Front Page Titles (by Subject) Three Influences on Hayek\'s Skeptical Kantianism: Mach, Popper, and Wittgenstein - Literature of Liberty, Winter 1982, vol. 5, No. 4
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Three Influences on Hayek's Skeptical Kantianism: Mach, Popper, and Wittgenstein - 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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Three Influences on Hayek's Skeptical Kantianism: Mach, Popper, and Wittgenstein
Hayek's theory of knowledge is Kantian, we have seen, in affirming that the order we find in the world is given to it by the organizing structure of our own mind and in claiming that even sensory experiences are suffused with the ordering concepts of the human mind. His view of the mind, then, is Kantian in that it accords a very great measure of creative power to the mind, which is neither a receptacle for the passive absorption of fugitive sensations, nor yet a mirror in which the world's necessities are reflected.
1. Ernst Mach and Metaphysical Neutrality
There are a number of influences on Hayek, however, which give his Kantianism a profoundly distinctive and original aspect. The first of these influences is the work of Ernst Mach (1838–1916), the positivist philosopher whose ideas dominated much of Austro-German intellectual life in the decades of Hayek's youth. Hayek's debts to Mach are not so much in the theory of knowledge, as in the attitude both take to certain traditional metaphysical questions. I have observed already that Hayek dissented radically from the Humean and Machian belief that human knowledge could be reconstructed on the basis of elementary sensory impressions, and throughout his writings Hayek has always repudiated as incoherent or unworkable the reductionist projects of phenomenalism in the theory of perception and behaviorism in the philosophy of mind. In these areas of philosophy, then, Hayek's work has been strongly antipathetic to distinctively positivistic ambitions for a unified science. At the same time, while never endorsing the dogma of the Vienna Circle that metaphysical utterances are literally nonsensical, Hayek has often voiced the view that many traditional metaphysical questions express “phantom-problems.”
In both The Sensory Order and later in The Constitution of Liberty, Hayek affirms that the age-old controversy about the freedom of the will embodies such a phantom-problem.6 Hayek's ‘compatibilist’ standpoint in respect of freedom of the will—his belief that the casual determination of human actions is fully compatible with ascribing responsibility to human agents for what they do—is analogous with his stance on the mind-body question. In both controversies Hayek is concerned to deny any ultimate dualism in metaphysics or ontology, while at the same time insisting that a dualism in our practical thought and in scientific method is unavoidable for us. Thus he says of the relations of the mental and the physical domains that “While our theory leads us to deny any ultimate dualism of the forces governing the realms of the mind and that of the physical world respectively, it forces us at the same time to recognize that for practical purposes we shall always have to adopt a dualistic view.”7 And Hayek concludes his study of the foundations of theoretical psychology in The Sensory Order with the claim that “to us mind must remain forever a realm of its own, which we can know only through directly experiencing it, but which we shall never be able to fully explain or to ‘reduce’ to something else.”8
Hayek's thought has a Machian positivist aspect, then, not in the theories of mind or perception, but in its attitude to traditional metaphysical questions, which is dissolutionist and deflationary. There is yet another link with positivism. Notwithstanding Hayek's opposition to any sort of reductionism, whether sensationalist or physicalist, he seems to be a monist in ontology, averring that “mind is thus the order prevailing in a particular part of the physical universe—that part of it which is ourselves.”9 Hayek may seem here to be qualifying or withdrawing from that stance of metaphysical neutrality which in Machian spirit he commends, but this appearance may be delusive. There is much to suggest that, when Hayek denies any ultimate dualism in the nature of things, he is not lapsing into an idiom of essences or natural kinds, but simply observing—much in the fashion of the American pragmatist philosopher, W. V. Quine—that nothing in our experience compels us to adopt ideas of mental or physical substance.10 Though Hayek has not to my knowledge ever pronounced explicitly on the question, the whole tenor of his thought inclines to a Quinean pragmatist view of ontological commitments. In his skeptical and pragmatist attitude to ultimate questions in metaphysics and ontology, Hayek lines up with many positivists rather than with Kantian critical philosophy—though positivists themselves sometimes claim, with some justification, to be treading a Kantian path.
2. Karl Popper: The Growth of Knowledge
A second influence on Hayek's general philosophy which gives it a distinctive temper is the thought of his friend, Karl Popper (b. 1902). I mean here, not Popper's hypothetico-deductive account of scientific method, which there is evidence that Hayek held prior to his meeting with Popper,11 nor yet Popper's proposal (which Hayek was soon to accept) that falsifiability rather than verifiability should be adopted as a criterion of demarcation between the scientific and the non-scientific. Again, Hayek has under Popper's influence come to make an important distinction between types of rationalism,12 such that “critical rationalism” is commended and “constructivistic rationalism” condemned. But this is not what I have in mind. I refer rather to certain striking affinities between Hayek's view of the growth of knowledge and that adumbrated in Popper's later writings on “evolutionary epistemology.” As early as the manuscript which later became The Sensory Order (published in 1952, but composed in the twenties), Hayek made it clear that the principles of classification embodied in the nervous system were not for him fixed data; experience constantly forced reclassification on us. In his later writings, Hayek is explicit that the human mind is itself an evolutionary product and that its structure is therefore variable and not constant. The structural principles or fundamental categories which our minds contain ought not, then, to be interpreted in Cartesian fashion as universal and necessary axioms, reflecting the natural necessities of the world, but rather as constituting evolutionary adaptations of the human organism to the world that it inhabits.
The striking similarity between Popper's later views, and those expounded by Hayek in The Sensory Order, is shown by Popper's own application of the evolutionist standpoint in epistemology to the theory of perception:
...if we start from a critical commonsense realism...then we shall take man as one of the animals, and human knowledge as essentially almost as fallible as animal knowledge. We shall suppose the animal senses to have evolved from primitive beginnings; and we shall look therefore on our own sense, essentially, as part of a decoding mechanism—a mechanism which decodes, more or less successfully, the encoded information about the world which manages to reach us by sensory means.13
J.W.N. Watkins’ comment on this view is as apposite in the respect of Hayek as it is of Popper:
Kant saw very clearly that the empiricist account of sense experience creates and cannot solve the problem of how the manifold and very various data which reach a man's mind from his various senses get unified into a coherent experience.
Kant's solution consisted, essentially, in leaving the old quasimechanistic account of sense-organs intact, and endowing the mind with a powerful set of organizing categories—free, universal and necessary—which unify and structure what would otherwise be a mad jumble.
Popper's evolutionist view modifies Kant's view at both ends: interpretative principles lose their fixed and necessary character, and sense organs lose their merely causal and mechanistic character.14
Hayek's account of sense perception anticipates Popper's later views in a most striking fashion, because in both sensation is conceived as a decoding mechanism, which transmits to us in a highly abstract fashion information about our external environment. Again, both Hayek and Popper share the skeptical Kantian view that the order we find in the world is given to it by the creative activity of our own minds: as Hayek himself puts it uncompromisingly in The Sensory Order, “The fact that the world which we know seems wholly an orderly world may thus be merely a result of the method by which we perceive it.”15 One difference between Hayek and Popper is in the fact that, at any rate in his published work to date, Hayek has not followed Popper in his ontological speculations about a world of abstract or virtual entities or intelligibles.16a
3. Wittgenstein & Hayek
A third influence on Hayek's thought which gives his view of knowledge and the mind a very distinctive character is that of his relative, Ludwig Wittgenstein (1899-1951).16b This influence runs deep, and is seen not only in the style and presentation of The Sensory Order, which parallels in an obvious way that of Wittgenstein's Tractatus, but in many areas of Hayek's system of ideas. It is shown, for example, in Hayek's recurrent interest in the way in which the language in which we speak shapes our thoughts and forms our picture of the world. In fact, Hayek's interest in language, and in a critique of language, predates Wittgenstein's work, inasmuch as he had an early preoccupation with the work of Fritz Mauthner, the now almost forgotten philosopher of radical nominalism whom Wittgenstein mentions (somewhat dismissively) in the Tractatus.17 There are, however, many evidences that Wittgenstein's work reinforced Hayek's conviction that the study of language is a necessary precondition of the study of human thought, and an indispensable prophylactic to the principal disorders of the intellect. Examples which may be adduced are Hayek's studies of the confusion of language in political thought18 and, most obviously, perhaps, of his emphasis on the role of social rules in the transmission of practical knowledge.
It is on this last point that one of the most distinctive features of Hayek's Kantianism, its pragmatist aspect, is clearest.19a Of course there is a recognition in Kant himself that knowledge requires judgment, a special faculty, the Urteilskraft, which cannot be given any complete or adequate specification in propositional terms, and whose exercise is necessary for the application of any rule. In the sense that we must exercise this faculty of judgment even before we can apply a rule, it is action which is at the root of our very knowledge itself. Hayek's concern is not with this ultimate dependency of rule following upon judgment—which the later Wittgenstein, perhaps following Kant, emphasizes—but rather with the way that knowledge of all sorts, but especially social knowledge, is embodied in rules. Our perceptual processes, indeed all our processes of thought, are governed by rules which we do not normally articulate, which in some cases are necessarily beyond articulation by us, but which we rely upon for the efficiency of all our action in the world. Indeed, it is not too much to say that, for Hayek (notwithstanding his stress on the abstract or conceptual character of our sensory knowledge) all our knowledge is at bottom practical or tacit knowledge: it consists, not in propositions or theories, but in habits and dispositions to act in a rule-governed fashion. There is here an interesting parallel with Popper's view, which sees even our sense organs as being themselves embodied theories.19b
There is much in Hayek's writings to suggest that he takes what Gilbert Ryle calls “knowing how,”20 what Michael Polanyi calls tacit knowing,21 what Michael Oakeshott22 calls the traditional knowledge, to be the wellspring of all our knowledge. It is in this sense—in holding the stuff of knowledge to be at bottom practical—that Hayek may be said to subscribe to a thesis of the primacy of practice in the constitution of human knowledge. It is not indeed that Hayek disparages the enterprise of theory-building, but he sees the theoretical reconstruction of our practical knowledge as necessarily incomplete in its achievements.
Why is this? Hayek argues that, not only human social life, but the life of the mind itself is governed by rules, some of which cannot be specified at all. Note that Hayek does not contend merely that we cannot in fact specify all the rules which govern both social and intellectual life: he argues that there must of necessity be an insuperable limit beyond which we are unable to specify the rules by which our lives are governed. As he puts it:
So far our argument has rested solely on the uncontestable assumption that we are not in fact able to specify all the rules which govern our perceptions and actions. We still have to consider the question whether it is conceivable that we should ever be in a position discursively to describe all (or at least any one we like) of these rules, or whether mental activity must always be guided by some rules which we are in principle not able to specify.
If it should turn out that it is basically impossible to state or communicate all the rules which govern our actions, including our communications and explicit statements, this would imply an inherent limitation of our possible explicit knowledge and, in particular, the impossibility of ever fully explaining a mind of the complexity or our own.
Hayek goes on to observe of the inability of the human mind reflexively to grasp the most basic rules which govern its operations that “this would follow from what I understand to Georg Cantor's theorem in the theory of sets according to which in any system of classification there are always more classes than things to be classified, which presumably implies that no system of classes can contain itself.” Again, he remarks that “it would thus appear that Gödel's theorem is but a special case of a more general principle applying to all conscious and particularly all rational processes, namely the principle that among their determinants there must always be some rules which cannot be stated or even be conscious.” Hayek concludes this development of themes first explored in his Sensory Order with the fascinating suggestion that conscious thought must be presumed to be governed by “rules which cannot in turn be conscious—by a “supraconscious mechanism,” or, as Hayek prefers sometimes to call it, a “metaconscious mechanism”—“which operates on the contents of consciousness but which cannot itself be conscious.”23
The third source of influence on Hayek's skeptical Kantianism, which I have ascribed primarily to the work of his relative Wittgenstein, plainly comprehends other influences as well. Hayek cites Ryle in support of his observations that “‘know how’ consists in the capacity to act according to rules which we may be able to discover but which we need not be able to state in order to obey them,” and glosses the point with reference to Michael Polanyi.24 Here the insight is that all articulated or propositional knowledge arises out of tacit or practical knowledge, the knowledge of how to do things, which must be taken as fundamental. Nothing is said in Ryle or Polanyi thus far about rule-governedness as a distinctive mark of human (and, it may well be, not only human but also animal) intelligent behavior.
It is for the insight that practical knowledge is transmitted mimetically through the absorption of social rules that we need to turn to Wittgenstein, from whom Hayek may have taken it. (There are, to be sure, contrasts between Hayek's view of rule-governed behavior and Wittgenstein's, particularly in regard to the skepticism about rule-following expressed in Wittgenstein's On Certainty and the dependency of social rules upon forms of life, stressed in Wittgenstein but not discussed by Hayek; but these contrasts need not concern us here.) What is original and novel in Hayek's account, and (so far as I know) is nowhere to be found in Wittgenstein, is his account, firstly, of the hierarchy of rules in perception and action, with the most fundamental rules being meta-conscious rules beyond the possibility of identification and articulation; and, secondly, Hayek's systematic exploration of the selection of these rules in a process of evolutionary adaptation.25 According to Hayek, in other words, the rules of action and of perception by which both intellectual and social life are governed are in the first place stratified or ordered in a hierarchy, with the most fundamental rules (which shape the basic categories of our understanding) always eluding conscious articulation. But secondly, all of these rules, including even the most fundamental of them are products of a process of evolutionary selection, by which they may be further altered or eliminated. Systems of rules conferring successful behavior are adopted by others without conscious reflection. It is this disposition to emulate or copy successful behaviors which explains the cultural evolution of which Hayek speaks, and which (though he recognizes its primitive beginnings in the social lives of animals) Hayek regards as the distinguishing mark of human life.
[6.] Hayek, µB-10Õ, Sensory Order, p. 193, para. 8.93, and his µB-12Õ, The Constitution of Liberty, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1960, pp. 13, 438. See Mach's influence on Hayek by consulting the bibliography to my essay: B-10 and A-119.
[7.] Hayek, Sensory Order, µB-10Õ, pp. 178-9, para. 8.45. Hayek's affirmation of a practical dualism in the theory of the mind may well have been influenced by Mises, who adopts a very similar standpoint in several of his writings.
[8.] Hayek, µB-10Õ, Sensory Order, p. 194, para. 8.97.
[9.] Hayek, µB-10Õ, Sensory Order, p. 194, para. 8.97.
[10.] See W. V. Quine, Ontological Relativity, New York: 1969. Unlike Hayek, Quine sees compelling reasons for postulating a realm of abstract entities, including numbers, but, like Hayek, he admits no ontological gulf between body and mind. Hayek's objection to the neutral monism defended by William James, Bertrand Russell, and John Dewey seems to be on the grounds of its psychologistic features as it is stated by these writers: see Sensory Order, p. 176, para. 8.38. Neutral monism need not have these features, however, and perhaps Hayek's system need not exclude it.
[11.] See Hayek's interesting discussion of differences of method as between natural and social sciences in µE-5Õ, the collection which he edited: Collectivist Economic Planning, London: 1956 (originally published 1935), pp. 10-11. Hayek withdraws from the strong methodological dualism about natural and social science adopted here and in many of his earlier writings, explicitly in the Preface to his Studies in Philosophy, Politics and Economics, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1967, p. viii, where he asserts that through Popper's work “the difference between the two groups of disciplines has thereby been greatly narrowed.” For a brilliant discussion of Popper's demarcation criterion for science, see I. Lakatos, “Popper on Demarcation and Induction,” in P. A. Schilpp, ed., The Philosophy of Karl Popper, La Salle, Illinois: 1974, pp. 241-273.
[12.] See F. A. Hayek, “Kinds of Rationalism” in his µB-13Õ, Studies in Philosophy, Politics and Economics, Ch. 5, pp. 82-95, and his Law, Legislation and Liberty, Vol. I, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1973, p. 29.
[13.] Karl R. Popper in P. A. Schilpp, ed., The Philosophy of Karl Popper, pp. 1059-1060.
[14.] J. W. N. Watkins in P. A. Schilpp, ed., The Philosophy of Karl Popper, pp. 401-402.
[15.] Hayek, Sensory Order, µB-10Õ, p. 176, para. 8.39.
[16a.] Hayek does cite Popper's ideas of a third world of abstract entities with apparent endorsement in µB-18Õ, Law, Legislation and Liberty, Vol. III, p. 157.
[16b.] See Hayek's reminiscences, “Remembering My Cousin Ludwig Wittgenstein,” Encounter (August 1977), listed as A-143 in Bibliography.
[17.] I owe to Professor Hayek this information regarding his interest in Mauthner's work. Wittgenstein's reference to Mauthner occurs in para. 4.0031 of his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. The only book-length study of Mauthner's philosophy in English is that of Gershon Weiler, Mauthner's Critique of Language, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970. Also see Allan Janik and Stephen Toulmin, Wittgenstein's Vienna. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1973, pp. 121-133, 178-182.
[18.] See F. A. Hayek, µB-17Õ, New Studies in Philosophy, Politics and Economics, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978, Chapter Six.
[19a.] In attributing a pragmatist aspect to Hayek's Kantianism, I do not mean to ascribe to Hayek any of the doctrines of modern Pragmatism, but rather to note the sense in which for Hayek action or practice has primacy in the generation of knowledge. For Hayek, in some contrast with Kant, knowledge emanates from practical life in the sense that it is ultimately embodied in judgments and dispositions to act.
[19b.] In his µB-13Õ, Studies in Philosophy, Politics and Economics, p. 24, speaking of “the erroneous belief that if we look only long enough, or at a sufficient number of instances of natural events, a pattern will always reveal itself,” Hayek remarks that “in those cases the theorizing has been done already by our senses.”
[20.] See Gilbert Ryle, “Knowing How and Knowing That,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 46 (1945–1946): 1-16.
[21.] See Michael Polanyi, The Tacit Dimension, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1967.
[22.] Michael Oakeshott, “Rational Conduct,” in Rationalism in Politics, London: Methuen, 1962, pp. 97-100.
[23.] Hayek, µB-13Õ, Studies in Philosophy, Politics and Economics, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1967, pp. 60-62. Hayek's belief that the reflexive investigation of our own minds must always be incomplete, inasmuch as it will always be governed by meta-conscious rules beyond the range of critical scrutiny, is not one that Kant could easily have accepted.
[24.] Hayek, µB-13Õ, Studies, p. 44, footnote 4.
[25.] Hayek, µB-13Õ, Studies, Chapter 4.