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The Counter Revolution of Science: Studies on the Abuse of Reason Paperback – 1979
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When we discovered a solid stash of this book, the excitement in our offices was palpable. Hayek wrote it in 1952, several years before Mises wrote his final methodological treatise. It was unavailable for many years, and remains long sought after – rightly so.
In fact, Mises adored this book as a wonderful examination of the dramatic change in the way we think of sciences. In particular, the change that occurred in the last 100 years had a huge impact on economics.
The problem that Hayek deals with reaches to the core of how economists think about their discipline. There was once such a thing as the human sciences of which economics was part. The goal was to discover and elucidate the exact laws that govern the interaction of people with the material world. It had its own methods and own recommendations.
Then something changed. Science became entirely positivistic in its orientation. Economics was changed from a human science into a poor cousin of the natural sciences that applied positivist methods, and to no great end, for human beings do not move about like molecules but rather engage in choices and unpredictable actions.
What Hayek does in this treatise is link the change in methodology to a change in politics. The economy and people began to be regarded as a collective entity to be examined as if whole societies should be studied as we study planets or other non-volitional beings. It then began to make mistakes, treating facts as theories and theories as contingent. And thus is the state invited in to treat society as a laboratory.
This re-definition of what constitutes science thus had a terrible and even deadly result for human well being and liberty. Science had turned from being a friend of freedom into being employed as its enemy.
It is this linkage that makes the book so revealing and ultimately devastating. Hardback, 411 pages.
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First of all, the book is dividied into two sections: (1) Scientism and the Study of Society; and (2) The Counter-Revolution of Science. The former expounds the differences and peculiar histories of both the social and natural sciences, while the latter seeks to understand the historical development of "scientism", finding its roots in the rationalistic tradition of French (continental) thought.
The first part is the more important section, and should be read carefully. Hayek traces the long escape of natural science from the anthropomorphic thought that characterized the Middle Ages. External events were believed to possess some transcendental reality. Slowly, however, science began to discover explanations of external reality that differed from our common sense perceptions. "Facts", it was argued, are different from "appearances." Note that in this discussion Hayek is not attacking the character of science when it is conducted in its own proper sphere. Science has much to say about the relation of material things to other things (cause and effect, etc.). Scientific study errs, however, when it begins to substitute material explanations for human affairs. There are some phenomena that cannot be explained by their material characteristics. In fact, most phenomena involving human opinions and beliefs cannot be explained by natural science. Hayek gives several illuminating examples to illustrate his case: "words", "sentences", "crimes" "family", "exchange", "money" etc. clearly can only be understood by finding out what people think about these things and not from their objective characteristics.
In this book Hayek shows that the social sciences are fundamentally distinct from the natural sciences because men can only be understood through their beliefs and opinions. A very important work.
Generally speaking, Hayek makes the importance of recognizing and respecting the limits of human reason abundantly clear. Hayek saw that modern collectivism was working to undo the intellectual progress made during the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment. Collectivism was antithetical to reason, and would lead us to a new Dark Age if not reversed. Persons of the left with surely find this absurd, and their revulsion to Hayek's thesis is consistent with his thesis. The Left does not reject reason explicitly, it abuses reason unwittingly. People on the Left truly believe that they are progressive and scientific, but this is a false belief. Socialists and Welfare State Liberals abuse human reason by failing to see its limits.
The background to this book is simple. Hayek started his career writing technical economics. Hayek's efforts were initially met with success. Hayek initially swayed professional opinion on business cycles. Hayek also forced socialists to revise their early proposals. Yet professional opinion turned against Hayek during the mid thirties. Why? Had they proved him wrong? Did they fail to understand why he was right? How was it that intelligent and educated people could not see the strength of Hayek's arguments? Hayek's technical economics show how the capitalist system functions. Yet Hayek misunderstood the way in which his peers understood the term `technical economics'. That is, Hayek erred by underestimating the influence of positivist and other ideas. Hence Hayek turned to explaining why economists and other educated people were unable to understand correct economic theories: they had embraced a false notion of rationalism.
I find the sections on Engineers particularly interesting. Hayek's views on the role of engineers in society are so diametrically opposed to Veblen's Engineers and the Price System that one must wonder why he did little more than mention Veblen in passing. The Counter Revolution of Science is one of Hayek's best books, and that is saying a lot. The Counter Revolution of Science was important in the twentieth century because it penetrated to the core of intellectual problems of that time. We live in a new century now, but the old problem of abusing reason remains. One need only look at the policies of Bush/Cheney and Obama/Emanuel to see how the social engineering mindset prevails in modern America.
The CRS represents Hayek at his best, insightful, informative, and well reasoned in his conclusions. These are important ideas too, given that people still believe in false notions of rationalism, whereby most people still trust that the so-called best and brightest can best plan society. The Counter Revolution of Science should be read by the entire educated public.
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Social sciences study the relations between men and things and between men and men.Read more