Robbins has been charged with employing the ends-means dichotomy in too positivistic a fashion. An “end” in Robbins' scheme, it has been alleged, is set up by an external observer as something positive, as a “correlate of a tendency to conduct”; it is used by Robbins in a way that abstracts from the conscious aiming and striving that characterizes human actions before they have been completed. “Rationality” in the disposition of means with regard to such denatured ends becomes simply the mechanical ordering and sharing of resources according to a given pattern.
Without our entering here into a discussion concerning the justice of this objection to Robbins' system, it is worthwhile to make explicit the quite different kind of rationality that is central to the praxeological view. Action is not described as rational because it involves the automatic manipulation of resources into a pattern faithfully reflecting a given hierarchy of ends. Rationality consists rather in the transference, to conduct involving means, of those features in behavior that accompany the direct pursuit of ends. Rationality involves the conscious effort to make one's conduct conform to a given path; it calls for the same aiming and striving by the economic agent towards necessary intermediate goals as he displays towards the “final” goals themselves. It is only from the “outside” that such rationality can be described merely in terms of a particular pattern of resource allocation. The full praxeological grasp of human action perceives its rationality as completely pervaded by the “aiming” quality bestowed on action by its teleological character. This aspect of purpose leads, in fact, directly into the more detailed exposition of the praxeological view of rationality, which is the subject of the succeeding section.
[]See, e.g., G. H. Schmidt, “Rapports de l'économie politique avec la morale et le droit,” Revued'économie politique, 1900, p. 334; G. Trade, Psychologie économique (Paris, 1902), p. 151.
[]On the use of teleology for the recognition of causation as running from the future back to the present, see W. C. Mitchell, “Commons on Institutional Economics,” American Economic Review, December, 1935, reprinted in The Backward Art of Spending Money, p. 334; Z. C. Dickinson, “The Relations of Recent Psychological Developments to Economic Theory,” Quarterly Journal of Economics, May, 1919, p. 388; see also the reference to Weber's writing above in note 10. Cf., however, M. J. Plotnick, Werner Sombart and His Type of Economics (New York, 1937), pp. 88–89.
[]K. Engliš, Grundlagen des wirtschaftlichen Denkens (Brunn, 1925).
[]See J. N. Tewari, “What Is Economics?” Indian Journal of Economics, April, 1947, pp. 421 ff., for the identification of rationality with purposefulness.