The Competitiveness of Nations in a Global Knowledge-Based Economy

Nicolò De Vecchi

The Place of Gestalt Psychology in the Making of Hayek’s Thought

History of Political Economy , 35 (1),

2003, 135-162.




The Making of The Sensory Order and Gestalt Psychology

Cultural References Common to Hayek and Gestalt Psychology

The Sensory Order: Which Comes First, the Problem or the Solution?

Defining the Meaning of the Mind-Body Problem: The First Step

The Second Step

Some Epistemological Consequences

From the Gestalt School’s “Perceptual Organization” to Hayek’s “Primacy of the Abstract”

New and Old Associationism

Hayek’s “Pre-sensory Experience”

Hayek’s Theory of Mind and His Theory of Society: To and Fro from One to the Other

Gestalt Phenomenon and Hayek’s Social Theory

The Perception of Patterns in Other People’s Actions as Gestalt Perception

The Rules of Action and the Connection between Hayek’s Social Theory and His Theory of the Mind



Since its publication in 1952, Friedrich von Hayek’s The Sensory Order has captured the attention of scholars of the cognitive processes to the point that it is now viewed as an important stage in the development of the cognitive sciences.  However, it has only lately and with some difficulty come within the social scientists’ range of interest.  Until the beginning of the 1990s social scientists were attracted to Hayek’s notion of knowledge, which he saw as limited and dispersed among individuals ([1937] 1948; [1945] 1948); to his idea that competition was a process of discovery, that is, that competition transmits personal knowledge throughout the economy ([1968] 1978); and to his belief that social phenomenon are complex phenomenon, that they are overall structures possessing distinct characteristic properties independent of the particular properties of the elements that compose them ([1964] 1967).  Apart from rare exceptions, it is only in the past ten years that they have been paying increasing attention to The Sensory Order and investigating the connection between Hayek’s reflections on mental processes and his thoughts on the formation and evolution of social systems.

It can certainly be said that Hayek’s affirmation in the preface to The Sensory Order - that the book is both a work of theoretical psychology,” independent of his research on society, and at the same time a


starting point for that research - is finally being given the importance it deserves.  As a matter of fact Hayek asserts that he conceived the basic ideas of The Sensory Order in the early 1920s, before devoting himself to political economy.  But he adds that those basic ideas often came back to him when he was dealing with “the problems of the methods of the sccial sciences,” and he concludes that “it was concern with the logical character of social theory which forced me to re-examine systematically my ideas on theoretical psychology” (v).  The draft of The Sensory Order was essentially completed and eventually published by Hayek in order to answer some fundamental problems relating to his approach to the social sciences.

Hence the question: What relation is there between Hayek’s theory of the mind and his social theory?  In other words, How did Hayek come to understand the mind and society as phenomenon having the same kind of complexity and undergoing the same process of transformation over time?  Although research on this problem is at a very early stage, there is no shortage of studies on Hayek’s theory of the mind aimed at answering those questions, and the first steps have also been taken to show that Hayek’s mind theory and his social theory share the same methodology. [1]

This is the context in which our essay is set.  It aims to clarify the link between Hayek’s mind theory and his social theory.  The specific subject of the paper is the role that gestalt psychology played in the formation of both theories.

Hayek himself declared that gestalt psychology enabled him to answer some important questions that cropped up in the making of The Sensory Order.  Starting from this acknowledgment of Hayek’s, the first section offers a brief summary of the developments of gestalt psychology in order to show how, by studying its findings, Hayek was able to clarify the problem that he was facing in The Sensory Order.  The next section continues the examination of the influence of gestalt psychology on Hayek’s mind theory.  The final section shows how Hayek’s reflections on gestalt psychology also helped him to delineate his theory of the evolution of social systems founded on the abstract system of rules of conduct, particularly when he faced two problems: (1) How does an individual classify other people’s actions in order to choose his own action? and (2) How does the coordination of the actions of many individuals

1. Among recent Works on The Sensory Order see Kukathas 1990, Dempsey 1996a. Dempsey 1996b, Butos 1997, Butos and Koppl 1997, CaIdwell 1997, Smith 1997, and Bimer 1999.


take place?  It is therefore concluded that gestalt psychology influenced both Hayek’s psychology research and his social science studies and that the two are deeply linked.



The Making of The Sensory Order and Gestalt Psychology

This section expounds the general features of gestalt psychology, shows how Hayek and the gestaltists take as a starting point the writings of Ernst Mach, and discusses the influence of gestalt psychology on the evolution of Hayek’s treatise on theoretical psychology, from the early draft to its final version (The Sensory Order, 1952).


Cultural References Common to Hayek and Gestalt Psychology

In the 1920 draft of The Sensory Order - entitled Beiträge zur Theorie der Entwicklung des Bewusstseins - Hayek clarifies his relationship with Ernst Mach, the thinker who most fascinated him in the course of his intellectual education.  He distinguishes between Mach’s contribution to theoretical psychology and his philosophical framework: Hayek (1920, 34 n. 27) praises the former and criticizes the latter.  This judgement is reiterated in the definitive draft of 1952, albeit in different words: “Mach was an excellent psychologist, who saw many of the most fundamental problems of psychology which, a whole generation later, many psychologists failed even to understand; at the same time he had a philosophy which made it impossible to give fruitful solutions to these problems” (176n. 1; 1967a).

Indeed, if one only considers the contents of theoretical psychology, The Sensory Order, while constituting an absolutely original contribution, evinces a clear continuity with Mach’s approach.  Its main thesis may well be read as “an ambitious extrapolation of Mach’s own thesis concerning the nature and status of sensations” (Smith 1997, 15). [2]  But on the philosophical level, Hayek distances himself from Mach.  He accepts Mach’s phenomenological position, according to which all science is based on the data of immediate experience such as “colors, sounds, temperatures, pressures, spaces, tints and so forth,” but he rejects the

2. On the relation between Hayek and Mach, see de Vries 1994.


working hypothesis underlying Mach’s research.  That is to say, he denies that our physical bodies and our sensations consist of sets of ultimately given sensory elements, each of which possesses specific and independently defined properties (Mach 1917, 10-16; 1959, xl-xlii, 22-36).

It is interesting to observe that the opinion on Mach that Hayek expressed in 1952, two paragraphs above, is a quote taken from a work by Kurt Koffka (1935, 63), a representative of gestalt psychology: a school of theoretical psychology that Hayek had not considered in Beiträge.

Gestalt psychology was born in 1890, in the very same Austrian culture that had shaped Hayek, and its founder Christian von Ehrenfels had close scientific relations with Carl Menger, Eugen von Bohm-Bawerk, and Friedrich von Wieser (Fabian and Simons 1986).  Subsequently, even before 1920, gestalt psychology developed along two different lines: the Graz school and the Berlin school.  From the second half of the 1920s the Berlin school, founded by Max Wertheimer, definitively claimed the attention of the psychologists and other groups of scholars (for example, epistemologists) thanks to the contributions of Wolfgang Kohler and Kurt Koffka. [3]  In The Sensory Order Hayek declares that he realized the importance of the works of the gestaltists for his research only “in the interval” between the preparation of Beiträge and the eventual publication of The Sensory Order (v-vi).

Gestalt psychology originated in an anomaly that Mach himself noticed in his analysis of sensations: in some cases we perceive aggregates of (what Mach defines as) sensory elements that cannot be completely reduced to the sensory elements themselves.  For example, we perceive an identical melody even when it is performed in different keys, that is, with different sounds (Mach 1959, 285; Kohler 1947, 173; Mulligan and Smith 1988, 135-42).  Or, for instance, we can identify a spatial figure such as a square independently of the points and segments of which it is formed.  Mach tried to explain these complex perceptions without abandoning his atomistic framework of thought “by means of an appeal to additional elementary sensations outside the sphere of perception, sensations he calls ‘Muskelempfindungen’” or feeling sensations.  “Mach here is presenting a view according to which our experience enjoys a certain sort of double structure, each separate experience of the individual tones in a melody or of the points in a spatial figure is colored by a certain element of feeling” (Mulligan and Smith 1988, 125-29).  Ehrenfels

3. On the origin and development of gestalt philosophy, see Asch 1968 and Smith 1988.


analyzes the matter in more depth and interprets the complex perceptions as configurations (Gestalten or Gestalt Qualitäten) that are added onto Mach’s sensory elements, but are distinguishable from them and are independent of them.  In this way he does not abandon the Machian concept of sensory elements, but he breaches Mach’s system by adding “qualities” to Mach’s sensory elements which the latter cannot assimilate, qualities that are decisive for our perception.  Ehrenfels also maintains that the perception of the gestalt-like qualities and the unification of certain sensory elements in our consciousness take place with the activity of our mind.  Mach, on the contrary and as Ehrenfels (1988, 83) emphasizes, “wished merely to give prominence to the immediacy of certain impressions and to their independence from all intellectual processing on the part of the perceiving subject.” [4]

The complete departure from Mach was made by Wertheimer and his students.  Wertheimer performed a series of experiments in 1910.  In one of these it was shown that the turning on in rapid succession of two sources of light placed at a short distance apart is perceived as a continuous movement of a single light source. [5]  Other experiments - such as that of D. Katz on the perception of the same color as different depending on the chromatic context in which the color is viewed - confirmed that stimuli (such as color) that are classified as similar from the physical point of view, are instead sometimes classified as alike and sometimes as different sensory qualities.

The Berlin school set out to explain why this happens and did so by stressing two characteristics of sensory perception.  In the first place, Wertheimer interprets the relation that is established between a physical stimulus and the context in which it is set when it gives rise to a sensation, like a relation between one part and a whole.  This means that, from the point of view of the sensory perception, every physical stimulus, as it forms part of a whole, assumes properties that are different from those that characterize it as a physical event: properties that are relationally determined.  This also means that what the individual perceives, the whole, has properties which are distinguishable from those of its parts and that it is the character of the whole that determines which parts will be perceptible and with which properties.  Second, Kohler and Koffka show that the

4. See also Ehrenfels 1988, 82-88, 101-16; Smith 1988, 14-18; Mulligan and Smith 1988, 129-35; and Smith 1994, 242-50.

5. Wertheimer explains this phenomenon in terms of functional connections at the cortical level of the nervous system.  See Smith 1988, 37-58; and Smith 1994, 261-69.


stimuli form an “organized whole - a configuration, a gestalt - because they are preceded by the organizing activity of the perceiving subject (Koffka 1915, 24-37; Kohler 1920; 1947, 177-78; Smith 1988, 37-58).

In this way the Berlin school gets rid of the autonomy of the sensations and the atomistic character of Mach’s sensory elements once and for all.  Kohler (1947, 103) states that “our view will be that, instead of reacting to local stimuli by local and mutually independent events, the organism responds to the pattern of stimuli to which it is exposed; and that this answer is a unitary process, a functional whole, which gives, in experience, a sensory scene rather than a mosaic of local sensations.  Only from this point of view can we explain the fact that, with a constant local stimulus, local experience is found to vary when the surrounding stimulation is changed.”

In this section and the following one we will show to what extent these findings of gestalt psychology and other related ones are used by Hayek to elaborate and express his theories of theoretical psychology between 1920 and 1952.


The Sensory Order: Which Comes First, the Problem or the Solution?

Some statements made by Hayek himself in 1952 offer a useful starting point for understanding the influence gestalt psychology actually exerted in the passage from Beiträge to The Sensory Order.

The first one concerns the results that Hayek obtained in 1952 with his work on theoretical psychology.  Despite his limited competence, he feels “tolerably confident” to have contributed (1) to stating the problem of the nature of mental phenomenon and of their relation to physical events, (2) to giving the general principles of its solutions, and (3) to showing some of the consequences that follow from the latter for epistemology and the methodology of science (1952, vii-viii).

Hayek’s second declaration regards the fundamental differences between the original draft and the definitive text: “The paper [of 1920]… contains the whole principle of the theory I am now putting forward… I felt that I had found the answer to an important problem, I could not explain precisely what the problem was… I feel that during those years I have learnt at least to state the nature of the problem I had been trying to answer” (1952, v; 1994, 138-39).


If we compare the two statements we find that only the second of the results mentioned by Hayek was already completely attained in 1920, while the first and the third are the products of subsequent work.  This fact is quite curious: according to Hayek, Beiträge contains the solution to a problem that is far from clear and that will only subsequently be properly defined.  Hayek is so convinced of the importance of this fact that in the subsequent autobiographical memories he reaffirms that the real difficulty which he had to face was the actual statement of the problem: “I think the thing which is really important about it [The Sensory Order], and which I could not do when I first conceived the idea, is to formulate the problem I try to answer rather than the answer I want to get” (1994, 138).

All of this requires an explanation, in which Hayek’s relation with gestalt psychology constitutes a key element.  As previously mentioned, in 1920 Hayek did not refer to the developments in gestalt psychology.  Instead he pays a lot of attention to Mach’s views on complex perceptions, which gave rise to the gestalt psychology school and which are briefly summarized above (Hayek 1920, 13-15, 33-34).  It is only after having written Belträge that he comes into contact with the work of the gestaltists.  We wish to show here that it is through this contact that Hayek manages to clarify the nature of the problem to which he had already provided the outlines of a solution.


Defining the Meaning of the Mind-Body Problem: The First Step

The problem tackled in The Sensory Order is easy to define: it is the one that goes under the “traditional heading... of the ‘relation’ between mind and body, or between mental and physical events” (Hayek 1952, 1).  It is more difficult to define the conceptual meaning of the terms mind and body that appear in the formulation of that problem.  Hayek defines them through successive approximations, that is, advancing by means of the solution of some subproblems.  The Sensory Order is a work that builds on itself, as the result of a reflection that lasts for a very long time and that is founded on a very sound and original nucleus of thought.  Hayek continuously grafted new material onto this core depending on the cultural stimulation that he received from time to time.  It is in this sense that his declaration about the difficulty of defining mind and body


should be interpreted, although he possessed “The whole principle of the theory” right from the beginning.

The original core of The Sensory Order is a structure of relations between physiological events constructed from known elements of the nervous processes (neural order).  The “bricks” that Hayek uses are “essential anatomical and physiological facts” that he directly analyzed in Zurich in 1919 (Hayek 1952, 55).  In Beiträge Hayek’s objective is to demonstrate that there is a formal correspondence [6] between the structure of the nervous system (the neural order) and the structure on the basis of which our mind distinguishes external stimuli (the sensory order or the mental order) (Hayek 1952, 55-78) [7]

The responses of the central nervous system to external stimuli depend not on individual impulses, but on the position of the nervous fiber activated by the external stimuli in the central nervous system (Hayek 1920, 3-8; 1952, 12).  In other words, there is not a one-to-one correspondence between physiological impulses generated in the nerve fibers by external stimuli and the processes of the nervous system.  In response to an external stimulus the nervous system produces effects [8] that depend exclusively on its own internal organization (Hayek 1920, 36-37; 1952, 8-12, 86-89).  Ultimately, we classify what falls within our senses - we identify the sensory qualities, that is, the qualitative differences that we note between our experiences - not on the basis of the individual physiological impulses, but on the basis of the position of the fibers that carried the impulses in the nervous system (1920, 4-5; 1952, 18-19, 47).  It follows that “the qualities of mental events produced by particular impulses or group of impulses depend... on their position in the whole network of connections” (1952, 147) and can be described “only in terms of [their] relations to other such qualities” (1952, 37; 1920, 16).

From this brief summary of the core thought of Belträge, we find that Hayek maintains that the sensory qualities can be defined only in relational terms and only starting from an examination of the processes

6. Hayek 1920, 40.  Hayek’s final thesis (1952, 37-40) that there is isomorphism between the neural order and sensory order.  On this important aspect of his theory, see note 9.

7. Hayek (1952, 2) defines sensory qualities thus: “We shall employ the term sensory ‘qualities’ to refer to all the different attributes or dimensions with regard to which we differentiate in our responses to different stimuli.”  The mental events instead are “images, emotions, and abstract concepts.”

8. “By the term ‘effects’ we do not mean only, or even mainly, overt behaviour or peripheral responses, but shall include all the central nervous processes caused by the initial impulses, even though we may be able only indirectly to infer their existence” (Hayek 1952. 17-18).


of the central nervous system.  He is able to conclude that “the connexions between the physiological elements are... the primary phenomenon which creates the mental phenomenon” (1920, 8; 1952, 53).

In fact Hayek (1952, 1-2) has resolved one problem: that of the relation between physiological events and mental events, such as the sensory qualities.  This would seem to contradict his statement that he had found the solution to a problem that he had not yet been able to formulate.  Actually, there is no contradiction.  After 1920 Hayek realizes that the problem which he had solved constituted just one small step toward a complete solution of the “general problem” of the relation between mind and body or between mental and physical events.  Indeed, he has not yet managed to clarify the meaning of the antitheses “mind and body” and “mental and physical events.”  “These expressions... do not really make it clear what it is that we want to know.  Before we can successfully ask how two kinds of events are related to each other (or connected with each other), we must have a clear conception of the distinct attributes by which they can be distinguished” (1952, 1).

It is gestalt psychology that provides Hayek with the cue for continuing the research, even supplying him with pointers to an already explored avenue.


The Second Step

Having learned of the work of Köhler and Koffka, Hayek found that these authors approached the analysis of the sensations by assuming a different starting point from his.  Köhler and Koffka start from the observation that groups of physically different external stimuli are able to evoke the same sensory quality, and physically identical individual stimuli evoke different sensory qualities (Köhler 1947, 93-94, 120-21, 165).  The best examples to illustrate this starting point are the classic ones of gestalt psychology, mentioned by Hayek himself (1952, 13): the same melody is obtained by using different tones and the same shapes or figures are characterized by different sizes and colors.

It follows from this formulation of the analysis of sensations that the first question to be answered is: Why do the objects of the external world affect our senses in a similar or dissimilar way independently of their physical characteristics?  Or to put it more simply: Why do things appear to us as they do?  The Berlin school shows first of all that the same isolated stimulus affects our senses in different ways depending on the


context in which it is set.  In other words, our sense organs are not affected by isolated stimuli but by “patterns of stimuli.”  Second, not only can perception not be considered the product of a special local stimulation, but neither can it be considered the product of a “mosaic” of sensations.  An example of Koffka’s can help us to understand the meaning of these two propositions: “When I see a table, this table qua table does not affect my senses at all; they are affected by processes which have their origin in the sun or an artificial source of light, and which are only modified by the table before they excite the rods and cones in our retinae...  The retinae receive a pattern of excitations, and it can make no difference to the retinae how these excitations have been produced.  If, without a table and even without light (for instance, by electrical stimulation of the rods and cones), we could produce the same pattern of excitation with the same curvature of the lenses which is ordinarily produced on our retinae when we fixate a table, then the person on whose retinae these excitations were produced should and would see a table” (Koffka 1935, 79-80; Köhler 1947, 198-99).  Köhler and Koffka therefore conclude that perception is the result of a process of organization, and they add that, as there is no organization at all among stimuli that affect a sensory organ, the process of organization cannot but be “a characteristic action of the nervous system” (Koffka 1935, 99, 378-79; Köhler 1947, 153-72, 196-99, 236-37).  Therefore, their response to the question of why things appear to us as they do is: because of a process of organization performed by the central nervous system.  Despite the different starting point and the different formulation of the problem to be solved, it has to be said that the Berlin school obtains a result that is fully consistent with the Hayekian thesis according to which the sensory qualities can be defined solely in terms of connections between the physiological elements.

The Berlin school’s formulation of the analysis of sensory perception also gives rise to a second significant consequence for the mind-body problem (Koffka 1935, 76-80) that remained hidden in Hayek’s research.  The external events, when they act as stimuli, evoke in the perceiving subject similar or dissimilar sensory qualities independently of their physical characteristics.  It follows that the external events can be classified differently depending on whether the effects that they generate upon each other or the effects that they generate in the perceiving subject are considered.  We can say that in the first case they appear as physical events and in the second case as mental events.  As Hayek observes, this


distinction is an essential prerequisite for dealing with the mind-body problem, because it allows us to attribute a precise meaning to the antithetical terms to which the problem refers: mind and body, mental events and physical events.

Spurred by the results of the Berlin gestaltists, Hayek takes on this very task of clarifying the nature of the mind-body problem.  On the one hand, he can refer to his proposition, confirmed by the research of Köhler and Koffka, that there is a formal correspondence between the neural order and the mental order, [9] and, on the other hand, to the conclusion of gestalt psychology that the objects of the external world do not differ in their effects upon our senses in the same way in which they differ in their effects upon each other.

Now it is clear that “body” is any event “defined exclusively in terms of (its) relations” with other events (Hayek 1952, 174) [10] while “mind” is that “particular order of a set of events taking place in some organism and in some manner related to but not identical with, the physical order of events in the environment” (Hayek 1952, 16, 19; italics added).

One is immediately struck by the dual nature of the relation that Hayek establishes between “mind” and “body.”  On one side, the mental order “is related to the physical order” because Hayek has already demonstrated its formal correspondence with the neural order, which forms part of the physical order: it is hardly necessary to dwell on the fact that Hayek has established this relation before having clarified the

9. In both Beiträge and in The Sensory Order Hayek maintains that it not possible to establish a one-to-one correspondence between physiological and psychical elements, but only to affirm that “the relations of [the neural order] must strictly reproduce the relations prevailing in the [sensory order]” (Hayek 1952, 37; 1920, 8-9).  The Berlin school makes a similar affirmation.  It is the principle of psychophysics isomorphism (equality of form or topological equivalence), formulated for the first time by Köhler in 1920 (Köhler 1920; 1947, 21-22, 61-62, 167-69, 344; Koffka 1935, 52-63, 67).  In The Sensory Order Hayek notes this similarity, but he also distances himself from the gestaltists.  He observes that the Berlin school seems to establish a structural correspondence not only between the mental order and the neural order, but also between the mental order and the physical order (Hayek 1952, 38-39).  This difference between Hayek and gestalt psychology is by no means secondary.  It precisely on the lack of isomorphism between the mental order and the physical order that Hayek grounds his thesis on the irreducibility of mental events to physical events from the gnoseological point of view, and rejects the thesis of the uniqueness of methodology for all the sciences, put forward in the 1920s by logical positivism: see below, “Some Epistemological Consequences.”

10. For Hayek, “an order of events is something different from the properties of the individual events...  An order involves elements plus certain relations between them” (Hayek 1952. 46-47).  Compare these definitions with the Berlin school definition of gestalt as an “organized whole:’ quoted above in the section titled “Cultural References Common to Hayek and Gestalt Psychology.”


terms of the mind-body problem, so his affirmation of having found the solution to a problem that is not yet properly stated is correct, however paradoxical this may seem.  On the other hand it is now clear that the mental order “is not identical” with the physical order, because in the latter the events are not classified on the basis of their effects upon each other, but on the basis of their effects upon our senses (Hayek 1952, 3-4, 14-16).


Some Epistemological Consequences

Due to his consideration of the gestaltists’ work, in The Sensory Order Hayek is able to explain his view on Mach more fully than he had been able to do in Beiträge.  As previously mentioned, as far back as 1920 Hayek had criticized Mach on the philosophical level, by challenging the assumption that the sensory elements are absolute entities (1920, 1-2, 8-9, 17-18).  Now to this criticism he can add another, much more important one, because it is at the root of his resolute opposition to the theory that all the sciences use the same methodology, put forward in the 1920s by logical positivism.

Just as he did in Beiträge (1920, 40-41), in The Sensory Order Hayek (1952, 177-78) compares the “dualistic” solutions of the mind-body problem, solutions that separate mind and body, mental events and physical events.  In particular he rejects the solutions proposed by the vitalists. [11]  By showing that there is a structural correspondence between the mental order and “a part” of the physical order (the neural order), Hayek rules out the hypothesis of a distinct mental substance and thus invalidates any “ultimate” dualism between mental and physical events.  In this respect he remains a genuine follower of Mach.

However, unlike what happens in Beiträge, in The Sensory Order Hayek must confine himself to rejecting the dualism between mind and body only from the ontological point of view.  But on the gnoseological level, that is, on the level of the “scientific explanation” of the events (Hayek 1952, 4, 173, 179), Hayek realizes that he cannot accept Mach’s neutral monism, according to which physical science and psychology use the same methodology on the same material. [12]  Instead he proposes

11. Also in this case similar criticism to that of Hayek can be found in Koffka 1935, 12-13.

12. More generally he refuses any monist solution: both that which assumes that the world appears to us as it does because it is like that, and the behaviorist one, which simply denies [the existence of the mind-body problem and maintains that psychology ought to confine itself to observed physical facts and to the study of bodily responses to physical stimuli.  As far as the first solution is concerned, Hayek (1952.176) quotes “the views expounded... by William James, John Dewey and the American realists and developed by Bertrand Russell.  The latters view… in fact explicitly based on the assumption that sensations are what common to the mental and the physical world.”  As regards the second solution. Hayek (1952. 25-30) makes criticisms that are similar to those of Köhler (1947, 13-30).]

HHC: [bracketed ] displayed on 147 page of the original.


a dualistic solution to the mind-body problem, that is, he states that the mental order is “an order which we ‘know’ in a way which is different from the manner in which we know the order of the physical universe around us” (1952, 178; italics added).

This means that for Hayek, in contrast to Mach and the logical positivists, the study of the physical order - that is, physics-and the study of the mental order - that is, psychology, but also the social sciences, whose object is the social consequences of human actions - differ in content and method.  They differ in content because, as the gestaltists hold, they express different classifications of events, and are therefore characterized by relations that cannot be compared: we cannot reduce “The whole of a person’s mind” to physical events, and “to us a particular human action can [never] be recognizable as the necessary result of a particular set of physical circumstances” (Hayek 1952, 193).  They differ in method because, again as the gestaltists maintain, physics starts from the events as these appear to us and classifies them on the basis of their relations to each other, independently of how the individual perceives them, while, conversely, psychology and the social sciences start from events defined in physical terms and classify them in accordance with how they appear to us and the actions that they induce individuals to perform (Hayek 1952, 7-8; [1943] 1948, 65-67).

Ultimately, Hayek’s dualism does not consist in a clear separation between body and mind, but it refers to a whole - the organism complete with central nervous system - that can be known in both its mental and physical aspects, as long as we abandon the idea of “unifying all our knowledge” (1952, 179).



From the Gestalt School’s “Perceptual Organization” to Hayek’s “Primacy of the Abstract”

This section compares the approaches of Hayek and the gestalt psychologists in analyzing the relation between sensation and perception and in defining how the mind works.


New and Old Associationism

There is a second link between the results obtained by gestalt psychology and the contents of The Sensory Order.  As already mentioned, the Berlin school shows, first experimentally and then theoretically, that sensory perception is the result not of an association of independent stimuli, but of a process of selection and of organization of stimuli within a unit.  We intend to demonstrate here that this thesis helps Hayek to formulate his explanation of the operations of the mind and of the role of the mind in bringing about an action.  For Hayek, as for the Berlin school, the mind is not a passive receiver of sensations, but, on the contrary, an active instrument of organization and reorganization of the sensations: it is able to “perform abstract operations” before experiencing particular sensations.  From this conception of the mind as a selector and classifier of sensory qualities Hayek later develops the theory - which is also fundamental for his social theory - that the individual knows and acts under the guide of an abstract system of rules of conduct in continuous evolution.

According to associationism, the sense experiences consist of irreducible elements that possess definite and immutable properties, and it is possible to establish a one-to-one connection between stimuli, impulses, and sensory qualities. [l3]  Köhler and Koffka carry out a series of experiments and show not only that perception also includes the configuration (gestalt) or the particular order in which sense experiences present themselves, [14] but also that it is not possible to separate the effect of the pafticular configuration from the effects of the single sense experiences.  Ultimately, the configuration is not something that is simply added to the sense experiences, but, on the contrary, it determines their properties.  The sense experiences are determined only within a configuration, within the system of connections in which they are set.  Therefore it is nonsensical to assert that they have unchanging properties, and it is not

13. This the “constancy hypothesis.”  It provides that there an essentially firm connection between stimuli and mental events, in the sense that certain stimuli cause nervous impulses that reach preestablished receptors through preset paths and from there they follow other preset paths until they reach an effect or organ (Koffka 1935, 86-98; Köhler 1947, 112-24).  As Hayek (1952, 41) observes, Bertrand Russell also assumes this hypothesis.

14. See above, the section titled “Cultural References Common to Hayek and Gestalt Psychology,” for some examples of the experiments that confirm the findings of the theoretic research of gestalt psychology.


possible to analyze them independently from their reciprccal interconnections (Köhler 1947, 67-69; Koffka 1935, 25-26, 96-105, 310-11).

Now the meanings of sensory perception and sensation are transformed.  The sensory perception cannot be understood as the result of a mosaic of sense experiences, as an adding up of predefined sense experiences.  On the contrary, it is a process of organization of the sense experiences themselves.  The sensory qualities, in turn, are not given independently of the perceiving subject, but they assume properties that depend on the perceptive context in which they find themselves (i.e., they are relationally determined).  Köhler and Koffka invert the relation between sensation and perception: “sensation is understood from the point of view of perception, instead of the other way round” (Koffka 1914, 711; Köhler 1947, 67-69, 91-111, 160-69).

This is such an important result that it influences all subsequent research of theoretical psychology, a fact of which Hayek is fully aware.  “The fact that relations between the parts of the total sensory situation, which individually may be quite unlike each other, may yet be recognized as similar, of course, is the most general aspect of the problem of gestalt...  That in perception we do not merely add together given sensory elements, and that complex perceptions possess attributes which cannot be derived from the discernible attributes of the separate parts, is one of the conclusions most strongly emphasized by practically all recent developments in psychology” (Hayek 1952,76).  The Berlin school opposes the associationism of that time, which considers the associative processes of the mind as simple chains of stimuli, impulses, and sensory qualities.  It suggests that both the sensory perception and the operations of thinking “do not occur piecemeal but are effects of organization and reorganization” (Asch 1968, 163).  Asscciations are not successions of particular sensory qualities, which are produced by specific impulses evoked by other specific impulses and so on, but are the result of configurations (gestalten) of many impulses, each of which supports the others and whose influence on the course of the process cannot be evaluated separately.


Hayek’s “Pre-sensory Experience”

The gestaltists’ thesis that perception is a process of organization of the sensations and that the sensory qualities are relationally determined within the “organized perceptual field” (Koffka 1935, 96-105, 371-378;


Köhler 1947, 160-69) plays a crucial role in the development of Hayek’s way of thinking.  Hayek uses his study of the gestaltists’ concept of “organized perceptual field” to develop his research on what guides the individual’s knowledge and, consequently, the evolution of society.  Adopting this concept and striving to give it a more precise meaning, he significantly advances both his own theoretical psychology and his social theory, and he establishes in advance the bases for firmly linking them together.

Commenting on the concept of the “organized perceptual field” (Hayek 1952, 77-78, 153), Hayek notes that gestalt psychology identifies the organizing role of perception, but it does not ask what determines the “organizing capacity” of the mind, or, more concretely, what shapes the network of connections of the neural order (Hayek [1969] 1978, 37-39).  Hayek gives a lot of space to this problem in The Sensory Order (chapters 5-7), and he resolves it by resorting to the idea that the apparatus of the nervous system, which organizes the impulses and makes distinctions of sensory qualities possible, is “a kind of pre-sensory experience.”  To explain his mode of thought he uses the concept of “linkage,” that is, a connection of any new concrete experiences to previous experiences (1952, 165-66).  Faced with groups of stimuli, the central nervous system discriminates between them, organizes them, and gives them a meaning by resorting to previous experiences that took place in the evolution of the individual and especially in the evolution of the species (1952, 102-3).  The organism learns to discriminate between stimuli and assigns to external events a meaning - a “mental” significance – “before any discriminations are yet possible” (104), that is, before the organism perceives an event or a group of events in the external world.  In other words, the process of experience begins in the nervous system and not with sensations or perceptions: the arrangement of physiological events into an order - the neural order - precedes any sensory experiences.  The sensory qualities of a class of events are attributes that the organism has learned to assign to the events of this class “on the basis of the past associations of (them) with certain other classes of events” (166) [15]

These comments of Hayek can be read as the completion of the battle that gestalt psychology had successfully waged against the idea of an

15. Beiträge already deals with this issue, but in more general terms (Hayek 1920, 2-3, 11, 16, 38, 40).  On the problems of the experience of the external events and of the relation between experience and knowledge, see Dempsey 1996a, Butos 1997, and Butos and Koppl 1997.


invariable core of pure sensations and against the mosaic theory of perception.  Hayek shows here that the immediate experiences, which are normally considered “concrete” phenomena, are in fact mental events, and that they present a degree of abstraction which is analogous to that possessed by so-called abstract concepts obtained by the higher mental processes.  The nervous system attributes to external events sensory qualities that are independent of their physical properties, and it “interprets” them as a function of that same presensory apparatus with which it elaborates abstract concepts, independently of any immediate experience.  “There thus exists little justification for any sharp contrast between the ‘concrete’ picture supplied by sense perception and the ‘abstractions’ [obtained] by the higher mental processes” (Hayek 1952, 144); in other words, “all we know about the world is of the nature of theories” (143). [16]

Hayek adds that the framework of presensory experience to which the organism refers to classify and interpret the external events is not fixed but is subject to reorganizations.  “Whenever the expectations resulting from the existing classifications are disappointed, or when beliefs so far held are disproved by new experiences,” the classification of external events performed by the central nervous system on the basis of past linkages does not work, and a reclassification is performed, aimed at eliminating the inconsistencies (1952, 169).  However, the ordering principles that are implicit in the means through which sensory experiences are obtained do not change. [17]

These are the essential outlines of the complex construction that Hayek presents in The Sensory Order to explain the process of perception and of the formation of knowledge.  They have been mentioned here just to draw elements that facilitate comprehension of the relation between Hayek and gestalt psychology. [18]  Following the Berlin school Hayek reverses the relation between sensation and perception and reaffirms that perception is a process of organization of the sensations that precedes the sensations themselves.  In this way he sides with the Berlin

16. The last quote continues: “and all ‘experience’ can do is to change these theories.”  Similar views can be found already in Hayek [1941-44] 1952, 83, 83 n. 3.

17. Hayek adds that in this way the organism secures its continued existence.  It worth emphasizing that Koffka (1935, 308-10, 368-69) defines the organism and deals with the adaptation of the organism to the environment in a similar way to Hayek.

18. It not possible to put forward critical observations here, but just to subscribe to Smith’s thesis (1997, 22), that both Hayek and the gestaltists have “no means of drawing a clear distinction between intentionality as a matter of reflection (or isomorphism’) and intentionality as a matter of ‘consciousness’ or ‘aboutness’ in the sense of Brentano and his followers.”


school against the empiricist thesis, which holds that our knowledge derives from immediate sense experience (Hayek 1952, 106, 172).  But Hayek goes further and grounds the perception on a presensory experience.  At this point his relation with both gestalt psychology and empiricism gets more complicated.  Indeed, on the one hand he radicalizes the anti-empiricist position of the Berlin school, because he manages to attribute an “abstract” character to sensory qualities. [19]  On the other hand, as he himself observes, he puts himself in “irreconcilable contrast to the strongly anti-empiricist attitude of the Gestalt school” (1952, 106) and can proclaim himself an empiricist, because he explains the structure of relations that at the level of the central nervous system give meaning to sensory experiences by referring to the past experience of the species. [20]

This ambivalence or duplicity in Hayek’s approach to gestalt psychology is proof that there is an unresolved tension between empiricism and anti-empiricism within the theory of the process of the formation of knowledge set out in The Sensory Order. [21]  Hayek is aware of it and he later comes back to the concept of presensory experience to flesh out its content.  The developments that take place in his social theory in the meantime provide him with the material for a clarification.



Hayek’s Theory of Mind and His Theory of Society: To and Fro from One to the Other

The influence of gestalt psychology on Hayek’s thought was not limited to the rewriting of The Sensory Order between 1920 and 1952, but extended to later years as well, when Hayek elaborates his theory of the spontaneous social order.


Gestalt Phenomenon and Hayek’s Social Theory

We have shown that Hayek devotes attention to gestalt psychology in the interval between Belträge and The Sensory Order.  The Berlin school’s

19. See below, the section titled “The Rules ofAction.”

20. “So far as experience in the narrow sense, i.e., conscious sensory experience, meant, it is then clearly not true that all that we know is due to such experience.  Experience of this kind would rather become possible only after experience in the wider sense of linkages has created the order of sensory qualities - the order which determines the qualities of the constituents of conscious experience” (Hayek 1952. 167).

21. Many commentators have emphasized this tension by studying Hayek from different perspectives than the one adopted in this article: for example Kukathas 1990 has shown that Humean and Kantian influences coexist in Hayen thought.


theories influence the Hayekian formulation of the mind-body problem, the distinction between mental events and physical events, and the explanation of sensory perception and of the process of knowledge formation.  We have also referred to the fact that Hayek takes cues from gestalt psychology to formulate his conception of the methodology of the social sciences as distinct from the methodology of the physical sciences.

But gestalt psychology’s influence does not manifest itself only in The Sensory Order, nor only with regard to the problems of theoretical psychology.  Actually, Hayek refers to the gestalt phenomena - to the configurations as organized wholes - for the first time in his writings of 1941-44, dealing with the methodology of the social sciences (Hayek [1941-44] 1952). [22]  Thereafter he refers to the gestalt phenomena in The Sensory Order as well as in his writings of the 1960s on social theory.  It is well known that Hayek’s social theory required a very long gestation time.  It results from his reading of authors such as Hume, Adam Ferguson, Mandeville, Smith, Friedrich Karl von Savigny, and Carl Menger, but also from his attention to the contemporary developments of epistemology, social philosophy, and political theory.  It would seem, however, that the theories of the gestaltists played a continuous role in Hayek’s elaboration of other people’s ideas into his own original social theory.

In short, the gestalt phenomena represent a persistent reference point for Hayek.  We will now show that Hayek referred to them to formulate and resolve two basic problems in the context of his theory of the spontaneous social order: (1) How does an individual classify other people’s actions and give them a meaning in order to decide what action to take? (2) What makes it possible to coordinate the actions of many individuals who have a partial and personal knowledge of the actual circumstances in which they act (Hayek [1965] 1967, 91-92)? [23]

22. Here Hayek is influenced by gestalt psychology in two respects.  First, he states that events can be classified differently depending on whether they are considered as physical events or mental events (Hayek [1941-44] 1952, 79-80).  Second, he identifies sensory perceptions and abstract concepts (83, 83 n. 3).

23. Here Hayek claims to have clearly perceived both questions in “Economics and Knowledge” ([1937] 1948), but to have found the solution only in the 1960s.  In the meantime he gave a decisive impulse to their solution, because he put together the results obtained in the theory of the mind and in the analysis of the characteristics of the liberal society.  The fundamental works to which he refers are the essays of 1941-44 (The Counterrevolution of Science), The Road to Serfdom (1944), and The Sensory Order (1952).  As is well known, Hayek’s spontaneous order was the unintended product of the independent actions of many individuals and not a “designed” or planned order.


The Perception of Patterns in Other People’s Actions as Gestalt Perception

The first question is important within the theory of spontaneous order because every individual must assign a meaning to other people’s actions to be able to communicate with them, set themselves objectives, and decide what action to take in order to meet those objectives, taking the actual circumstances into account.  Attaching a meaning to other people’s actions involves, according to Hayek, grasping their aspects of regularity (that is, recognizing a recurring pattern) and classifying them as instances of a certain kind.  The only classification criterion that the individual possesses is a criterion of conformity with the rules and patterns to which he himself is accustomed: “The perceiving individual’s own action patterns provide the master moulds by which the action patterns of other individuals are recognized” (Hayek [1962] 1967, 57). [24]

Hayek presents the perception of other people’s actions with the typical features of gestalt perception, even though the terms he employs are different from those of the gestalt school.  He attributes to the individual a capacity for recognizing “patterns,” a capacity that is actually the same as the gestalt school’s capacity for recognizing “configurations” ([1962] 1967, 45).  From the point of view of the content of the respective theories, the similarity is striking.

According to both Hayek and the Berlin school, the individual attaches a meaning to other people’s actions on the basis of a perceptual pattern that is already present in his mind before every experience.  In other words, the individual is able to discover patterns in other people’s actions only after the patterns have been constructed by his mind.  For the gestalt school, this means that perception precedes sensation; for Hayek, this means that the perception of other people’s actions, just like any type of perception, involves a “theory.”

In addition, Hayek persistently stresses that by observing other people’s actions the individual recognizes moods or dispositions and classifies every action on the basis of those moods or dispositions, while he is “unaware both of the elements of which [the] patterns are made up and of the manner in which they are related” ([1962] 1967, 48, 51-52,

24. See also Hayek [1962] 1967, 43, 45, 55.  On p. 51 Hayek recalls that according to his theory of the mind,” “‘classifying’ stands here, of course, for a process of channeling, or switching, or ‘gating,’ of the nervous impulses so as to produce a particular disposition or set.  The effect of perceiving that events occur according to a rule will thus be that another rule imposed upon the further course of the processes in the nervous system.”


55).  This coincides with the gestalt psychology’s thesis that our perception is normally the perception of configurations and not of the elements of which they are composed.

Moreover, Hayek maintains that the recognition of the actions of others provides the individual with the “data” on the basis of which he decides his own response.  This means that, ultimately, the meaning of other people’s actions rests on the set of rules that the organism imposes upon its further activities in response to what it has perceived.  Here we find the idea of an interplay or “circular connection between action patterns and perception patterns” that Hayek himself presented as a typical characteristic of gestalt psychology ([1962] 1967, 57-58 n. 41).

Finally, Hayek observes that, since we recognize a correspondence between patterns made up of different elements, there must be a mechanism in our mind that allows us to transfer an order from one perceptual field to another.  He adds that an adequate account of how such a transfer is brought about is lacking, but he refers expressly to the concept of “transposition” used by the Berlin school to express the possibility that configurations which consist of completely different elements perceived as identical (Hayek 1952, 48-50). [25]

In short, there are many reasons to hold that Hayek considered gestalt psychology when he faced and resolved the problem of how an individual classifies other people’s actions.  This does not take from the fact that Hayek made important progress on the route indicated by gestalt psychology, because he re-elaborates its concepts and its theses, interpreting them in the light of the various intellectual stimuli that he seeks and finds around himself.  In the case in hand, a fundamental role is played by the distinction proposed by Gilbert Ryle (1949) between “know how” and “know that.”  The gestalt school’s theory - that we perceive configurations but we cannot point out the elements from which we recognize them-is thus transformed into the conclusion that we “understand” another person’s action but we do not “know” that action; we give it a meaning but we are unaware of “what” that meaning is, because we classify it into abstract categories but we are not able to specify the elements that constitute it. [26]

25. On the concept of transposition for gestalt psychology, see Koffka 1915; Köhler 1947, 198-205.

26. The comparison between the concept of “knowing how” or “skills” and the concept of “knowing” and “knowing that” or “ability to specify, discursively to describe, to verbalize”: [“The most striking instance of the phenomenon from which we shall start is the ability of small children to use language in accordance with the rules of grammar and idiom of which they are wholly unaware...  The phenomenon a very comprehensive one and includes all that we call skills...  It is characteristic of these skills that we are usually not able to state explicitly (discursively) the manner of acting which is involved...  So far as we are able to describe the character of such skills we must do so by stating the rules governing the actions of which the actors will usually be unaware... the ‘know how’ consists in the capacity to act according to rules which we may be able to discover but which we need not be able to state in order to obey them... the capacity of the child to understand various meanings of sentences expressed by the appropriate grammatical structure provides the most conspicuous example of the capacity of rule-perception.  Rules which we cannot state thus do not govern only our actions.  They also govern our perceptions... of other people’s actions.  The child who speaks grammatically without knowing the rules of grammar not only understands all the shades of meaning expressed by others through following the rules of grammar, but may also be able to correct a grammatical mistake in the speech of others” (Hayek [1962] 1967, 43-45).  See also Hayek [1962] 1967, 51-52; 1952. 19, 39.]

HHC: [bracketed ] displayed on 156 page of the original.


The Rules of Action and the Connection between Hayek’s Social Theory and His Theory of the Mind

As we have seen, an individual’s action and perception are governed by the same patterns or rules. [27]  On the basis of the principle of the rule-guided action, Hayek also answers the second question previously posed: How is it possible to coordinate the economic activity of individuals who have partial and personal knowledge of the real circumstances in which they act?

As Hayek ([1965] 1967, 91-92) himself recounts, this problem arose during the drafting of Economics and Knowl edge in 1937, and he found a satisfactory solution only due to the fact that in the early 1940s he had reexamined the “age-old concept of freedom under the law.” [28]  In this

27. In Hayek’s thought, rules are not something that provide a precise or even univocal signal for action, but rather “certain routine ways of achieving the object.”  The rules are definable as regularities or customs or habits, as long as one excludes any specificity in the use of these terms.  Moreover, the rules do not indicate to the individual what he should do, but rather “determine or limit the range of possibilities within which the choice is made consciously”; they act only as a restraint on actions “determining what (an individual) will not do rather than what he will do.”  See Hayek [1962] 1967, 56-57; 1967b, 67, 69.

28. This happens in The Road to Serfdom.  In that work, Hayek maintains that in liberal society interpersonal relations are governed by rules, most of which are the result of a slow process of evolution and not of a deliberate intervention.  Because of this, no one is able to understand the specific content of the single rules and no one can modify them to attain particular objectives.  In this sense they are “universal” and they give rise to “right” conduct.  In a free society everyone enjoys “freedom wider the law,” or rather, protected from coercion by others.  Furthermore, the total amount of knowledge that formed in the society is much higher than the amount each individual possesses and this facilitates “the best use of the spontaneous forces.”  The first complete elaboration of the abstract system of rules of conduct is in The Constitution of Liberty; see Hayek 1960, 148-61.


“basic conception of traditional liberalism” lies the core of the concept of an abstract system of the rules of conduct that he elaborated much later on and on which he based not only the solution to the problem of coordination of economic activity, but all his subsequent research.  From the early 1960s the concept of an abstract system of the rules of conduct is the cornerstone and the unifying element of Hayek’s thought, both when he was studying the formation and evolution of the spontaneous order, and when he was revising the theory of the mind expressed in The Sensory Order.  Once again, we will confine ourselves here to seeing whether and in what sense Hayek’s acquaintance with gestalt psychology influenced such a significant aspect of his thought.

As is well known, Hayek distinguishes between the way in which the rules governing our perception and our actions are transmitted and the way in which they evolve.  The rules are transmitted from one individual to another, but the selection process takes place on a social level, that is, it is not affected by specific actions by any individual but only depends on the effects the rules have on the concrete social order.  The rules that are selected are those that prove to be more or less capable of guaranteeing the existence and preservation of society in the concrete circumstances in which individuals act (Hayek 1967b, 66-68).  It follows, on the one hand, that every member of the group perceives other people’s actions and acts on the basis of the same abstract system of rules of conduct, [29] and, on the other hand, that a rule can take on different meanings depending on the system of rules in which it is found, and it evolves in time in such a way as to keep itself coherent with that system of rules.  We note that in order to explain the selection and evolution of the rules of conduct, Hayek adopts a procedure that is identical to the one he adopted to explain the nature of the sensory qualities in The Sensory Order.  Just as the sensory qualities have features that are not absolute, but relationally determined within the neural order, [30] so each rule assumes a meaning only within the system of relations with other rules: “Any given rules of individual conduct may prove beneficial as part of one set of such rules, or in one set of external circumstances, and harmful as part of another set of rules or in another set of external circumstances” (Hayek 1967b, 70).  As we have seen, it was the Berlin school that gave

29. In this way at least the necessary condition for the coordination of individual actions is guaranteed.

30. See above, sections titled “Cultural References Common to Hayek and Gestalt Psychology” and “Hayek’s Pre-sensory Experience.”


Hayek the idea of this system perspective, based on the idea that it is the configurations (Gestalten) which give a meaning to the single elements and not vice versa.  It is true that at the time when Hayek elaborated his theory of the evolution of the spontaneous social order the problem of the relations between the whole and the parts was considered in many disciplines, but the fact remains that gestalt psychology contributed in a significant way to reintroducing the epistemological problem in the modern era. [31]

At the end of the 1960s Hayek used the concept of the abstract system of rules of conduct not only within his social theory, but also to solve a crucial problem in his theory of the mind elaborated almost twenty years earlier.  That is to say, he turned to the theoretical psychology of 1952 and in ‘The Primacy of the Abstract” showed that, faced with any kind of stimulus, the mind resorts to the abstract system of rules of conduct, which it finds already present in itself, to “specify” both the experienced events and the particular response to them.  The perception evokes rules, each of which defines a class of action, and the mind interprets the events and decides the action by combining different rules, in other words by combining “several dispositions towards patterns of action.” [32]

With this new formulation of the process underlying the action, Hayek goes beyond the concept of “pre-sensory experience,” present in The Sensory Order, to designate what it is that guides the individual in his acts of perception and knowledge.  The advancement can be discerned

31. Hayek himself stresses that in many fields of scientific research the abstract categories of classification are nowadays considered to come before the actual perceptions, and he interprets this tendency as a development of the potentiality inherent in the gestalt school theory (Hayek [1969] 1978, 37-39).

32. An example provided by Hayek helps to clarify his theory: “The particular movements of, say, a lion jumping on the neck of his prey, will be one of a range of movements in the determination of which account will be taken not only of direction, distance and speed of movement of the prey, but also of the state of the ground (whether smooth or rough, hard or soft), whether it is covered or open territory, the state of fitness of the lion’s various limbs - all being present as dispositions together with its disposition to jump.  Every one of these dispositions will refer not to a particular action but to attributes of any action to be taken while the dispositions in question last.  It will equally govern the lion’s action if it decides to slink away instead of jumping.  The difference between such a determination of an action and the unique response of what we usually call a mechanism when we pull a trigger or press a button. that each of the various signals ultimately determining the action of the organism at first activates merely a tendency towards one of a range of in some respect equivalent movements; and it will be the overlapping of many generic instructions (corresponding to different ‘considerations’) which will select a particular movement” (Hayek [1969] 1978, 40-41).


from lexical [33] and substantial points of view. [34]  Relying on the concept of an abstract system of rules of conduct, Hayek underlines the abstract character of the operations of the mind and their primacy over the perception of the concrete particulars more effectively than when he used the concept of the presensory experience.  Now he assumes a position that is closer to the anti-empiricism of the gestalt school at least from the lexical point of view, [35] and he manages to attenuate the impression of an unresolved tension between empiricism and anti-empiricism that he had created in The Sensory Order.  But, above all, Hayek shows that an identical system of rules of conduct gives rise to a range of actions as diverse as the various combinations of the rules.  The idea that “even a relatively limited repertory of abstract rules that can... be combined into particular actions will be capable of ‘creating’ an almost infinite variety of particular actions” (Hayek [1969] 1978,48-49; [1962] 1967, 58-60; 1967b, 72,78-81), calls to mind the concept of the gestalt phenomenon that manifests itself as a system of virtually infinite connections of local stimuli.

It must be concluded that the relation between Hayek and gestalt psychology is, at least from the end of the 1930s on, continuous, and that the theories of the Berlin school do not only influence the composition of The Sensory Order, but they form the basis of Hayek’s thinking, integrating in an original way with other cultural stimuli that he receives over time.

One last point of contact between Hayek and gestalt psychology should be mentioned.  Dealing briefly with the relation between the individual and society, Koffka observes that it is gestalt-like in nature, in the sense that the process of transformation of the society influences the individual’s action: customs, conventions, modes of thought, and so forth constitute the framework that gives meaning to the individual’s action, just as “a melody, the whole, entirely determines its own members.”  Yet there is a fundamental difference: while “in the composer’s mind the tones do not exist prior to or independently of the melody,”

33. It must be remembered that already in the 1940s, Hayek had used expressions such as “the various resultants of the social process,” “the knowledge of successive generations and of millions of people living simultaneously,” and “the general rules, couched in terms of immediately ascertainable circumstances” (Hayek [1941-44] 1952, 163).

34. Contrary to what Butos 1997 and Butos and Koppl 1997 assert, Hayek does not refer to the abstract rules of conduct in The Sensory Order, but in the writings of the 1960s.

35. On the anti-empiricism of the Berlin school, see Köhler 1947, 72-93.


the members of the social group “are not completely determined by the group.”  Society, in other words, is certainly a gestalt phenomenon, but “not of the strongest Gestalt type possible” (Koffka 1935, 650).  Hayek transforms these vague propositions into a theory of the evolution of society, in which the individual has a mind that is “embedded” in a system of abstract rules of conduct that constrains it (Hayek 1979, 155-56,166), but he maintains a margin of “creativity” in the process of the transformation of society, in the sense that he decides his actions on the basis of his personal knowledge, which is at least partly distinguishable from that of every other individual (Hayek [1943] 1948, 66-67; [1962] 1967, 58-60). [36]  In short, with his social theory, Hayek fulfills Koffka’s wish that the comprehension of the individual action and the comprehension of social phenomena should proceed together in a dynamic perspective of interaction (Koffka 1935, 648).

36. On the “subtle tension of forces inducing novelty and those restraining novelty” in Hayek’s theory, see Butos 1997, 229; Smith 1997, 22-23; Rethman 1997, 33; and Carabelli and De Vecchi 2001, 240-42.



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