Calling all Cartesians

Readers, respond: Did Descartes ever argue that all useful human institutions are products of "conscious reason"?

By , Guest blogger

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    17th-century philosopher Rene Descartes is best known saying, "Cogito, ergo sum." I think, therefore I am.
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Or at least all students of Descartes works. My situation:

I am trying to write a review of Vernon Smith’s Rationality in Economics. (No easy task: I think I’m going to have to read a book on auctions in the process.) In any case, I came across him quoting Hayek saying: “Descartes contended that all the useful human institutions were and ought to be deliberate creation(s) of conscious reason…” (p. 26). This is sourced to Hayek (1967: 85). And there, indeed, Hayek says that — but with no reference to where Descartes claimed this. Now, I happened to be researching The Discourse on Method recently, and I said:

“Descartes was cautious enough to add caveats to his programme, such as declaring, for instance, ‘Thus my purpose here is not to teach the method that everyone ought to follow in order to conduct his reason correctly, but merely to show how I have tried to conduct mine’ (1993: 2). But Descartes’s modesty here was not embraced by his epigones; as Oakeshott put it, ‘the Rationalist character may be seen springing from the exaggeration of Bacon’s hopes and the neglect of the scepticism of Descartes: modern Rationalism is what commonplace minds made out of the inspiration of men of discrimination and genius’ (1991 [1962]: 22).”

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Descartes later adds: “That is why I could in no way approve those cloudy and unquiet spirits who, being called neither by birth nor fortune to the handling of public affairs, are forever reforming the State in imagination; and, if I thought that there was the least thing in what I have written to bring me under suspicion of such folly, I should deeply regret its publication.”

So here, far from holding his rationalist techniques should always be applied to social institutions, Descartes seems to warn us that they have no place there at all! (He also gives further arguments to this effect, as I recall.)

But, there are wheels within wheels! When I looked at the Hayek quote in its context more carefully (at first I just looked for a reference) it became apparent that Smith chopped the Hayek quote in an odd place while extracting it — what Hayek says is that “the new rationalism of Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes and particularly René Descartes contended that all the useful human institutions were and ought to be deliberate creation of conscious reason…” So while in Smith’s version it is “clear” that Hayek attributes the social constructivist view to Descartes, in the original it is attributed to Cartesian rationalism, and perhaps not Descartes personally.

So, did Descartes ever say anything suggesting the view Smith assigns to him? And did Hayek mean to assign that view to Descartes, or was it only Smith’s editing that did so?

In any case, I’m hoping someone else has read Descartes’ entire collected works, so I don’t have to do that as well to finish my review!

SPECIAL BONUS FOR THINK MARKETS READERS: Much of the above was cross-posted at Crash Landing. But here is the bonus quiz for TM readers: In the same work, Hayek writes: “so far as economics is concerned, in England… a list of her great economists, if we leave out only two major figures, might readily be taken for a list of her great philosophers…”

So, without looking at the list that follows, who do you think Hayek would choose to leave out as being great English economists but not great English philosophers?

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