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History of Political Economy 35.1 (2003) 135-162
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The Place of Gestalt Psychology in the Making of Hayek's Thought
Nicolò De Vecchi
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 ( 1948;  1948); to his idea that competition was a process of discovery, that is, that competition transmits personal knowledge throughout the economy ( 1978); and to his belief that social phenomena are complex phenomena, that they are overall structures possessing distinct characteristic properties independent of the particular properties of the elements that compose them ( 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 [End Page 135] 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 social 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 phenomena 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 [End Page 136] take place...