Oakeshott and Hayek: Situating the Mind

Below are some excerpts from my paper – the excerpts chosen with a view to addressing the criticisms leveled by John Kekes.

1) Kekes writes:

The third deficient essay is by Leslie Marsh, one of the editors of this volume. He compares Oakeshott and Hayek from the point of view of cognitive science. I find this more than a little odd. Oakeshott and Hayek were strongly opposed to a scientific approach to understanding human beings. Cognitive science is the most recent approach of this kind. To try to understand either Oakeshott’s or Hayek’s work through it is absurd. There is no reason for inserting a discussion of Hayek and cognitive science in the assessment of Oakeshott’s philosophical contribution.

Kekes’ notion of science is characteristic of a philosophy of science that held sway between ’30s and the late ’50s. The cognitive science that I’m concerned with is non-reductionist and non-Cartesian which itself constitutes an acknowledgment about levels of description and bridging laws, not to mention the idea that mind is co-evolved with sociality – i. e. mind is “situated” and knowledge is “distributed.” These notions are fully validated by Hayek and Oakeshott, respectively via the Austrian emphasis on the subjectivity of experience and the Diltheyean hermeneutical tradition, both legitimatly labelled geisteswissenschaft or the human sciences. (Hayek by the way was keenly interested in the “sciences” of the mind – The Sensory Order – an interest that in no way could be deemed scientistic). (Oakeshott himself maintained an interest in philosophical psychology – see his favorable review of Ryle’s The Concept of Mind).

2) Kekes also writes:

The aim of the volume is not mere exegesis, but also critical appraisal, which includes examining reasons for and against Oakeshott’s philosophical views on particular subjects.

Kekes completely overlooks the highly critical and substantial chunk of my paper that deals with MO’s infamous swipe at Hayek, an aspect that surely deserved mention since it is so well-known and is typically uncritically perpetuated.

3) Concluding: Kekes seems to come to my paper as a deer caught in the headlights of the word “science” and a particularly dated conception of it. I’m very much in accord with notion that none of the modes or in Hayek’s case “spontaneous orders” should be imperialistic or be subsumed under science or anything else (the market for one) and there is nothing in my invocation of science that transgresses this. There is no reason why Kekes would be au fait with current non-Cartesian cognitive science (a very loose coalition of research programs I might add) – all the more reason why he should have desisted from making such a bald ascription of scientism to my enterprise.

The doyen of situated theorists to whom I refer to below (highlighted) is Evan Thompson from his Mind in Lifethe “absurd” mind behind this quote, has as his AOS – cognitive science, embodied cognition, cognitive neuroscience of consciousness, philosophy of psychology, philosophy of mind, phenomenology and more besides. Even on territory where Kekes should be sure footed there is no consideration of the cognitive dimension to conservatism. Note especially the complete passing over of Oakeshott’s so-called “dispositional conservatism.” The notion of dispositions is very much a part of philosophical psychology whether Kekes likes it or not. Both Hayek and Oakeshott had the sophistication to factor mind into the mind-sociality equation, as does the cognitive science of which I speak, and so should Kekes.


It’s a hazardous enterprise contrasting two figures such as Friedrich August von Hayek (1899–1992) and Michael Joseph Oakeshott (1901–1990)––similarities are often superficially drawn; divisions tend to be overstated. But if one understands both men to be centrally concerned with the social nature of mind and with the distributed nature of knowledge, then this confluence of interest dissolves the somewhat rigid ideological lines that both followers and uninformed critics attribute to these two thinkers. Admittedly, these divisions are engendered by the misunderstandings and terminological confusion that the two thinkers themselves generate. Oakeshott and Hayek were both in the business of “situating the mind,” that is, both understood rationality to be culturally saturated and modulated. For both Oakeshott and Hayek, customs, practices, and traditions are the fundamentum and the residua of practical reasoning. Oakeshott was inspired by the Diltheyan hermeneutic tradition; Hayek was schooled within the Austrian hermeneutic tradition emphasizing the lived subjectivity of experience. Both traditions take individuals to draw their self-understanding from what is conceptually to hand, a preexisting and dynamic web of linguistic, technological, social, political, and institutional constraints. The embedded mind does not merely respond to a given world; it is enacted through a particularized history of socioenvironmental coupling. This dynamic conception of cognition is manifest as the exercise of skillful know-how. This externalist view of mind is in sharp contrast to the Cartesian tradition that both Oakeshott and Hayek took to task—a chauvinistic and imperialist apriorism they diagnosed as corrosive of sociopolitical and ultimately moral freedom. It may appear eccentric to approach Oakeshott and Hayek from the perspective of cognitive science and the philosophy of mind, given that their reputations were established as social theorists. This said, if one is to do justice to their explicitly anti-Cartesian stance, then mind and sociality—Janus-like— cannot be pried apart. The situated stance subscribes to the proposition that mind can coherently exist only at the nexus of the embodied, the social, and the artifactual. With this firmly in place, my motivation is to show that Oakeshott and Hayek:

1. Offer a more sophisticated account of sociality than traditional sociology. They do not dispense with the vital methodological principle that retains the individual as a locus of cognition within a wider system—unlike a tradition of sociological theorizing that posits an inflated social ontology that makes no concessions to the mechanics of the mind and individualized learning patterns.

2. Have a great deal of relevance beyond their usual sociopolitical constituencies— indeed, they are right at home in the non-Cartesian wing of cognitive science. As heretical as it might first sound, Oakeshott’s and Hayek’s hermeneutical stance is compatible with a nonreductive naturalism as espoused by non-Cartesian cognitive science.

3. And that (1) and (2) jointly inform their notion of epistemic modesty: that is, the recognition that the individual is necessarily subject to cognitive—and therefore epistemic—constraint, which manifests itself as their critique of rationalism in matters of sociality. Therein lies their distinctive brand of liberalism, a liberalism that tends to get lost in the intellectual crosscurrents that can be found in Oakeshott and Hayek.

Consider this extract from the doyen of situated theorists—it expresses the very insights that Hayek and Oakeshott demand of theorizing sociality:

This power of culture and language to shape human subjectivity and experience belongs not simply to the genetic constitution of the individual, but to the generative constitution of the intersubjective community. Individual subjectivity is from the outset intersubjectivity, as a result of the communally handed down norms, conventions, artifacts, and cultural traditions in which the individual is always already embedded. Thus the internalization of joint attention into symbolic representations is not simply an ontogenetic phenomenon, but a historical and cultural one.

A situated cognitive science is not trying to sideline what has been disparagingly termed as folk psychology by reducing all experience to the level of physics. On the contrary, it accepts that a theory of mind has to accommodate our perceptual, conceptual, and emotional experiences—and as a nonreductive science it acknowledges that there are different levels of description appropriate for differing subject matter.

Elsewhere I argued that there is a tension in Oakeshott: he accepts all of the philosophical preconditions of constructivism, yet he cannot accept its natural conclusion. The problem is that writers in the social constructivist tradition by their own admission tend to be reformist and would thus qualify as rationalistic in Oakeshott’s (and Hayek’s) terms.

Quite how Oakeshott came to view Hayek as such a caricature is puzzling: even the most charitable of interpretations of The Road to Serfdom doesn’t support his famous swipe at Hayek.

Assuming it was in the version of The Constitution of Liberty that Oakeshott first came by, it is most odd that Oakeshott did not pick up on Hayek’s explicit acknowledgment of the “rationalistic laissez faire doctrine” if taken literally and pushed to its logical conclusion. Clearly, there is no attribution of the fetishism that Oakeshott earlier ascribed to Hayek.