Daniel W. Hieber
University of California, Santa Barbara
Since the formulation and elaboration of speech act theory by Grice (1957; 1969), Austin (1962) and Searle (1962) as part of the ordinary language movement in philosophy, the linguistics community has by and large adopted the consensus that speech is a variety of action. Speakers use language to accomplish goals in the social world. Linguists of course differ on what precisely this means, what its implications are, and the extent to which they believe it is relevant to their particular subfield. However, even linguists who focus very little on the social or pragmatic dimensions of language acknowledge this essential fact (cf. Chomsky’s view that the use of language is “an exercise of free will” [McGilvray 2009:2]). This observation is the foundational principle of the fields of pragmatics and sociocultural linguistics, and has contributed significantly to linguistic anthropology, sociolinguistics, discourse, and conversation analysis, among others.
Yet linguistics and the philosophy of language are not the only fields to take interest in the notion of language as action, nor are they even the first. In the decades before the ordinary language philosophers, it was the economists of the Austrian school (known for its subjective value theory [Menger 1976], formulating the problem of economic calculation [von Mises 1990], and for initiating the marginalist revolution in economics [von Böhm-Bawerk 1890]) who wrote about the nature of language as a system driven by individuals acting at various social ends. Though they did not write about language and action with the kind of systematicity that the ordinary language philosophers or early sociocultural linguists such as Hymes (1962) did, the collected body of works in the Austrian school show a consistent appreciation for and exposition of the nature of language as action, with Mises himself noting that “[a] language is not simply a collection of phonetic signs. It is an instrument of thinking and acting” (von Mises 1957:232). To the Austrians, as we shall see, the study of language is simply one subfield within a broader field of study that encompasses all the social sciences: praxeology, or the science of human action. What unites the disparate fields of economics, linguistics, sociology, and history is that they share as their object of study the actions of individuals aiming at various ends within the context of society. The enduring contribution of the Austrian economists to other social sciences is their systematic treatment of this broader science of human action, in which they construct the theoretical and methodological foundation for the entirety of social science.
Naturally, the immediate concern of the Austrian economists was to apply this new praxeological science to the problems of economics, leaving the other social sciences largely unexplored (though Mises’  later work concerning praxeological approaches to history, and more recent scholarship by Cantor & Cox  concerning literature, Hieber  concerning language, and Reid [2012a; 2012b] concerning anthropology). This article is therefore a first attempt to apply the insights of praxeology to the field of linguistics. In some cases, praxeological analysis yields new insight into the problems of linguistics. In others, it merely affirms our existing understanding of linguistic phenomena. Yet the fact that praxeological findings accord with the body of knowledge in linguistics not only lends greater credence and support to the findings of both fields, but also allows us to connect our understanding of language to broader principles pertaining to the social sciences as a whole, thereby relating phenomena previously thought to be disparate and unrelated into a more cohesive, encompassing framework, both within linguistics and across the social sciences. Read more ›