Hayek on the mind
Here, to oversimplify a bit, is how Hayek’s account goes. Different neural structures dispose an organism toward behavioral responses to different aspects of possible stimuli. For example, neural structure A will dispose an organism toward reaching for a round object; neural structure B will dispose it toward reaching for an orange object; neural structure C will dispose it toward halting at a hissing object; neural structure D will dispose it toward retreating from a slithering object; and so on. A stimulus that triggers activity in A, B, and related structures will be experienced as an orange; a stimulus that triggers activity in C, D, and related structures will be experienced as a snake; and so forth.
Now, the dispositions embodied in these various neural structures have an abstract character insofar as they are sensitive to a wide variety of possible instantiations of the aspects in question. For example, activity in neural structure A might be triggered by the roundness of an orange, or that of a Frisbee, a dinner plate, a bicycle wheel, or what have you. Hayek characterizes these dispositions as “rules” of action. And insofar as any particular action (such as reaching for an orange or running from a snake) will result from the aggregate of activity in several such neural structures (A, B, etc.), it can be said to result from what Hayek calls a “superimposition” of dispositions or rules.
For Hayek, the abstract is prior to the concrete in a couple of related ways. First, Hayek seems to identify any particular perceptual experience with the activation of the set of dispositions that give rise to a particular action. For instance, he seems to think of an experience of seeing an orange as identical to the aggregate of the activity in A, B, etc. that triggers the act of reaching for the orange. Now, we usually think of the perceptual experience of a concrete object like an orange as primary, and of abstractions like roundness, orangeness, etc. as derivative from these experiences of concrete particulars. But Hayek’s view is that in fact the abstractions come first and make possible the concrete perceptual experience. Only if abstract dispositions or rules corresponding to roundness, orangeness, etc. are already embodied in the brain can we have a perceptual experience of a particular orange.
Second, Hayek concludes, accordingly, that these abstractions are largely innate, and in that way too prior to any experience of particular things. That is not to deny that experience plays a crucial role in shaping the mind, but the way it does so, in Hayek’s view, is not by building up abstractions but rather by pruning them away. That is to say, before we come to interact with the world, a very large number of dispositions to react to various possible aspects of stimuli are already embodied in the brain. Those dispositions that end up being conducive to the success of the organism’s interactions with the environment are strengthened, and those that do not end up atrophying.
The idea is similar to the “theory of neuronal group selection” later developed by Gerald Edelman, and to connectionist models in Artificial Intelligence research. Hayek also compares it to Popper’s philosophy of science, according to which knowledge is not a result of reasoning from particular cases to general conclusions, but rather of drawing out implications of general claims and attempting to falsify them. Falsified claims are analogous to dispositions that atrophy, and claims that survive falsification are analogous to dispositions that are strengthened.
Of course, we are typically not consciously aware of being governed by such dispositions or rules; indeed, conscious awareness is precisely a result of their operation. For this reason, Hayek thinks we can never in principle know all the abstract rules that govern the mind. For us to be consciously aware of some level of abstract rules, yet higher-order rules must be operating so as to make that act of conscious awareness possible; if those higher-order rules are themselves to become the objects of conscious awareness, yet higher-order rules must be operating; and so on ad infinitum.
(As a side note, it is worth commenting that this, in Hayek’s view, is the deep reason why we ought to favor a kind of Burkean conservatism in social philosophy. Moral rules and dispositions are among those that guide our actions, and like other rules they have in his view been put into us by natural selection and cultural evolution. We cannot, he thinks, fully understand all of these rules any more than we can know all of the other rules that govern the mind. Hence we ought to be wary of tampering too radically with traditional norms. For the most part, the rules make us, we don’t make them; and when we try, we end up making things worse, because we don’t have all the information to which biological and cultural evolutionary processes are sensitive.)
Aquinas on knowledge of the universal
In Summa Theologiae I.85.3, Aquinas addresses the question of whether the more universal or abstract comes first in our cognition of the world. He answers that in one sense it does not, insofar as we first have sensory experience of individual particular things, from which the intellect goes on to abstract universal patterns and thereby form concepts. That is, of course, standard Aristotelian epistemology. However, he goes on to say:
The perfect act of the intellect is complete knowledge, when the object is distinctly and determinately known; whereas the incomplete act is imperfect knowledge, when the object is known indistinctly, and as it were confusedly… Now it is evident that to know an object that comprises many things, without proper knowledge of each thing contained in it, is to know that thing confusedly. In this way we can have knowledge not only of the universal whole, which contains parts potentially, but also of the integral whole; for each whole can be known confusedly, without its parts being known. But to know distinctly what is contained in the universal whole is to know the less common, as to know “animal” indistinctly is to know it as “animal”; whereas to know “animal” distinctly is know it as “rational” or “irrational animal,” that is, to know a man or a lion: therefore our intellect knows “animal” before it knows man; and the same reason holds in comparing any more universal idea with the less universal.
Moreover, as sense, like the intellect, proceeds from potentiality to act, the same order of knowledge appears in the senses. For by sense we judge of the more common before the less common, in reference both to place and time; in reference to place, when a thing is seen afar off it is seen to be a body before it is seen to be an animal; and to be an animal before it is seen to be a man, and to be a man before it seen to be Socrates or Plato; and the same is true as regards time, for a child can distinguish man from not man before he distinguishes this man from that…
We must therefore conclude that knowledge of the singular and individual is prior, as regards us, to the knowledge of the universal; as sensible knowledge is prior to intellectual knowledge. But in both sense and intellect the knowledge of the more common precedes the knowledge of the less common.
End quote. What does all this mean? Aquinas is saying, first, that we can know something either clearly and distinctly, or confusedly and indistinctly. Now, consider how this is so in the case of the intellect’s knowledge of the essence of a thing. A human being is by nature a rational animal. Accordingly, clearly and distinctly to know the essence of human beings requires explicit knowledge of what animality and rationality are. But these are more universal concepts than the concept of being a human being. Hence, clear and distinct knowledge of what a human being is presupposes knowledge of these more universal or abstract concepts, even if a more confused and indistinct knowledge of what a human being is (namely, knowledge which does not involve grasping animality and rationality as the parts of human nature) does not presuppose it.
Similarly, there is a sense in which in sensory perception too, knowledge of more universal or abstract features is prior to knowledge of more concrete ones. As Aquinas says, we take something to be an animal only because we first take it to be a physical object of some kind, we take it to be a man only because we take it to be an animal of some kind, and so on.
Notice that this does not conflict with the more familiar Aristotelian thesis. It can still be true that, as Aquinas affirms, we could not have any universal concepts at all unless we had sensory experience of particulars from which to abstract them. But sensory experience itself involves first grasping more universal features of things rather than less universal features. And once sensory experience has given rise to a number of concepts, a clearer and more distinct grasp of any one of them presupposes a grasp of more universal ones.
Compare and contrast
To that extent, at least, Aquinas could agree that Hayek is on to something. Naturally, though, there are crucial differences between them. The most obvious is that Hayek is a materialist of sorts, and Aquinas is not. Specifically, Hayek was committed to a version of what would later be called functionalism, according to which any mental state can be defined in terms of its causal relations to the input from the senses that gives rise to it, the bodily behavior that it in turn generates as output, and the other mental states together with which it mediates between these inputs and outputs.
As Thomists argue, whatever we say about sensory experience, affective states, and the like, the operations of the intellect, specifically (which are characterized by conceptual content) cannot in principle be identified with anything material. One reason for this is that thoughts can have an unambiguous or exact conceptual content, whereas no material system can possibly have that (a claim I have defended at length elsewhere).
In fact, from a Thomistic point of view, the processes Hayek was describing do not have anything essentially to do with the intellect per se at all (though Hayek wrongly supposed that they did). Rather, what he was describing (whether correctly or incorrectly) are the processes underlying both sensation and what in Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophy are called the “internal senses”: the “common” or synthetic sense, which unites the deliverances of the senses into a single experience; the imagination, which forms images or phantasms; the estimative power or instinct, which draws an organism toward something beneficial to it or away from what is harmful to it; and sensory memory. All of this can exist without intellect, and thus all of it can exist in non-human animals.
But since none of it amounts to genuinely intellectual activity – the grasping of concepts, of the propositions built out of concepts, and of the inferential relations between propositions – none of it really amounts to abstraction in the strict sense, which always does involve concepts. Hence Hayek and Aquinas are, at the end of the day, not really talking about the same thing after all.