Plato’s Fatal Conceit

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By Aristippus

FA Hayek’s final work, The Fatal Conceit (1988), is in essence a lengthy argument against what its author calls ‘constructivist rationalism’.  By that term he means the assumption that cultural evolution occurs not by a process of natural selection as in biological evolution, but instead as the result of deliberate design guided by human reason (p. 22).  In the constructivist framework, societal, economic, and political institutions are assumed to have developed as the result of a guiding mind or minds.  Such a view, Hayek argues, smacks of a fatal conceit.

Throughout the above mentioned work, Hayek demonstrates that in many areas, the constructivist assumptions are not warranted, and that the existence of various social institutions can be understood as resulting from the interplay of acting individuals without a single guiding force – that is, as a result of human action, but not of human design.  He refers to such emergence as spontaneous, and this process can be particularly understood in regard to the development of languages and economies.  In his discussion of the fatal conceit, Hayek recognises that a great deal of the constructivist-rationalist view on political economy owes much to the work of ancient philosophers Plato (424/423 – 348/347 BCE) and Aristotle (384 – 322 BCE):

“The unsatisfactory character of our contemporary vocabulary of political terms results from its descent largely from Plato and Aristotle who, lacking the conception of evolution, considered the order of human affairs as an arrangement of a fixed and unchanging number of men fully known to the governing authority – or, like most religions down to socialism, as the designed product of some superior mind.” (p. 109)

In this he recognises a particular strand of Platonic-Aristotelian rationalism, which was not necessarily universal in Greek thought (p. 46).  It was this strand, however, that was to become the most influential one in Western philosophy from the time of the Scholastic movement in the Middle Ages.  Expanding on Hayek’s work, it must be realised that this constructivist-rationalist view extends to the very root of Western philosophy in the works of Plato, and goes far deeper than questions of political economy.

It is well-known that in the Republic and in the Laws, Plato sets himself the task of rationally describing the ideal city and law-code respectively.  Those works indeed present a rationalist, constructivist understanding of societal institutions, but they are only the tip of the iceberg.  The fact of the matter is that the fatal conceit extends throughout Plato’s work, from the earliest Socratic dialogues to the fully developed theory of the Forms.  Not only that, but it is clear that the fatal conceit is the major difficulty with which Plato grapples, and his inability to grant significance to spontaneous, rather than planned, developments is at the heart of the failure of his philosophical and political systems both.

Many of Plato’s dialogues are concerned with the proper definition of a particular concept, for example moderation (in the Charmides), courage (Laches), friendship (Lysis), piety (Euthyphro), love (Symposium), knowledge (Theaetatus), beauty (Hippias Major), and even virtue overall (Meno).  The concept of ‘the good’ appears in many dialogues (e.g. in the Gorgias and the Republic).  Each of these words is taken as the starting point for a rational inquiry into the true meanings signified by them, which often leads, through the Socratic method of questioning, to the exposure of contradictions in definitions.  From that point, a more correct, non-contradictory definition of the word is sought.

Now the assumption implicit in such a task is that, because the existence of two contradictory statements forces us to see that at least one of them is false, in the same way the existence of two definitions that have contradictory inferences requires us to understand that at least one of them must be false, and that therefore the true definition of the word is yet to be apprehended.  A further, and even more central, assumption of such a task is that each word does indeed have a correct definition.  Why would Plato hold to such assumptions?  In order to expose Plato’s view on this, we must look more closely at his views on the origins of language.

In the Cratylus, Plato turns his attention to the development of language and the origins of words, through a dialogue between Socrates, Hermogenes, and Cratylus.  At the beginning of the dialogue, Hermogenes suggests to Socrates that the particular words of a language exist by custom and convention rather than by design.  Socrates answers him by way of analogy with activities apart from naming:

“In cutting, for example, we do not cut as we please, and with any chance instrument; but we cut with the proper instrument only, and according to the natural process of cutting; and the natural process is right and will succeed, but any other will fail and be of no use at all.”

Now – according to Plato – since there is a proper way of cutting, as performed by the carpenter, so too must there be a proper way of naming, as performed, he assumes, by the legislator:

“Soc. Cannot you at least say who gives us the names which we use?

Her. Indeed I cannot.

Soc. Does not the law seem to you to give us them?

Her. Yes, I suppose so.

Soc. Then the teacher, when he gives us a name, uses the work of the legislator?

Her. I agree.”

“Soc. Then, Hermogenes, not every man is able to give a name, but only a maker of names; and this is the legislator, who of all skilled artisans in the world is the rarest.”

“Soc. Names, then, are given in order to instruct?

Crat. Certainly.

Soc. And naming is an art, and has artificers?

Crat. Yes.

Soc. And who are they?

Crat. The legislators, of whom you spoke at first.”

The claim that language exists as a result of the development of customs or conventions, i.e. as a result of spontaneous order, is simply waved away by the assumption that words must have come about as a result of rational legislation.  Indeed, much of the rest of the dialogue is a reconstruction by Plato of the origins of various Greek words, with the assumption that there is a rational thread running through the language (suffice it to say that it is mostly an exercise in false etymology).    That Plato had such an upside-down view of the development of words, around whose definitions most of his works are framed, shows how large the fatal conceit looms in the works of Plato, the cornerstone of Western philosophy.

Plato’s fatal conceit, however, extends beyond his conception of language and definitions, as well as his political philosophy, into his fully developed theory of Forms.  This is because the Forms themselves are based directly on his understanding of definitions, which he assumes must have a correct, rational, non-contradictory essence.  For not only must those abstract concepts discussed in his dialogues truly exist, but so too must all concepts, and these true essences are the Forms.  The concept of ‘table’ is not bound by custom and experience, but is in fact a reflection of the true, rationally understood, essence of ‘table’.  The assumptions of the fatal conceit force Plato to such ridiculous bounds of logic, which themselves appear as an unintended but grand reductio ad absurdum.  Ironically it is Plato himself who sees that there are logical contradictions even in his own rationally constructed theory of the Forms, which he presents to us in the first part of the Parmenides: though his striking constructivism could not be quelled by Hermogenes’ humble claims of spontaneous order, Plato at last finds that even that constructivist rationalism is defeated by its own logic.

I have shown in this brief essay that Hayek’s concept of the fatal conceit is in fact the very same lens through which Plato, the father of Western philosophy, viewed the world.  That the fatal conceit exists at the foundation of Western philosophy is of no little importance.  Not only is Plato still the most widely read of the ancient philosophers, but his influence strongly permeates both modern and contemporary philosophy.  The overestimation of constructivist rationalism and the underestimation of spontaneous order is one of the most destructive trends in modern society and is key in the continued calls for further centralization of power in the state.  That we can recognise these intellectual origins of that approach allows us to understand the opposite concept of spontaneous order even more fully, and beyond the bounds of political economy.

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16 thoughts on “Plato’s Fatal Conceit

  1. dobbothegreat 11/30/2012 at 13:59 Reply

    Aristippus,

    You make a false step from pointing out that words are arbitrary to rejecting eternal concepts which the arbitrary words describe.

    Further I’ve always found Hayek’s distinction between human action and design as specious. All human actions are a result of a deliberation to achieve an end- a design. Therefore human action and design are one and the same.

    • AristippusofCyrene 11/30/2012 at 22:45 Reply

      Hi dobbothegreat,

      1. Before I address this, could you clarify what you mean by ‘eternal concepts’?

      2. By ‘resulting from human action but not by design’ he is talking about the wider consequences of particular actions, e.g. in the creation of language, customary law, or market price. His point is that institutions such as these have not arisen by any process or intention of overall design, but that they exist nevertheless as the by-product of many actions. Such spontaneous developments are in clear contrast with Plato’s view of politics in the Republic, of law in the Laws, and of language in the Cratylus. There is a definite distinction there.

      • dobbothegreat 12/02/2012 at 22:23 Reply

        1. Essentially eternal fixed truths which are objective from the view of a human actor. The are the yardstick by which we discuss or analyse anything- metaphysics, ethics or aesthetics.

        2. So you mean the present arrangement of customary law was not designed by one actor but was brought into being by many competing parties? If so I fail however to see how this could be spontaneous in the sense evolution is, since cells do not think or act; the customary law is a patchwork of designs not a blind process of cell superiority. To make the analogy true either humans do not think and neither do cells or humans and cells think.

      • AristippusofCyrene 12/03/2012 at 03:30 Reply

        1. Are you then saying that virtue, the good, moderation, courage, friendship, piety, love, knowledge, and beauty are all examples of eternal fixed truths that are objective from the view of a human actor? If so, by that do you mean that there can only be one correct understanding of each of those concepts?

        2. You seem to misunderstand what ‘spontaneous’ means here. It refers to the origins and development of overall systems or networks. That humans act even though cells do not does not present a contradiction in the understanding of spontaneous emergence, since the categorisation of systems as designed vs. spontaneous depends on whether or not the system overall can be considered designed by a particular party for that purpose, or on the other hand if the system was not, although still exists as the by-product of other processes. Nobody has claimed that cultural evolution is exactly the same as biological evolution, yet in each case the long-term existence of particular systems and/or features of systems arises out of a process of selection.

        The point of the article is that Plato assumes a rational and designed basis for all systems, and that this false assumption results in many problems for his philosophy.

  2. skepticalmetal 11/30/2012 at 20:36 Reply

    Excellent article, Aristippus.

  3. Neodoxy 12/01/2012 at 02:40 Reply

    Aristippus, could you talk a little more about this:
    “Ironically it is Plato himself who sees that there are logical contradictions even in his own rationally constructed theory of the Forms, which he presents to us in the first part of the Parmenides: though his striking constructivism could not be quelled by Hermogenes’ humble claims of spontaneous order, Plato at last finds that even that constructivist rationalism is defeated by its own logic”
    This appears that it would be extremely significant yet you barely talk about it. What exactly happened here and why didn’t it have more significant repercussions?
    I really liked the article.
    Also, I’ve recently read a significant amount of Plato for the first time. I’m truly astounded at how basic and presumptuous his work is.

  4. AristippusofCyrene 12/01/2012 at 03:07 Reply

    Hi Neodoxy,

    I didn’t go too much into that topic since it’s not really part of the overall point of the article and I didn’t want to spin the word count out even further. What I was referring to is known as the ‘Third Man Argument’. To give an extremely basic outline, it means that Plato’s assumptions about Forms require an infinite hierarchy of Forms which signify the same property, which is itself contradictory with his other claims about Forms (that they are unique: that there are not multiple Forms signifying the same property).

    For example, different tables partake in the Form of table (T1). But since Forms cannot (according to Plato) partake in themselves, T1 itself, along with those tables partaking in it, is in fact partaking in a further Form of table (T2). But then the tables, T1 and T2 are all in turn partaking in a third Form of table (T3), and so on. Thus by some of Plato’s assumptions on Forms (one-over-many, self-predication, non-self-partaking), such a hierarchy extends infinitely, but also contradicts the uniqueness and oneness of each Form. No work of Plato presents a refutation of the TMA, and Aristotle subsequently upheld it. As I noted, you’ll find it outlined in the first part of the Parmenides (the second part of the dialogue is crazy and probably has nothing to do with the TMA).

  5. dobbothegreat 12/03/2012 at 09:51 Reply

    Arristippus,

    For some reason I can’t reply to your last comment directly.

    1. I thought you’d do this. I wasn’t arguing that eternal concepts are true but that it is fallacious to conclude that since words are arbitrary so are the concepts themselves. As an aside I believe that goodness , moderation are objective from the human perspective however it does not follow from this that there can only be one correct understanding of each: an oak and an ash are both trees but an oak is not an ash. Conversely a slug is not a tree. Absolute distinction can be made but there’s diversity within each category.

    2. “That humans act even though cells do not does not present a contradiction in the understanding of spontaneous emergence, since the categorisation of systems as designed vs. spontaneous depends on whether or not the system overall can be considered designed by a particular party for that purpose, or on the other hand if the system was not, although still exists as the by-product of other processes. ”

    The problem here is unless you wish to attribute huge influence to natural processes the “by-product of other processes” is competing designs of different actors.

    • AristippusofCyrene 12/03/2012 at 10:24 Reply

      1. Why do you assume that I concluded that concepts are arbitrary because words are? And, so that I can understand you properly, what exactly do you mean by arbitrary? I said one correct understanding, so would not oak and ash both fit into the correct understanding of tree? Also, could you tell me whether or not Pluto is a planet?

      2. Why is that a problem? As I said, the question of designed vs. spontaneous refers to whether or not there has been centrally directed organization. There’s no reason why there cannot be competing actors within a spontaneously developing system.

      • dobbothegreat 12/03/2012 at 11:30 Reply

        “Plato’s fatal conceit, however, extends beyond his conception of language and definitions, as well as his political philosophy, into his fully developed theory of Forms. This is because the Forms themselves are based directly on his understanding of definitions, which he assumes must have a correct, rational, non-contradictory essence. For not only must those abstract concepts discussed in his dialogues truly exist, but so too must all concepts, and these true essences are the Forms. ”

        1. Language is customary so are “essences”, that’s what I take that to mean. By arbitrary I mean that they do not in principle correspond to reality. Yes, both ash and oak are trees. The fact that the definition of a planet can change does not mean that there aren’t any underlying categories to be discovered.

        2. The evolutionary tone of spontaneous order by sleight of hand pushes out conscious human action.

      • AristippusofCyrene 12/03/2012 at 11:58 Reply

        1. I meant that Plato’s views on words and Forms are both based on his rationalist understanding of the world. How does one discover the underlying categories you refer to? Let’s take an example from the Parmenides: Largeness. Is there an objective understanding of that concept? How does one categorise large things?

        2. Not at all. Hayek repeatedly acknowledges the role of human action and decision-making in spontaneous order.

        • dobbothegreat 12/03/2012 at 12:33 Reply

          1. I’m not interested in debating this at this time. I merely wanted to point out your refutation of the rationalist view consisted in arguing that language was arbitrary and that it didn’t follow that everything else was. Now since you haven’t denied this I will assume I was correct in the first instance.

          2. Maybe Hayek is more nuanced in context. I haven’t read him for ages.

      • AristippusofCyrene 12/03/2012 at 12:43 Reply

        1. Incorrect, that wasn’t my argument at all. As I noted in the last post, all I said was that Plato viewed language and concepts through a rationalist lens. I never said that concepts are arbitrary because language is, so your initial point was completely irrelevant (and your second point in your first post was just wrong). If my assumptions were that both language and concepts are arbitrary, it doesn’t follow that I necessarily think that one is arbitrary because I think the other is.

        2. He gives the definition ‘by human action but not by human design’. No extra nuance is needed.

  6. dobbothegreat 12/03/2012 at 17:07 Reply

    1. My final word. It seemed to me on your article that you showed that language was arbitrary. You followed this by saying the forms were ridiculous. It seemed to me by way of construction that you implied the argument about language carried over to the forms.

  7. [...] has written here on the deep roots of Hayek’s Fatal Conceit in Western philosophy. I think we can make an [...]

  8. wernerschwartz 02/27/2013 at 06:42 Reply

    Reblogged this on wernerschwartz.

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