Oakeshott on Civil Association

Here are some extracts from Noel’s essay, the penultimate chapter (also check out two new pieces by Noel found here).

The distinctive achievement of Western political thought since the seventeenth century is the ideal of the limited state. Despite extensive theorizing about this ideal, however, there has always been profound disagreement about its precise nature and implications. The full extent of this disagreement has been especially evident during the decades since World War II, in the course of which sustained efforts have been made by a variety of thinkers to construct a coherent alternative to totalitarianism. In Friedrich Hayek’s view, for example, the limited state is principally characterized by a free market economy that facilitates human progress. For Karl Popper it is characterized by commitment to creating an open society that rejects absolute truth and asserts the conditionality of all knowledge. In the early writings of John Rawls, the limited state is characterized by commitment to rational principles of distributive justice. For Robert Nozick it means the minimal state. For Ernest Gellner it is the political structure appropriate to what he termed “modular man.” For Jürgen Habermas, echoing Rousseau, it refers to a political order based on rational will formation. For Václav Havel what characterizes the limited state is the promotion of spiritual integration instead of the spiritual fragmentation associated with totalitarian regimes. Still other interpretations of the ideal of the limited state are found among theorists of globalization and the European Union. In light of this disagreement, Michael Oakeshott’s interpretation of the limited state as civil association is of special interest, seeking as it does to give a degree of conceptual coherence to the ideal that is otherwise lacking. The principal obstacle to achieving this coherence, Oakeshott believes, is a deep division of opinion among modern political theorists about the nature of political science. To understand Oakeshott’s identification of the limited state with civil association, it is therefore necessary to begin by considering his understanding of political science.

Oakeshott rejects the view that an answer can be given simply by referring to specific “persons, places, or occasions” as was the case, for example, in ancient Greek political thought, where the concept of the public was tied to the agora (OHC, 165). Instead, he identifies what is public in the political sense with “a focus of attention and a subject of discourse” (165). What is public refers, more precisely, to the “public concern” of cives (citizens), for which Oakeshott adopts the Roman term respublica. Putting the same thing slightly differently, a respublica exists only when a state is “constituted in such a way that it can be considered as belonging to the governed, and not an alien power” (VMES, 104).

Without the existence of a public concern or respublica, then, a state lacks a moral basis and is consequently indistinguishable from power or domination. It can accordingly be dismissed, as it was in the ancient world by the Greek Sophist Thrasymachus, as embodying the interest of the stronger, or it can be described, as it has been by modern Marxists, as merely a committee of the bourgeois capitalist class. Exactly how the respublica necessary to rebut these charges is to be structured, however, has been a matter for intense disagreement among modern political thinkers. At one stage of his intellectual development, Oakeshott attributed this disagreement to a tension between individualist and collectivist ways of thought in modern politics. At another, he attributed it instead to a tension between rationalist and pragmatic politics. At yet another stage he theorized it in terms of a tension between the “politics of faith” and the “politics of skepticism.” In his mature presentation of the tension in On Human Conduct (1975), however, he finally identified it as lying between an essentially formal, nonpurposive concept of the respublica embodied in civil association, on the one hand, and what he described as an enterprise conception, on the other, which seeks to create a public concern by imposing a substantive vision of the social good on all members of society. It is this final statement of Oakeshott’s position that is the main focus of attention here. Before considering the civil form of respublica, it is illuminating to begin by considering Oakeshott’s analysis of the enterprise version, according to which what is public is identified with a shared purpose in which all citizens are compelled to participate

But why, it must be asked, does Oakeshott maintain that freedom is always incompatible with an enterprise conception of the state: surely freedom is possible provided that the enterprise is a worthwhile one like social justice? In reply Oakeshott gives several reasons for rejecting the enterprise conception of respublica as incompatible with a free society. The most fundamental is that enterprise association lacks the moral basis of a free society, which is recognition of others as ends in themselves. As Oakeshott puts it, subjects in an enterprise state are reduced to the status of objects, because they are understood by the enterprise state as merely “the property of the association, an item of its capital resources,” to be disposed of in whatever way the state believes best serves its purpose (OHC, 317). This remains true even if the enterprise state enjoys extensive popular support for such goals as economic growth or distributive justice, since the subjects who support them remain objects in the eyes of the state.

What links these thinkers is the recognition that civil association consists of a complex of “rules and rule-like prescriptions to be subscribed to in all the enterprises and adventures in which the self-chosen satisfactions of agents may be sought” (OHC, 148). Hobbes, above all, is praised by Oakeshott for exploring the ideal character of civil association most profoundly. Nevertheless, Oakeshott criticized Hobbes on several counts. Hobbes failed, in the first place, to explain how self-seeking individuals could regard it as rational to make a covenant according to which each surrenders to all the other participants (as Hobbes requires) his natural right to interpret and enforce the law of nature as he sees fit. As Hobbes admits, to be a first performer in the kind of covenant he envisaged is feasible only for a few “magnanimous natures” such as Sydney Godolphin, to whom Hobbes dedicated Leviathan— wholly exceptional individuals willing to honor their promises even when a sovereign has not as yet been created to enforce laws that provide redress if others fail to keep theirs.

The model of civil association, then, is intended by Oakeshott to provide the only conception of the public realm, or respublica, that can reconcile order and freedom in a modern Western society whose citizens want to live self-chosen lives and reject any state that wishes to impose an overall purpose on them. A variety of theoretical objections to the civil model have been raised, however, by critics who claim that Oakeshott’s theorization of civil association fails to make good his claims on its behalf. Some of the objections arise from confusion, but others are well-founded. An attempt must therefore now be made to distinguish the confused from the well-founded criticisms. The first step in this process of clarification is to note the confusion about the nature of civil association that has arisen during the past three decades as a result of attempts made by Eastern European intellectuals to underpin their opposition to Soviet despotism by adopting the concept of civil association to describe the alternative for which they were fighting. The meaning they gave to it, however, usually had little connection with Oakeshott’s version and was indeed incompatible with it in some crucial respects. Precisely how the Eastern European ideal differed from Oakeshott’s may be illustrated by considering the political writings of Václav Havel, who is generally regarded as one of the leading Eastern European defenders of civil association. The grandeur of Havel’s vision is unquestionable. The important point, however, is that he is committed to what Oakeshott terms an enterprise model of the state. Havel’s enterprise, to be precise, is to promote spiritual renewal in what he regards as an age of dehumanization. From this, Havel says, it is “beside the point” to discuss topics such as socialism and capitalism, since the real concern is nothing less than salvation—“the salvation of us all, of myself and my interlocutor equally”—above all in the alienated relation to nature that has been created by modern industrial societies. Elevated though Havel’s words may be, a vision of this kind is incompatible with the formal, nonpurpose concept of civil association favored by Oakeshott. The confusion caused by the Eastern European model of civil association, however, is only one of several that have resulted in the misinterpretation of Oakeshott’s position. Another consists of the identification of civil association with the minimal state. This is the identification made, for example, by libertarian theorists such as Robert Nozick. Civil association, however, is not committed to upholding the minimal state; its concern is to eliminate the arbitrary state. It is concerned, in other words, not with the quantity of government intervention but with the mode of intervention. Provided the mode of intervention does not conflict with the civil model, extensive government intervention is in principle not excluded by it. Precisely how much, however, and precisely which areas it occurs in, are matters for debate among citizens of civil association. They are not, that is, matters that can be determined by reflection on the civil ideal in the abstract.


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

Here are some extracts from 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 would not have had the shock effect which is the merit of the phrase chosen. 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. 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. 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.

Unlike Hayek, most modern economists have always kept their distance from psychology. Both disciplines separated from philosophy as autonomous social sciences in the late 19th century. Even though classical economics is dated from Adam Smith and political economy became a separate subject in its own right late in the 18th century, political economy was most often taught as a branch of moral philosophy until the late 19th century. It wasn’t until the neoclassical revolution and the creation of marginalist ideas that the name of the discipline changed from political economy to economics and it became a separate autonomous discipline. Whether economists agree or disagree with psychologists, it is important to understand the conceptions of psychology that previous generations of economists encountered. In the 19th and early 20th century, higher education was much more general than now and economists would have been much more exposed to the general ideas of psychology and philosophy than they are today. In our present time, it is possible, that someone could now get a doctorate in economics without ever having had any formal exposure to psychology or philosophy in terms of an organized university class. For those so narrowly educated, the intellectual breadth of earlier figures like Hayek and Peirce may be difficult to grasp. And the most important things they have to say could simply be beyond the appreciation of even those who have won Nobel Prizes in economics. With regard to very general psychological ideas, there is a distinction that pertains to cognition that is important to recognize in understanding both Hayek and Peirce. It permeates the outlook of The Sensory Order. That distinction seems to have been forgotten or is very unclear in modern economics. The distinction I have in mind is the difference between higher and lower mental processes. This is an evolutionary distinction that is still widely shared by those in many contemporary disciplines that are concerned with human intelligence and learning. It can be taken as part of the broad conceptual background of previous generations of economists especially those from around 1859 until 1950.

Decades before Hayek authored The Sensory Order and its reprise, ‘‘The Primacy of the Abstract’’, Charles Sanders Peirce created a similar view of sensation, perception, and cognition. Like Hayek, Peirce emphasized the general, abstract, and relational nature of sensation, perception, and cognition. In the late 19th century, Peirce helped create the new field of mathematical logic and emphasized the logic of relations as one of the key notions of that new discipline. Peirce went on to develop conceptions of logical relations for economics, for metaphysics, for his conception of evolution, and for human perception, sensation, and cognition. Like Hayek, Peirce held that perception, sensation, and cognition were much more abstract than empiricists had ever held. They both criticized the associationistic empiricism of abstract ideas of J. S. Mill. For Hayek and Peirce the processes of human knowing are due to the active application of human cognitive capacities in apprehending relational distinctions picked up through our physiological capacities usually called our senses. The contents of conscious awareness are constructed by these capacities even though this is the opposite of what our common sense seems to imply. Hayek’s views are more physiologically grounded while Peirce’s ideas benefit more from his knowledge of mathematics and logic. Both view human knowing as dealing with the relational properties of their subjects of inquiry. Both criticize the Mills associationistic empirical psychology. Both appeal to topology as a vehicle for understanding the relational logical properties of things, processes, and events as they are apprehended in sensation and cognition. And both view sensation as active relational construction. Thus sensation is predominantly abstract and general. Human cognition, sensation, and perception function like topological relations operators in conveying the most important relational details regarding our subjects of inquiry. For both Hayek and Peirce, the abstract nature of cognition and sensation has important economic dimensions. Other views of sensation and cognition essentially assume the equivalent of much less efficient processes of information search and knowledge acquisition. Humans continually construct abstract ideas making relational comparisons and inferences regarding the phenomena of their current and future circumstances. Humans do not readily waste the relational information regarding their environment.


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.


The Morphology of Liberalism

Here’s a book review in The Economist looking at the morphology in meaning attached to (neo)liberalism. Here is the publisher’s blurb.

But the line between Smith and Friedman is not a straight one, as Mr Stedman Jones points out. Smith thought one of the state’s jobs should be to build public works and forge institutions that would otherwise fail under market pressure. Here he sounds more like Franklin Roosevelt. Smith believed the state should fund schools, bridges and roads. Friedman said that was the job of the private sector.

Human brain

Philosophy will be the key that unlocks artificial intelligence

David Deutsch on AI

In my view it is because, as an unknown sage once remarked, “it ain’t what we don’t know that causes trouble, it’s what we know that just ain’t so.” I cannot think of any other significant field of knowledge where the prevailing wisdom, not only in society at large but among experts, is so beset with entrenched, overlapping, fundamental errors.


Oakeshott on Civil Association

A trailer from Noel O’Sullivan‘s essay.

The distinctive achievement of Western political thought since the seventeenth century is the ideal of the limited state. Despite extensive theorizing about this ideal, however, there has always been profound disagreement about its precise nature and implications. The full extent of this disagreement has been especially evident during the decades since the Second World War, in the course of which sustained efforts have been made by a variety of thinkers to construct a coherent alternative to totalitarianism. In Friedrich Hayek’s view, for example, the limited state is principally characterized by a free market economy that facilitates human progress. For Karl Popper, it is characterized by commitment to creating an Open Society which rejects absolute truth and asserts the conditionality of all knowledge. In the early writings of John Rawls, the limited state is characterized by commitment to rational principles of distributive justice. For Robert Nozick, it means the minimal state. For Ernest Gellner, it is the political structure appropriate to what he termed “modular man.” For Jürgen Habermas, echoing Rousseau, it refers to a political order based on rational will formation. For Vaclav Havel, what characterizes the limited state is the promotion of spiritual integration instead of the spiritual fragmentation associated with totalitarian regimes. Still other interpretations of the ideal of the limited state are found amongst theorists of globalization and the European Union.


Hayek’s Post-Positivist Empiricism: Experience Beyond Sensation

The intro from Jan Willem Lindemans’ paper:

The philosophical foundations of Hayek’s works are not beyond dispute (Gray, 1984, Kukathas, 1989, Caldwell, 1992, Hutchison, 1992): was Hayek a rationalist or an empiricist; did he follow Kant or Hume, Mises or Popper? Difficulties arise because these questions touch upon social theory, political philosophy, methodology and epistemology. Moreover, on different occasions, Hayek (intentionally) gave different definitions and evaluations of already complicated views such as ‘rationalism’ and ‘empiricism’. In this paper, I try to shed some light on the rationalism/empiricism issue by focusing on epistemology, where this issue really belongs. The debate there is mainly about the sources of knowledge (e.g., Markie, 2008). Empiricists argue that experience is the source of all our knowledge. This view was held by John Locke (1632-1704) and David Hume (1711-1776) but its roots go back to Francis Bacon (1561-1626) and even further to the ancient Greek Empiricist school in medicine (founded in the third century B.C. by Philinos of Kos or Serapion of Alexandria) and Aristotle (384-322 B.C.). In contrast with his teacher Plato, Aristotle believed in the ‘induction’ (epagōgē) of general knowledge from particular observations. I will not have the space here to relate Hayek’s ideas to this long history of empiricism. But I will try to refer to David Hume now and then, because Hayek was a great admirer of Hume’s social and political philosophy and Hayek’s ‘Humeanism’ is extensively discussed. I will also get back to the less well known Empiricist school in medicine, because it has a very special conception of ‘experience’ which I believe to be useful to the discussion. In contrast with empiricism, rationalism or ‘apriorism’ is the idea that some knowledge is independent of experience or ‘a priori’. Traditionally, this meant that knowledge is based on rational intuition, or embedded in our rational nature or the structure of the mind. If knowledge is embedded in our mind or nature, it is ‘innate’, which is why philosophers speak of ‘innatism’ or ‘nativism’. Since this was Immanuel Kant’s (1724-1804) view, it is often called ‘Kantianism’. I will also use the term ‘Kantianism’ rather than ‘rationalism’ because Hayek most often defines the latter as the false view that social phenomena are rationally designed, which is a completely different issue. Kantianism goes back to the ‘innate ideas’ of René Descartes (1596-1650) and the anamnesis of ideas in Plato’s philosophy (429-347 B.C.). Many scholars have tried to position Hayek in the Kantianism/empiricism debate. Most scholars would probably agree with Connin (1990, p. 301) that “Hayek’s theory of knowledge is undoubtedly Kantian” (see also Feser, 2006, p. 300). However, many also understand that there is more to it (Caldwell, 2004, p. 273). Since ‘experience’ is undeniably a basic concept in Hayek’s epistemology, some believe that his epistemology is a kind of synthesis between Kantianism and Humean empiricism (Horwitz, 2000, p. 25). De Vecchi (2003, p. 152) is less optimistic and says that “there is an unresolved tension between empiricism and anti-empiricism within the theory of the process of the formation of knowledge set out in The Sensory Order”. Moreover, some have made the link with ‘evolutionary epistemology’ (Bartley, 1987, p. 21; Gray, 1984; Kukathas, 1989; Dempsey, 1996; Vanberg, 2002). However, scholars have rarely wondered how Kantianism, empiricism and evolutionism can be reconciled, and, more importantly, what ‘empiricism’ and ‘experience’ mean in such a context. Just as there are as many ‘rationalisms’ as there are interpretations of the term ‘reason’, there are as many ‘empiricisms’ as there are interpretations of the term ‘experience’. In this paper, I will reconstruct Hayek’s epistemology based on a careful reading of The Sensory Order and some related writings. I will argue that Hayek’s epistemology is best characterized as a type of ‘post-positivist empiricism’. In the first paragraph, I review Hayek’s neurophysiological explanation of the mind in The Sensory Order. Hayek shows how the nervous system can perform the acts of classification characteristic of the working of the mind. Because the synaptic connections embody a kind of knowledge independent of ‘sense experience’, Hayek is not a ‘sensationalist empiricist’. The second paragraph discusses Hayek’s theory of the formation of synaptic connections. Connections are formed on the basis of what I will call ‘Hayek’s learning rule’, which boils down to the familiar idea that neurons that fire together wire together. Since this means that the knowledge embodied in the synaptic connections is in a sense the result of ‘experience’, be it ‘pre-sensory experience’ rather than ‘sense experience’, Hayek is an empiricist after all, but one of the ‘post-positivist’ kind. In the third paragraph, I analyze Hayek’s views on the evolution of the nervous system and the behavior it generates. There appear to be two kinds of ‘experience’ at the basis of the synaptic connections: ‘experience of the individual’ and ‘experience of the race’. Because Hayek denies that all knowledge is due to ‘experience of the individual’, he is not an ‘individualist empiricist’. However, since ‘experience of the race’ is also ‘experience’, he is again an empiricist in the wider sense. What Hayek failed to notice is that experience of the race is ‘post-sensory’ rather than ‘pre-sensory’ and also in other aspects very different from individual experience. I will call it a kind of ‘selective experience’, which I contrast with ‘inductive experience’. Some links with Donald Campbell’s ‘evolutionary epistemology’ are explored. In the last paragraph, I consider Campbell’s idea that all increases in knowledge are due to selection and make some suggestions for future research.