Beyond Complexity: Can The Sensory Order Defend the Liberal Self?

My chum Chor-yung Cheung who like myself is both an Oakeshottian and a Hayekian introduces his paper below:

Friedrich Hayek’s social philosophy is one of the most systematic and sophisticated among the contributions made by 20th-century liberal thinkers. His defense of the free market and individual freedom and his critique of collectivism of various kinds are mainly based on his epistemological theses, which in turn are derived from his social philosophy. Hayek once famously said, ‘‘the differences between socialists and nonsocialists ultimately rest on purely intellectual issues capable of a scientific resolution and not on different judgments of value,’’ and he believes that the doctrines advocated by the socialists ‘‘can be shown to be based on factually false assumptions,’’ and the whole family of socialist thought can be ‘‘proved erroneous’’ (1973, p. 6). One important area contributing to the development of Hayek’s epistemological theses is his works on theoretical psychology, and his book The Sensory Order: An Inquiry into the Foundations of Theoretical Psychology (1952a) plays a crucial role in this since it helped Hayek spell out the logical character of his social philosophy (1952a, p. v). It can be said that The Sensory Order enables Hayek to develop a conception of mind (which is essentially a classificatory and rule constituting complex order of a mental kind) that, on its own, enhances our understanding of cognitive psychology, and, when linked with Hayek’s social and political thought, helps strengthen Hayek’s epistemological defense of the free market and limited government. Although The Sensory Order did not attract the kind of scholarly attention it deserves for decades after its first publication in 1952, the path-breaking quality of the book and the integral part it plays in Hayek’s social philosophy are now widely recognized (see, e.g., Butos & Koppl, 2006; Caldwell, 2004; Feser, 2006; Gaus, 2006; Horwitz, 2000; Marsh, 2010; Rizzello, 1999; Smith, 1997; Weimer, 1982). Admittedly, The Sensory Order is a difficult book since it deals with questions of the most fundamental kind (such as the nature of mind and the limits of explanation). When one tries to relate The Sensory Order to Hayek’s broader defense of liberalism, the task becomes doubly difficult, and different interpretations of Hayek’s position in The Sensory Order may lead to diametrically opposite assessment of his contribution. Scholars who are unsympathetic to Hayek’s social philosophy tend to characterize his explanation of the mental order in The Sensory Order as ‘‘materialistic and naturalistic’’ and wonder how his brand of materialism with its implied physicalist notion of human agency can sit well with the defense of individual liberty. Contrariwise, defenders of Hayek like to stress his idea that the inherent nature of the mind as a classification apparatus sets limits to its capacity for self-explanation. They argue that social interaction in any developed society must involve so great a degree of complexity that no single mind or central planning unit can fully take into account all the respective preferences of, or the dispersed information possessed by, individual actors, making synoptic planning untenable. This chapter is an attempt to offer an interpretation of The Sensory Order in line with Hayek’s supporters. But it would like to go a step further by arguing that a liberal conception of human agency, in which the individual is characterized as distinct, free, evolutionary, creative yet culturally embedded, can be derived from Hayek’s theoretical psychology. In what follows, I outline my interpretation of The Sensory Order and defend Hayek against some major criticisms, including the criticism that his psychological works express or imply a physicalist conception of the mind. Furthermore, I identify some problems with Hayek’s conception of the self: in particular its ‘‘instrumental’’ tendency and corresponding lack of appreciation of the unique value of individual style and imagination.