Front Page Titles (by Subject) Hayek\'s Philosophy of Mind & His Social Theory: Beyond Kantianism - Literature of Liberty, Winter 1982, vol. 5, No. 4
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Hayek's Philosophy of Mind & His Social Theory: Beyond Kantianism - 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 Philosophy of Mind & His Social Theory: Beyond Kantianism
Hayek himself is emphatic that these insights in the theories of mind and knowledge have the largest consequences for social theory. The inaccessability to reflexive inquiry of the rules that govern conscious thought entails the bankruptcy of the Cartesian rationalist project and implies that the human mind can never fully understand itself, still less can it ever be governed by any process of conscious thought. The considerations adduced earlier, then, establish the autonomy of the mind, without ever endorsing any mentalistic thesis of mind's independence of the material order. Where Hayek deviates from Descartes’ conception of mind, however, is not primarily in his denying ontological independence to mind, but in his demonstration that complete intellectual self-understanding is an impossibility.
Hayek's conception of mind is a notion whose implications for social theory are even more radical than are those of Hayek's Kantianism. It is the chief burden of the latter, let us recall, that no external or transcendental standpoint on human thought is achievable, in terms of which it may be supported or reformed. In social theory, this Kantian perspective implies the impossibility of any Archimedean point from which a synoptic view can be gained of society as a whole and in terms of of which social life may be understood and, it may be, redesigned. As Hayek puts it trenchantly: “Particular aspects of a culture can be critically examined only within the context of that culture. We can never reduce a system of rules or all values as a whole to a purposive construction, but must always stop with our criticism of something that has no better grounds for existence than that it is the accepted basis of the particular tradition.”27 This is a useful statement, since it brings out the Kantian implication for social theory: that all criticism of social life must be immanent criticism, just as in all philosophy inquiry can only be reflexive and never transcendental.
Hayek goes beyond Kantianism, however, in his recognition that, just as in the theory of mind we must break off when we come to the region of unknowable ultimate rules, so in social theory we come to a stop with the basic constitutive traditions of social life. These latter, like Wittgenstein's forms of life, cannot be the objects of further criticism, since they are at the terminus of criticism and justification: they are simply given to us, and must be accepted by us. But this is not to say that these traditions are unchanging, nor that we cannot understand how it is that they do change.
In social theory, Hayek's devastating critique of Cartesian rationalism entails that, whatever else it might be, social order cannot be the product of a directing intelligence. It is not just that too many concrete details of social life would always escape such an intelligence, which could never, therefore, know enough. Nor (though we are nearer the nub of the matter here) is it that society is not a static object of knowledge which could survive unchanged the investigations of such an intelligence. No, the impossibility of total social planning does not rest for Hayek on such Popperian considerations,28 or, at any rate, not primarily on them.
Such an impossibility of central social planning rests, firstly, on the primordially practical character of most of the knowledge on which social life depends. Such knowledge cannot be concentrated in a single brain, natural or mechanical, not because it is very complicated, but rather because it is embodied in habits and dispositions and governs our conduct via rules which are often inarticulable. But, secondly, the impossibility of total social planning arises from the fact that, since we are all of us governed by rules of which we have no knowledge, even the directing intelligence itself would be subject to such government. It is naive and almost incoherent29 to suppose that a society could lift itself up by its bootstraps and reconstruct itself, in part at least because the idea that any individual mind—or any collectivity of selected minds—could do that, is no less absurd.
The Idea of a Spontaneous Social Order
If the order we discover in society is in no important respect the product of a directing intelligence, and if the human mind itself is a product of cultural evolution, then it follows that social order cannot be the product of anything resembling conscious control or rational design. As Hayek puts it:
The errors of constructivist rationalism are closely connected with Cartesian dualism, that is, with the conception of an independently existing mind substance which stands outside the cosmos of nature and which enabled man, endowed with such a mind from the beginning, to design the institutions of society and culture among which he lives...The conception of an already fully developed mind designing the institutions which made life possible is contrary to all we know about the evolution of man.30
The master error of Cartesian rationalism31 lies in its anthropomorphic transposition of mentalist categories to social processes. But a Cartesian rationalist view of mind cannot explain even the order of mind itself. Hayek himself makes this point when he remarks on “the difference between an order which is brought about by the direction of a central organ such as the brain, and the formation of an order determined by the regularity of the actions towards each other of the elements of a structure.” He goes on:
Michael Polanyi has usefully described this distinction as that between a monocentric and a polycentric order. The first point which it is in this connection important to note is that the brain of an organism which acts as the directing centre for the organism is in turn a polycentric order, that is, that its actions are determined by the relation and mutual adjustment to each other of the elements of which it consists.32
Hayek states his conception of social theory, and of the central importance in it of undesigned or spontaneous orders, programmatically and with unsurpassable lucidity:
It is evident that this interplay of the rules of conduct of the individuals with the actions of other individuals and the external circumstances in producing an overall order may be a highly complex affair. The whole task of social theory consists in little else but an effort to reconstruct the overall orders which are thus formed...It will also be clear that such a distinct theory of social structures can provide only an explanation of certain general and highly abstract features of the different types of structures...Of theories of this type economic theory, the theory of the market order of free human societies, is so far the only one which has been developed over a long period...33
Because it is undesigned and not the product of conscious reflection, the spontaneous order that emerges of itself in social life can cope with the radical ignorance we all share of the countless facts on knowledge of which society depends. This is to say, to begin with, that a spontaneous social order can utilize fragmented knowledge, knowledge dispersed among millions of people, in a way a holistically planned order (if such there could be) cannot. “This structure of human activities” as Hayek puts it “consistently adapts itself, and functions through adapting itself, to millions of facts which in their entirety are not known to everybody. The significance of this process is most obvious and was at first stressed in the economic field.”34 It is to say, also, that a spontaneous social order can use the practical knowledge preserved in men's habits and dispositions and that society always depends on such practical knowledge and cannot do without it.
Examples abound in Hayek's writings of spontaneous orders apart from the market order. The thesis of spontaneous order is stated at its broadest when Hayek says of Bernard Mandeville (1670–1733) that “for the first time [he] developed all the classical paradigmata of the spontaneous growth of orderly social structures: of law and morals, of language, the market and money, and also the growth of technological knowledge.”35 Note that whereas Hayek acknowledges that spontaneous order emerges in natural processes—it may be observed, he tells us, not only in the population biology of animal species, but in the formation of crystals and even galaxies36 —it is the role of spontaneous order in human society that Hayek is most concerned to stress. For applying what Hayek illuminatingly terms “the twin ideas of evolution and of the spontaneous formation of an order”37 to the study of human society enables us to transcend the view, inherited from Greek, and, above all, from Sophist philosophy, that all social phenomena can be comprehended within the crude dichotomy of the natural (physis) and the conventional (nomos). Hayek wishes to focus attention on the third domain of social phenomena and objects, neither instinctual in origin nor yet the result of conscious contrivance or purposive construction, the domain of evolved and self-regulating social structures. It is the emergence of such self-regulating structures in society via the natural selection of rules of action and perception that is systematically neglected in much current sociology (though not, it may be noted, in the writings of Herbert Spencer,38 one of sociology's founding fathers). It is because he thinks that the sociobiologists view social order as being a mixture of instinctive behavior and conscious control, and so neglect the cultural selection of systems of rules, that Hayek has subjected this recent strain of speculation to a sharp criticism.39 It may be noted, finally, that Hayek's repudiation of the Sophistic natureconvention dichotomy sets him in opposition to Popper and his talk of the critical dualism of facts and decisions and brings him close to the Wittgensteinian philosopher, Peter Winch, for whom the distinction is essentially misconceived.40
The Application of Spontaneous Order in Economic Life: The Catallaxy
The central claim of Hayek's philosophy, as we have expounded it so far, is that knowledge is, at its base, at once practical and abstract. It is abstract inasmuch as even sensory perception gives us a model of our environment which is highly selective and picks out only certain classes of events, and it is practical inasmuch as most knowledge is irretrievably stored or embodied in rules of action and perception. These rules, in turn, are in Hayek's conception the subject of continuing natural selection in cultural competition. The mechanism of this selection, best described in Hayek's fascinating “Notes on the Evolution of Systems of Rules of Conduct,”41 is in the emulation by others of rules which secure successful behavior. It is by a mimetic contagion that rules conferring success—where success means, in the last resort, the growth of human numbers42 —come to supplant those rules which are maladapted to the environment. Finally, the convergence of many rule-following creatures on a single system of rules creates those social objects—language, money, markets, the law—which are the paradigms of spontaneous social order.
It is a general implication of this conception that, since social order is not a purposive construction, it will not in general serve any specific purpose. Social order facilitates the achievement of human purposes: taken in itself, it must be seen as having no purpose. Just as human actions acquire their meaning by occurring in a framework that can itself have no meaning,43 so social order will allow for the achievement of human purposes only to the extent that it is itself purposeless. Nowhere has this general implication of Hayek's conception been so neglected as in economic life. In the history and theory of science, to be sure, where the idea of spontaneous order was (as Hayek acknowledges) put to work by Michael Polanyi, false conceptions were spawned by the erroneous notion that scientific progress could be planned, whereas, on the contrary, any limitation of scientific inquiry to the contents of explicit or theoretical knowledge would inevitably stifle further progress.44 In economics, however, the canard that order is the result of conscious control had more fateful consequences. It supported the illusion that the whole realm of human exchange was to be understood after the fashion of a household or an hierarchical organization, with limited and commensurable purposes ranked in order of agreed importance.
This confusion of a genuine hierarchical ‘economy’—such as that of an army, a school or a business corporation—with the whole realm of social exchange, the catallaxy, informs many aspects of welfare economics and motivates its interventionist projects via the fiction of a total social product. This confusion between ‘catallaxy’ and ‘economy’ is, at bottom, the result of an inability to acknowledge that the order which is the product of conscious direction—the order of a management hierarchy in a business corporation, for example—itself always depends upon a larger spontaneous order. The demand that the domain of human exchange taken as a whole should be subject to purposive planning is, therefore, the demand that social life be reconstructed in the character of a factory, an army, or a business corporation—in the character, in other words, of an authoritarian organization. Apart from the fateful consequences for individual liberty that implementing such a demand inexorably entails, it springs in great measure from an inability or unwillingness to grasp how in the market process itself there is a constant tendency to self-regulation by spontaneous order. When it is unhampered, the process of exchange between competitive firms itself yields a coordination of men's activities more intricate and balanced than any that could be enforced (or even conceived) by a central planner.
The Catallactic Order, Practical Knowledge,