Praxeology and language: Social science as the study of human action

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,[1] the linguistics community has by and large adopted the consensus that speech is a variety of action.[2] 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.[3] 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’ [1957] later work concerning praxeological approaches to history, and more recent scholarship by Cantor & Cox [2009] concerning literature, Hieber [2013] 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.

The Scope of Praxeology

In 1949, the Austrian economist and political philosopher Ludwig von Mises published his magnum opus, Human Action: A Treatise on Economics (von Mises 1998). Though little-known outside the field of economics, this book is arguably one of the most significant works of the 20th Century. Mises meticulously rederived the entire body of economic knowledge starting from praxeological principles, producing a masterful treatise that served as a counterpoint to Keynes’ General Theory (which had recently become popular) and firmly grounded economics within the social sciences. Mises’ students and those his writing influenced constituted the original core of the modern libertarian movement in the United States, including such prominent thinkers and writers as Murray N. Rothbard, Nobel laureate Friedrich A. Hayek, Leonard A. Read (founder of the Foundation for Economic Education), journalist Henry Hazlitt, Lew Rockwell (founder of the Ludwig von Mises Institute), popular writer Ayn Rand, and politician Ron Paul.

As indicated by its title, Human Action is concerned first and foremost with undergirding economics and the social sciences with a cogent theory of human action. Mises devotes the first seven chapters of Human Action to the explication of praxeology and its implications for the social sciences. As such, only a superficial summary can be given here. (The reader is encouraged to read these chapters, as well as Mises’ [1962Ultimate Foundation of Economic Science, for a detailed treatment.) Praxeology is defined as the general theory of human action, where human action is in turn defined as “purposeful behavior” (von Mises 1998:11), i.e. goal-directed or teleological behavior. Mises is quick to distinguish praxeology from sciences of the mind such as psychology and neuroscience:

The field of our science is human action, not the psychological events which result in action. It is precisely this which distinguishes the general theory of human action, praxeology, from psychology. The theme of psychology is the internal events that result or can result in definite action. The theme of praxeology is action as such. (von Mises 1998:12)

This clarification yields the first important implication of praxeology: Economists, and other social scientists, are interested in describing human action, and the goals that people have, as they are, not as the social scientists themselves believe they should be. In other words, the social sciences are fundamentally descriptive rather than prescriptive or normative. Mises himself makes this position clear in the following passages:

It is true that economics is a theoretical science and as such abstains from any judgment of value. It is not its task to tell people what ends they should aim at. It is a science of the means to be applied for the attainment of the ends chosen, not, to be sure, a science of the choosing of ends. Ultimate decisions, the valuations and the choosing of ends, are beyond the scope of any science. Science never tells a man how he should act; it merely shows how a man must act if he wants to attain definite ends. (von Mises 1998:10)[4]

In this sense we speak of the subjectivism of the general science of human action. It takes the ultimate ends chosen by acting man as data, it is entirely neutral with regard to them, and it refrains from passing any value judgments. The only standard which it applies is whether or not the means chosen are fit for the attainment of the ends aimed at. (von Mises 1998:21)

The claim that science is value-free is often met with criticism, whether in linguistics, economics, or the physical sciences. Within linguistics, for example, Bolinger (1979) suggests that linguistics and science in general are always necessarily value-laden, while Charity (2008) espouses the view that linguists ought to be agents for social change. These and other writers point out that science comes with attendant social and moral obligations. For example, if linguistic research discovers that multilingualism bestows many cognitive benefits on children (Adesope et al. 2010), are not linguists perhaps morally obligated to oppose policies that actively discourage multilingualism? In the same vein, if an economist discovers that increasing the minimum wage causes unemployment among low-skilled, low-education workers (Rothbard 2009:1114), are not they perhaps morally obligated to oppose minimum wage legislation? These are difficult ethical questions that should not be treated lightly. However, they are ethical questions rather than scientific ones. Science cannot make our value judgements for us; it can only inform them with the relevant data and sound theory. This does not make science and ethics incommensurable – quite the opposite. It merely helps clarify the scope and role for each in an ethically informed approach to science. It is often the case that scientists undertake the investigations they do for moral reasons, under the assumption or hope that the results of their investigations will lend support to their moral position. But they do a disservice to their own moral ideology, the scientific method, and society at large if they do not take every reasonable precaution to prevent those ideologies from coloring their research.

Having hopefully clarified what is meant by value-free theory in the social sciences, we can see that what Mises means by subjectivism is precisely what we linguists intend when we speak of linguistics as a descriptive as opposed to prescriptive science. We do not judge the way people act in regard to their speech or how they choose to communicate; we merely take these choices as given and seek to find regularities among them. And in the same way that economists, insofar as they are acting as scientists and not ethicists, can only state whether the means chosen are appropriate for bringing about the ends aimed at, so too linguists weigh the grammaticality of an utterance solely on the basis of whether it accomplishes its communicative goal in a way appropriate to the conventions of the relevant speech community; in other words, did the speaker choose the effective means (words and constructions) for their particular communicative end.

Thus in this first implication of praxeology, we see one way in which the praxeological approach unites the social sciences within a common framework: All social science deals with the subjective goals and values of individuals, and the actions those individuals undertake in pursuit of those goals and values. In order to study these actions scientifically, the social sciences must take those underlying motivations as given, and adopt a descriptive rather than prescriptive approach to human behavior.

Scarcity & the Economization of Speech

In order to bring about change in the world, actors use the various resources in their environment (including their own person) as means to accomplishing their goals. Naturally, language and the manipulation of one’s vocal organs (or hands/body in the case of sign language) is one means that speakers utilize. Anticipating Grice’s theory of speech acts, Mises states:

Action means the employment of means for the attainment of ends. As a rule one of the means employed is the acting man’s labor. But this is not always the case. Under special conditions a word is all that is needed. He who gives orders or interdictions may act without any expenditure of labor. (von Mises 1998:13)

Like Grice, Mises believes that only certain types of speech are action. Modern linguistics has improved on this idea by noting that it does not require “special conditions” for speech to function as action. All speech is action. Whenever it is used, speech functions as a means to the actor’s (almost always social) ends.

However, given the nature of the world in which we live, Mises notes that “[m]eans are necessarily always limited, i.e., scarce with regard to the services for which man wants to use them” (von Mises 1998:93). This is as much true for language as it is for material means like lumber. Lambrecht (1996:31) points out that “[s]ince the morphosyntactic resources of a language are limited, and since the number of communicative distinctions is potentially infinite, economy of form is a logical necessity in the expression of functional differences in natural language.” Speech is furthermore subject to scarcity with regard to time. A person cannot physically produce more than one utterance at once. They must always choose which of the things they wish to say first. They must in the most literal sense economize on their speech, thereby making the act of speaking subject to various laws of praxeology and economics.

One universal fact that results from the need to economize on one’s time is the fact of time preference: other things being equal, a person generally prefers their goal to be accomplished in the shortest possible time (Rothbard 2009:15). This is because, as noted by Mises above, accomplishing one’s goals typically involves a person’s labor, however leisurely that labor may be (such as speaking). The sooner one can bring about their intended goal, the less labor they have to expend. Accordingly, speakers always try to accomplish their communicative goals using the fewest expressions, articulatory gestures, and cognitive resources possible. In linguistics, this is known as the principle of economy or principle of least effort, (Brown & Miller 2013:148), and widely acknowledged as being an important motivating factor in linguistic structure (Haiman 1983), phonetics (Laver 2001:153–154), and typological markedness (Croft 2002), among other areas.[5] Economization of speech is also central to discourse and information structure. Flashner (1987:132), for example, posits a principle of textual economy, which states that “in texts reference to continuous themes is marked by zero pronoun anaphora and to interrupted themes by full nouns for subthemes and pronouns for theme.” Kibrik (2011) devotes an entire monograph to studying the structural and discourse-level effects of this principle, wherein referential choice (i.e. the choice between zero, pronoun, or full noun) is motivated by cognitive economy. In terms of information structure, the typological tendency for topics to be the first item in a clause (Lambrecht 1996) also appears to result from the temporal economization of speech: other things being equal, speakers generally place the most newsworthy information first, thereby conveying the maximal amount of information in the shortest possible time (Mithun 1987). This tendency in turn impacts the grammar of language at every level (Mithun 2015). Thus some of the most crucial functional factors in language stem directly from the basic praxeological principles of economization and time preference.

Because both time and the range of linguistic expressions is always scarce, speech must also be economized in terms of choice of words and constructions. Other things being equal, a speaker will select the words and constructions which most directly and efficiently convey their intended meaning, and omit anything which does not need saying. Put differently, speakers choose words and constructions that are as expressive as possible. When an expression is still novel, this is relatively easy. Somewhat inconveniently for speakers, however, anything that is the object of economization is subject to the law of diminishing marginal utility. Simply put, this means that as the supply of a good increases, the utility of each additional unit of the good decreases (Rothbard 2009:25).[6] The praxeological reason for this is that, because time is scarce, humans generally satisfy their most strongly-felt wants first. The first unit of an available good goes to satisfy those core wants, but each unit of the good after that satisfies desires that are less and less important, thereby making those successive units less and less valuable to the actor.

The particular realization of the law of diminishing utility in linguistics is that words lose their pragmatic utility with increased use over time. The very utility of a novel construction is exactly what incentivizes speakers to use it more frequently. As its frequency increases, it becomes routinized, losing some of its original utility and semantic distinctiveness in a process that is often (somewhat erroneously) referred to as semantic bleaching (Hopper & Traugott 2003:94–98). Additionally, its increased frequency makes it a more likely target for linguistic economization, since a shortening or omission of a more frequent form produces greater gains in terms of a reduction of the average number of words/phonemes used to express an idea than does the shortening or omission of a less frequent form (Croft 2001:348). Both of these processes contribute to the more general process of grammaticalization. So we see that praxeology also has a central role to play in understanding the nature of expressiveness in diachronic change as well.

To say that speech is expressive and economical does not mean that speakers always speak with the utmost concision and terseness, just that speakers say what is relevant and necessary for conveying their meaning, and no more. To hedge or to speak indirectly is every bit as purposeful and motivated as speaking in simple, terse, declarative sentences, for the simple fact that hedging and indirectness are means that speakers have of conveying epistemic uncertainty, or of attending to politeness norms, or various other functions. Speech that may seem superficially superfluous is in fact maximally efficient in that it conveys the precise nuances of semantic, pragmatic, and social meaning intended by the speaker. The principle of economy can therefore be viewed as partly motivating the Gricean maxims of quantity: “Make your contribution as informative as required (for the current purposes of exchange)” and “Do not make your contribution more informative than is required” (Grice 1989:26–27).

In sum, the fact that humans must economize their speech in accordance with the laws of praxeology directly motivates several of the crucial processes at work in discourse and language change.

Speech as Exchange

Action is fundamentally a type of exchange. Every time we act, we choose between the action we ultimately decide to pursue and the infinite number of actions we did not. We exchange one possible state of affairs for another:

Action is an attempt to substitute a more satisfactory state of affairs for a less satisfactory one. We call such a willfully induced alteration an exchange. That which is abandoned is called the price paid for the attainment of the end sought. The value of the price paid is called costs. Costs are equal to the value attached to the satisfaction which one must forego in order to attain the end aimed at. (von Mises 1998:97)

Rephrasing slightly, every action comes at a cost, i.e. all those actions we chose not to pursue. In praxeology and economics, this is frequently called the opportunity cost of an action, and refers to the value of the next-best alternative to the actor. (It is also the motivation behind the infamous quip among economists that there is no such thing as a free lunch, since the opportunity cost of attending that free lunch is the various other activities you could have been doing.)

In speech, the opportunity cost of what is said is everything that is not said. The reason some things are left unsaid relates in part to economy. Doyle (1951:382) points out in a tongue-in-cheek yet insightful way that “[w]hat can be understood without being said is usually, in the interest of economy, not said.” This simple praxeological point is a central pillar in the field of pragmatics. For instance, the need for speakers to choose among available alternatives motivates what are known as scalar implicatures, wherein by choosing to describe something in terms of one value on a scale, the speaker implicates that all the stronger alternative values on the scale do not hold (Horn 1972). For instance, the utterance I’m pretty sure that’s part of it [7] implicates that the speaker is not very sure or absolutely sure. The alternative stronger values are the opportunity cost of the value that was actually said. The speaker intentionally foregoes the opportunity to use those values on the scale, a choice which is salient to the listener in interpreting the speaker’s intended meaning.

The fact that action and therefore speech is a type of exchange brings us to perhaps the most important insight of praxeology for linguistics. Up until this point, we have to the extent possible focused on the actions of isolated individuals, and the internal motivations that structure speech. But not all action is isolated. The exchanges that actors make between states of affairs frequently require coordination with others:

The major form of voluntary interaction is voluntary interpersonal exchange. A gives up a good to B in exchange for a good that B gives up to A. The essence of the exchange is that both people make it because they expect that it will benefit them; otherwise they would not have agreed to the exchange. (Rothbard 2009:85, original emphasis)

For Mises and the Austrians, “[t]he exchange relation is the fundamental social relation” (von Mises 1998:195). The willingness to interact with others for mutual benefit is the essential fabric of society. For Mises it is definitional: “Society is concerted action, cooperation” (von Mises 1998:143). Society for the Austrians is definitionally coordinative and cooperative rather than violent and hegemonic; violence and the threat of violence are types of interpersonal exchange, but they are antisocial ones rather than social ones.

If interpersonal exchange is the fundamental social relation, then linguistic exchange is the social relation par excellence, a point frequently noted in the Austrian literature: “Both economics and linguistics can plausibly claim to be prototypical social sciences. Both investigate how people cooperate with one another and coordinate their activities” (Yeager 1998:16). Since interpersonal exchange is concerted action for mutual benefit, and discourse is a type of interpersonal exchange, discourse is generally coordinative in the sense that discourse participants willingly engage in that discourse with the aim of accomplishing their particular social ends. It is no surprise, therefore, that Grice subsumes his various conversational maximus under a single Cooperative Principle:

Cooperative Principle: Make your conversational contribution such as is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange. (Grice 1989:26–27)

What makes speech cooperative, and thereby facilitates all the semantic, pragmatic, and social work that speakers do in conversation, is its status as a kind of voluntary exchange for mutual benefit. Participants in discourse choose to give their time to engaging in that discourse in lieu of the various other activities they could be doing. As anyone who has had to transcribe naturally-occurring speech knows, much of people’s discourse is, on its surface at least, an utter mess, replete with repairs, potentially ambiguous references, metaphors, and responses to things unspoken. As I have pointed out elsewhere:

Much of our everyday speech is like this – riddled with implications and things left unsaid. What makes it possible for listeners to pierce this linguistic fog is the simple fact that we interpret other people’s utterances as targeted actions on the part of conscious actors aiming at certain communicative or social goals. Every utterance is interpreted through this lens. It is the implicit recognition on the part of every listener that we are all actors aiming at ends that makes communication possible at all. (Hieber 2013, original emphasis)

Discourse and conversation are coordinative and cooperative rather than violent and hegemonic. Even the most vitriolic and hateful speech, speech meant to anger and incite, is at its core an attempt to accomplish a communicative exchange. The opposite of a cooperative speech exchange is not uncooperative speech exchange, it is physical violence or the threat thereof.

Largely due to the influence of Pierre Bourdieu (1977; 1991), there is a trend in modern anthropology and sociocultural linguistics to view all interaction – linguistic or otherwise – through the lens of hegemonic power relations rather than voluntary exchange. Says Bourdieu:

The structure of the linguistic production relation depends on the symbolic power relation between the two speakers, i.e. on the size of their respective capitals of authority (which is not reducible to specifically linguistic capital). Thus, competence is also the capacity to command a listener. Language is not only an instrument of communication or even of knowledge, but also an instrument of power. A person speaks not only to be understood but also to be believed, obeyed, respected, distinguished. Hence the full definition of competence as the right to speech, i.e. to the legitimate language, the authorized language which is also the language of authority. Competence implies the power to impose reception. Here again one sees the abstractness of the linguistic definition of competence: the linguist regards the conditions for the establishment of communication as already secured, whereas, in real situations, that is the essential question. He takes for granted the crucial point, namely that people talk and talk to each other, are “on speaking terms”, that those who speak regard those who listen as worthy to listen and those who listen regard those who speak as worthy to speak. (Bourdieu 1977:648)

What the hegemonic perspective on speech overlooks is that, in order for a speaker to be believed, obeyed, respected, or distinguished successfully, that speaker must be willing to engage with their interlocutor using a mutually accessible set of linguistic conventions, while abiding by at least some of the Gricean maxims in adherence to the Cooperative Principle, in a context where other discourse participants may at any time choose to disengage from the linguistic exchange entirely. In order to be understood, in order to have a social effect, a speaker must place themselves at the whim of their audience. The greater the degree of social imposition that the speaker is trying to make, or less pleasant or unwelcome the message, the more the speaker must cater to the communicative preferences of their audience if they are to be persuasive, accomplish their social goal, or even to be rudimentarily understood. Those who fail to make these accommodations in their attempt at ideological imposition do not gain authority but merely weaken their authority. To co-opt Bourdieu’s own metaphor: just as in other areas of the market, the linguistic producer is ever at the whim of the linguistic consumer. As long as participants in discourse continue to engage in that discourse rather than resort to other means of interaction such as violence, no power imposition by the speaker occurs. It is only when a speaker intimidates or threatens violence that such a linguistic imposition becomes possible, and one’s audience is forced to privilege the linguistic preferences of the speaker over their own.

Contra Bourdieu, competence is not the power to impose reception – that imposition stems from the power of violence or the threat thereof; competence, rather, is the ability to earn reception through attentiveness to the communicative preferences of one’s audiences, as part of a system of voluntary interaction and exchange. As long as discourse is freely entered and maintained, the conditions for the establishment of communication have indeed been secured. Speech freely given – or more colloquially, free speech – is what social individuals engage in as an alternative to violence and hegemonic relations, and is therefore one of the most crucial tenets upon which a just society rests.

Sadly, we have seen in recent months exactly what happens when this point is not appreciated.[8] When one views speech as an exercise of hegemonic power and thus as an act of violence, then a violent response seems justified. A proper understanding of the nature of discourse as exchange recognizes instead that even distasteful speech is still a social act, and thus an opportunity for coordination and engagement rather than violence.


This article aimed to show what can be gained from adopting a praxeological approach to the study of language. For starters, it situates linguistics within the larger project of the social sciences, helping to clarify their common object of study: humans aiming at ends within the context of society. We have seen that, as a matter of necessity, the methodology of linguistics and the social sciences is descriptive rather than normative, due to the fact that human motivations and valuations are subjective and must therefore be taken as given if they are to become an object of scientific study. Next we examined several implications of the fact of scarcity, and the existence of time preference. It was shown that these two features of action directly motivate linguistic structure and use in a variety of ways, including linguistic economy, information structure, and semantic change. Next, it was shown that conversation and discourse is a type of coordinative interpersonal exchange, giving rise to the Cooperative Principle of conversation and serving as the basis for all the shared conversational work that participants undertake in order to communicate successfully. Lastly, exemplifying the complementarity of science and ethics, I argued that a praxeological approach to language can reframe the free speech debate in a way that reduces the ideological proclivity towards violence.

A great many other topics concerning the praxeology of language could not be touched on here for reasons of space, and I leave these to future investigations. But there exists great potential for praxeology to contribute plentiful insights in other areas of linguistics as well, most especially in understanding the nature of language as a spontaneous order, “the result of human action, but not the execution of any human design” (Ferguson 1782), and in research on language ideology, language choice, and language ecology (Mufwene 2004). In short, praxeology helps move linguistics towards a model which explains the complex tapestry of grammatical structure and language use in terms of the real, everyday choices that humans make.


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[1] Grice is not typically considered an ordinary language philosopher, but his work on meaning and implicature laid an important foundation for later philosophers of language working from the ordinary language perspective.

[2] Throughout this article, I intend such terms as speech, utterance, and speaker to encompass both signed and spoken discourse.

[3] Much earlier, however, Sapir (1929:214) did encourage linguists to integrate the field of linguistics with the other social sciences: “Better than any social science, linguistics shows by its data and methods, necessarily more easily defined than the data and methods of any other type of discipline dealing with socialized behavior, the possibility of a truly scientific study of society which does not ape the methods nor attempt to adopt unrevised the concepts of the natural sciences. It is peculiarly important that linguists, who are often accused, and accused justly, of failure to look beyond the pretty patterns of their subject matter, should become aware of what their science may mean for the interpretation of human conduct in general. Whether they like it or not, they must become increasingly concerned with the many anthropological, sociological, and psychological problems which invade the field of language.”

[4] In the quotations provided throughout this article, the terms man and he should be understood as gender-neutral. My decision to retain these uses within quotations should not be taken as an endorsement of this practice, but rather as stemming from a desire to most accurately represent the source material.

[5] Note that this use of the term economy is not the same as its use within generativist syntax, where it refers to descriptive or theoretical economy rather than speaker economy (Crystal 2008:162), although some within the generativist tradition hold them to be essentially the same thing.

[6] There is a great deal more to understanding the law of diminishing marginal utility than this, and so the reader is encouraged to consult Rothbard (2009) for a very accessible overview of the topic.

[7] Data from Du Bois et al. (2000), section 036, Judgmental on People, 72.112 seconds.

[8] Here I am referring to the recent series of violent clashes between students of differing ideologies on various university campuses within the United States.

How to cite this post

Hieber, Daniel W. Praxeology and language: Social science as the study of human action. History and Philosophy of the Language Sciences.

I'm a research linguist working to document and revitalize endangered languages. I study the crosslinguistic patterns we see in the world's languages. I work primarily with the Chitimacha Tribe of Louisiana.

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Posted in Article, Linguistics, Philosophy, Pragmatics

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