Understanding the Difference between Praxeology and Psychology
It has been proposed that praxeology has potential not only as the foundation for growing the Austrian school of economics but other sciences as well. The utility of Austrian economics is immense, and similar achievements in other domains would be welcome.
However, it seems like a difficult task, as demonstrated by a recent effort to expand praxeology to psychology. The present article discusses the scope and power of praxeology and the conditions of psychological science.
In his book Human Action, Ludwig von Mises describes praxeology as the general theory of human action. At the most fundamental level, he distinguishes praxeology theory from history. History, in his account, is rather the collection and interpretation of data. Another way to make the distinction is to separate claims as either valid a priori (theory) or contingent on facts (history). The focus in our case is the use of theory—the use of praxeology—to study human action.
What is the distinguishing attribute that makes praxeology so useful? It is the recognition of the action axiom as the proper starting point of economical reasoning. The action axiom states that men act purposefully. This, I believe, is the core of Misesian praxeology.
There are other attributes of praxeology, such as methodological individualism and logical deduction. But without the action axiom, individualism and logic are merely that. They are not praxeology, the power of which is contingent and limited by the action axiom. Austrian economics has expanded our knowledge of economics widely within that framework, and I personally view Hans-Hermann Hoppe’s work on praxeology-based epistemology as immeasurably illuminating.
A psychology of human action that applies Misesian praxeology will have to show first, that it remains within the bounds of logical reasoning from the action axiom, and second, expands our knowledge about human psychology. A claim like “Human action is motivated by a struggle in the social-status hierarchy” is not logically deducible from the action axiom and thus not a praxeological claim. It does not expand our knowledge of human psychology either.
Now, it seems obvious that this claim is true to some degree, but we cannot say exactly how this struggle for social hierarchy influences our behavior. Any such specific theories or conclusions are dependent on facts derived from empirical observation above and beyond theoretical fundamentals.
In Human Action, Mises writes:
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.
Mises distinguished praxeology from psychology, and I believe that was judicious. Further, psychology might be a uniquely ill-suited domain for the kind of armchair reasoning that works so well in other lines of inquiry. Behaviorists have recommended parents not to soothe their crying babies because it will reinforce crying for attention. From behavioral theory alone, this might seem to be reasonable. But psychology is about everything, including evolved developmental dynamics that are not evident a priori. Now, one might say that in this case it must be obvious that you can’t leave your child crying like the behaviorists recommended. I agree, and I also think it points to the danger of proving too much with theory, and that theory is at its very best when limited to its core capability and function.
Very little is evident a priori in psychology, and it’s a domain suited for skepticism and scientific rigor. This is especially the case when we involve physiological events or evolutionary history. We should involve such aspects but as testable hypotheses. Even though it might seem self-evident that certain aspects of our nature influence mind and behavior, the specifics of this influence are not logically derivable like individual preferences are from the action axiom. Psychological science is broad and ranges from the humanities to the natural sciences. Although the choice of method will depend on the research question at hand, the necessity of empirical methods is rarely escaped. Just as the fundamental epistemology necessitates sound a priori theory, the advancement of applied models necessitates falsifiability of hypotheses and proper tests to demonstrate validity a posteriori. Merely the realization that scientific psychology tries to expose the developmental processes of such phenomena as self-deception and virtue signaling should prompt skepticism toward the fallibility of one’s preconceptions. If anything passes as a foundational axiom in psychology, it is that perception does not equate to a correct interpretation of what’s factual.
It’s not surprising that the robustness of praxeology begets eagerness to utilize the method to tackle important intellectual problems. It becomes even less surprising when one considers the confused pseudoquantifications in social sciences, as well as the politicization and general decadence of academic social science. Still, good theory should be the proper foundation of good empirical methods, not a substitute.