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Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Calling All Cartesians!

Or at least all students of Descartes works. My situation:

I am trying to write a review of Vernon Smith's Rationality in Economics. (No easy task: I think I'm going to have to read a book on auctions in the process.) In any case, I came across him quoting Hayek saying: "Descartes contended that all the useful human institutions were and ought to be deliberate creation(s) of conscious reason..." (p. 26). This is sourced to Hayek (1967: 85). And there, indeed, Hayek says that -- but with no reference to where Descartes claimed this. Now, I happened to be reading The Discourse on Method, and I found:

"Descartes was cautious enough to add caveats to his programme, such as declaring, for instance, ‘Thus my purpose here is not to teach the method that everyone ought to follow in order to conduct his reason correctly, but merely to show how I have tried to conduct mine’ (1993: 2). But Descartes’s modesty here was not embraced by his epigones; as Oakeshott put it, ‘the Rationalist character may be seen springing from the exaggeration of Bacon’s hopes and the neglect of the scepticism of Descartes: modern Rationalism is what commonplace minds made out of the inspiration of men of discrimination and genius’ (1991 [1962]: 22)."

Descartes also adds: "That is why I could in no way approve those cloudy and unquiet spirits who, being called neither by birth nor fortune to the handling of public affairs, are forever reforming the State in imagination; and, if I thought that there was the least thing in what I have written to bring me under suspicion of such folly, I should deeply regret its publication."

So here, far from holding his rationalist techniques should always be applied to social institutions, Descartes seems to warn us that they have no place there at all! (He also gives further arguments to this effect, as I recall.)

So, did Descartes ever say anything suggesting the view Hayek assigns to him? I'm hoping someone else has read his entire collected works, so I don't have to do that as well to finish my review!

UPDATE: Wheels within wheels! Now that I look at the Hayek quote in its context more carefully (at first I just looked for a reference) it's apparent that Smith butchered the quote in extracting it -- what Hayek says is that the rationalism of Bacon, Hobbes, and Descartes... and now continue with the quote as in Smith (above). So while in Smith's version it is "clear" that Hayek attributes the social constructivist view to Descartes, in the original it is attributed to Cartesian rationalism, and perhaps not Descartes personally.

1 comment:

  1. If you need help with the auction theory stuff, I'm your man. But if it's more than an email I will have to charge you. However, it might be worth your savings from not having to read a book.

    ReplyDelete