Saturday, December 3, 2011

F.A. Hayek on Definitions - An Anti-Scientistic Stance

F.A. Hayek is well known for his battles against Socialism and Keynesianism.  Less well known is his critique of the misapplication of the techniques and language of natural science to the social sciences - an attack on Positivism made eloquently in his 1952 book "The Counter-Revolution of  Science - Studies on The Abuse of Reason" (ISBN 0-913966-66-5).  Hayek termed this misapplication of the natural sciences "Scientism".  In Chapter 3 of the book the Nobel laureate makes some interesting observations on definitions.  Hayek writes:
'Take the concept of a "tool" or "instrument", or of any particular tool such as a hammer or barometer.  It is easily seen that these concepts cannot be interpreted to refer to "objective facts", that is, to things irrespective of what people think about them.  Careful logical analysis of these concepts will show that they all express relationships between several (at least three) terms, of which one is the acting or thinking person, the second one the desired or imagined effect, and the third a thing in the ordinary sense.  If the reader will attempt a definition he will soon find that he cannot give one without using some term such as "suitable for" or "intended for" or some other expression referring to the use for which it is designed by somebody.  And a definition which is to comprise all instances of the class will not contain any reference to its substance, or shape, or other physical attribute.  An ordinary hammer and a steamhammer, or an aneroid barometer and a mercury barometer, have nothing in common except the purpose for which men think they can be used.

It must not be objected that these are merely instances of abstractions to arrive at generic terms just as those used in the physical sciences.  The point is that they are abstractions from all physical attributes of the things in question and that their definitions must run entirely in terms of mental attitudes of men toward these things.  The significant difference between the two views of the things stands out clearly if we think, for example, of the problem of the archaeologist trying to determine whether what looks like a stone implement is in truth an "artifact", made by man, or merely a chance product of nature.  There is no way of deciding this but by trying to understand the working of the mind of prehistoric man, of attempting to understand how he would have made such an implement.  If we are not more aware that this is what we actually do in such cases and that we necessarily rely on our own knowledge of a human mind, this is so mainly because of the impossibility of conceiving of an observer who does not possess a human mind and interprets what he sees in terms of the working of his own mind."

There is much in the above passage to think about.  For me, the critical point is "...they are abstractions from all physical attributes of the things in question and that their definitions must run entirely in terms of mental attitudes of men toward these things".  This implies that definitions cannot always be based on qualities, but sometimes need to be based on relationships involving a human mind.  We will return to the implications of Hayek's viewpoint in future posts.

One last thing.  Few writers have had the courage to criticize any aspect of natural science.  R.G. Collingwood was one, calling "pseudo-sciences" what Hayek calls "Scientism".  I do not think Hayek was aware of Collingwood, but the above passage very closely resembles ideas Collingwood expressed.

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