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Freud and Hayek: Why Quit?

The treatment of non-knowledge by Sigmund Freud and Friedrich von Hayek is of particular interest in this context because their approach is, if I am not mistaken, quite representative for much of scientific discourse. Both Freud and Hayek recognized that there can be no such thing as a researchable subject called non-knowledge, but, unimpressed by their own conclusion, they continued to examine something that does not exist. Their grappling with this issue gives me the opportunity to ask why concerning oneself with the subject of non-knowledge is typical especially for the German-speaking scientific community. Is it a sort of eccentricity?

Freud’s (1924/1963) theory of the dream as a psychic phenomenon is based on the primary conviction that the dreamer himself should “say what his dream means” (p. 100). But an evident fundamental obstacle to doing so is that the dreamer is, as a rule, firmly convinced that he does not know what his dream means. As Freud notes, “the dreamer always says he knows nothing” (p. 101). The lack of information from the dreamer confronts Freud with an apparent scientific and methodological conundrum defying sound interpretation of dreams. “Since he [the dreamer] knows nothing and we [the psychoanalyst] know nothing and a third person could know even less, there seems to be no prospect of finding out [the dream’s meaning]” (p. 101).

Instead of accepting these findings as a sound conclusion and therefore forsaking any further search for the meaning of dreams, Freud (1924/1963) considered another possibility: “For I can assure you that it is quite possible, and highly probable indeed, that the dreamer does know what his dream means: only he does not know that he knows it and for that reason thinks he does not know it” (p. 101). This interpretation seems to be confusing and self-contradictory. Freud even asked himself whether a contradiction in terms might exist in his hypothesis that there are “mental things in a man which he knows without knowing that he knows them” (p. 101):

Where, then, in what field, can it be that proof has been found that there is a knowledge of which the person concerned nevertheless knows nothing, as we are proposing to assume of dreamers? After all, this would be a strange, surprising fact and one which would alter our view of mental life and which would have no need to hide itself: a fact, incidentally, which cancels itself in its very naming and which nevertheless claims to be something real—a contradiction in terms. (pp. 102-103)

For Freud what followed from these observations was the conclusion that one ought to abandon this method of dream interpretation as lacking any substance. But Freud did not. After all, the knowledge does not really hide from the observer. One has only to search for it persistently. “It is very probable, then, that the dreamer knows about his dream; the only question is how to make it possible for him to discover his knowledge and communicate it to us” (p. 104).

Hayek, confronted with a similar dilemma, decided, just like Freud, to ignore it. In his essay entitled “The Creative Powers of a Free Civilization” (1960/1978), in which the lack of knowledge is a question of the distribution of knowledge in markets, Hayek first noted that any progress in civilization is the result of an increase of knowledge. In the real world, according to Hayek (1960/1978), it simultaneously holds true that “the individual benefits from more knowledge than he is aware of”

(p. 22), and he added that “this fundamental fact of man’s unavoidable ignorance of much on which the working of civilization rests has received little attention” (p. 22) in science.[1] Human knowledge is far from being complete.

The key passage in Hayek’s (1960/1978) analysis of the difference between what he called the “boundaries of ignorance” (p. 22) or man’s “unavoidable ignorance” (p. 22) and “conscious knowledge” (p. 24) is: “It must be admitted, however, that our ignorance is a peculiarly difficult subject to discuss....We certainly cannot discuss something intelligently about which we know nothing” (p. 23). Hayek takes recourse to a kind of Munchhausen maneuver: “We must at least be able to state the questions even if we do not know the answers....Though we cannot see in the dark, we must be able to trace the limits of the dark areas” (p. 23). Nevertheless, as Hayek emphasizes, “If we are to understand how society works, we must attempt to define the general nature and range of our ignorance concerning it” (p. 23).

  • [1] The German wording that Hayek chose as translations of two central concepts in his Englishoriginal is of interest, and is, in my opinion, fully adequate. “The boundaries of his ignorance” and“man’s unavoidable ignorance” are rendered as Grenzen seines Unwissen and unvermeidlichenUnkenntnis des Menschen (Hayek, 1960/2005, p. 31). In other words, there is no reference to nonknowledge (Nichtwissen).
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