Hayek: Cognitive scientist Avant la Lettre

My published article is now available from here. Check out the full table of contents for this volume.

Hayek: cognitive scientist avant la lettre

Here is the uncorrected proof of my essay – do not cite.

Ryle & Oakeshott on the “Knowing-How/Knowing-That” Distinction

Some two and a half years ago I previewed this paper. For several reasons, not least because of my faffing about and constantly reworking it in light of new reading, not to mention wrestling with some Quine and Frege, it only now has gone to press. Here are the first and last sections. Section II is entitled “KH and KT: Three Permutations” with sub-sections – KH and KT are Sui Generis: Ryle; KH As A Species of KT; The Agnostic View - Section III “Oakeshott on KH/KT:  A Critique”; sub-sections “Will the Real Rationalist Please Stand Up?” and “Ryle and Oakeshott: A Discontinuity”; Section V “Tradition or Practice as an Extended Cognitive System” and finally Section V, some concluding remarks which I include here after section I.

I. The Social Nature of Rationality

Politics make a call upon knowledge. Consequently, it is not irrelevant to inquire into the kind of knowledge which is involved.[1]                                  — Oakeshott

Gilbert Ryle’s “Knowing How/Knowing That” distinction (KH/KT) gave crisp articulation to a long-standing epistemological concern that Michael Oakeshott had: that is, what is the epistemic status of the area that comprises our waking lives, the domain of practical reasoning, of which political practice, on Oakeshott’s account, is but one aspect. [2] This concern is set against a much broader purview: that of the nature of rationality, or more accurately the social nature of rationality.

Though Ryle’s KH/KT distinction has been taken to be primarily an epistemological distinction, it is as much a claim about the operations of the mind.  Ryle’s The Concept of Mind [3] was a work in philosophical psychology; and though Oakeshott couldn’t be considered a philosopher of mind, his work is replete with concerns about the bipartite relationship of mind to world and of the bipartite relationship of theorizing to action. Oakeshott’s concern with the KH/KT distinction is coextensive with a concern with “unconsidered actions” supposedly “irrational” conduct and reflective consciousness, the latter supposedly the spring of rational conduct.  On Oakeshott’s account the former is not irrational (where tradition is the only reliable resource, its disregard is irrational); the latter is illusory and hardly rational. The contrast is a spurious one; all there ever is, is a socially embedded intelligence – “intelligibility is contextual” – to use what might be considered an Oakeshott slogan. This said, Oakeshott does not subscribe to the Marx-Mannheim line (and their intellectual heirs comprising the sociology of knowledge movement) that human conduct can merely be explained as being subject to ‘‘false consciousness’’ or a distortive miscognition.

Oakeshott rejects the prevailing Cartesian orthodoxy across cognitive science, the philosophy of mind, epistemology and metaphysics:  an orthodoxy that has systematically overlooked not only the location of thinkers in their physical environments, but has also overlooked the interactions amongst thinkers in the ambient socio-cultural soup:

You do not first have a mind, which acquires a filling of ideas and then makes a distinction between true and false, right and wrong, reasonable and unreasonable, and then, as a third step, causes activity. Properly speaking the mind has no existence apart from, or in advance of, these distinctions. These and other distinctions are not acquisitions; they are constitutive of the mind.  The whole notion of the mind as an apparatus for thinking is I believe an error and it is the error at the root of this particular view of the nature of “rationality.” (RIP, 109-13)

For Oakeshott, a tradition or practice implies the social situatedness of the self and the rejection of focal individualism, the idea that human drives and behavioral characteristics are socially and historically invariant: individuals draw their self-understanding and their conceptions of the good, their “constitutive” ends, from what is conceptually to hand in historically specific societies or civilizations. Society is in some sense antecedent to the individuals that compose it. Mind does not merely respond to a given world; mind is enacted [4] through a particularized history of socio-environmental coupling: perception is an act of interpretation and the generation of meaning, a self that is embedded and has coherence in a matrix of practices and traditions. Situatedness, for Oakeshott, is captured in the following:

(i) Manners of behavior which are meaningless when separated from their context (RIP, 63);

(ii) “Politics may be said to be the activity of responding to conditions of things already recognized to be the product of choices” (RIP, 70, italics added);

(iii) “Human self-understanding is inseparable from learning to participate in what is called a ‘culture’” (VL, 16-17)[5];

(iv) “Selves are not rational abstractions, they are historic personalities, they are among the components of [the] world of human achievements” (VL, 41).

Therefore, knowledge and cognition only exists against a background fabric of cultural possibility, a preexisting, complex web of linguistic, technological, social, political and institutional constraints — a social ecosystem if you like. [6] There is nothing external to a tradition in terms of which it can be appraised: an artless conduct is “as impossible as an utterance in no language in particular” (OHC, 86; RIP, 14).  And again “Volition cannot carry us beyond thought, because there is no beyond” (EM, 26). A tradition fixes and applies its own internal criteria, methods, distinctions and standards of cogent argument, its own immanent standard of epistemic weight regarding its methodological, conceptual and empirical problems. Only from within a tradition-based politics can a tradition can be interrogated and applied.  In Oakeshott’s terminology, it is to “pursue its intimations” or enter into a “flow of sympathy” (RIP, 57, 59, 60, 61, 129, 131) where there is no “changeless centre . . . everything is temporary but nothing is arbitrary” (RIP, 61). This means that one is always dealing with a reflective tradition, not an inert pattern of habitual behavior:

(i) “A human art is never fixed and finished; it has to be used and it is continuously modified in use” (VL, 13);

(ii) “A human being is a ‘history’ and he makes this history for himself out of his responses to the vicissitudes he encounters” (VL, 9; cf. VL, 63, passim);

(iii) “Practices are not stable compositions” (OHC, 100).

Later in On Human Conduct Oakeshott talks of a “practice” not as the outcome of a performance (OHC, 56) but as emerging and continuously invented:  “an instrument to be played upon, not a tune to be played” (OHC, 58; cf. OHC, 91). In language reminiscent of Rationalism in Politics he writes:  An agent’s understanding of a practice he or she is engaged in, “is not that of knowing the rules but of knowing how to speak it . . . “(OHC, 91; and cf. OHC, 26, where the theorist’s understanding is contrasted with the agent’s).

Tradition (or culture) is of such complexity, a complexity generated by infinitely fine-grained constantly shifting local and ephemeral variables, that as a guide to action, social knowledge (KH) cannot be reduced, abridged, or restated propositionally (KT) without remainder. Oakeshott’s conception of the KH/KT distinction manifests itself in two ways, the former I believe, morphed into the latter:

(i) Modality: Oakeshott’s idea that science, history, practice and aesthetics are domains constitutive of their own criteria of objectivity and standards appropriate to their own subject matter.  Any attempt at cross- or trans-modal thinking is bound to be a corrupting exercise.

(ii) Political skepticism: the idea that politics has no intrinsic purpose or end; liberal society should properly be conceived as a civil association not an enterprise association. Social complexity will always defeat the calculation of efficient means (“scientific” politics) to clearly conceived, large-scale political ends. Aims are only incompletely accomplished and unforeseen side-effects always cause results to be markedly different from intentions. [7]


VI: Concluding Remarks

A history of thought is a history of men thinking, not a ‘history’ of abstract, disembodied ‘ideas’. [49] — Oakeshott

A more succinct and pointed statement of Oakeshott’s non-Cartesian credentials cannot be found. Oakeshott rejects the Cartesian bifurcation of the person into brain and body, apparent in the still prevailing methodological supposition that cognition can be studied independently of any consideration of the body and the physical and ambient social environment.  Oakeshott’s emphasis on the notion of embodiment implies a goal driven and purposeful engagement with the world. The situated mind is enacted through a particularized history of socio-environmental coupling: perception is an act of interpretation and the generation of meaning, a kind of know how. Political philosophers would do well to see the broader relevance of Oakeshott’s epistemological concerns; situated cognitive science  should now add Oakeshott to the roster theorists that include titans such as Heidegger, the later Wittgenstein, Merleau-Ponty and Hayek.

[1] Oakeshott, Rationalism in Politics and other essays, new and expanded edition, ed. Timothy Fuller (Indianapolis: Liberty Press, 1991), 45. Hereafter:  RIP.


[2] Ryle’s “Knowing How, Knowing That” essay was first published in the Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, New Series, Vol. 45 (1944 – 1945): 1-16. The terms “rationalism” and “knowledge of” and “knowledge about” make an appearance some thirty years earlier than the celebrated formulations of Rationalism in Politics in Oakeshott, Experience and its Modes (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1933), 23, 25, 53, 318.  Hereafter:  EM.  The original essay “Rationalism in Politics” appeared in the Cambridge Journal, Vol. 1 (1947-8): 81-98, 145-57.

[3] Gilbert Ryle, The Concept of Mind (1949; reprint, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1990).

[4] The terms “enacted” or “enactive,” coined by Francisco J. Varela, Evan Thompson & Eleanor Rosch, The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience (1991; reprint, Cambridge, MA:  MIT Press, 2000), here implies sense-making, embodiment, emergence, and experience. Enacted in this sense is not co-extensive with Oakeshott’s term “self-enactment.”  Oakeshott, On Human Conduct (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990), 70-8, passim.  Hereafter: OHC.

[5] Oakeshott, The Voice of Liberal Learning, ed. Timothy Fuller (Indianapolis:  Liberty Fund, 2001), 57.  Hereafter:  VL.

[6] Elsewhere I have examined the relativistic implications of Oakeshott’s social constructivism. See Leslie Marsh, “Constructivism and Relativism in Oakeshott” In The Intellectual Legacy of Michael Oakeshott, ed. Corey Abel and Timothy Fuller (Exeter: Imprint Academic, 2005), 238-62.

[7] This is not an argument against all attempts at social change or improvement. For a Burkean, change is inevitable and desirable. As Burke said in Reflections on the Revolution in France, “a state without the means of some change is a state without the means of its conservation.” I am loath to use the term ‘conservative’ as it is a term that carries too many often incompatible connotations in Anglo-American philosophy (let alone in the public mind): there are self-avowed conservatives who are rationalists; the corollary is that not all anti-rationalists can be classed as conservative.

[49] LHPT, 42.



The Elusive Oakeshott

Here is a characteristically lucid piece by Ken Minogue on Oakeshott’s supposed conservatism. It should be noted that conservatism as Oakeshott understood it, is an anathema to “conservatism” understood in the American context. I take the view that these the terms are not at all helpful and are, for the most part, vulgarized. Oakeshott was merely an epistemological skeptic and had a “high” liberality as his central value. (By the way, I don’t view Minogue’s characterization of Hayek as a libertarian as particularly accurate, but that’s a side issue). Oakeshott understood that culture was necessarily dynamic: a culture that didn’t change or was frozen by a nostalgic foundationalism, was moribund.

P.S. Thanks to Gene Callahan for alerting me to Minogue’s piece.

Fable of the Bees

Now it is becoming clear that group decisions are also extremely valuable for the success of social animals, such as ants, bees, birds and dolphins. And those animals may have a thing or two to teach people about collective decision-making.

There’s an article in the Economist entitledDecisions, decisions: What people can learn from how social animals make collective decisions.” The article highlights work done by the very talented Christian List (an EPISTEME Associate Editor) and colleagues on collective intentionality and decision theory. It’s nice to see the rich possibilities of computational intelligence, a growth area in A.I, finally be taken seriously by the social theorist. Social theory in its attempt to make sense of the individual-group equation has often taken inspiration from natural history. Though biological inspired political theory has long since been discredited, evolutionary biology and entomology has inspired a lively multidisciplinary field of research termed biomimetics (Grosan & Abraham,  Stigmergic optimization: technologies and perspectives. In A. Abraham, C. Grosan, & V. Ramos Eds., Stigmergic optimization. Berlin: Springer.2006, p. 16). Biomimetic inspired computational modeling has epistemology and adaptive intelligence as a central interest.

My inclination is to approach these issues through the lens of stigmergy, something I began to sketch out in a co-authored paper entitled “Stigmergic epistemology, stigmergic cognition” downloadable here,  here, here or here.

Much of this is of course not new – hence the title of this post – which refers to  Bernard de Mandeville’s metaphorical The Fable of The Bees - refracted though Adam Smith and Hayek.

Orders and Borders

This past weekend I had the good fortune to be able to attend the Second Conference on Emergent Order and Society held in Portsmouth, NH. The term “conference” doesn’t really characterise the format – it is more akin to a colloquium where the emphasis is on genuine discussion and conversation in an intimate group (18 in all) comprised of thinkers from around the world, from different disciplines with very different perspectives – all loosely bound by an interest in and appreciation of spontaneous orders. This must rate as the most memorable intellectual encounter I’ve ever experienced. And beyond the sessions, the conviviality was superb.

The papers will appear in a newly founded online journal over the course of the next few months. The call for papers ran as follows:

We seek original work in four basic areas:

1. Exploring the relations between emergent (spontaneous) orders and the instrumental organizations within them. For example, the relationship of corporations to the market, political parties to democracies, or schools of thought to science. To what degree are they benign, mutually beneficial, or conflicting?

2. Exploring issues involving the intersection and overlapping of different emergent order processes. For example, how do science and the market influence one another? How do science and democracy influence one another? To what extent can these influences be regarded as beneficial, neutral, or disruptive?

3. Exploring organizations that straddle the borders of different emergent orders. For example, the mass media must be both economically viable by serving consumers and also able to inform citizens in a democracy. A fishery must be economically viable and maintain its ecological sustainability. Different emergent processes are coordinated by different rules biased towards different values. How do they interact?

4. Exploring issues involving the borders of disciplines studying emergent phenomena. The distinction between emergent orders and instrumental organizations arose independently of disciplinary boundaries and a theoretical approach making use of it cuts across traditional disciplinary boundaries. Thus much work in economics, anthropology, ecology, philosophy and sociology of science, and political science independently discovers and explores similar territory without benefiting from similar work elsewhere. How might we develop a paradigm of study that integrates these boundaries?


Here’s a restrained and sensitive article from the Scotsman on Claude Wischik‘s work on Alzheimer’s disease. The tone of the article matches the low-key disposition and existential focus of Wischik. Speaking to an Alzheimic patient on a regular basis, I have often used synonyms for the metaphor of “tangles”:

Wischik has spent 24 years studying the neurofibrillary ‘tangles’ that first destroy nerve cells critical for memory and then neurons in other parts of the brain in those suffering from Alzheimer’s.


While I too am sceptical about the techno-ebullience associated with MRI scans what is interesting about the self-defeating claim in a cheekily entitled Economist article “Do economists need brains?” is this quote:

neuroscience could not transform economics because what goes on inside the brain is irrelevant to the discipline. What matters are the decisions people take—in the jargon, their “revealed preferences”—not the process by which they reach them.

The Economist is referring to an article by Faruk Gul and Wolfgang Pesendorfer entitled  “The Case for Mindless Economics.” Now whatever my scepticism, it seems the aforementioned quote is perverse. As the journalist rightly says Hayek certainly understood that markets do not rest upon “rational” behavior (Hayek, 1944, p.64; 1988, pp.53-54) but more importantly appreciated the essential place of mind in any explanation of sociality. This can be found across his work and in his neglected work (1952).


Hayek, F. A. (1944/1976). The Road to Serfdom. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Hayek, F. A. (1952/1976). The Sensory Order. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Hayek, F. A. (1988). The Fatal Conceit: The Errors of Socialism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Reason with a capital “R”

Anthony Grayling has convened a “symposium” on Reason in the latest issue of the New Scientist. Grayling’s position is very predictable but credit to him and the editors for bringing together a diverse group who for the most part seem to disagree with his conception. Neuroscientist Chris Frith, mathematician Roger Penrose and philosopher Mary Midgley are the highlights (at least for me) – Chomsky gives his usual pat responses. There is a series of short videos to accompany the symposium.