Hayek: Cognitive Scientist Avant La Lettre


From Advances in Austrian Economics


It is probably no more justified to claim that thinking man has created his culture than that culture created his reason (Hayek, 1952/1979, p. 155).

For Hayek, intelligence is manifest through a reciprocal coalition with the artifactual (social and physical), a causal integration that can take ontogenetic, phylogenetic, individual, collective, cultural, or biological forms. Hayek’s abiding insight was to emphasize the cybernetic loop of agent-environment-agent-environment through a perennial and mutual process of modification and conditioning; a reciprocal relation between our conceptual creativity and the environment, to intimate, regulate, and inform concepts and action (Hayek, 1988, p. 9). Mind does not merely respond to a given world, mind is enacted through a particularized history of environmental coupling: perception is an act of interpretation and the generation of meaning. For the Hayek agent, to know is to cognize, and to cognize is to be a culturally bounded, rationality bounded, and environmentally located agent. Knowledge and cognition are thus dual aspects of human sociality.

The notion of the ‘‘enactive’’ mind broadly connotes what I’ve termed the DEEDS wing of cognitive science (Marsh, 2005b, 2006); a loose and internally fluid philosophical and empirical coalition, bound by a non-Cartesian sensibility, and comprising the Dynamical, Embodied, Extended, Distributed, and Situated approaches to knowledge and cognition. Readers should not get too bogged down in the terminology – there is not much stability in the assignations that comprise the acronym DEEDS. ‘‘Enactive’’ coined by Varela, Thompson, and Rosch (1991/2000) and Thompson and Varela (2001), conceives of DEEDS as having overlapping concerns; a family resemblance term. Jaegher and Ezequiel (2007, p. 487) detect five mutually supporting concepts: autonomy, sense-making, embodiment, emergence, and experience. Others prefer the term ‘‘situated,’’ which is taken to be the species: the other assignations, the genera (Robbins & Aydede, 2008). The enactivist stance is a naturalistic nonreductive view of mind as embodied and embedded, giving due emphasis to biological autonomy and lived subjectivity (Froese & Ziemke, 2009). Of particular interest in the current context is its incorporation of the organismic roots of autonomous agency and sensemaking into its theoretical framework (e.g., Weber & Varela, 2002; Di Paolo, 2005). It’s high time that the multidisciplinary hub that is cognitive science admit Hayek into the pantheon of non-Cartesian thinkers, taking his place alongside 20th century titans such as Dewey, the later Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Vygotsky, and Merleau-Ponty. To this list, we might add more recent theorists such as Varela, Hutchins, Clark, Wilson and (Gregory) McCulloch, each sources of inspiration for much of the discussion that follows.

By contrast with DEEDS (or situated cognition), orthodox cognitive science has systematically overlooked not only the location of thinkers in their geophysical environments, but has also overlooked the interactions among thinkers in the ambient social soup. As a DEEDS theorist, Hayek negotiates the extreme polarity of an abstract individualism (or internalism) and an externalism associated with sociological theorizing that posits an inflated social ontology that makes no concessions to the mechanics of the mind and individualized learning patterns (Turner, 2007, p. 358). Generically speaking, externalism is the thesis an individual’s environment has some causal determinant on the content of the individual mind. If there were a slogan that I believe captures the Hayekian project it is this: Hayek ‘‘socializes’’ the mind and ‘‘cognitivizes’’ the social theory.

Writing some 20 years before the term ‘‘cognitive science’’ had been coined, Hayek very perceptively understood that a multidisciplinary approach (psychology, physiology, logic, mathematics, physics, philosophy) to explaining consciousness was called for (Hayek, 1952/1976, vii). In the service of addressing Hayek’s neglect by cognitive science, two couplets of questions should be kept in mind:

1(a) Is Hayek’s philosophy of mind anachronistic because he was writing long before the relevant options (i.e., the connectionist vs. the computational model) had been adequately defined? and/or

1(b) Have Hayek’s defenders (Weimer & Palermo, 1974, p. 436) been too charitable since he does not offer anything precise enough to fit any of the current models?

The second, and more interesting, couplet seeks to assess Hayek’s philosophy of mind in the context of his social philosophy:

2(a) Does his connectionist theory of mind entail the connectionist model of society?, or

2(b) Does Hayek’s connectionist model of society presuppose the connectionist theory of mind?

This paper’s primary task is to expand upon 2(a and b), an aspect that others (with the exception of McQuade and Butos) have only hinted at. The reader will be relieved that, in what follows, I desist from presenting ‘‘yet another summary of The Sensory Order’’ (Butos & Koppl, 2007, p. 20). Happily, now there are some fine substantive accounts, each emphasizing one or more of the many facets of The Sensory Order (Herrmann-Pillath, 1992; Streit, 1993; Tuerck, 1995; Smith, 1997; Birner, 1995, 1996; Boettke & Subrick, 2002; Steele, 2002; Loasby, 2004; Caldwell, 2004b; Novak, 2005; Feser, 2006). An example of a commentator that ostensibly has Hayek’s ‘‘cognitive view of society’’ as a central concern, yet nevertheless does not refer to The Sensory Order, is Kerstenetzky (2000).

In the service of bringing Hayek to the attention of the DEEDS wing of cognitive science, I show how canonical Hayekian themes such as cognitive closure, decentralization, situatedness, self-organization, and environmental appropriation are derived from his concern about complexity. The Hayekian corpus is an intricate weave of the epistemological, the methodological, and the metaphysical. Though The Sensory Order is the focal point to the discussion, to absolve oneself of any consideration of Hayek’s other works, would be to mutilate Hayek, Hayek being subject to the grossest of caricatures over the years by both supporters and detractors. Regarding the former category, Caldwell (2004b, p. 5) rightly points out that given the scope and voluminosity of Hayek’s writings and depending upon which part of his work is being trawled, this will account for which Hayek emerges. Though admired by Thatcher and Reagan, it is unlikely that they read much beyond The Road to Serfdom and other highly selective readings refracted through others (in Thatcher’s case, Keith Joseph; in Reagan’s case, Martin Anderson and Paul Craig Roberts). Regarding the latter category, though the term ‘‘market’’ that has come to be synonymous with Hayek, he believed it to be a misnomer: he expresses his discomfort with the term because strictly speaking that is not what he’s talking about (Hayek, 1978, p. 183, 1967, p. 164). Michael Oakeshott, arguably Hayek’s closest intellectual ally, got Hayek plain wrong. Oakeshott (1962/1991, p. 26) famously took Hayek to task by pointing out that a doctrinal laissez-faire attitude is also a species of rationalism, rationalism of course being both Oakeshott’s and Hayek’s beˆte noir (Marsh, 2010a). Oakeshott’s swipe is uncritically taken as a knockdown argument by several commentators (e.g., O’Hear, 1999; Lundstro¨ m, 1992). Fortunately, Oakeshott’s preeminent expositor acknowledges that an ascription of a vulgar atomism to Hayek is wrong (Fuller, 1989, p. 17). Hayek, explicitly and repeatedly, distanced himself from radical libertarianism as early as 1944 (Hayek, 1944/1976, pp. 17, 35, 36, 39, 42, 81; Hayek, 1973, pp. 61–62). Furthermore, for Hayek ‘‘Liberalism is not individualistic in the ‘everybody for himself’ sense’’ (Hayek, 1976, p. 151). In the service of presenting a multidimensional Hayek, the binding agent to the discussion is his concern with complexity, Hayek’s epistemological leitmotif – it is through this triangulation of mind, society, and complexity that Hayek gets his distinctive philosophical depth.

‘‘Complexity,’’ I contend, is the touchstone to Hayek’s work. As Caldwell says: ‘‘By the 1960s Hayek was seeing complex orders everywhere’’ (Caldwell, 2000, p. 19; Hayek, 1988, p. 127; Fuster, 2003a, p. 7). ‘‘Complexity’’ is, however, one of those terms that are blithely bandied about: ontological and the epistemological interpretations of complexity tend to be conflated (McIntyre, 1998). Is our understanding a function of the way that the world is or a function of our limitations in understanding the way the world is? The latter, perspectival, was of course Hayek’s concern. McIntyre (1998, p. 31) seems to think that Hayek equivocates between the epistemological and the ontological. I don’t think this is the case at all. And this is as true for his social theory as it is for his philosophical psychology. There can be no doubt, the relation between complexity theory and Hayek’s theory of spontaneous social order and social evolution is intimate (Vaughn, 1999b, p. 245; Caldwell, 2000, pp. 10, 13; 2004a, 2004b; Gaus, 2006; also Birner, 1995). It has been suggested that Hayek’s work was a precursor of modern complexity theory (Kilpatrick, 2001; Vaughn, 1999a, 1999b; Vaughn & Loren Poulson, 1998). This claim has some plausibility. One subarea of complexity research – multiagent modeling – has taken a great deal of inspiration from Hayek (Baum, 2004) and Vriend (Vriend, 2002; Kochugovindan & Vriend, 1998). Yet others draw upon Hayekian insights to resolve supply and demand issues in a distributed and dynamic web services network (Eymanna et al., 2005). Joita et al. (2007) deploy specialized algorithms to carry out a data mining tasks. Hayek’s (1952, x 52) writing here bears a striking resemblance to what is known as Particle Swarm Optimization, a social algorithm that runs on a sociocognitive model of social influence and learning (Kennedy, Eberhart, & Shi, 2001). Indeed, to take the embodied and situated agent seriously as Hayek did ‘‘is to invite an emergentist perspective on many key phenomena” (Clark, 1997, p. 84). The Hayekian leitmotif of complexity turns upon:

1. How (if at all) can we come to characterize what mind actually is? (The first two drafts of The Sensory Order were entitled ‘‘What Is Mind?’’ (Kresge’s introduction to Hayek, 1994/2008, p. 25)).

2. Is there a problem that can even be formulated?

3. Whatever mind may be, how does it apprehend the natural (and social) world of which it is fully a part (Hayek, 1952/1976, 1.11, 1.2, 8.45)?

These three interlinked concerns are coextensive with the most recent of enactivist concerns: ‘‘What are minds, and how do they relate – epistemically and experientially – to the world?’’ (Torrance, 2006, pp. 358, 360).

Complexity for Hayek offers both the fabric of possibility and of inherent constraint – what I term ‘‘Hayek’s paradox.’’ On the one hand, agents within a rich (complex) social tapestry have their conceptual and behavioral possibilities tempered by the partial cognitive and epistemic access to the (complex) manifold that informs the ambient culture. On the other hand, mind is itself constitutionally (and terminally) constrained in fully understanding its own (complex) mechanics – a mind that is significantly constituted by its (complex) social environment. There is the view that many thought experiments that have driven post-War philosophy of mind assume ‘‘a naive commitment to the principle that conscious beings must be simple’’ (Barnett, 2008). The paradox is this: knowledge can become less incomplete only if it becomes more dispersed (Loasby, 2004, pp. 101–134). Epistemic and cognitive efficiencies, well beyond the capacity of any one mind, are facilitated through the ubiquity of sociocultural scaffolding and dynamic looping (Hayek, 1967, pp. 34, 42). This is the essence of Hayek’s externalism and sets the stage for the discussion that follows.