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 Hayek’s 1952 book refined and elaborated upon the argument he made in an unpublished manuscript of 1920.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.