Academic journal article The American Journal of Economics and Sociology

Reconciling Weber and Mises on Understanding Human Action

Academic journal article The American Journal of Economics and Sociology

Reconciling Weber and Mises on Understanding Human Action

Article excerpt



OUR FIRST TASK is to examine why the analysis of action provided by Weber so often has been seen as irreconcilable with that offered by Mises. The former's schema divides all social action into four fundamentally distinctive types:

   (1) instrumentally rational (zweckrational), that is, determined by
   expectations as to the behavior of objects in the environment and
   of other human beings; these expectations are used as "conditions"
   or "means" for the attainment of the actor's own rationally pursued
   and calculated ends; (2) value rational (wertrational), that is,
   determined by a conscious belief in the value for its own sake of
   some ethical, aesthetic, religious, or other form of behavior,
   independently of its prospects of success; (3) affectual
   (especially emotional), that is, determined by the actor's specific
   affects and feeling states; (4) traditional, that is, determined by
   ingrained habituation. (quoted in Peukert 2004: 997)

Weber cautioned that he was describing ideal types, and that any concrete action would usually embody of mixture of two or more of the above abstractions. Still, he believed that many actions could be better understood as conforming primarily to a particular one of those types. Especially relevant to our present exploration is his contention that the third and fourth of the above modes of acting are typically "less than fully rational"; indeed, that in some cases, actions of those types barely exhibit any rationality at all. Mises, on the other hand, rejected the notion of "irrational action" as intrinsically incoherent, declaring:

   Human action is necessarily always rational. The term "rational
   action" is therefore pleonastic and must be rejected as such. When
   applied to the ultimate ends of action, the terms rational and
   irrational are inappropriate and meaningless. The ultimate end of
   action is always the satisfaction of some desires of the acting
   man. Since nobody is in a position to substitute his own value
   judgments for those of the acting individual, it is vain to pass
   judgment on other people's aims and volitions. No man is qualified
   to declare what would make another man happier or less
   discontented. The critic either tells us what he believes he would
   aim at if he were in the place of his fellow; or, in dictatorial
   arrogance blithely disposing of his fellow's will and aspirations,
   declares what condition of this other man would better suit
   himself, the critic. (1966: 20)

A number of writers have cited the apparent incompatibility of these two conceptions of action. For example, Peukert says:

   It may be interesting to briefly compare Weber's approach and
   Mises's homo agens and see how Mises tried to solve the problems we
   identified in Weber.... For Mises, praxeology is a proto-theory
   beyond the particular social sciences. It is not psychological and
   does not depend on inner psychic ways of understanding. The social
   sciences ... [are] absolutely distinct from the natural sciences
   and [their] method of explaining.... Mises believes that action is
   always goal-oriented and meaningful (formal subjectivism) and can
   clearly be distinguished from automatic reactions. For Mises,
   Weber's four types of action do not make sense, because "action"
   implies the instrumentally rational Weberian type. We are not sure
   if Mises really solved Weber's methodological problems. (2004:


The Appearance of Conflict

As NOTED ABOVE, I believe that the appearance of a fundamental conflict between Weber's four-fold schemata of action and Mises's assertion of the tautological rationality of all human action vanishes if we pay heed to the different sorts of explanation each provide. There are, I suggest, distinct contrast-classes implicit in these two explanatory frameworks, so that they offer not incompatible answers to the same category of questions but potentially complementary understandings arising from different perspectives. …

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