Formal Deductions from the Axiom of Action

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    Professor Herbener,

    Firstly, thank you for dedicating your time to developing a survey of an Austrian approach to economic science. It has been clarifying and enlightening. However, it also has lead me to further examine the process of deduction from the axiom of action.

    At the beginning of lecture 2.1 you begin to develop the implications from the axiom but note that the process of examining the implications are based on reflexive knowledge by stating,

    “the first several conclusions that we listed out and discuss will not be implications we draw logically from the premise, but simply [they are] statements and discussions of reflective knowledge we have about human action”

    Now, I understand that further developing the proposition that humans act will require precise distinctions such as the conclusions you present (e.g. only individual persons act, action takes time, human action is an attempt to change an existing situation into a preferable situation, ect), but I am finding it difficult to see how these can be presented in a formal process of deduction. When looking at Rothbard’s presentation of praxeology and economics he presents the form of economic analysis as (MES, pg. 72):

    1) Assert A (action axiom)
    2) If A, then B; if B, then C; if C, then D, ect. (by rules of logic)
    3) Therefore, we assert (the truth of), B, C, D, ect.

    In his reply to Mr. Schuller Murray Rothbard affirms that “economic theory is deduced from the apodictic axiom of action, and most of economic theory, including the laws and implications of Uncertainty, Time Preference, the Law of Returns, the Law of Utility, ect. can be deduced directly with no further assumptions…with the help of a very small number of subsidiary axioms …the rest of economic theory can be deduced ”(pg. 945). When focusing on the former implications only, I am finding it difficult to see what “B” would be in the statement “If men employ means to achieve ends, then B” and what a formal presentation of the explicit deduction would look like. I ask as it appears that the chain of logical deduction must be airtight if one were to want to utilize the conclusion of the previous argument as a premise for the subsequent argument in the line of reasoning. If this is the formal structure of praxeology and economics, what would be an example of the first implication in deduction?

    Please let me know if I have made a mistake in understanding the derivation that is supposed to be taking place from the axiom. At this point the implications from the axiom seems to be a bit murky in my mind.


    Before one can deduce anything from the action axiom, one must state its meaning. As human beings we understand the meaning of human action from reflecting on our own experience in taking actions. We don’t deduce the meaning of uncertainty from the action axiom, we understand what uncertainty means by reflecting on the actions we have taken. From that knowledge we can deduce the laws of uncertainty. In other words, we have to explain the meaning of your step (1) before we formally deduce other propositions from it. We gain this meaning by reflection.

    Take a look at David Gordon’s discussion of action in chapters 2 and 3 in his book:


    Thank you for the response, Dr. Herbener. Forgive me for harping on a formal presentation of deduction from the axiom, I have just grown accustomed to presentations in philosophy of religion where clear premises are stated. Seeing that I constantly see the terms “premises” and “deduction” in various texts, I find myself looking for explicitly stated arguments, but such arguments are not given. From what I can tell from your preliminary lectures, Economic Reasoning, and Economic Science and the Austrian Method this does not seem to be an appropriate method.

    I will attempt to clarify how I am reasoning. In thinking about Rothbard’s presentation of economic analysis, I am imaging a sort of modus ponens form as a chain of argumentation in such a way that the first principles would begin from rearranging 1) and 2) to arrive at:

    1) If A, then B
    2) A
    3) Therefore, B
    4) If B, then C
    5) B
    6) Therefore, C (and so on)

    But it appears, as far as I can tell, from Gordon’s readings and other sources that A takes on the form of a cumulative premise, including the implications from the axiom. After this cumulative premise has been established, it is then that the derivation can take place. However, if this is the case, I am still unsure how that would be stated formally.

    Hopefully, the above shows how I am reasoning clear enough to allow you to see if I have made any obvious errors in thinking (which I am sure I have!) which would have led me down the wrong path.


    Because I am not a philosopher, I posed your inquiry to Dr. Gordon. His response follows:

    Thanks for forwarding your student’s excellent question. The reasoning used in praxeology is of different kinds. Sometimes, the issue is what is involved in a concept? For example, “an action involves the use of means to achieve an end.” This is not deduced from a premise.” Rather, one thinks about the concept of action and asks, is this statement true? Note that this is not a matter of stipulating a definition: rather, the concept is taken as given to consciousness and then one inquires about the nature of the concept. Doing this is not preliminary to formalization. Thinking about the nature of the concept is the praxeological reasoning: it isn’t an informal version of something else.

    In other cases, there is reasoning from premises, as in the argument for the law of return or some of the arguments for time preference. I am not sure what your student means by a “cumulative premise”. It isn’t that conclusions are continually added to the concept of action, and then other propositions deduced from this combined premise. Rather, sometimes there is deduction of conclusions from premises, at other times what is done is thinking about the meaning of a concept. Your student is wrongly trying to look for parallels to the sort of formal structure he is used to from other classes.


    Dr. Gordon’s answer was exactly what I was looking for. As for the cumulative premise, he articulated exactly what I was attempting to convey by using that phrase.

    Thank you for taking the time to get my question answered, Dr. Herbener.

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