Hayek’s Post-Positivist Empiricism: Experience Beyond Sensation

Here is Jan Willem Lindemans‘ intro and conclusion to his chapter:

The philosophical foundations of Hayek’s works are not beyond dispute (Caldwell, 1992; Gray, 1984; Hutchison, 1992; Kukathas, 1989): 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 chapter, 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’’ (epago¯ge¯) 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 Rene´ 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;Dempsey, 1996; Gray, 1984; Kukathas, 1989; 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 chapter, 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’’ Hayek’s Post-Positivist Empiricism: Experience Beyond Sensation 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 ‘‘postsensory’’ 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.

Very much like Campbell and Popper, Hayek should be read as an empiricist going beyond traditional empiricism, sensationalism, and positivism: with Hume beyond Hume. Rather than summarizing the whole argument from ‘‘sense experience’’ to ‘‘pre-sensory experience,’’ and from ‘‘individual experience’’ as ‘‘inductive experience’’ to ‘‘racial experience’’ as ‘‘selective experience,’’ I want to end, first, by taking Campbell’s evolutionary epistemology beyond Hayek and, second, by suggesting some possible lines of research. Hayek’s broad empiricism holds that knowledge is based on experience in the wider sense in which it includes individual sense experience, individual pre-sensory experience, and racial experience. However, from an evolutionary epistemological point of view, this empiricism is perhaps too broad.

Evolutionary epistemologists focus on the growth of knowledge and thus the source of increases in knowledge. The ‘‘Basic Selectionist Dogma’’ of Campbell’s ‘‘1960 model’’ (Campbell, 1997, p. 8) states that ‘‘A blindvariation- and-selective-retention process is fundamental to all inductive achievements, to all genuine increases in knowledge, to all increases in fit of system to environment’’ (Campbell, 1960, p. 380). The reason for this radical selectionism is that ‘‘real gains must have been the products of explorations going beyond the limits of foresight or prescience, and in this Learning rule + co-occurring impulses sense blind,’’ since ‘‘if such expansions had represented only wise anticipations, they would have been exploiting full or partial knowledge already achieved’’ (pp. 380–381). This basically means that ‘‘selective experience’’ is the source of all (increases in) knowledge. Hence, ‘‘evolutionary empiricism,’’ though also ‘‘post-positivist,’’ would be much stricter than Hayek’s broad empiricism.

Of course, this does not imply that Hayek’s pre-sensory experience based on the learning rule is nonsense from Campbell’s point of view. The second part of Campbell’s (1960, p. 380) Basic Selectionist Dogma says that ‘‘The many processes which shortcut a more full blind-variation-and-selectiveretention process are in themselves inductive achievements, containing wisdom about the environment achieved originally by blind variation and selective retention.’’ The evolution of Hayek’s learning rule itself is an ‘‘inductive achievement,’’ a ‘‘genuine increase in knowledge.’’ Hayek never reflects much on the fact that the learning rule is itself the result of the ‘‘experience of the race’’ and thus contains knowledge about (the regularity of) the environment. In contrast with the learning rule, the new connections that are the deterministic result of the learning rule are not (completely) ‘‘genuine increases in knowledge’’ since the knowledge was already achieved at the moment the learning rule evolved. Hence, the pre-sensory experience of the individual is still not the most fundamental kind of experience. The ‘‘experience of the race’’ that the learning rule works is a ‘‘pre-pre-sensory experience.’’

The empiricism/rationalism debate is not only about the sources of our beliefs and concepts but also about the justification of our knowledge. It is not only about how people do in fact acquire beliefs about the world but also about how they ought to acquire beliefs. Unfortunately, in The Sensory Order, Hayek was not particularly interested in the question whether knowledge ought to be based on experience. In contrast, Campbell’s evolutionary epistemology is clearly normative. While he sides with the skeptics against traditional epistemologists (Campbell, 1997, p. 12) and holds that ‘‘justification’’ is never complete (p. 13), he does construct a theory of ‘‘justification’’ on the basis of ‘‘Plausible co-selection of belief by referent’’ (p. 9). According to this theory, a belief – or a behavioral disposition other than a belief (cf. supra) – is ‘‘as justified as can be’’ if it is plausible that the belief has been systematically co-selected by the beliefindependent reality to which it refers. For instance, the beliefs we form about objects on the basis of seeing objects are justified if it is plausible that these objects were part of the environment that has selected the eye and the neural system that processes information coming from this eye. Campbell  calls this ‘‘competence of reference’’ selection (p. 10). If there is no such a plausible scenario, or if other co-selectors have probably been more influential, the belief is not justified. Campbell’s idea of co-selection by the belief-independent reality nicely illustrates that ‘‘selective experience’’ must be ‘‘immediate’’ (cf. supra).

Given what has been said, we can redefine ‘‘knowledge’’ as a behavioral disposition that has competence of reference because it was systematically coselected by its referent. Campbell’s theory is an externalist theory of justification because the knower does not necessarily have access to the grounds of justification. Campbell himself relates it to Alvin Goldman’s causal theory of knowledge (p. 9). Indeed, the referent causes the ‘‘belief’’ to survive. More specifically, Campbell’s theory is reliabilist because it claims that ‘‘competence of reference’’ selection processes are reliable sources of truth. Hence, Campbell also relates it to Goldman’s reliabilist theory of justification.

I believe that Campbell’s normative evolutionary epistemology is a welcome complement to Hayek’s epistemological ideas. Refining Hayek’s concept of ‘‘experience’’ and specifying the way in which we can call him an ‘‘empiricist’’ as well as what kind of empiricist he could have been are only the first steps, though. In this chapter, I have restricted the analysis to Hayek’s ‘‘empiricist’’ epistemology, that is, the theory of how people in general (should) acquire knowledge. The next step is to apply this epistemology to two specific classes of individuals, which are very important to Hayek: entrepreneurs and scientists. These are some questions that could be raised: What is the role of ‘‘experience’’ in Hayek’s market economics? Do (or should) entrepreneurs acquire knowledge on the basis of experience? What kind of experience? Can we use the concept of ‘‘selective experience’’ to justify entrepreneurial action? On the other hand, what is the role of ‘‘experience’’ in Hayek’s philosophy of science? Do (or should) scientists – psychologists as well as economists – acquire knowledge on the basis of experience? What kind of experience? Can we use the concept of ‘‘selective experience’’ to justify scientific theories? In that sense, I hope that this chapter is only the beginning.