Calling All Cartesians

August 18, 2010

by Gene Callahan

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 researching The Discourse on Method recently, and I said:

“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 later 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.)

But, there are wheels within wheels! When I looked at the Hayek quote in its context more carefully (at first I just looked for a reference) it became apparent that Smith chopped the Hayek quote in an odd place while extracting it — what Hayek says is that “the new rationalism of Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes and particularly René Descartes contended that all the useful human institutions were and ought to be deliberate creation of conscious reason…” 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.

So, did Descartes ever say anything suggesting the view Smith assigns to him? And did Hayek mean to assign that view to Descartes, or was it only Smith’s editing that did so?

In any case, I’m hoping someone else has read Descartes’ entire collected works, so I don’t have to do that as well to finish my review!

SPECIAL BONUS FOR THINK MARKETS READERS: Much of the above was cross-posted at Crash Landing. But here is the bonus quiz for TM readers: In the same work, Hayek writes: “so far as economics is concerned, in England… a list of her great economists, if we leave out only two major figures, might readily be taken for a list of her great philosophers…”

So, without looking at the list that follows, who do you think Hayek would choose to leave out as being great English economists but not great English philosophers?

12 Responses to “Calling All Cartesians”

  1. Current Says:

    In answer to the last bit: Ricardo and Thornton.


  2. I would have guessed Ricardo and Marshall, but Current might be right. I haven’t looked and I can’t remember.

  3. Gene Callahan Says:

    Well, interestingly, Hayek never names the two he left out; we have to surmise it from the “in” list. My guess was Ricardo and Marshall, but Thornton is left out as well.

  4. Current Says:

    Who’s in the overall list though?

  5. Gene Callahan Says:

    And Hayek, as he admits, often writes “English” when he means “British” — making it a good thing he didn’t hang out in Glasgow pubs.

  6. Gene Callahan Says:

    Locke, Hume, Smith, Bentham, both Mills, Samuel Bailey, Jevons, Sidgwick, both Keyneses.

  7. Current Says:

    Interesting. I’ve never heard of Samuel Bailey.

    Mises does the same thing with English and British. I’m reading “Nation, State and Economy” at present, in the index it says: “Britain. See England”, which makes me groan.

  8. Bogdan Enache Says:

    Déscartes was, basically, the gauche cavier of his age. He always maintained, as quoted above, that his ideas have no relevance for politics, social questions, or any practical issues. Did he value too much the company of the princes, of the queens and of the powerful of his time (an explanation supported, in the opinion of some exegets by the shaky deduction of the existence of God in his system) ? or did he just want to be and be remember only as philosopher, in the ancient sense of the word, if if the first of the truely modern philosophers? We will never know. But most of his followers and critics alike immediately became aware of the radical consequences of his thought and, beeing much widely read, more poignant qnd free of other qgendqs than the work of Bacon and Hobbes, he had the greatest direct influence on European or Continental philosophy, at leat until the German philosophy made a powerful breakthrough, and even after that, indirectly, through Hegel and so on until Husserl, Heidegger and today. But along the way Déscartes’s influence was more ambiguous, often very positive, in any case, pivotal, than Hayek’s retrospective judgement usually suggets.

  9. Bogdan Enache Says:

    P.S. Descartes with no accent and a few other things there; wrong combination of software-hardware keyboard and human capital😀

  10. saifedean Says:

    A day after reading this blogpost I came across this, which will not answer your question, but might come in handy if the elusive quest for an answer to your question causes you Cartesian intestinal problems:

    http://www.jehsmith.com/1/2010/08/descartes-cure-for-constipation.html

  11. Greg Ransom Says:

    Hayek derived the spontaneous creation of a trail example of “spontaneous order” from … Descartes.

  12. Gene Callahan Says:

    “He always maintained, as quoted above, that his ideas have no relevance for politics, social questions, or any practical issues. Did he value too much the company of the princes, of the queens and of the powerful of his time (an explanation supported, in the opinion of some exegets by the shaky deduction of the existence of God in his system) ? or did he just want to be and be remember only as philosopher, in the ancient sense of the word, if if the first of the truely modern philosophers?”

    Or, he correctly saw the inapplicability of his system to politics!


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