Praxeology and Mind
In Mises’ “Human Action”, he describes uneasiness as being the core motivation behind all action. Mises writes:
“The incentive that impels a man to act is always some uneasiness. A man perfectly content with the state of his affairs would have no incentive to change things. He would have neither wishes nor desires; he would be perfectly happy. He would not act; he would simply live free from care.” (Human Action pg. 13)
For any economics-neophytes, they might at first be tempted to think of this uneasiness as being an actual emotional state — that action is constantly driven by a sense of angst the compels one to act. However, this isn’t what Mises means by “uneasiness”. Mises doesn’t mean to allude to all action having an emotional basis, but a Praxeological one. All action is driven by a fundamental desire to see one’s circumstances changed. Thus, all action is driven by this underlying drive for improvement and betterment. The word that Mises uses for this Praxeological phenomenon is “uneasiness”.
However, this elementary mistake does raise an interesting and valuable question. There certainly are times where we act because we do actually feel a sense of uneasiness. Perhaps we are anxious over the outcome of a future event, so we act in order to influence that outcome. Moreover, we can easily imagine other scenarios where our action is driven by other mental states as well. We are driven to eat because of hunger, impelled to lay down because of exhaustion, etc. In these cases, we can see an obvious connection between the mental states we have and the actions we take as a result of them. This brings us to ask: what exactly is the relationship between these mental states and Praxeology? What is the link between mind and action?
As is good practice, we should first define our terms. The way in which I will be using “mental states” or “psychology” here relates specifically to the mental processes that are actively occurring in our mind at any given time. This includes the thoughts I am having, emotions I am feeling, what I am directly observing, etc. As I write this right now, I am thinking about the words I am writing and about to write, as well as directly observing the laptop computer in front of me. Other mental categories, such as knowledge and beliefs, can also pass into our mental states as well, but also exist in our memory as well. We can contrast mental states with our general consciousness, however. There are many things that I am conscious of that are not a part of my current mental state. I am conscious of my fingers typing out words on my laptop, but I am not actively thinking about my fingers typing each key on my keyboard. Similarly, I am conscious of the wall that lays behind my laptop, the chair I am sitting in, and the lights above my head, but none of these enter into my mental state either. To summarize in a single phrase, mental states are all that is actively and currently running through my brain, whereas consciousness is the totality of all that which I am aware of at any given time.
Now that we have a better grasp of what we mean by “consciousness” and “mentals states”, we can turn to understand how these relate to the Praxeological categories of our mind. To do so, we must construct a clear hierarchy between these two concepts of our Praxeological state and our mental state. First, we cannot imagine human beings who are not actors. The Praxeological aspect of human nature — pursuit of ends through the utilization of means — is a core aspect of what makes man what he is. Our lives and existence are thoroughly stained with the marks of Praxeology and action. It is how we think about ourselves, interact with the outside world, and strive for our improvement within it. We cannot operate without it, whether we want to or not.
Conversely, we can imagine human beings without the mental states that we experience daily. Without a doubt, such an individual would be incredibly foreign and alien to us. They would, for instance, be incapable of feeling happiness or joy, or of any thoughts at all. The details of what such an actor would even look like is difficult to imagine. They would still be conscious, but unable to experience any of the active mental states that occupy our minds at all waking hours. In all likelihood, they would be reduced to little more than a Praxeological house-plant. Regardless, they would still be actors and we could still recognize them as such. Strange as they would be, we could still see them and understand them.
Resultingly, we see a clear order of importance concerning Praxeological functions and mental functions. We can imagine ourselves without mental states, but we cannot imagine ourselves without Praxeological states. To remove the former transforms us into peculiar creatures, but to remove the latter removes us entirely. Thus, our minds must always operate praxeologically, but not always psychologically. In other terms, we are always motivated by praxeological uneasiness, but not always by an emotional uneasiness.
This hierarchy shows us a crucially important point: all psychological phenomena are Praxeological, but not all Praxeological phenomena are psychological. Whenever we act, we can always identify a Praxeological cause, but not always a psychological cause. Additionally, we can always understand our mental states that motivate action from a Praxeological perspective. For instance, if I feel myself to be hungry and think that I should eat lunch, the mental motivations for my action are clear: my hunger and thoughts that I should eat to alleviate it. However, these mental phenomena have a deeper Praxeological basis. To identify this, all we need to do is ask: why would I want to alleviate my hunger? The clear answer is that I prefer not being hungry over being hungry. This is equivalent to stating that I prefer the state of affairs where I am not hungry to the one where I am. One could say that my desire to go from the state of hungry to the state of non-hunger is a result of a felt uneasiness about the future state of affairs. This uneasiness is, of course, the Praxeological basis of all action.
This idea, that our action always has a praxeological basis but not a mental or psychological basis, might sound unintuitive at first, but can be easily demonstrated. Let’s look at a quick example: I am in the elevator on my way to work one morning. To get to my desk, I have to walk off the elevator and across the hall. Whenever the elevator doors open, do I consciously think to myself, “Okay, time to start walking to my desk”? Maybe the first few times after I start the job and am unfamiliar with the environment, but the vast majority of the time no such thought ever crosses my mind. Instead, I will likely be thinking about my work that day, a book I am reading, or a sports game I saw last night. But even if there is no thought that correlates to my action of walking off the elevator and to my desk, would we say that such behavior is unconscious or non-purposeful? Not at all! Even though there was no thought in my mind that correlates with that action, I am still clearly conscious of the choice I made to get off the elevator. It is still clearly action — conscious and purposeful behavior.
The alternative thesis would be to claim that all our actions do have corresponding mental states associated with them. This argument inevitably brings with it one of two uncomfortable conclusions. First, that I actually do think to myself every time I get off the elevator, “I should get off the elevator and walk over to my desk”, as well as having similar thoughts for every other minute action in my life. This claim seems clearly wrong on its face, as we all know that such thoughts are rare occurances. The second conclusion we can draw is that all those actions that do not have corresponding mental processes behind them are not actions at all. This would mean that my walking off the elevator to my desk is not an action, belongs to some other category of “pseudo-action”. Apart from leading to further confusions of its own, this would drastically reduce the prevalence of action within our lives. A large part of the actions that we take, that we are aware of and choose to do, are not truly actions at all. The more sensible conclusion is that even though these actions have no mental corollary, they exhibit Praxeological features and are action nonetheless.
To avoid any potential confusion, we should here clarify further what we mean by Praxeological action apart from psychological components. We do not mean that these actions are being taken unconsciously, such as an involuntary reflex. These non-psychological actions are still being done consciously, just not as a part of our variable mental states at any given time. Again, whenever I step off the elevator and walk to my desk, I am aware and conscious of my doing so. If I was not, we would have to liken it to an eye twitch or a muscle spasm — bodily motions completely out of my control. Obviously, this is not the case. The mental states that we have at any given time are not equivalent to our general consciousness at any given time. They are the principal and most important part of it, but the two are distinct. All action that we take occurs through our general consciousness, as action is purposeful. However, not all action has specific psychological components that could accompany it.
As a result of the relationship between Praxeological and psychological phenomena that we explored here, we can establish a clearer view of the place of action in the human experience. The broadest category we can draw is human behavior. This includes everything human beings do, from sleeping to eating to working to breathing and everything in between. The narrower category we can draw within human behavior is conscious behavior. This includes all behavior from ourselves that we are conscious of, i.e. excluding any unconscious behavior. Even more narrow than this is the category of psychological behavior, which includes all behavior for which we can identify a corresponding mental state. This classification scheme can be illustrated as such:
Where can we identify Praxeology in this schema? It does not exist completely in all human behavior, as involuntary and unconscious behavior is non-purposeful and does not aim at the attainment of an end. It does exist in all forms of conscious behavior, as well as all manifestations of psychological behavior. Consequently, we can replace the Conscious Behavior classification like so:
As we stated above, our minds must always operate Praxeologically, but not always psychologically.
What conclusions can we take away from all of this? Firstly, there is no escape from Praxeology. Wherever there is consciousness and human intentionality, the laws of Praxeology are there as well. This should give us a new-found appreciation for the how truly far-reaching Praxeology — and its corollary, Economics — truly go. Secondly, that as a result our understanding of action should be expanded beyond its generally defined limits. Even though not explicitly stated, many times Austrians will speak about action only in terms of psychological behavior. While this works well for classroom examples and a basic understanding, the farther reaches of Praxeology into non-psychological behavior should not be neglected either.
Our minds are tricky things. Praxeology gives us an invaluable method to understand them and how they interact with the world, both in our thought and all that we do outside of it.