Book Review: F.A. Hayek — The Counter-Revolution of Science (Studies On The Abuse of Reason)

Leiden, a.d. X Kal. Sep. MMDCCLXVIII A.U.C.,

After having read Hayek’s ‘The Use of Knowledge in Society‘, about the function of markets, and talking to Leiden University College icon Dr. Zicha, I decided to take up another of Hayek’s books, this time ‘The Counter-Revolution of Science.’ This book is about how after the French Revolution, under the influence of the successful natural sciences, the social sciences were increasingly approached using natural science methodology, something which he calls scientism. The book is divided in three parts, the first on the scientistic approach, the second on the initiators of this approach (mainly Comte and Saint-Simon), and the third on the influence of these two authors and Hegel on many of the biggest names in the social sciences (e.g. Marx, Durkheim).

However, as Hayek points out, the social sciences and natural sciences are fundamentally different, at least for the foreseeable future. Natural sciences try to go beyond our own senses, because our senses are inherently flawed. Not in the sense of the ‘supernatural,’ but in the sense that we cannot see atoms and that often we cannot trust our own eyes, so we need a way to find out about the world, without getting fooled by our senses. One way of doing this, is by using math. However, in order to understand other human beings, there is no use in seeing the world in how it ‘really’ is, we need to understand how our subjects see it. For instance, a wooden spoon and a metal spoon are physically speaking very different, but to you and me they are both simply spoons when it comes to eating soup. A physicist would need to fully understand the whole human brain and how it perceives reality, based on the atomic and molecular structure of the human brain, something we are not even close to doing nowadays, in order for him to safely assume that human beings see certain lumps of metal and certain lumps of carbon as ‘spoons’. In other words, the only way to explain human actions, is through some degree of introspection. We need to understand how our subjects perceive the world, which we can only do by the analogy of how we ourselves perceive the world. And even if a persons perceives the world ‘wrong,’ according to how the world more objectively is, that is what the researcher will have to use for his research. If the subjects see a spoon, and they use it as a spoon, it can very well be a tiny flying saucer, but in order to explain the behaviour of the subjects we need to accept that they see it as a spoon.

Applying the methods of the natural sciences to the social sciences, has consequently led to three common mistakes, according to Hayek: objectivism, collectivism and historicism. The first refers to, the earlier explained, idea that how people perceive the world does not matter, the second to look at phenomena which cannot be perceived, like ‘economy,’ ‘society’ or ‘base and superstructure,’ the third to the idea that history moves forward, following some kind of plan, like Marx’s dialectics. Thus, by refusing to take human perception for granted, they need some kind of ‘objective facts,’ in order to be able to have something at all to study, which in turn allows them to speak about ‘human progress.’

Then Hayek makes a big leap, when he aims to explain how scientism has led to socialism. According to him, when individuals are no longer taken seriously as actors, this implies that spontaneous order, or in simpler terms, cooperation between people without an authority telling them what to do, is impossible and/or not to be taken seriously either. Only planned organization is to be trusted, and spontaneous order is scary, because it is something we cannot understand at all (after all, individuals do not matter, so we cannot explain, for instance, a market or a language as the result of the interactions of individuals). Thus, a government is needed to lead humanity. Moreover, because such a government knows about how history moves forward, after all such a government has read Comte, Hegel and Marx, so it can ‘pull humanity up by its own bootstraps.’ From here it is only a small step to the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century, and indeed, Hayek sees scientism as responsible for the brutalities of the previous century. I am pretty sure there were other things that led to socialism, but as such it is at least a fairly accurate description of how those that support totalitarianism seem to think about individual action.

To oppose scientism, Hayek argues for a social science which focuses on individuals, rather than on imperceptible concepts. Although some people have used ‘wholes’ which are not based on anything remotely having to do with the real world, we do not have to avoid using any kind of ‘wholes.’ We can certainly aggregate individual actions into larger wholes, as long as these wholes have some root in how individuals behave. So ‘society’ can certainly be such a whole, as long as we think of it as a lot of little individuals creating something larger than themselves, not as something which moves by and of itself following some ‘Laws’ which are set in stone. Or, for instance, we cannot understand the behaviour of politicians without thinking about how political parties work, however, a political party is nothing but the interactions of individual politicians and citizens. There is not some kind of Political Party out there that we cannot see or touch, but that functions independently of individuals.

I think Hayek’s words are still useful to navigate through today’s social science environment. Think of Samuel Huntington’s ‘The Clash of Civilizations,’ what on earth is even a civilization? Would there be no one in entire regions willing to cooperate with anyone else from other regions? Should we not start by looking at what individuals want in certain regions, rather than putting whole regions in the same ‘mental box’? And even closer to home, the current debate on Islam, how much sense does it make to group all Muslims together, to speak of one unified Islam, as opposed to 1.5 billion individuals, who all have their own views on Islam, on what’s right and wrong, even if some of them indeed hold horrible views on women’s rights, homosexuality, or freedom of speech, while others I am happy to call my friends. The same is true for how the crisis in the Euro zone is discussed. The ‘South’ is in debt to the ‘North,’ and the ‘North’ needs to transfer funds to the ‘South’ in order to save the Euro. Meanwhile, debt was shifted from banks to governments, as I discussed last week (Why European Citizens Are Angry With the Wrong People), from private investors to tax payers, which is a far more powerful tool to analyze Greek issue than pretending the ‘North’ is one homogeneous group, with all the same preferences.


Bottom Line: Hayek argues that blindly copying natural science methods in the social sciences leads to grave errors. We can only understand human interaction through introspection. Refusing to do this leaves us with studying ‘wholes’ of which we are not even certain they exist, while stopping to look at individuals who are the real actors in any society.

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4 thoughts on “Book Review: F.A. Hayek — The Counter-Revolution of Science (Studies On The Abuse of Reason)

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  1. Nice post smile emoticon. To what extent do you agree with him? I personally believe the more natural science-like (or wannabe) social sciences like social psychology and evolutionary psychology are not without value. They have the ability to explain a wide range of phenomena, especially relating to the evolution and maintenance of social norms, kinship, and natural instincts. Even pure biology has much to contribute to understanding human behaviour – although with clear limits.

    I also think that behavioural economics represents somewhat of a merge between traditional economics and psychology. Would Hayek object to that?

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    1. First of all, Hayek would think it is important to distinguish between social sciences and psychology. The former tries to explain human interaction, given preferences and the way people interpret their environment, while the latter aims to discover why people have certain preferences and perceive in a certain way (probably given their environment). Of course, the two can fruitfully cooperate, and they should, but they are not exactly the same.

      So I do not think he would object to mixing the two, as long as a researcher is aware of the limitations and possibilities of the two approaches.

      Secondly, I agree to a large extent with him. In all honesty, this book really laid some fundamentals for what I wanted to do with my blog. I guess the intuition was there, but Hayek wrote it down rather neatly. I think, indeed, that we can only understand society/the economy/language etc. as functions of the behaviour of individuals, be they irrational or rational.

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  2. This is a useful post (and congrats for delving into Hayek’s books; he’s not easy to read, and I haven’t read this one). I think that you’ve identified a problem (over simplification of people’s diverging beliefs) as well as one implication (scientistic abuse of that idea to justify totalitarian regimes), but left out their attraction — people’s need to understand, classify and position as a means of taking control and moving forward. MANY people around the world think this way, but it’s not really a big deal UNTIL it gets “weaponized” for demagogic purposes (see Trump campaign, Chinese/US rhetoric, your “lousy Greeks” example, etc.)

    What’s the antidote? Respect for diversity would be nice but most people are too lazy/self centered to go there. Thus, my solution tends towards reducing government powers (centralization) in favor of more local (thus more diversified) choices on policies, ideas, etc.

    Consider a thought experiment: Google breaks and people need to talk to each other or read books to learn about the world. This would be extremely inefficient in terms of “information flows” but hugely efficient in terms of diversity of thought, and (thus) tolerance for that diversity.

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    1. I totally agree that many people think this way, because it is easy, the world is a complete mess, and you simply try to make sense of what you see around you. But that is also why it is particularly harmful that those who get paid by society to know better than that, that is, students, scholars, are still ‘raised’ academically in this way. Society just spend tens of thousands of Euro’s on educating me, I think I have an obligation to be very critical of the way concepts are used or constructed.

      About this: “Consider a thought experiment: Google breaks and people need to talk to each other or read books to learn about the world. This would be extremely inefficient in terms of “information flows” but hugely efficient in terms of diversity of thought, and (thus) tolerance for that diversity.” I am not really sure. Google also allows people to find their own information. So they can also find information that otherwise would not have been available to them, if they had not had google at their disposal. But this also means that people can find other people that simple reinforce their believes. That might actually be a bigger problem. On the other hand, publishers and news papers select the information their readers receive, so information might actually be less diverse without google. But this is really an empirical issue, I honestly do not know.

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