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.