Is Action an A Priori Category?

And was Mises a Kantian?

Sometime in the remote future – maybe 10 or 20 years from now, or even 50, if I live that long – I intend to publish an essay or treatise called Praxeology refuted. (If I cannot refute it, the title will be Praxeology validated.) Here is a head start.

The father of praxeology, the science of human action, Ludwig von Mises, did call action an “a priori category”. And he takes this terminology from the father of the a priori, Immanuel Kant. So let me begin with what Kant meant by this term.

“A priori” means “before experience” or “independent of experience”. Kant attempted to prove that such a priori knowledge lies at the base of all our knowledge. The senses provide us with the raw material of knowledge, but this raw material has to be ordered or structured by  a set of categories, which are known to us independent of all experience and, in fact, are required to even make experience possible. Those categories are twelve in number, no more and no less, and they all have to do with the logic of our thinking. “Action” is not one of those categories, so it should be noted that Mises already deviates from Kant by adding “action” to the categories.

Nevertheless, there is much in Mises’ writings on praxeology that reveals a heavy Kantian influence. For one thing, he maintains that truth and falsehood are a matter, not of reality outside of us, but of the logical structure of the human mind. (I will devote a chapter in my upcoming treatise to this.)

But let me turn to this “category of action”. What is meant by it? The simplest formulation I can come up with is that man acts purposively and relates means to ends. When man acts, he does so with a purpose in mind. The purpose may be long-range (such as pursuing a certain career – or writing a treatise on praxeology), or it may short range (such as going down to the grocery to buy some food – or completing this blog post). But there is no such thing as purposeless action: even if a man just takes a stroll, there is the purpose of relaxation.

It might be objected that some actions (such as sneezing, or removing one’s hand from a hot plate) are involuntary. Mises’ answer to such objections is that those are not actions, but reactions. And human action also has to be distinguished from animal behavior: animals act in ways that promote their survival – lions hunt for food, and the zebras and antelopes run away from the lion to find a safer place to graze. But animals do not consciously set themselves goals and purposes; this is the distinctive mark of man.

So far, so good – there is certainly nothing here that an Objectivist should object to (or any thinking person, for that matter). But is it a priori? Is it independent of experience?

The point that man acts purposively may seem so self-evident and so all-encompassing that it eludes analysis. But I would say that we first know it by introspection: every one of us knows introspectively that we act with a purpose in mind and that we relate means to ends in order to achieve this purpose. That other men do the same is evident from their behavior; the assumption that other men act totally mechanically is too preposterous to seriously consider.

But – Immanuel Kant to the contrary notwithstanding – introspection is no more a priori than is extrospection.

Is Mises, then, a Kantian? Let me quote one of the foremost experts on Mises. Jörg Guido Hülsmann (from his Introduction to the third edition of Epistemological Problems of Economics):

The least one can say is that Mises’ theoretical analyses do not fit very well the caricature of the “Kantian” approach – studying the workings of the human mind, and nothing but this, in order to derive a priori insights about the rest of the world. If we want to do justice to what Mises actually said and did, rather than to squeeze his views into some preconceived epistemological scheme, then it seems we cannot avoid the conclusion that the affinities of Mises’s ideas with Kant’s philosophy are mainly rhetorical affinities. Mises is not closer to Kant than he is to any other rationalist philosopher.

Mises always stressed that the propositions of praxeology and economics were not derived from metaphysical (in the pejorative sense of “groundless”) speculation, but from facts of experience – though not experience of the kind that comes from the human senses. (P. liii.)

Well, fine – I like this. (I would like it even more, if it were true.)

It is true that introspective experience does not come through the senses – at least not the kind of introspective experience I wrote about earlier. But it is still experience – not an “a priori” that precedes experience and makes experience possible, the way Kant’s categories are supposed to do.

Let me follow Hülsmann’s advice and see what Mises himself actually said, to find out whether his affinities with Kant are “mainly rhetorical” or not. First from Human Action:

There is no means to establish an a posteriori theory of human conduct and social events. (P. 31.)

And so, such a theory has to be a priori.

In the field of human history a limitation similar to that which the experimentally tested theories enjoin upon the attempts to interpret and elucidate individual physical, chemical, and physiological events is provided by praxeology. Praxeology is a theoretical and systematic, not a historical, subject. Its scope is human action as such, irrespective of all environmental, accidental, and individual circumstances of the concrete acts. Its cognition is purely formal and general without reference to the material content and the particular features of the actual case. It aims at knowledge valid for all instances in which the conditions exactly correspond to those implied in its assumptions and inferences. Its statements and propositions are not derived from experience. They are, like those of logic and mathematics, a priori. They are not subject to verification or falsification on the ground of experience and facts. They are both logically and temporally antecedent to any comprehension of historical facts. They are a necessary requirement of any intellectual grasp of historic events. Without them we should not be able to see in the course of events anything else than kaleidoscopic change and chaotic muddle. (P. 52; italics mine.)

I would also like to quote from Epistemological Problems of Economics (translated from the German original by no less a person than George Reisman):

The science of human action that strives for universally valid knowledge is the theoretical system whose hitherto best elaborated branch is economics. In all of its branches this science is a priori, not empirical. Like logic and mathematics, it is not derived from experience; it is prior to experience. It is, as it were, the logic of action and deed. (P 13; italics mine.)

However, what we know about our action under given conditions is derived not from experience, but from reason. What we know about the fundamental categories of action – action, economizing, preferring, the relationship of means and ends, and everything else that, together with these, constitute the system of human action – is not derived from experience. We conceive all this from within, just as we conceive logical and mathematical truths, a priori, without reference to any experience. Nor would experience ever lead anyone to the knowledge of these things if he did not comprehend them from within himself. (P. 14.)

Those quotes show more than a “rhetorical affinity” between Mises and Kant. Mises’ epistemological framework is clearly Kantian. And saying this is not to “squeeze his views into some preconceived epistemological scheme”; he squeezes himself into that scheme.

Now, the question in my mind is: Is this Kantian framework really necessary to validate all of Mises’ numerous insights. I think not. But this is a large subject, so I will return to it later. Maybe soon, maybe in some remote future.

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