Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Friedrich Hayek and the Fallacy of Knowledge Management

One of the things that makes reading Friedrich Hayek fun is that he is not shy in his use of polemic. This is particularly delightful when he attacks a belief that was popular in his time that turns out to have been picked up and evangelized in our own. As may be clear from some of my past posts about Hayek, he took the topic of knowledge very seriously; and, as a result, I suspect that, had he encountered anyone who would have dared to propose a phrase like "knowledge management," he would have unleashed no end of vituperation against that poor soul.

Indeed, we can get a flavor of what he might have said in his "Scientism and the Study of Society" essay. His actual target is the proposition that the proper application of scientific thinking can eventually lead to conscious control of the individual mind, which is not too far from the claims of our latter day knowledge management evangelists. Hayek packs a fair amount of his response into this one (somewhat extended) paragraph:

The full significance of this demand for universal conscious control will be seen most clearly if we consider it first in its most ambitious manifestation, even though this is as yet merely a vague aspiration and important mainly as a symptom: this is the application of the demand for conscious control to the growth of the human mind itself. This audacious idea is the most extreme result to which man has yet been led by the success of reason in the conquest of external nature. It has become a characteristic feature of contemporary thought and appears in what on a first view seem to be altogether different and even opposite systems of ideas. Whether it is the late L. T. Hobhouse who hold up to us "the ideal of a collective humanity self-determining in its progress as the supreme object of human activity and the final standard by which the laws of conduct should be judged", or Dr. Joseph Needham who argues that "the more control consciousness has over human affairs, the more truly human and hence super-human man will become", whether it is the strict followers of Hegel who adumbrate the master's view of Reason becoming conscious of itself and taking control of its fate, or Dr. Karl Mannheim who thinks that "man's thought has become more spontaneous and absolute than it ever was, since it now perceived the possibility of determining itself", the basic attitude is the same. Though, according as these doctrines spring from Hegelian or positivist views, those who hold them form distinct groups who mutually regard themselves as completely different from and greatly superior to the other, the common idea that the human mind is, as it were, to pull itself up by its own boot-straps, springs from the same general approach: the belief that by studying human Reason from the outside and as a whole we can grasp the laws of its motion in a more complete and comprehensive manner than by its patient exploration from the inside, by actually following up the processes in which individual minds interact.

Hayek was far from the first to appreciate the distinction between the objective world of his "scientism" and the social world. I have even gone so far as to suggest that Immanuel Kant's three "critiques" can be seen as examinations of the objective (pure reason), subjective (judgment), and social (practical reason) worlds. However, Hayek certainly applied more rhetorical flourish to pursuing distinctive features of the social world than most of his predecessors!

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