Critical Review, Volume 19, Issue 1, January 2007 Jeffrey Friedman

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Critical Review, Volume 19, Issue 1, January 2007
Jeffrey Friedman

Ignorance as a Starting Point: From Modest Epistemology to Realistic Political Theory



The volume number is a lagging indicator,1 but Critical Review was founded 20 years ago. As we enter our third decade, I am pleased to report that Routledge, storied publisher of the two most important influences on Critical Review - Austrian philosopher Karl Popper and Austrian economist F. A. Hayek - will now be marketing the journal, affording scholars and students around the world searchable electronic access to two decades of "content." This seems, then, to be an appropriate time for a stocktaking of that content, one that might also serve as an introduction to the journal for new readers.

When I started Critical Review I was animated, in part, by a dim recognition that Hayek and Popper shared more than Viennese origins. While Popper was a social democrat and Hayek was a classical liberal, both of them were profound theorists of the causes and consequences of human ignorance of a complex world.

Popper's own starting point was our ignorance of the natural world, and the resulting errors in our scientific theories. But as Hayek recognized, ignorance is an even more appropriate starting point when it comes to the study of human behavior. For one thing, human behavior is (sometimes) governed by human minds, and the human mind's attempts to understand the world - whether natural or social - are relatively unpredictable (e.g., Hayek 1952; Popper [1957] 1991). On top of that, Hayek argued, the social scientist must allow for endless variations in personal knowledge - and in people's interpretations of what they think they know.

Hayek emphasized interpersonal differences in knowledge and interpretation because those are what he saw in economic life: different consumers with knowledge of what they think they each need; entrepreneurs with varying "local" knowledge of what they think will suit consumers' felt needs. Hayek's perspective, especially when married to a Popperian emphasis on the conjectural nature of knowledge, sculpts a Homo economicus - and a Homo politicus, I think - that have little in common with the orthodox neoclassical model of the all-knowing, isolated rational chooser.

If knowledge is interpersonally variable then we must allow, at the very least, for interpersonal forms of ignorance, too: one person may not know what another knows. And if the world is complicated enough, or simply vast enough, that people can be ignorant of some of its aspects, surely it is complex enough or vast enough that they can also be mistaken about parts of it. If knowledge is conjectural, however, experimentation (both scientific and economic) may discover truths that correct people's mistakes. Thus, markets and science may be imperfect processes of ignorance alleviation through error correction. Finally, if experiments are tests of interpretations, then people may not only be knowledgeable, ignorant, or mistaken about discrete facts or "data," but about theories of how facts cause and affect each other - and, therefore, about how best to draw conceptual lines around "the" facts; and about which facts are important to know.

As for Homo economicus's social isolation: theories and interpretations originate in human minds, but most people are relatively passive consumers of theories and interpretations developed by other people. My adoption of someone else's theory, while perhaps a random matter of which theories I happen to encounter and find initially persuasive, is, on the other hand, not completely unpredictable (at least if I am a member of a group to which the law of large numbers can be applied). The heuristics that I use to assess persuasiveness must either be genetically wired or culturally imbibed. And my theoretical views must be constrained not only by the heuristics that I use to assess persuasiveness, but by the fact that I live in a specific place and time, where some theories are readily available to me and others - having been forgotten, unpublicized, discredited, or not yet invented - are not. It would seem, then, that a logical culmination of the Hayek-Popper view is to place great weight on the importance, the potential mistakenness, and the interpersonal transmission of theories: i.e., on culture. The vagaries of culture add yet another layer of complexity to social science, above and beyond the complexity facing the natural scientist.

Naturally and culturally acquired ideas and interpretations, each of them as fallible as the people who - starting out ignorant - need to acquire them if they are to try to understand a complex world: this is standard post-Renaissance epistemology. Yet even as the humanities have left conventional epistemology behind, confusing epistemic sophistication with "postmodern" skepticism,2 the social sciences have gone in the opposite direction, essentially reviving Plato by assuming, implicitly (few would be so foolish as to believe it explicitly), that people have godlike knowledge of everything they need to know - having forgotten, as it were, only what it is "rational" for them to ignore. The Cartesian cogito is no triumph for these rational-choice masters of the universe, who not only know that they exist, but who know all the other things that are useful to know, excluding only the "information" whose benefits (they somehow know) would not justify the costs of learning it.

Descartes, by contrast, thought that all claims to knowledge should be questioned, because naturally and culturally perceived truths can be illusory. Descartes led to Hume, thence to Kant and Popper. Kant and Popper led to Hayek (Gray 1984; Clouatre 1987). Not surprisingly, then, Popper and Hayek were both keenly interested in ignorance and error, and in biological and scientific (and, in Hayek's case, economic) evolutionary processes by which ignorance can be overcome, errors corrected, and knowledge acquired.3

In hindsight, the papers published in our early volumes seem to have succeeded rather well in asking about the implications of the Popper-Hayek presumption of ignorance.4 Good answers, however, were not immediately forthcoming. It turned out that grasping the implications of ignorance required a great deal of ground clearing (an effort that continues).5 And as the ground cleared, it became apparent that something was missing: a bridge between, on the one hand, Popper's ignorance-centric philosophy of science and Hayek's ignorance-centric economics; and, on the other hand, politics.

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