You know that I want your loving
But my logic tells me that it ain’t never gonna happen
And then my defenses say I didn’t want it anyway
But you know sometimes I’m a liar
— Violent Femmes, ‘Promise‘
Ugh… why do I find myself criticising Mises’ garbage philosophy so much over the past few weeks? I do not know — I seem to not be engaged in “purposive action” — but whatever the reason I hope I can get this out of my system soon.
Some time ago the blogger Lord Keynes pointed out that Mises included in his Human Action a discussion of psychoanalysis. At the time Lord Keynes did a bit of a hatchet job and proclaimed that Mises was guilty simply by association with a discipline that everyone knows is a pseudoscience. (How does everyone know this? Because Popper said so, I guess… despite the fact that he used his “falsifiability” criteria to dismiss psychoanalysis and this criteria quickly showed itself to be lacking in many ways, as now almost everyone beyond a few Popperian extremists acknowledge).
Anyway, I didn’t actually get a chance to look up what Mises was talking about at the time but the more I thought about it the less it made sense. How could the theorist of conscious, rational, purposive human action ever get to grips with the idea that many, if not most of our actions are unconscious, irrational and purposive only insofar as we are the slave to our drives? Well, now I’ve looked into it and the answer is clear: he came to terms with it by misunderstanding it and engaging in sophistical reasoning.
Here is the relevant paragraph from page 12 of Human Action:
Whether an action stems from clear deliberation, or from forgotten memories and suppressed desires which from submerged regions, as it were, direct the will, does not influence the nature of the action. The murderer whom a subconscious urge (the Id) drives toward his crime and the neurotic whose aberrant behavior seems to be simply meaningless to an untrained observer both act; they like anybody else are aiming at certain ends. It is the merit of psychoanalysis that it has demonstrated that even the behavior of neurotics and psychopaths is meaningful, that they too act and aim at ends, although we who consider ourselves normal and sane call the reasoning determining their choice of ends nonsensical and the means they choose for the attainment of these ends contrary to purpose.
Okay, read again that first sentence that I have highlighted in red. As anyone who has even a cursory knowledge of psychoanalysis or even psychology can see it is complete and utter nonsense. An action that purely stems from clear deliberation and a lack of unconscious motivation (whether such an action actually exists we will leave in the air) is entirely different in nature from an action that results from unconscious influences. Why? Because the former is intentional and fits nicely with our ego while the latter is wholly unintentional and is usually repressed, pushed to the side and covered up.
Let me take a personal example from the other day. I was talking with a friend of mine online who said that he thought I was being overly hostile toward certain groups online. I said that I didn’t really care what they thought, that I had to tolerate such nonsense in real life too often and that in such real life circumstances I was generally amicable. The only problem was that I wrote “amenable” rather than “amicable”; a classic Freudian slip. I quickly corrected myself and then laughed that I had made a Freudian slip (most people not interested in psychoanalysis would have corrected themselves and just ignored the slip — i.e. they would have engaged in “direct repression” rather than a “working through”).
Obviously there was a lot of truth contained in my slip and it could be divined by reading what I had written carefully. I was unconsciously annoyed that due to social etiquette I often have to tolerate people talking absolute rubbish in real life without pointing out their errors. Because this annoys me at an unconscious level my unconscious mind deems my conscious actions to be “amenable” while my conscious mind happily tried to pass these same actions off as “amicable”. Obviously the former unconscious judgement is a negative evaluation of these personality traits while the latter conscious judgement is a positive evaluation of the same traits.
What this example shows is that from a psychoanalytical point-of-view the mind is torn in two and often simultaneously thinks (perhaps “thinks” is the wrong word) along two or more contradictory lines at once. The psychoanalytical image is of a battle between two forces each vying for power over the individual: one is the conscious, socialised ego-personality; the other is the unconscious, unsocialised id-personality. Clearly then, the actions of each part of the personality cannot be considered, as Mises says, of the same “nature”. They are inherently in contradiction with one another. That is precisely the Freudian problem!
This is where the rest of Mises’ example breaks down entirely. There is not one “true” motivation guiding the individual; but a multitude of different, conflicting motivations all at war with one another. Our ego tries to keep the id at bay while the id tries to get us to engage in behaviors that offend the ego. Such a view of the world is not simply at odds with Mises’ idea that there are singular determinants of “human action”; no, such a view of the world completely demolishes Mises’ conception, a conception it would consider merely a manifestation of rationalisation designed to engage in repression and hide from consciousness that there are “other forces” at work and that these forces conflict with conscious intentions.
Mises wanted to have it both ways. He wanted to integrate the idea of unconscious motivations because at other times he could use his crude understanding of psychoanalysis to criticise whole classes of political opponents as being mentally defective (something someone who actually understood these ideas would never do), but when it came to fundamentals he didn’t want to recognise what such ideas actually entail. If anyone was mentally defective it was Mises himself. Here we have a classic case of a second-rate thinker who, being vaguely aware that he is producing only recycled half-digested dross, compensates for his shabby ideas with crass self-assertion and other forms of flashy chicanery. Mises thought that he had created a new synthesis of thought with his Human Action but all he had really left behind was a testament to his lack of ability to understand the ideas he engaged with — from Kant to Freud and there are likely many others.