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In Reason Papers (Fall 2011) 33:12–30:

Rand versus Hayek on Abstraction

David Kelley

From the essay:

It is difficult to compare Hayek‘s view of abstraction with Rand‘s directly. Rand is concerned with the metaphysical and epistemological issues in the classical debate about universals and concepts, while Hayek was concerned with issues in what now would be described as philosophy of mind and cognitive science. Hayek neither addresses the classical problems, nor develops any theory of how abstractness and universality are possible. Rand, for her part, offers nothing beyond a few observations about the relation of the conscious mind to the physical brain, which she regards as chiefly a scientific issue.

Nevertheless, there are clear points of difference between their views of abstraction underlying the basic differences I outlined above about the power of reason. . . .

Outline

1. Introduction

2. Rand versus Hayek on the Power of Reason

3. Reason and Abstraction

4. Rand’s Theory of Concepts

5. Hayek on Abstraction

6. Hayek’s Functionalism

7. Hayek’s Kantianism

8. Active versus Passive Cognition

9. Conclusion: Hayek on Rand on Epistemology and Politics

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In Reason Papers (Fall 2011) 33:12–30:

Rand versus Hayek on Abstraction

David Kelley

From the essay:

It is difficult to compare Hayek‘s view of abstraction with Rand‘s directly. Rand is concerned with the metaphysical and epistemological issues in the classical debate about universals and concepts, while Hayek was concerned with issues in what now would be described as philosophy of mind and cognitive science. Hayek neither addresses the classical problems, nor develops any theory of how abstractness and universality are possible. Rand, for her part, offers nothing beyond a few observations about the relation of the conscious mind to the physical brain, which she regards as chiefly a scientific issue.

Nevertheless, there are clear points of difference between their views of abstraction underlying the basic differences I outlined above about the power of reason. . . .

My brief comment.

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Rand, for her part, offers nothing beyond a few observations about the relation of the conscious mind to the physical brain, which she regards as chiefly a scientific issue.

No, I don’t believe she does. I don’t think she wrote about the subject, except words to the effect (I’ve forgotten where) that a (non-physical) mind is a natural part of a human being, with the implication not to get exercised over it.

On that subject see Raymond Tallis’ Aping Mankind, which I’m almost done reading. He’s also on YouTube.

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  • 4 weeks later...

Thanks for the copy of Kelley's paper. I've been looking forward to reading it.

For one, I'm glad Kelley avoided descending into Hayek-bashing. But, I must emphasize as a point of criticism, the article completely avoids looking for much in the way of common ground between Rand and Hayek (apart from their repeated focus on the nature of human cognition as the basis for classical liberalism).

Full disclosure; I agree with Hayek's critique of rationalism. I disagree with Hayek's epistemology.

Also, I believe Kelley makes a mistake: "Hayek, by contrast, is a critic of what he calls constructive rationalism. His concept of rationalism is somewhat idiosyncratic, and is not equivalent to Rand‘s conception of reason."

Italics mine.

Hayek's concept of rationalism is NOT idiosyncratic. Rationalism is the philosophical proposition that all knowledge comes from a priori and deductive sources, without empirical evidence. This is precisely how the term is used in philosophy.

Rand, on the other hand, uses "reason" idiosyncratically. Her "reason" is a very empirical concept of reason, but most philosophy has a tendency to use "reason" to mean deductive reason rather than empirical reason (Hayek does this too, in that he often uses "reason" to refer to a rationalist concept of reason).

Kelley is right, however, that Rand's "reason" is not Hayek's "rationalism." Rand herself made this error. I am glad Kelley avoided making the same mistake.

"Neither, Hayek claims, do societies acquire their norms through the insights or teachings of previous thinkers, nor do the norms arise through any social contract among individuals. Instead, he offers an evolutionary account to the effect that rules evolve by a process akin to natural selection."

False dichotomy. I invite Kelley to read Kurt Dopfer and Jason Potts' The General Theory of Economic Evolution. The insights or teachings of previous thinkers are part of an evolutionary process; what happens is that big philosophers come up with new ideas (variation), these ideas spread throughout the population at large (replication), and individuals then experiment with/implement/analyze these ideas to see what works/what is of value (selection).

"For Hayek, moral rules have a status lying between instinct and reason. They are not literal instincts of the kind we ascribe to animals; they are not inborn. They are habits people acquire in the course of maturation and experience, as they are acculturated to the norms of their society. But neither are such norms the product of reason."

Kelley now falls into the trap of conflating Hayek's "reason" with Rand's "reason." He's also implicitly suggesting that Hayek assumed people were just conditioned by society. Both are errors. Hayek used "reason" typically to refer to a rationalist concept of reason. Rand also rejected the idea that rationalism could lead to valid moral norms.

Additionally, Hayek is not talking about correct moral norms. He's not saying what philosophy is right. He's talking about a process by which a society acquires the moral belief/s it holds. He isn't evaluating these beliefs, he's merely talking about how societies in general come to them.

And let's be honest; the correct ideas aren't necessarily the dominant ones in the marketplace of ideas (a fact most Objectivists should be acutely aware of).

"This (Hayek's) case for market freedom is essentially negative." (Brackets mine)

Kelley is correct; Hayek's case is essentially a critique of the utopian social planners. I fail to see how this is a bad thing. Hayek was an economist writing during the decades when people were very much enamored with socialism; the socialists of the time believed that they would produce superior real-world outcomes to markets. Hayek set out to rebuke this.

Whilst I agree with Rand that a positive case for classical liberalism is a necessary condition to achieve a free world, Hayek was operating in an intellectual context that irrefutably needed a negative case AGAINST the rising tide of statism.

"Rand and Hayek can be seen as representing two different strands of Enlightenment thought. Rand is the best twentieth-century representative of the tradition of John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, and others who have prized man‘s power of reason and have wanted to liberate that power in science, production, and the individual pursuit of happiness. What Rand adds to the tradition is an individualist moral theory based on man‘s need to think and produce in service to his life, and epistemological insights regarding the nature and validation of reason, including the theory of concepts outlined below. Hayek represents the tradition of the Scottish Enlightenment, including thinkers such as David Hume, Adam Smith, and others who were more skeptical of the power of reason. Such thinkers tend to look at man not as the subject of rational knowledge or agent of rational action, but as the object of an inquiry about how societies function. This is the tradition that gave rise to the concept of spontaneous order, order that arises from human action, but not from human design."

Again, a false dichotomy (similar to Rothbard's) between spontaneous order and individual reason. The concepts deal with completely different spheres! Reason, as Objectivists are acutely aware of, is a faculty of the individual. Spontaneous order is a statement about entire societies. Individuals acting rationally at the micro level will produce spontaneous order at the macro level (in essence, Misesian micro results in Hayekian macro).

Smith and Hayek aren't skeptical about the power of reason at the micro level; they are skeptical about the power of rationalism at the macro level. In short, all they are saying is that human intellect has limits. This is something which should not be controversial to Objectivists; Rand explicitly stated that reason is fallible, contextual and tentative (in the sense of being open-ended to new evidence), and Objectivist epistemology includes that nice concept of Unit Economy, i.e. "we use abstract knowledge because of a cognitive limitation of our minds, we can only focus on six to eight concretes at any one time."

I'm not going to deny that Rand and Hayek had very different epistemological theories. I also agree with Kelley that Rand's account of epistemology is superior to Hayek. However, Hayek's critiques of rationalism are (in my opinion) completely compatible with Objectivism, and much of his thought on the epistemic properties of social institutions is supportable with Objectivist epistemology.

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(I just corrected the font size.)

Thanks for the copy of Kelley's paper. I've been looking forward to reading it.

For one, I'm glad Kelley avoided descending into Hayek-bashing. But, I must emphasize as a point of criticism, the article completely avoids looking for much in the way of common ground between Rand and Hayek (apart from their repeated focus on the nature of human cognition as the basis for classical liberalism).

Full disclosure; I agree with Hayek's critique of rationalism. I disagree with Hayek's epistemology.

Also, I believe Kelley makes a mistake: "Hayek, by contrast, is a critic of what he calls constructive rationalism. His concept of rationalism is somewhat idiosyncratic, and is not equivalent to Rand‘s conception of reason."

Italics mine.

Hayek's concept of rationalism is NOT idiosyncratic. Rationalism is the philosophical proposition that all knowledge comes from a priori and deductive sources, without empirical evidence. This is precisely how the term is used in philosophy.

Rand, on the other hand, uses "reason" idiosyncratically. Her "reason" is a very empirical concept of reason, but most philosophy has a tendency to use "reason" to mean deductive reason rather than empirical reason (Hayek does this too, in that he often uses "reason" to refer to a rationalist concept of reason).

Kelley is right, however, that Rand's "reason" is not Hayek's "rationalism." Rand herself made this error. I am glad Kelley avoided making the same mistake.

"Neither, Hayek claims, do societies acquire their norms through the insights or teachings of previous thinkers, nor do the norms arise through any social contract among individuals. Instead, he offers an evolutionary account to the effect that rules evolve by a process akin to natural selection."

False dichotomy. I invite Kelley to read Kurt Dopfer and Jason Potts' The General Theory of Economic Evolution. The insights or teachings of previous thinkers are part of an evolutionary process; what happens is that big philosophers come up with new ideas (variation), these ideas spread throughout the population at large (replication), and individuals then experiment with/implement/analyze these ideas to see what works/what is of value (selection).

"For Hayek, moral rules have a status lying between instinct and reason. They are not literal instincts of the kind we ascribe to animals; they are not inborn. They are habits people acquire in the course of maturation and experience, as they are acculturated to the norms of their society. But neither are such norms the product of reason."

Kelley now falls into the trap of conflating Hayek's "reason" with Rand's "reason." He's also implicitly suggesting that Hayek assumed people were just conditioned by society. Both are errors. Hayek used "reason" typically to refer to a rationalist concept of reason. Rand also rejected the idea that rationalism could lead to valid moral norms.

Additionally, Hayek is not talking about correct moral norms. He's not saying what philosophy is right. He's talking about a process by which a society acquires the moral belief/s it holds. He isn't evaluating these beliefs, he's merely talking about how societies in general come to them.

And let's be honest; the correct ideas aren't necessarily the dominant ones in the marketplace of ideas (a fact most Objectivists should be acutely aware of).

"This (Hayek's) case for market freedom is essentially negative." (Brackets mine)

Kelley is correct; Hayek's case is essentially a critique of the utopian social planners. I fail to see how this is a bad thing. Hayek was an economist writing during the decades when people were very much enamored with socialism; the socialists of the time believed that they would produce superior real-world outcomes to markets. Hayek set out to rebuke this.

Whilst I agree with Rand that a positive case for classical liberalism is a necessary condition to achieve a free world, Hayek was operating in an intellectual context that irrefutably needed a negative case AGAINST the rising tide of statism.

"Rand and Hayek can be seen as representing two different strands of Enlightenment thought. Rand is the best twentieth-century representative of the tradition of John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, and others who have prized man‘s power of reason and have wanted to liberate that power in science, production, and the individual pursuit of happiness. What Rand adds to the tradition is an individualist moral theory based on man‘s need to think and produce in service to his life, and epistemological insights regarding the nature and validation of reason, including the theory of concepts outlined below. Hayek represents the tradition of the Scottish Enlightenment, including thinkers such as David Hume, Adam Smith, and others who were more skeptical of the power of reason. Such thinkers tend to look at man not as the subject of rational knowledge or agent of rational action, but as the object of an inquiry about how societies function. This is the tradition that gave rise to the concept of spontaneous order, order that arises from human action, but not from human design."

Again, a false dichotomy (similar to Rothbard's) between spontaneous order and individual reason. The concepts deal with completely different spheres! Reason, as Objectivists are acutely aware of, is a faculty of the individual. Spontaneous order is a statement about entire societies. Individuals acting rationally at the micro level will produce spontaneous order at the macro level (in essence, Misesian micro results in Hayekian macro).

Smith and Hayek aren't skeptical about the power of reason at the micro level; they are skeptical about the power of rationalism at the macro level. In short, all they are saying is that human intellect has limits. This is something which should not be controversial to Objectivists; Rand explicitly stated that reason is fallible, contextual and tentative (in the sense of being open-ended to new evidence), and Objectivist epistemology includes that nice concept of Unit Economy, i.e. "we use abstract knowledge because of a cognitive limitation of our minds, we can only focus on six to eight concretes at any one time."

I'm not going to deny that Rand and Hayek had very different epistemological theories. I also agree with Kelley that Rand's account of epistemology is superior to Hayek. However, Hayek's critiques of rationalism are (in my opinion) completely compatible with Objectivism, and much of his thought on the epistemic properties of social institutions is supportable with Objectivist epistemology.

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  • 5 months later...

I saw Tress's post. I re-initialized my Scribd profile, added some documents of my own, etc., and then downloaded this into my Objectivism folder to read offline at my leisure. I have some cassette tapes of Kelley lectures and I remain impressed after a decade.

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David Kelley’s review of John Searle’s Mind: A Brief Introduction (2004) is available here.

Searle’s earlier work The Rediscovery of the Mind (1992) is reviewed by Eyal Mozes here.

Concerning Searle’s philosophy of mind further, I recommend Views into the Chinese Room, especially #20.*

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