Front Page Titles (by Subject) Overview of Topics Covered in This Essay - Literature of Liberty, Winter 1982, vol. 5, No. 4
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Overview of Topics Covered in This Essay - Leonard P. Liggio, Literature of Liberty, Winter 1982, vol. 5, No. 4 
Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought was published first by the Cato Institute (1978-1979) and later by the Institute for Humane Studies (1980-1982) under the editorial direction of Leonard P. Liggio.
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Overview of Topics Covered in This Essay
I begin my survey by examining briefly the chief claims Hayek makes in his centrally important but sadly neglected treatise in theoretical psychology, The Sensory Order (1952), where he most systematically and explicitly develops his account of the mind and of human knowledge. Having set out the principal features of Hayek's view of the mind and of the forms of human knowledge, I shall try to show how these conceptions inform his account of a spontaneous order in society, and how they condition his distinction between ‘economy’ and ‘catallaxy,’ his elaboration of the argument about economic calculation under socialism, and his distinctive position as to the appropriate theory and methods for economics. I proceed then to examine how Hayek applies his general philosophy to the relations of individual liberty with the rule of law. In the course of this survey I will canvass some of the most important criticisms of Hayek's system, concentrating particularly on the claim that his conception of a spontaneous order in society is unclear, and his use of it objectionable. It is often argued that, when taken in conjunction with its twin idea of cultural evolution by the natural selection of rival social practices, the idea of spontaneous social order has a conservative rather than any liberal or libertarian implication, since it appears to entail blind submission to the result of any unplanned social process. Against this criticism, which expresses the common view that Hayek's political thought is an unstable compound of conservative or traditionalist and liberal or libertarian elements, I will argue that the idea of spontaneous social order in Hayek's work is best seen as a value-free explanatory notion and that invoking this idea illuminates rather than undermines the bases for the commitment to liberty.1a
In developing my argument by way of an examination of the criticisms of a number of writers in opposed intellectual traditions—Michael Oakeshott, James Buchanan, and Irving Kristol, for example—I will conclude that Hayek's chief achievement is in his reviving the intellectual tradition of classical liberalism of which varied strands in contemporary conservatism and libertarianism are quarreling offspring. In the course of this survey I will, also, identify three principal achievements of Hayek's social philosophy: (1) his demonstration of the import for social theory of an erroneous Cartesian theory of the mind and the role of this theory in inspiring modern attempts at the rational design of social life; (2) his theory of the liberal order, which is a synthesis of the theories of justice of Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) and David Hume (1711–1776) with a devastating critique of contemporary conceptions of distributive justice; and (3) his proposal for a resolution of a central difficulty of classical liberal theory in the intriguing ideas of a market in traditions.
The upshot of my assessment of Hayek's thought will be that, whereas his critics have identified ambiguities, tensions, and unclarities in some of his formulations, the interest and appeal of his system remains unimpeached. Despite (or even because of) its problematic aspects, Hayek's system of ideas remains a powerful and compelling research program—in my own opinion, the most promising we have at our disposal—for classical liberal social philosophy.
Hayek's General Philosophy—The Kantian Heritage
The entirety of Hayek's work—and, above all, his work in epistemology, psychology, ethics, and the theory of law—is informed by a distinctively Kantian approach. In its most fundamental aspect, Hayek's thought is Kantian in its denial of our capacity to know things as they are or this world as it is. It is in his denial that we can know things as they are, and in his insistence that the order we find in our experiences, including even our sensory experiences, is the product of the creative activity of our minds rather than a reality given to us by the world, that Hayek's Kantianism consists. It follows from this skeptical Kantian standpoint that the task of philosophy cannot be that of uncovering the necessary characters of things. The keynote of critical philosophy, after all, is the impossibility of our attaining any external or transcendental standpoint on human thought from which we could develop a conception of the world that is wholly uncontaminated by human experiences or interest. We find Kant's own writings—above all the Critique of Pure Reason (1781)—a case against the possibility of speculative metaphysics which Hayek himself has always taken to be devastating and conclusive. It is a fundamental conviction of Hayek's, and one that he has in common with all those who stand in the tradition of post-Kantian critical philosophy, that we cannot so step out of our human point of view as to attain a presuppositionless perspective on the world as a whole and as it is in itself. The traditional aspiration of western philosophy—to develop a speculative metaphysics in terms of which human thought may be justified and reformed—must accordingly be abandoned. The task of philosophy, for Hayek as for Kant, is not the construction of any metaphysical system, but the investigation of the limits of reason. It is a reflexive rather than a constructive inquiry, since all criticism—in ethics as much as in science—must in the end be immanent criticism. In philosophy as in life, Hayek avers, we must take much for granted, or else we will never get started.
Hayek's uncompromisingly skeptical Kantianism is strongly evidenced in The Sensory Order (see Hayek bibliography, B-10). There Hayek disavows any concern as to “how things really are in the world,” affirming that “...a question like ‘what is X?’ has meaning only within a given order, and...within this limit it must always refer to the relation of one particular event to other events belonging to the same order.”1b Above all, the distinction between appearance and reality, which Hayek sees as best avoided in scientific discourse,2 is not to be identified with the distinction between the mental or sensory order and the physical or material order. The aim of scientific investigation is not, then, for Hayek, the discovery behind the veil of appearance of the natures or essences of things in themselves, for, with Kant and against Aristotelian essentialism, he stigmatizes the notion of essence or absolute reality as useless or harmful in science and in philosophy. The aim of science can only be the development of a system of categories or principles, in the end organized wholly deductively, which is adequate to the experience it seeks to order.3
[1a.] Hayek does not consistently employ the idea of spontaneous social order as an explanatory device of this sort, and some of the difficulties of his thought arise from this ambiguity. At the same time, Hayek's use of the idea of a spontaneous order in society is his most brilliant use in the context of social theory of his conception of knowledge as at bottom at once conceptual and practical. The spontaneous or undesigned patterns of order in society have the advantage over planned or constructed orders, first and foremost, because planned orders can utilize only explicit or conscious knowledge. Hayek's great thesis, then, is that, contrary to Descartes’ unwitting interventionist disciples, spontaneous order is the fundamental order in society because it embodies that practical or tacit knowledge of which theory is only a precipitate or an abridgement. If we accept that the Cartesian view of knowledge and mind is in error, we have no alternative but to acknowledge that the constructivist projects of modern interventionism are all attempts to do the impossible—to replace inarticulate and tacit knowledge by articulate theory, and spontaneous order by conscious control.
[1b.] F. A. Hayek, µB-10Õ, The Sensory Order, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1952, pp. 4-5. The Sensory Order has not in fact gone wholly ignored by psychologists. For a useful symposium on it, see W. B. Weimer and D. S. Palermo, eds., Cognition and Symbolic Processes, vol. II, New York, 1978. Also “Hayek Revisited: Mind as a Process of Classification” by Rosemary Agnitto in Behaviorism: a Forum for Critical Discussion, ½, Nevada, (Spring 1975): 162-171. Neglect of Hayek's contributions to psychology by professional psychologists may in part be due to his drawing on a tradition in psychology—the neo-Kantian tradition of Helmholz and Wundt—which fell on hard times when behavioral and psychoanalytical approaches came to dominate the theoretical investigation of mental life.
[2.] Hayek, µB-10Õ, Sensory Order, p. 5, para. 1.12. At times, Hayek goes so far as almost to relativize any distinction between appearance and reality. When he adopts such a position, he breaks with a decisive element in Kantian critical philosophy, for which the distinction between how things seem to us and how they are in themselves must be fundamental.
[3.] Hayek, µB-10Õ, Sensory Order, p. 171, para. 8.24.