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‘It thinks’ – Wieser, Mach & Hayek on the psychological foundations of order

Steffestun Theresa, University of Lausanne

“’It thinks, one should say, like one says, it flashes. To say, cogito, is already to much as soon as one translates it with ‘I think’.” Georg Christoph Lichtenberg This paper traces the commonalities between Friedrich Wieser’s social theory and Friedrich A. Hayek’s concept of the spontaneous order by looking at their respective concepts of mind. Due to the importance both attribute to the psychology of perception and due to their shared reference to Ernst Mach, the psychologist is included as an interlocutor. I will first explain how Friedrich Wieser and Ernst Mach both describe the mind as a sensorimotor, mostly unconscious network of associations determining individual perception, interpretation, and action. Both Austrians are concerned with dissolving substantialist notions of the human being by introducing an associationist account of the human mind. This psychological turn is based on a psychology of perception inspired among others by 19th century Psychophysics. Concepts of ‘the will’ or ‘the consciousness’ (the ‘I’) that are often considered as central unifying and decisive powers, make way for mostly unconscious networks of associated representations of reality (the ‘it’). The idea of an independent, self-conscious individual is replaced by the concept of an interdependent set of mental associations that attains its individuality through its unique historical embeddedness. In other words: the Cartesian insight, ‘I think therefore I am’ becomes ‘It associates therefore it is’. I will then consider how Wieser takes this theory to the social realm: reflecting on the phenomenon of mass societies in fin de siècle Europe, he proposes to make this psychological concept of the human mind the foundation of a theory of social order. Correspondingly, society is understood as a self-regulatory network of a multitude of interdependent networks of associations. This network rests on invisible, anonymous, inner powers holding societies together in a particular order, just like, in Wieser’s words, attractive and repulsive molecular forces do with molecules. This social network innovates through a variety of leaders as agents of change. In conclusion, I will clarify, how Wieser’s conception of the social order foreshadows several ideas made famous by his best-known pupil, Friedrich A. Hayek: the limits of knowledge, the spontaneous order of mind and society, and the role of leadership for innovation.

Area: Eshet Conference

Keywords: Friedrich Wieser, Ernst Mach, Friedrich A. Hayek, mind, order, psychophysics, innovation, leadership

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