Front Page Titles (by Subject) 3. Wittgenstein & Hayek - Literature of Liberty, Winter 1982, vol. 5, No. 4
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3. Wittgenstein & Hayek - 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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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.
Hayek on Knowledge and Mind: