Thymological Investigations

One of the least-examined topics in the realm of Austrian Economics is the category of Thymology. As a frame of reference, searching “Praxeology” in Google Scholar yields 16,800 results, whereas searching “Thymology” yields only 477. Even its originator, Ludwig von Mises, wrote about Thymology only sparingly. In Theory and History, Mises dedicates only one full chapter to it, with several other references in other chapters. Additionally, it receives a handful of mentions in the last living publication, The Ultimate Foundations of Economic Science. However, even in these places where Mises does write about Thymology, he doesn’t do so in a thorough or systematic fashion. It would too far to say that Mises views it as an afterthought, but Mises clearly was not interested in devoting much space to it. Given the lack of literature post-Mises on this topic, it is hard to shake the feeling that the subject of Thymology remains sorely underdeveloped.

There are few critiques I would dare to level against the writings of Professor Mises, but I steadfastly believe that his failure to more fully develop his concept of Thymology is one of the few substantial shortcomings of his economic work. Equally disappointing is the dearth of progress made on the subject ever since. In the interest doing what I can to revive and advance this forgotten area, my goal here is to consolidate Mises’ writings on Thymology and present them in a more structured format. After that, we will look to see what questions we can answer that Mises did not (or did so unsatisfactorily), and then examine what kind of applications can be made from understanding Thymology.

First, a quick introduction to make sure everyone is on the same page. Thymology is the understanding particular features of human action. On first glance, this definition might seem somewhat confusing. We can clarify this by contrasting Thymology with its corollary, Praxeology: the science of human action. Praxeology begins from what Mises calls the “action axiom”, which is the simple and self-evident statement that human beings act. Action in the praxeological sense is employment of means for the attainment of ends. Upon reflection, we can all see this mechanism, of using means to attain ends, in our lives all around us. We might use the means of two slices of bread, a slice of ham, and a plate for satisfying the end of making a ham sandwich. We might utilize the means of our automobiles for achieving the end of travelling to and from work, and so on and so forth. From the action axiom, Praxeology proceeds through logical deduction to reach conclusions about the necessary features of action. One of these is the category of time preference, that actors prefer present satisfaction to that same satisfaction received in the future.

Praxeology concerns itself with only the necessary features of human action. It deals only with, as Hayek termed it, the “pure logic of choice”. Thymology is the other half of this acting coin. Thymology deals only in the particulars of human action. It deals with understanding the motivations behind an individual’s actions, of why someone chooses Option A over Option B. Mises gives his definition of Thymology in Ultimate Foundations of Economic Science, writing:

“Thymology is a branch of history or, as Collingwood formulated it, it belongs in ‘the sphere of history.’ It deals with the mental activities of men that determine their actions. It deals with the mental processes that result in a definite kind of behavior, with the reactions of the mind to the conditions of the individual’s environment. It deals with something invisible and intangible that cannot be perceived by the methods of the natural sciences.” (pg. 46–47)

Mises often describes Thymology in terms of history. This makes sense, as we can most easily apply Thymology in a historical context. Asking why Napoleon invaded Russia is obviously a Thymological question. To answer it, we have to understand the various factors necessary that would have influenced Napoleon to act the way he did. Given how often Mises refers to Thymology in terms of history (See also Theory and History pg. 313), we might be tempted to think of it purely in historical terms. However, Mises is clear that Thymology applies not only in the past, but in the present and the future as well:

“For lack of any better tool, we must take recourse to thymology if we want to anticipate other people’s future attitudes and actions. Out of our general thymological experience, acquired either directly from observing our fellow men and transacting business with them or indirectly from reading and from hearsay, as well as out of our special experience acquired in previous contacts with the individuals or groups concerned, we try to form an opinion about their future conduct.” (Theory and History pg. 313)

Thymology is not just for understanding the past, but also for understanding the present and the future. Additionally, in the above quote Mises also addresses another important aspect of Thymology. Whenever conducting a Thymological investigation — asking why someone is acting the way they are — we necessarily have to rely in part on our own experiences in trying to understand or anticipate the actions of others. Without that experience, many actions and motivations that we unconsciously recognize seem very strange. Why is it that so many people enjoy trading around colorful pieces of paper to each other? Why is everyone so interested in keeping a collection of these strange notes? It is only because we have lived in society that we can understand the concepts such as money and able to recognize it whenever it appears elsewhere.

Thymology is qualitatively different from Praxeology in that it has no constant laws. We can see this clearly in the historical realm, as there are no necessary and ironclad laws of history, but this applies in observing present and predicting future conduct as well. Mises states:

“All that thymology can tell us is that in the past definite men or groups of men were valuing and acting in a definite way. Whether they will in the future value and act in the same way remains uncertain. All that can be asserted about their future conduct is speculative anticipation of the future based on the specific understanding of the historical branches of the sciences of human action.”

The lack of Thymological laws doesn’t mean that we are completely unable to make predictions concerning the specifics of human action. Not only are we able to do so, but we do so often in the course of our daily lives. I can predict, with a strong degree of accuracy, how busy the intersection outside of my neighborhood will be tomorrow at noon. However, the difference between these predictions regarding action and scientific laboratory predictions is that the content of human action isn’t subject to necessary laws. Praxeology tells us what the necessary categories of action are, but this only tells us what action is, not what it contains. As a result, the content of action is always subject to change. My prediction of the traffic outside my neighborhood is predicated on my Thymological prediction of the actions of others. It may be correct, but cannot ever be necessarily correct. The actions of the individuals that I am projecting in the future are subject to change at any time. This does not mean that change is inevitable or guaranteed; I might successfully predict every day for years the traffic outside of my neighborhood at noon. However, consistency of action is not equivalent to constancy. Change in the content of action is always possible.

Now that we have some grasp of Thymology, we can turn to questions that Mises either omits in his analysis or fails to sufficiently answer. First, what exactly is the domain of Thymological questions? Mises speaks about Thymology mostly in operational terms. This is useful for understanding what it does, but it doesn’t help us to understand precisely what it is and where it applies. To properly frame the scope of Thymology, we have to return back to the purpose and origins of Austrian methodology.

Austrian Economics as an economic framework is predicated on the notion of causal realism. The pursuit of causal realism is predicated on looking at the outside world and establishing causes for the phenomenon that we see. This framework was the building block of Carl Menger’s analysis in his Principles, as well the motivation behind Mises’ desire to create a science of human action in Praxeology. This desire to uncover causal links to understand the world around us is the driving force behind Thymology as well. Praxeology seeks to establish the necessary causal components of action, whereas Thymology only examines its contingent features.

Understood through a causal realist lens, the goal of Thymology is the understanding of particular actions. This involves observing the actions of others (or projecting their future actions), and then filling in the causal chain to explain why individuals acted, are acting, or will act in this particular way. If I observe someone sitting down on the couch and watching television after a long day at work, a Thymological inquiry must be able to explain the action I am observing. As stated above, our own experience in the world is a vital part of how we will in these causal sequences.

What, then, is the domain of Thymological questions? Any questions pertaining to the causal basis for why individuals acted, are acting, or will act as they did, do, or will. Thus,

Why did Napoleon invade Russia?
Why is the traffic so heavy outside my neighborhood?
Which car brand will sell the most next year?

are all Thymological questions.

In addition, we should note that not all questions pertaining to the particulars of action are necessarily Thymological. If I ask, “In what year did Napoleon invade Russia”, this is a question about the actions of an individual, but is not Thymological in nature. This is because the question does not pertain to understanding that individual’s actions, but is just a request for information about those actions. Similarly, asking, “How did Napoleon invade Russia” is another question about action, but not of understanding the causes behind that action. As a result, it lies outside the realm of Thymology.

What exactly is needed in order to conduct Thymology? What tools are necessary to answer Thymological questions? Strictly speaking, all that we need are the categories of Praxeology. If we don’t understand the necessary features of human action — of values, means and ends, and so forth — then we simply have no way of understanding the concept of action at all. Trying to answer Thymological questions without Praxeological understanding is akin to trying to identify the brand or make of a car without knowing what a car is. [Add section about implicit understanding of Praxeology?]

Praxeological understanding is all that is necessary for Thymological inquiry, but as we saw above, we can’t answer Thymological questions without reference to our own experience. If I am trying to understand why someone decided to work at Company A and not Company B, but I have no notion of a job or a company or a salary or work, any explanation I formulate will be severely lacking. Praxeology gives us the framework to understand the task at hand, but without any experience of our own, we have no knowledge of particulars to understand the particular actions of others.

What kind of applications does Thymology have? Mises gives us the first and most obvious, that Thymology allows us to conduct history. Because we can look back into the past and attempt to understand the actions of others, we can provide a chronological account of actors and their actions and why they acted in the way that they did. Apart from this, what other applications might Thymology have?

Given the barren landscape of literature on Thymology, disappointingly little work has been done in this area. Even so, I believe it to be one of great interest, and one where future strides can be made in helping to further our understanding of both Thymology and of economics as well. Upon my own research, there was one particularly notable (and largely unappreciated) application of Thymology by Dr. Richard Grimm pertaining to theories of investing. The first iteration of his thesis was in a 2009 presentation at the Mises Institute, which exists only in audio format. He did, however, later publish a paper with these ideas, titled, “Fundamental Analysis as a Traditional Austrian Approach to Common Stock Selection.”

The main idea behind Grimm’s presentation and paper is that there are many different investing “strategies” that exist, many of whom are not consistent with Austrian insights. Grimm sees the act of investing, of attempting to discern which business opportunities are most likely to succeed, as fundamentally a Thymological question. Consequently, Grimm sees fundamental analysis as being the investing strategy the most in-line with Austrian insights. While I won’t recount his entire argument, Grimm’s contribution to the Thymological and financial literature should be much better known.

In line with Grimm’s application of Thymology to investing is another application, one which I am partly surprised that Mises did not make himself. This is the application of Thymology to entrepreneurship. For an entrepreneur to be successful, he has to anticipate consumer desires and arrange present resources to meet them. For him to anticipate consumer desires, he must understand the actions of the consumer, specifically, their buying goods and services. This understanding of the desires of consumers and the actions they take to fulfill them is a fundamentally Thymological inquiry.

Entrepreneurship is marked by its inherent uncertainty. The success or failure of any business venture is something that can be judged or appraised, but it can never be known for sure. This is because — just as is the case for Thymology — there are no laws of entrepreneurship. There may be patterns that one can discern and trends that are detected, but these are not necessary features of consumer’s behavior. It is true that consumers tend to increase their consumption of candy canes around Christmas, but there is no law of action that dictates that this is the case. If they wanted to, consumers could at any time stop eating candy canes altogether, or eat them at equal frequencies year-round. The entrepreneur is the same situation of anyone trying to predict the actions of his fellow man. He must use his own Thymological experience and judgement to determine how they will act. But the outcome of these actions is never certain.

In the interest of being forward-looking, where else might scholarship be able to further develop the concept of Thymology? I believe there are several areas that could use some work and tidying-up. First, I strongly feel that the subject of Thymology in general is deserving of much more academic attention than it has received. The internal workings of Thymology, as well as the interplay between Praxeology and Thymology, could use much more elaboration. We just need more papers and books about Thymology, dog gonnit!

Secondly, more practical applications of Thymology should be investigated. The applications discussed here, investing and entrepreneurship, are only two of a panacea of possible ways to use Thymology. While some of these lay within the economic and financial realm, I suspect that other fields could make use of Thymology as well. In particular, Anthropology and Sociology might be able to benefit from incorporating it into their analyses as well.

I will leave you with one of my favorite quotes in all of Austrian scholarship:

“Praxeology without Thymology is empty, Thymology without Praxeology is blind.” (Wittgenstein, Austrian Economics, and the Logic of Action: Praxeological Investigations pg. 50)

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