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C. S. Peirce and F. A. Hayek on the Abstract Nature of Sensation and Cognition

Here is the intro to Jim Wibble’s fascinating paper, the full version available here.

When exploring ideas on philosophy of science and economic methodology, one of the most unusual articles that one can encounter is Hayek’s well-known piece, “The Primacy of the Abstract”. In a note in the article, Hayek tells us that he had thought of another title but it Awould not have had the shock effect which is the merit of the phrase chosen.[i] What Hayek wanted to convey with the title was the intellectual novelty of the positions argued. Without getting into the details of his position, Hayek maintains that all sensation is preceded by mental operations of abstraction. He had expressed his views on the subject nearly two decades earlier in a much larger work. His views on the primacy of the abstract had already appeared in The Sensory Order (1952). In that book, Hayek had taken the position that the abstract nature of sensation and cognition was supported by what we would now call the neuroscience of his time. In other words, Hayek thought that the neurophysiological evidence concerning how human sensation and cognition function provided an empirical basis for questioning prevailing empiricist theories and philosophies of how those functions worked. Various versions of empiricism dominated much of science at that time. Also the empiricist psychology of abstract ideas from the British associationist school was widely known in both early 20th century philosophy and psychology. Among other things, Hayek was conveying his sharp disagreement with the prevailing empiricist conceptions of how abstract ideas were created and how science was understood. Such a different view of how human knowing functions also has profound implications for understanding how society can be governed, for how the economy works, and for understanding the evolutionary limits on human knowing in economic processes.

Since Hayek’s title, “The Primacy of the Abstract”, had its intended shock effect on this author, it created an intellectual sensitivity for like ideas.[ii] As it turns out, another intellect had come to a similar position on cognition and abstraction decades earlier than Hayek. The purpose here is not to identify a precursor as such, but rather to acknowledge both the similarities and the differences in their views. The other figure is the American scientist, mathematician, and philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce. From a couple of references that Hayek has made to Peirce’s writings and the fact that Hayek’s good friend, Karl Popper, also knew of Peirce’s writings, it appears that Hayek must have read some of the volumes of Peirce’s Collected Papers. As quoted at the beginning of the paper, Popper called Peirce “one of the greatest philosophers of all time.” Peirce and Hayek were inquiring minds whose interests seem to range over many of the same disciplines but with varying degrees of intensity. Peirce may have had a greater knowledge of astronomy, mathematics, and philosophy while Hayek had a deeper awareness of economics, linguistics, psychology, and political philosophy. Peirce like his well-known father Benjamin, also had a keen interest in economics, especially mathematical economics. Peirce the son kept in touch with economics through his life-long acquaintance Simon Newcomb whose second discipline of interest after astronomy was economics.[iii] Newcomb was a prominent antagonist of the founders of the American Economics Association in the late 1880s. Newcomb, who eventually joined the AEA, opposed the expansive view of government proposed by AEA founders such as Richard Ely and Edmund James. Peirce was also kept aware of developments in psychology by his lifelong friend William James. Hayek certainly seems to have been greatly aware of James’s contributions to cognitive psychology. So here is another avenue of connection between Peirce and Hayek.


[i] The alternative title would have been the primacy of the general (Hayek, 1969 [1978], p. 35).

[ii] Readers may want to know that the author was one of two economics graduate students that attended the Penn State conference on cognitive psychology in May of 1977 where Hayek’s The Sensory Order was given a central place in the sessions and the discussions. William Butos was the other student. We heard Walter Weimer (1982) deliver his long keynote address and appraisal of The Sensory Order and Hayek’s (1982) response. Weimer thought that Hayek’s views were more psychological and thus closer to Thomas Kuhn’s view of science than those of Popper or Lakatos. In the discussion which followed, I asked Hayek whether that was so. His response was I am still a Popperian (Weimer and Hayek, 1982, p. 323). Weimer was a member of the dissertation committees for both Butos and the author.

[iii] For many of these details consult Moyer’s (1992) biography.

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