Academic journal article Erasmus Journal for Philosophy and Economics

Hayek's "Scientism" Essay: The Social Aspects of Objectivity and the Mind

Academic journal article Erasmus Journal for Philosophy and Economics

Hayek's "Scientism" Essay: The Social Aspects of Objectivity and the Mind

Article excerpt


F. A. Hayek's (2010a, 2010b, 2010c) three-part "Scientism and the study of society" was part of a wider (aborted) project on what he called The abuse and decline of reason (Caldwell 2010, 3). There are so many interpretations of its arguments that Caldwell (2004, app. D) describes it as a Rorschach test. While some see it as a postmodern (Burczak 1994) or hermeneutical exercise (Madison 1989, 1991), others describe it as anti modernist and non-hermeneutic (Caldwell 1994); moreover, while some interpret it as almost positivistic (Lawson 1997, ch. 10), others applaud the soundness of some of its ontological commitments (Runde 2001).

Hayek's manner of writing has led to conceptual and exegetical ambiguity, which is the source of this extraordinary number of interpretations. But Hayek's "Scientism" essay is not a barren mismatch of contradictory lines of thought; rather, it is a long piece, rich with innovative reflections on topics ranging from the philosophy of science to psychology, pregnant with fruitful suggestions that the secondary literature tries to bring to light. it is a singular piece in the history of economic and social thought-in Oakley's (1999) words, "a remarkable series of papers"-and of great importance to Hayek's oeuvre. As Caldwell (1998, 224) writes, it "contains all the essential elements of [Hayek's] methodological programme".

Its kaleidoscopic details notwithstanding, the aim and argument of Hayek's essay is clear: the general success of modern natural sciences has led to the emulation of their methods in other fields, often without due consideration for the unique properties of their objects of study. He intends to show why the methods of the natural sciences are inappropriate for social scientific explanation, and the errors to which their adoption in the social or, to adopt his expression, moral sciences leads.

For Hayek, natural scientific explanation begins with the observation that ordinary people classify as similar what turns out to behave differently in similar circumstances, and vice-versa (2010a, 83). In her attempt to objectively explain phenomena, the natural scientist must therefore revise ordinary experience. The moral sciences, by contrast, are concerned with action. Yet, action is related to people's attitudes-i.e., to what they think, believe, desire, etc.-hence, unlike the natural scientist, the moral scientist cannot ignore (much less transcend) the subjective attitudes that govern agents' behaviors. But this raises a problem: if ordinary experience is shown by the natural sciences to misrepresent the relations things objectively hold among each other, the moral scientist cannot ascertain agents' attitudes by merely studying a reality external to them. The solution to this predicament is for the moral scientist to tap into what she has in common with the agents she studies-viz., that she and her subjects have minds.

In this article I will evaluate some of Hayek's arguments in his "Scientism" essay and related works. In so doing, I will demonstrate the importance and fruitfulness of this text as a point of departure for philosophical reflections on the nature of moral scientific explanation. In particular, I pursue lines of inquiry Hayek initiated but left unexplored and show how some of his most critical insights can be supported by arguments different than his.

The paper has the following structure: in sections 2 and 3 I summarize and discuss Hayek's main argument. In section 4 I argue that Hayek's distinction between ordinary experience and the world-view of science cannot be sustained by his original arguments, but that the distinction itself can be defended by alluding to the social aspects of inquiry. I then turn to his thesis that moral scientific explanation is made possible by the fact that the scientist is similar to the agents she studies. In section 5, I elucidate what this similarity could be, and how it affects the scientist's understanding of agency. …

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