In 1949, the first year of Harry S. Truman’s only elective presidential term, three things happened that were of huge importance … at least to me. Ludwig von Mises (1881-1973) published Human Action. Gilbert Ryle (1900-1976) published The Concept of Mind. And, oh yeah, I was born. The connection here is that Mises’s and Ryle’s books are two of the most influential things I have ever read.
What’s also interesting is what else the books have in common. Human Action sets out the logical structure of all purposeful action as well as its socioeconomic implications. Mises called the study of human action praxeology. Thus while Human Action is one of the most important books on economics ever written, it is so much more.
Ryle’s book is also about human action, but his philosophical accomplishment was to show that our purposeful pursuits require no “ghost in the machine” — no soul, spirit, or mind conceived as a nonmaterial organ — to explain them. (The ghost explanation in fact creates philosophical problems rather than solves them.) Ryle went a step further and showed that, contrary to determinists, neuroscientists, and the like, human action also would require no exemption from the laws of physics to exist. In other words, Ryle set out to solve the old mind-body problem that had plagued philosophy at least since Descartes, and he did it without dismissing purpose, which we all understand in our everyday lives, or objective reality. I’m not aware that the two men ever encountered each other or commented on each other’s work.
Here’s a morsel of Mises:
Human action is purposeful behavior. Or we may say: Action is will put into operation and transformed into an agency, is aiming at ends and goals, is the ego’s meaningful response to stimuli and to the conditions of its environment, is a person’s conscious adjustment to the state of the universe that determines his life. Such paraphrases may clarify the definition given and prevent possible misinterpretations. But the definition itself is adequate and does not need complement of commentary.
Conscious or purposeful behavior is in sharp contrast to unconscious behavior, i.e., the reflexes and the involuntary responses of the body’s cells and nerves to stimuli. People are sometimes prepared to believe that the boundaries between conscious behavior and the involuntary reaction of the forces operating within man’s body are more or less indefinite. This is correct only as far as it is sometimes not easy to establish whether concrete behavior is to be considered voluntary or involuntary. But the distinction between consciousness and unconsciousness is nonetheless sharp and can be clearly determined….
The field of our science is human action, not the psychological events which result in an action. It is precisely this which distinguishes the general theory of human action, praxeology, from psychology. The theme of psychology is the internal events that result or can result in a definite action. The theme of praxeology is action as such….
Action is not simply giving preference. Man also shows preference in situations in which things and events are unavoidable or are believed to be so. Thus a man may prefer sunshine to rain and may wish that the sun would dispel the clouds. He who only wishes and hopes does not interfere actively with the course of events and with the shaping of his own destiny. But acting man chooses, determines, and tries to reach an end. Of two things both of which he cannot have together he selects one and gives up the other. Action therefore always involves both taking and renunciation.
…Wherever the conditions for human interference are present, man acts no matter whether he interferes or refrains from interfering. He who endures what he could change acts no less than he who interferes in order to attain another result. A man who abstains from influencing the operation of physiological and instinctive factors which he could influence also acts. Action is not only doing but no less omitting to do what possibly could be done.
We may say that action is the manifestation of a man’s will. But this would not add anything to our knowledge. For the term will means nothing else than man’s faculty to choose between different states of affairs, to prefer one, to set aside the other, and to behave according to the decision made in aiming at the chosen state and forsaking the other….
It is true that the changes brought about by human action are but trifling when compared with the effects of the operation of the great cosmic forces. From the point of view of eternity and the infinite universe man is an infinitesimal speck. But for man human action and its vicissitudes are the real thing. Action is the essence of his nature and existence, his means of preserving his life and raising himself above the level of animals and plants. However perishable and evanescent all human efforts may be, for man and for human science they are of primary importance.
We need not ask if human action exists. As human beings, we know it does “from the inside.” Mises called this knowledge a priori because we don’t first discover human action “out there.” In fact, one obviously would demonstrate the existence of human action just by attempting to prove or disprove its existence. To ask if human beings act is in itself to act.
And now Ryle:
The fears expressed by some moral philosophers that the advance of the natural sciences diminishes the field within which the moral virtues can be exercised rests on the assumption that there is some contradiction in saying that one and the same occurrence is governed by both mechanical laws and moral principles, an assumption as baseless as the assumption that a golfer cannot at once conform to the laws of ballistics and obey the rules of golf and play with elegance and skill. Not only is there plenty of room for purpose where everything is governed by mechanical laws, but there would be no place for purpose if things were not so governed. Predictability is a necessary condition of planning…. [Thus] there is no need for the desperate salvage-operation of withdrawing the applications of [biology, anthropology, sociology, ethics, logic, aesthetics, politics, economics, historiography, etc.] out of the ordinary world to some postulated other word, or of setting up a partition between things that exist in Nature and things that exist in non-Nature. No occult precursors of overt acts [e.g., volitions] are required to preserve for the agent his title to plaudits or strictures for performing them, not would they be effective preservatives if they did exist.
Men are not machines, not even ghost-ridden machines. They are men — a tautology which is sometimes worth remembering….
Questions of … patterns are properly asked of certain chain-processes. The question ‘What makes the bullet fly out of the barrel?’ is properly answered by ‘The expansion of gases in the cartridge’; the question ‘What makes the cartridge explode?’ is answered by reference to the percussion of the detonator; and the question ‘How does my squeezing the trigger make the pin strike the detonator?’ is answered by describing the mechanism of springs, levers and catches between the trigger and the pin. So when it is asked ‘How does my mind get my finger to squeeze the trigger?’ the form of the question presupposes that a further chain-process is involved embodying still earlier tensions, releases and discharges, though this time ‘mental’ ones. But whatever is the act or operation adduced as the first step of this postulated chain-process, the performance of it has to be described in just the same way as in ordinary life we describe the squeezing of the trigger by the marksman. Namely we say simply ‘He did it’ and not “He did or underwent something else which caused it’.
TGIF — The Goal Is Freedom — appears on occasional Fridays.