Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Hayek on Theory and Practice

"Today it is almost heresy to suggest that scientific knowledge is not the sum of all knowledge. But a little reflection will show that there is beyond question a body of very important but unorganized knowledge which cannot possibly be called scientific in the sense of knowledge of general rules: the knowledge of the particular circumstances of time and place. It is with respect to this that practically every individual has some advantage over all others because he possesses unique information of which beneficial use might be made, but of which use can be made only if the decisions depending on it are left to him or are made with his active coöperation." -- "The Use of Knowledge in Society"

Hayek is here pointing to a distinction made very clear in Aristotle between theoria and phronesis. (Was he aware he was following Aristotle here? I don't know. Does a reader?) Phronesis is practical wisdom, and it applies to particulars, not universals. The mistake of socialist planners was that they thought theoria could replace phronesis in making economic decisions.

And this distinction allows us a very concise and useful definition of "ideology": Political thinking turns into an ideology at the point the thinker comes to believe his/her theories can replace practical wisdom in making political decisions. So, Krugman is wrong: not everyone has an ideology. In fact, we can often point quite accurately to moments in the political life of a nation when ideological politics appears. In Rome it was with the rise of the optimates and populares during the Roman Revolution. In Britain it occurs following the turmoil of the Civil War. And the timing here is no accident: periods of civil chaos leave people longing for clear-cut, easy answers to political problems. But, as we know, there ain't no easy answers.


  1. But well, mostly everyone prefer a state of affairs (say, for example, a democracy) to another state of affairs (for example, a tyranny). Is that a practical outcome or an ideological one?

  2. Yes, I thought there was an obvious response to what Krugman said.

    There is no web designer ideology. A web designer quits using a web design application once it stops serving his clients purposes.

    There is no top Microsoft executive ideology, particularly since Steve Balmer's pay was cut in half recently, because of the failure of Zune.

    Ideology exists only in academia, where everybody is a second hand dealer in ideas. People outside academia don't have or need an ideology. Paul Krugman was projecting the unfortunate vices of his own class onto the rest of us.

  3. Your examples suggest ideology is born of trauma. Some event, perhaps technological change, alters the particulars of our society such that our shared knowledge of the particular no longer binds us together. Society is damaged. At this point it is both possible and necessary to impose an ideology which can bind us together. Our damaged but ideological society continues, not just limping on, but striding, both damaging and absorbing damaged societies around it with its universal ideology.

    I am reminded of the The Great Transformation. In this case, an industrial revolution has deranged social relations. Along comes capitalism as a binding ideology. It may not exactly give us what we want but it binds our damaged society together, not just limping, but striding, though perhaps not altogether beautiful.

    Perhaps ideology does not altogether make us sane but it keeps the show on the road.

    Ideology: can't live with it, can't live without it.

  4. "Political thinking turns into an ideology at the point the thinker comes to believe his/her theories can replace practical wisdom in making political decisions."

    I wouldn't limit that to political thinking at all (nor to the academy). In my own field there has been a rush to adopt new software which has many theoretical advantages over established methods, in that it automates much of what was done manually in the past. The software, of course is very costly, and has a steep learning curve, the payoff is only possible in the most complex of projects. But it is theoretically superior, and much more powerful, so a great number of firms have adopted it, some of them to their detriment.

    I think the abundance of ideology in academia is due to the lack of agreed upon practical tests for ideas. You'll find very little of it in the engineering schools, but much more in the social sciences.

    In "practical" fields outside academia, there are also ideologues. There is no better example than Buckminster Fuller. His designs had many theoretical advantages over established models, but somehow always failed in practice.

  5. Yes, I always liked the Bell Labs folks for their "non-ideological" approach to software.

  6. Ivan, I believe practical wisdom can encompass such preferences.

  7. re: bell labs-

    I get the feeling you're being sarcastic, or clever, somehow, but I wouldn't mind if you expanded a bit. Google is failing me, or I wouldn't have asked.


  8. No, no sarcasm at all. UNIX was a wonderful illustration of the superiority of practical compromise over theoretical purity -- which is why it is still alive today in Linux and Mac OS X, and its theoretically superior rivals all defunct. Bentley, Ritchie, Thompson -- those were my role models when I was programming. "90% of a program delivered today is far better than 100% to be delivered at some vague date in the future."

  9. It's true that not everyone has an ideology and that large areas of life are non-ideological. Modern politics, however, does seem to rely pretty heavily on ideology to motivate and organize people, and I think this is an accident, or something we could change while keeping the current system. It's not a coincidence that the modern left/right spectrum gets its name from the seating in the French Assembly during Revolution, and while people have often complained about the limiting nature of that spectrum, as a practical matter members of a legislative assembly do need to arrange themselves somehow.