The Sensory Order

by Roger Koppl

Over at Marginal Revolution, Tyler Cowen recently said The Sensory Order is “Hayek’s most overrated book.”  In part he was complaining that “many call it his most underrated book.”  Unfortunately, he does not name names.  In any event, Tyler has other gripes including the mistaken suggestion that the science in it was not current.  As I said in a comment, “I don’t understand why TSO gets lukewarm to negative reactions from serious people who are otherwise keen on Hayek.”  The most salient example of TSO bashing may be that of Dan D’Amico and Pete Boettke, who criticize “neuro-Hayekians.” Let me go on record as an enthusiast for The Sensory Order.  The latest expression of my enthusiasm is forthcoming in JEBO.

The Sensory Order lays out Hayek’s theory of mind; it solves the mind-body problem, or at least tries to.  I tend to think Hayek got there, but others doubt that he has cracked the so-called “hard problem” of consciousness.  In any event, it is a serious effort that has influenced many scholars of mind and brain, including Neuroscientist Joaquin Fuster and Nobel laureate Gerald Edelman.  Hayek’s 1952 book refined and elaborated upon the argument he made in an unpublished manuscript of 1920.  That work anticipated Hebb’s famous connectionist model of mind put forward in 1949.

All of these considerations would be sufficient to justify enthusiasm for Hayek’s other book of 1952.  (“Other” than The Counter-Revolution of Science, that is.)  There is at least one more consideration, however, that justifies enthusiasm, but seems to have gone almost totally unnoticed: Hayek’s The Sensory Order bridges the gap between C.P. Snow’s “two cultures” of science and the humanities (“literary intellectuals”).  His theory of mind has a mechanistic starting point of sorts, but ends in a principled defense of the literary methods of “verstehende psychology.”  That move is an important and impressive intellectual achievement that seems to have gone almost unnoticed among Hayek scholars.  In my forthcoming JEBO paper, I note the implication that “scientific” economics cannot dispense with “literary methods.”  It cannot dispense with literary methods even if we were to (mistakenly) restrict the term “economic science” to some mathematical subset of the discipline.  If we cannot avoid the “humanistic” “understanding” of others, then no amount of mathematical rigor will ensure rigorous argumentation unless we are also equally rigorous in our “literary methods.”  As far as I know, no social scientist has equaled Hayek in unifying the “scientific” and “literary” parts of social science.  That feat gives us good grounds to be enthusiastic for Hayek’s The Sensory Order and, perhaps, to give it another read.

20 thoughts on “The Sensory Order

  1. I second your enthusiasm. I think the work holds up remarkably well — and, more than that, I think brain science has mostly caught up with it, insofar as it has increasingly used network theory and complexity science. The self-organizing brain? Hayek is there well before the brain scientists — many of whom probably still need to learn about that idea. Hayek’s structuralism is dead-on, as is his explanation of how the brain gives rise to the mind (through emergence — another idea ahead of its time). The entire science of complexity was rediscovered, mostly ignorant of Hayek — thus, giving things different names. Should it then not be our job to bridge that gap, to explain that when two things with different names, but with the same description, are in fact that same thing?

  2. The materialist/physicalist explantion of the human mind, consciousness and mental life is hardly some original contribution of Hayek (the ancient Epicureans, for example, had an atomic theory of the mind), and early 20th century philosophers were arguing for a materialist explanation of the mind long before Hayek.

  3. That’s not what he said Hayek’s contribution was. Hayek’s contribution is a scientific theory of how the actual physical structure and activity of the brain gives rise to the mind. The examples you gave did make the argument that there was or could be or should be a materialist explanation of mind, but Hayek actually does it. Even today, there are materialists such as Daniel Dennett who claim that there is no such thing as mind, just the actions of the brain. There is a significant difference between Dennett’s idea and Hayek’s, which is able to explain the phenomenon of mind. Others have reduced mind to the activities and structures of the brain, but Hayek description gives rise to the emergence of a mind.

  4. Even a quick look at the history of connectionism as a theory of mind shows there was a vast amount of work before Hayek’s The Sensory Order (1952):

    Many earlier researchers advocated connectionist style models, for example in the 1940s and 1950s, Warren McCulloch, Walter Pitts, Donald Olding Hebb, and Karl Lashley. McCulloch and Pitts showed how neural systems could implement first-order logic: their classic paper “A Logical Calculus of Ideas Immanent in Nervous Activity” (1943) is important in this development here. They were influenced by the important work of Nicolas Rashevsky in the 1930s. Hebb contributed greatly to speculations about neural functioning, and proposed a learning principle, Hebbian learning, that is still used today. …. Many connectionist principles can be traced to early work in psychology, such as that of William James. Psychological theories based on knowledge about the human brain were fashionable in the late 19th century. As early as 1869, the neurologist John Hughlings Jackson argued for multi-level, distributed systems. Following from this lead, Herbert Spencer’s Principles of Psychology, 3rd edition (1872), and Sigmund Freud’s Project for a Scientific Psychology (composed 1895) propounded connectionist or proto-connectionist theories. These tended to be speculative theories. But by the early 20th century, Edward Thorndike was experimenting on learning that posited a connectionist type network.

    You exaggerate Hayek’s contribution: D. O. Hebb’s Organization of Behaviour (1949), for example, did much the same thing as Hayek but with better knowledge of the actual neural/physiological structure of the brain, and was published before The Sensory Order.

    Others have reduced mind to the activities and structures of the brain, but Hayek description gives rise to the emergence of a mind.

    And so have plenty of other theories.

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  6. Dennett does not deny the existence of mindfulness he merely sees no reason to believe in non-physical consciousness stuff which is to be indentified with qualia or sensations.

    Desires and beliefs he holds to be dispositional properties of the mental system instanciated in the physical brain’s integrated sub-systems. Like an economy the mind exists because of the interaction of rule-following parts.

    Dennett has quipped that he has a soul and it is made of unconscious robots.

    Dennett’s paper ‘True Believers’ , I believe, makes an almost Misean claim that humans have evolved to share a prejudice that much activity, including their own, is actally conscious agency and only makes sense when interpreted as such. Thereby allowing retrodiction, history, and pattern predictions regarding the socially systematic consequences of individual human action – economics.

  7. I suggested TSO to a friend of money interested in neuroeconomics, this post is a perfect preliminary suggestion.

    Unfortunately I cannot access D’Amico and Boettke’s piece. From the abstract, I guess the thesis is that, well, Hayek’s economics influenced Hayek’s psychology instead of viceversa.

    I read the JEBO paper some time ago and I will give it to my friend as well.

    PS Congratulations to my friend Di Iorio for the citation!

  8. @LK:

    In his book of 1995, Fuster called Hayek, ““the first and unrecognized pioneer of cortical networktheory.” I would not pretend to judge the precise degree of innovation in TSO as of 1952. In TSO Hayek himself points to Hebb 1949 and says he almost put TSO aside after finding Hebb’s work. (I don’t recall whether Hayek cites Lashley.) But, Hayek said, he thought he had perhaps brought out certain broader points more clearly than Hebb, so he went ahead with the book project.

    Hayek was important and pioneering in this area. No one says he is somehow the only one who ever said anything remotely similar. Where do I make such a claim? Where does Troy make such a claim? Why, indeed, is it so important to you to diminish Hayek on this score? Is Keynes somehow a lesser economist if Hayek was a good theoretical psychologist?

    @ Pietro:
    You can go to and click to it through his CV.

  9. Citations in the literature and letters in the Hayek archive establish that Hayek’s work even at the time was read and appreciated by many of the leaders in the tiny field (at the time) of “neural modeling” and empirical brain psychology or whatever you want to call it.

    Hayek indeed was invited into the community by Gibson and other leaders in the science — it was Hayek’s choice not to become a member of this scientific community.

  10. Hayek’s _The Sensory Order_ was really the nail in the coffin of the Mach/Hume program — at least as significant as the work of Popper and Kuhn.

    Kuhn, indeed, endorses Hayek’s many-many problem of classification / brain processing as the insuperable barrier to a Mach / Hume associationist / reductionist program of the Mill / Carnap / Nagel / Rosenberg line.

    And it was the Mach program which inspired the “scientific” conception of economics of Schumpeter and Samuelson which has come to dominate the “scientific” imagination of the tenured economists.

  11. Harvard psychologist Edwin Boring’s assessment of Hayek’s work is somewhat different than that of the mask-wearing commenter above:

    “Half the time I read [Hayek’s The Sensory Order] with amazement at the extent of his reading and comprehension . . he is right . . most of the time.” (Edwin Boring, “Elementist Going Up”, The Scientific Monthly, March, 1953, p. 183)

    ” . . I feel sure that no one has done this particular kind of job [i.e. a physicalistic system of psychology, mind, and consciousness] nearly so well.” (Edwin Boring, “Elementist Going Up”, The Scientific Monthly, March, 1953, p. 183)

    “I do not for a moment believe it is the last word on this matter [i.e. a physicalistic system of psychology, mind and consciousness], but it is . the best word I have ever heard spoken from this platform.” (Edwin Boring, “Elementist Going Up”, The Scientific Monthly, March, 1953, p. 183)

  12. Certainly Hayek’s ideas don’t come out of nothingness. They are, like everyone’s ideas, built on those of others. But the fact that Hayek’s ideas were actually formulated in 1920 speaks volumes to his insights.

    Dennett is a reductionist’s reductionist. He does not believe in mind — at least, not the kind that people like Hayek believe in. In “Freedom Evolves,” Dennett argues that freedom is in fact an illusion, that it does not and can not exist, and that the mind as an emergent phenomenon does not exist (he has argued this latter elsewhere as well, and in more developed form). Dennett is wrong about all of these things — primarily because he is a reductionist and neglects emergence.

  13. Note that Dennett’s papers on patterns and the role of pattern in explanation was anticipate by Hayek’s work of the 1950s …

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