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What is Thymology?

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One sees the word thrown around a lot.

I found how Mises defines it in Theory and History, Chapter 12, as “the knowledge of human valuations and volitions.” In simple language, “What were they thinking?”
So that we have Praxeology, the study of what people do given that they have a certain goal, and Thymology, the study of why do they have that goal.

Here are the two studies at work, talking about the future.
Smith goes into a room. It is a dark room. We know somehow that his goal is to have a well lit room.
Praxeology tells us that, ceteris parebis, he will flick the light switch.
Thymology tells us why he wants a well lit room. This is clearly a much more difficult question to answer.

Here they are again, this time talking about the same event in the past.
Smith went into a room. It was a dark room. We know somehow that his goal is to have a well lit room. He flicked the light switch and behold, the room was lit. He then sat down and read a book.
Praxeology tells us that he flicked the light switch because it was the easiest way he knew of to get what he wanted, a well lit room.
Thymology tells us why he wanted a well lit room, because he wanted to read the book.

Is thymology of the past always that easy? Not at all. Who knows what people were thinking? Mises writes:

Thymology is on the one hand an offshoot of intro-
spection and on the other a precipitate of historical ex-
perience. It is what everybody learns from intercourse
with his fellows. It is what a man knows about the way
in which people value different conditions, about their
wishes and desires and their plans to realize these
wishes and desires. It is the knowledge of the social
environment in which a man lives and acts or, with
historians, of a foreign milieu about which he has
learned by studying special sources. If an epistemolo-
gist states that history has to be based on such knowl-
edge as thymology, he simply expresses a truism.

In other words, you learn what the other fellow was thinking in two ways.
First, by introspection.
You see Jones standing taller when a girl enters the room. Why did he do that? What was he thinking? By introspection, you realize that if a girl you wanted to impress entered a room, you would stand taller. So you understand that is why Jones did it, too.

Second, by experience. If you are Mr Spock the Martian, you would never stand taller to impress some Earthling, a species you consider inferior and repulsive. But you have been around Earthlings long enough to have seen them do it many times, and they have taken you into their confidence and told you why. So the next time it happens, you understand that’s why Scotty is doing it now.

That’s what Mises meant by thymology. However, in recent times, the word is being used for yet another branch of study, predictive economics of the real world. Say Peter Schiff, by a mixture of his knowledge of Austrian Economics, his experience in the world of finance, and intuition and creativity, predicts that there will be a crash in the housing market. Such a prediction is not exactly pure praxeology, and there is no convenient word yet coined to describe it. So some people have started calling what he did thymology, for want of a better word.

Here is Walter Block, for example:
…allow me a few methodological, philosophical words. Austrian economists, qua Austrian economists, or praxeologists, do not predict. Period. In what sense, then, am I putting together this list of Austrians who have predicted the housing bubble? It is in the sense that they predicted this phenomenon not as formal economists, or praxeologists, but, rather, in their role as thymologists, or economic historians; see on this here.

I disagree with both his assertions. Of course praxeologists predict. That is the whole purpose of praxeology. Here’s Mises in Theory and History:

Economics deals with a regularity in the concatena-
tion and sequence of phenomena that is valid in the
whole field of human action. It can therefore contribute
to the elucidation of future events; it can predict within
the limits drawn to praxeological prediction….

Praxeology, the a priori science of human action,
and, more specifically, its up to now best-developed
part, economics, provides in its field a consummate in-
terpretation of past events recorded and a consummate
anticipation of the effects to be expected from future
actions of a definite kind….

I also disagree with the esteemed Prof Block calling a predictor of future
events a “historian”. History is the past, not the future.

Maybe Prof Block thought that since Mises wrote in Chapter 14 of Theory and History that we need thymology to predict the future, that thymology is the prediction of the future.
No. We need heat to bake a cake, but heat is not a cake.
Here’s Mises on the subject:

First he talks about thymological experience:
Thymological experience is what we know about hu-
man value judgments, the actions determined by them,
and the responses these actions arouse in other people.
As has been said, this experience stems either from in-
trospection or from intercourse with other men, from
our acting in various interhuman relations.

Like all experience, thymological experience too is
necessarily knowledge of things that happened in the
past…Thymology is a historical discipline.

Then he says:
For lack of any better tool, we must take recourse to
thymology if we want to anticipate other people’s fu-
ture attitudes and actions. Out of our general thymo-
logical experience, acquired either directly from observ-
ing our fellow men and transacting business with them
or indirectly from reading and from hearsay, as well as
out of our special experience acquired in previous con-
tacts with the individuals or groups concerned, we try
to form an opinion about their future conduct.

Clearly, he is not saying that thymology is prediction. Thymology is an understanding of the past.
But we have to use thymology, use our understanding of the past, to help us predict the future.
Just like an oven is not a cake, but we must use the oven to bake a cake.

But hey, language is what people decide it is.
A word means what people use it to mean.
When Mises used it, it meant an understanding of motives.
Block started using it to mean as well the use of that understanding to predict the future.
If that use catches on, and it looks like it has to some extent, then that it what the word means today.


1 Comment

  1. Anonymous says:

    I think he is really talking about understanding motives. But then projecting them to the future.


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