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Hayek: Rejecting "Reason with a Capital R"

There was an interesting thread started by my friend Ryan Neugebauer on his own Facebook page, to which I contributed, which I reproduce here, as it points to some of the themes that will be central to the forthcoming collection, The Dialectics of Liberty: Exploring the Context of Human Freedom, which I'm co-editing with Roger E. Bissell and Edward W. Younkins. Ryan gave me permission to cut and paste our little chat:

Ryan Neugebauer: I find Hayekian arguments against "Constructivist Rationalism" to be some of the most radical out there. It puts the nail in the coffin to utopian takes of all kinds (including anarchistic ones). And it goes well with critiques of those who want to continue to increase the scope of the state system in planning aspects of our lives.
Chris Sciabarra: The worst misunderstanding of Hayek is that he was somehow a critic of reason. He was a critic of "Reason with a capital 'R'" as he put it; and it was this conception of Reason that was the premise of "constructivist" rationalism, a reason that was totally un-anchored to reality, acting as if it could literally 'construct' social systems anew, without any relationship to the conditions that exist---what my friend Troy Camplin has aptly called a "tabula rasa" view of social change, as if we could simply wipe the slate clean and start anew. This is a thoroughly utopian way of looking at social change, and one that is, for lack of a better word, completely non-dialectical. I focus on this theme in my own book, Marx, Hayek, and Utopia (shameless plug)---and its important similarities to the arguments of Marx against the utopian socialists. It was on this basis that Hayek rejected the term "conservative" (even though he drew from the conservative "evolutionary" views of Burke and the classical liberal views of the Scottish Enlightenment) and embraced being "radical" (going to the root) as essential to social analysis. So, you're right, my friend, Ryan Neugebauer, it is indeed among the "most radical" of arguments---in fact, it is essential to any radical, dialectical conception of social change.
Ryan: There are so many uncomfortable discussions to be had based around all of this. Two key ones: 1. What we want hasn't existed in human history; though constituent parts have in various ways through history. 2. Many things we do like today were brought about by means that we oppose. I like to think that humans have had to do a lot of experimenting/trial & error throughout history in various contexts to figure out what works best at achieving the things desired. So, despite us not starting out from such tabula rasa, we have a much greater understanding of what produces good ends and what leads to tyranny and oppression. Therefore, we should be continually bettering our understanding of how these various things come about, while coming up with ways to, evolutionarily, move us in the direction we want to go. Just as humans had to biologically evolve, we have had to intellectually & ethically evolve.
Chris: Exactly, and that's the messy world we live in. "Thought experiments" are nice, but are basically ahistorical. Accepting that some things we do like had a sordid past is just as legitimate as rejecting some things we don't like that may have had a fairly innocuous past. I agree also that humans have engaged in a lot of "trial and error" since the beginning of time. (I've often looked at tree-bearing fruit and said to myself, "I wonder how many human beings ate of this tree and dropped dead before they found the tree whose fruit didn't make them sick!) But there is something that I learned from my mentor, Bertell Ollman, a lesson he teaches in books such as Dialectical Investigations: the virtue of studying history backwards. That is, we start from the conditions that exist, and we go backwards, step by step, to see how we got to where we are. This helps us to understand the conditions that led to the system that has evolved, but it also helps us to identify the potential conditions within that system that might propel it forwards toward the kinds of social changes that we seek. It also doesn't put us in the position of constantly "judging" the past based on current conditions, because mores do, in fact, change, sometimes over generations. So even though a whole generation of slave owners may have been among the Founders, that does not mean that the ideals they embraced were any less valid as guiding principles by which to project forward the many potential "future" courses history might take. As the Marxists are fond of saying, human beings are as much the producers of history as they are its products. We forget our "embeddedness" in that larger social and historical context at our own peril.

Indeed!!