Action in Time (and why we cannot understand eternity)–Mises


Action in Time

Human Action1

1. The Temporal Character of Praxeology
The notion of change implies the notion of temporal sequence. A
rigid, eternally immutable universe would be out of time, but it
would be dead. The concepts of change and of time are inseparably
linked together. Action aims at change and is therefore in the temporal
order. Human reason is even incapable of conceiving the ideas of timeless
existence and of timeless action.
He who acts distinguishes between the time before the action, the time
absorbed by the action, and the time after the action has been finished. He
cannot be neutral with regard to the lapse of time.
Logic and mathematics deal with an ideal system of thought. The relations
and implications of their system are coexistent and interdependent.
We may say as well that they are synchronous or that they are out of time.
A perfect mind could grasp them all in one thought. Man’s inability to
accomplish this makes thinking itself an action, proceeding step by step from the less satisfactory state of insufficient cognition to the more satisfactory
state of better insight. But the temporal order in which knowledge
is acquired must not be confused with the logical simultaneity of all
parts of this aprioristic deductive system. Within this system the notions
of anteriority and consequence are metaphorical only. They do not refer
to the system, but to our action in grasping it. The system itself implies
neither the category of time nor that of causality. There is functional correspondence between elements, but there is neither cause nor effect.
What distinguishes the praxeological system from the logical system
epistemologically is precisely that it implies the categories both of time
and of causality. The praxeological system too is aprioristic and deductive.
As a system it is out of time. But change is one of its elements. The notions
of sooner and later and of cause and effect are among its constituents.
Anteriority and consequence are essential concepts of praxeological reasoning.
So is the irreversibility of events. In the frame of the praxeological
system any reference to functional correspondence is no less metaphorical
and misleading than is the reference to anteriority and consequence in the
frame of the logical system.2
2. Past, Present, and Future
It is acting that provides man with the notion of time and makes him aware
of the flux of time. The idea of time is a praxeological category.
Action is always directed toward the future; it is essentially and necessarily
always a planning and acting for a better future. Its aim is always to
render future conditions more satisfactory than they would be without the
interference of action. The uneasiness that impels a man to act is caused
by a dissatisfaction with expected future conditions as they would probably
develop if nothing were done to alter them. In any case action can
influence only the future, never the present that with every infinitesimal
fraction of a second sinks down into the past. Man becomes conscious of
time when he plans to convert a less satisfactory present state into a more
satisfactory future state.

For contemplative meditation time is merely duration, “la durée pure,
dont l’écoulement est continu, et où l’on passe, par gradations insensibles,
d’un état à l’autre: Continuité réellement vécue.”3  The “now” of the present is continually shifted to the past and is retained in the memory only.
Reflecting about the past, say the philosophers, man becomes aware of
time.4  However, it is not recollection that conveys to man the categories of
change and of time, but the will to improve the conditions of his life.

Time as we measure it by various mechanical devices is always past,
and time as the philosophers use this concept is always either past or
future. The present is, from these aspects, nothing but an ideal boundary
line separating the past from the future. But from the praxeological aspect
there is between the past and the future a real extended present. Action is
as such in the real present because it utilizes the instant and thus embodies
its reality.5

Later retrospective reflection discerns in the instant passed
away first of all the action and the conditions which it offered to action.
Th at which can no longer be done or consumed because the opportunity
for it has passed away, contrasts the past with the present. That which cannot
yet be done or consumed, because the conditions for undertaking it or
the time for its ripening have not yet come, contrasts the future with the
past. The present offers to acting opportunities and tasks for which it was
hitherto too early and for which it will be hereafter too late.
The present qua duration is the continuation of the conditions and
opportunities given for acting. Every kind of action requires special conditions
to which it must be adjusted with regard to the aims sought. The
concept of the present is therefore different for various fields of action. It
has no reference whatever to the various methods of measuring the passing
of time by spatial movements. The present encloses as much of the
time passed away as still is actual, i.e., of importance for acting. The present
contrasts itself, according to the various actions one has in view, with
the Middle Ages, with the nineteenth century, with the past year, month,
or day, but no less with the hour, minute, or second just passed away. If
a man says: Nowadays Zeus is no longer worshiped, he has a present in mind other than that the motorcar driver who thinks: Now it is still too early to turn.
As the future is uncertain it always remains undecided and vague
how much of it we can consider as now and present. If a man had said in
1913: At present — now — in Europe freedom of thought is undisputed,
he would have not foreseen that this present would very soon be a past.


1[Ludwig von Mises, Human Action (1949; Auburn, Ala.: Mises Institute, 1998), chap. 5:
“Time,” pp. 99–104.]

2In a treatise on economics there is no need to enter into a discussion of the endeavors to
construct mechanics as an axiomatic system in which the concept of function is substituted for that of cause and effect. It will be shown later that axiomatic mechanics cannot serve as a model for the treatment of the economic system.

3Henri Bergson, Matière et mémoire (7th ed. Paris, 1911), p. 205.
4Edmund Husserl, “Vorlesungen zur Phänomenologie des inneren Zeitbewusstseins,”
Jahrbuch für Philosophie und Phänomenologische Forschung (1928), vol. 9, pp. 391ff .; Alfred Schütz, Der sinnhaft e Aufb au der sozialen Welt (Vienna, 1932), pp. 45 ff .
5“Ce que j’appelle mon présent, c’est mon attitude vis-à-vis de l’avenir immédiat, c’est nom action imminente.” Bergson, Matière et mémoire, p. 152.

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