Front Page Titles (by Subject) Hayek\'s General Philosophy—The Kantian Heritage - Literature of Liberty, Winter 1982, vol. 5, No. 4
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Hayek's General Philosophy—The Kantian Heritage - 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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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
Hayek as a Skeptical Kantian
Hayek is a Kantian, then, in disavowing in science or in philosophy any Aristotelian method of seeking the essences or natures of things. We cannot know how things are in the world, but only how our mind itself organizes the jumble of its experiences. He is Kantian, again, in repudiating the belief, common to empiricists and positivists such as David Hume and Ernst Mach, that there is available to us a ground of elementary sensory impressions, untainted by conceptual thought, which can serve as the foundation for the house of human knowledge. Against this empiricist dogma, Hayek is emphatic that everything in the sensory order is abstract, conceptual and theory-laden in character: “It will be the central thesis of the theory to be outlined that it is not merely a part but the whole of sensory qualities which is...an ‘interpretation’ based on the experience of the individual or the race. The conception of an original pure core of sensation which is merely modified by experience is an entirely unnecessary fiction.”4 Again, he tells us that “the elimination of the hypothetical ‘pure’ or ‘primary’ core of sensation, supposed not to be due to earlier experience, but either to involve some direct communication of properties of the external objects, or to constitute irreducible mental atoms or elements, disposes of various philosophical puzzles which arise from the lack of meaning of these hypotheses.”5 The map or model we form of the world, in Hayek's view, is in no important respect grounded in a basis of sheer sense-data, themselves supposed to be incorrigible. Rather, the picture we form of the world emerges straight from our interaction with the world, and it is always abstract in selecting some among the infinite aspects which the world contains, most of which we are bound to pass by as without interest to us.
[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.
[4.] Hayek, µB-10Õ, Sensory Order, p. 42, para. 2.15.
[5.] Hayek, µB-10Õ, Sensory Order, p. 165, para. 8.2.