Science, Human Action, The Search for “Truth”, and Consequences | Part 10: The Unique Qualities of the Human Mind

Thinking on the Potential Dangers of Science Myopia (Photo: Joao Silas,

© 2018, Barry L. Linetsky. All Rights Reserved.

In his life-long search for truth in, and exposition of, economic science, Mises recognized that “it is not possible to question the real existence of matter, of physical objects and of the external world.” In building an inductive scientific basis for a science of human action (and for all human knowledge) – which Mises called praxeology (the logic of human action) – he recognized that humans are born with a unique evolved faculty, a capability of the human brain, which we colloquially call the mind, that allows for man’s conscious conduct and ability to influence to some extent the course of events.

“Mind or reason,” wrote Mises, “is contrasted with matter, the will with self-acting impulses, instincts, and physiological processes” (The Ultimate Foundation of Economic Science, 11), and is “equipped with a set of tools for grasping reality” (Human Action, Chpt. 2, Sec. 2, 35). These tools are part of the logical structure of the human mind, were acquired naturally over the long course of evolution, and are “logically prior to any experience” (ibid, 35).

The structure of the human mind, says Mises, is such that it possesses pre-wired, built-in, a priori categories and provides the innate capacity for its bearers to behave as humans. These a priori categories are axiomatic, meaning that they are “necessarily implied in every proposition concerning the issue in question. It is implied in all our thinking and acting” (The Ultimate Foundation of Economic Science, 18).

The a priori categories are identified by introspection and logic, and include existence (that which is exists), identity (what is possesses a specific nature), and consciousness (the faculty of perceiving what exists), but also causation (“the succession and concatenation of events” in which “no action could be performed by men not guided by it” (ibid, 20)), action (the process of choosing a goal and then taking steps to achieve it), classification (identification of similarities and differences), and time (the measurement of motion).

Mises elaborated further on the idea of a priori categories that are inherent within and emerge as manifestations of the human mind (what others have identified as axiomatic concepts):

If we qualify a concept or a proposition as a priori, we want to say: first, that the negation of what it asserts is unthinkable for the human mind and appears to it as nonsense; secondly, that this a priori concept or proposition is necessarily implied in our mental approach to all the problems concerned, i.e., in our thinking and acting concerning these problems.

The a priori categories are the mental equipment by dint of which man is able to think and to experience and thus to acquire knowledge. Their truth or validity cannot be proved or refuted as can those of a posteriori propositions, because they are precisely the instrument that enables us to distinguish what is true or valid from what is not.

What we know is what the nature or structure of our senses and of our mind makes comprehensible to us. We see reality not as it “is” and may appear to a perfect being, but only as the quality of our mind and of our senses enables us to see it. Radical empiricism and positivism do not want to admit this. As they describe it, reality writes, as experience, its own story upon the white sheets of the human mind. They admit that our senses are imperfect and do not fully and faithfully reflect reality. But they do not examine the power of the mind to produce, out of the material provided by sensation, an undistorted representation of reality. In dealing with the a priori we are dealing with the mental tools that enable us to experience, to learn, to know, and to act. We are dealing with the mind’s power, and this implies that we are dealing with the limits of its power.

We must never forget that our representation of the reality of the universe is conditioned by the structure of our mind as well as of our senses.  (Ibid, 18-19)

For the mind to meaningfully process the events it observes, it must be, as Mises puts it, “equipped with a set of tools for grasping reality” (Human Action, Chpt. 2, Sec. 2, 35). The development of these tools as the human being matures does not imply that humans possess or develop innate ideas:

The innate categories are not innate ideas. What the normal – healthy – child inherits from his parents are not any categories, ideas, or concepts, but the human mind that has the capacity to learn and to conceive ideas, the capacity to make its bearer behave as a human being, i.e., to act.

However we may think about this problem [of the origin of a priori categories], one thing is certain. Since the a priori categories emanating from the logical structure of the human mind have enabled man to develop theories the practical application of which has aided him in his endeavors to hold his own in the struggle for survival and to attain various ends that he wanted to attain, these, categories provide some information about the reality of the universe. They are not merely arbitrary assumptions without any informative value, not mere conventions that could as well be replaced by some other conventions. They are the necessary mental tool to arrange sense data in a systematic way, to transform them into facts of experience, then these facts into bricks to build theories, and finally the theories into technics to attain ends aimed at. (Mises, The Ultimate Foundation of Economic Science, 16)

Mises recognized as a starting point not only that we can experience the world directly with our senses, but from the perspective of human actors, each of us is born with the ability to recognize that “there is in the world something that offers resistance to the realization of [our] wishes and desires” (Ibid, 6). To succeed in achieving the ends we seek, we must establish and adjust our methods based on feedback we gain through interaction with the external world we directly encounter. From our perspective as actors, “we may define the external world as the totality of all those things and events that determine the feasibility or unfeasibility, the success or failure, of human action” (Ibid).

What we soon discover “in the orbit of natural events of the external world” is that there is no such thing as action. What we discover about the natural world of physical events are sequences of phenomena we identify as cause and effect, stimulus and response. What we find is that “There are constant relations between entities that enable the scientist to establish the process called measurement. But there is nothing that would suggest aiming at ends sought; there is no ascertainable purpose” (ibid, 7). Observation of cause and effect is our means of discovering the identity of things that exist.

What is of the utmost importance to note, says Mises, is that “The natural sciences are causality research; the sciences of human action are teleological” (ibid), i.e., actions determined by a prior purpose to achieve a desired end.

Mises is quick to point out that it must not be overlooked that goal directed human action exists within the wider category of causality, for “as no action could be devised and ventured upon without definite ideas about the relation of cause and effect, teleology presupposes causality” (ibid, 8). To qualify as an action, Mises reminds us, there must first be a choosing of ends and a means for the attainment of these ends:

We cannot think of an acting being that would not in concreto distinguish what is end and what is means, what is success and what is failure, what he likes more and what he likes less, what is his profit or his loss derived from the action and what his costs are. In grasping all these things, he may, of course, err in his judgment concerning the role various external events and materials play in the structure of his action. (Ibid, 8-9)

NEXT: Part 11. The Important Implications of Proctology

Mises: The A Priori Nature of Human Action (pdf)

Barry Linetsky has learned a considerable amount from the writings of Mises and Hayek. Barry makes his living specializing in value-driven strategic management, and is the author of the acclaimed business biography The Business of Walt Disney and the Nine Principles of His Success (Theme Park Press, 2017) and Free Will: Sam Harris Has It (Wrong), both available from amazon. He frequently blogs at and has been published in the Ivey Business Journal and Rotman Magazine. Twitter @BizPhilosopher.

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