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The Ultimate Foundation of Economic Science
Ludwig von Mises

2
The Activistic Basis of Knowledge

5. 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 .

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 Kotarbinski, 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.

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[5] Mises, Human Action, pp. 237 ff.

[6] T. Kotarbinski, "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 Congrés International de Philosophie (Paris, 1937), IV, 190-94. 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. 87 ff.

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