Sowell: Visions of Knowledge and Reason

A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles, by Thomas Sowell, pp. 36-49

Chapter 3

Visions of Knowledge and Reason

The constrained and the unconstrained visions tend to differ in their very definition of knowledge, as well as in their conceptions of its quantity, concentration, or dispersal, and its role in the social process. Reason likewise takes on entirely different meanings in the two visions.


The Constrained Vision

In the constrained vision, any individual’s own knowledge alone is grossly inadequate for social decision-making, and often even for his own personal decisions. A complex society and its progress are therefore possible only because of numerous social arrangements which transmit and coordinate knowledge from a tremendous range of contemporaries, as well as from the even more vast numbers of those from generations past. Knowledge as conceived in the constrained vision is predominantly experience—transmitted socially in largely inarticulate forms, from prices which indicate costs, scarcities, and preferences, to traditions which evolve from the day-to-day experiences of millions in each generation, winnowing out in Darwinian competition what works from what does not work. Friedrich A. Hayek expressed this view when he said:

The growth of knowledge and the growth of civilization are the same only if we interpret knowledge to include all the human adaptations to environment in which past experience has been incorporated. Not all knowledge in this sense is part of our intellect, nor is our intellect the whole of our knowledge. Our habits and skills, our emotional attitudes, our tools, and our institutions—all are in this sense adaptations to past experience which have grown up by selective elimination of less suitable conduct. They are as much an indispensable foundation of successful action as is our conscious knowledge.1

In this vision, it is not simply that individuals rationally choose what works from what does not work, but also—and more fundamentally—that the competition of institutions and whole societies leads to a general survival of more effective collections of cultural traits, even if neither the winners nor the losers rationally understand what was better or worse about one set or the other. Values which may be effective at the tribal level will tend to be overwhelmed by values that permit or promote the functioning of larger aggregations of people. From this perspective, “man has certainly more often learnt to do the right thing without comprehending why it was the right thing, and he still is better served by custom than understanding.” There is thus “more ‘intelligence’ incorporated in the system of rules of conduct than in man’s thoughts about his surroundings.”2

Knowledge is thus the social experience of the many, as embodied in behavior, sentiments, and habits, rather than the specially articulated reason of the few, however talented or gifted those few might be. When knowledge is conceived as social experience rather than solitary excogitation, then “a very small part is gained in the closet,” according to Hamilton.3

In Burke’s words: “We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason; because we suspect that this stock in each man is small, and that the individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations and of ages.”4 By reason, Burke did not mean simply the written words of notable individuals but the whole experience of peoples, summarized in the feelings, formalities, and even prejudices embodied in their culture and behavior. These cultural distillations of knowledge were not considered infallible or immutable—which would have been a solution instead of a trade-off—but rather as a tested body of experience that worked, and which was to be changed only after the most circumspect, and perhaps even reluctant, examination. We should attend to the defects of the social order, according to Burke, with the same trepidation with which we would tend the wounds of our father.5 They are not to be ignored, but neither are they a mandate for experiment or hasty inspiration. With no examination whatever, there would be no evolutionary process, and therefore, in this vision, no basis for the confidence in tradition and enduring institutions which was the hallmark of Burke, and to varying degrees of other believers in a constrained vision.

The trade-off perspective of the constrained vision treats defects as inevitable, and therefore not in themselves reason for change, unless their magnitudes merit the inevitable costs entailed by change. “Preserving my principles unshaken,” Burke said, “I reserve my activity for rational endeavours.”6 On another occasion, he said: “I must bear with infirmities until they fester into crimes.”7 This was not a mere verbal patina on apathetic drift, as shown by Burke’s own relentless prosecution of Warren Hastings for alleged misconduct in his governance of India, or Burke’s unpopular stand in Parliament for freeing the rebellious American colonies, or his anti-slavery proposals.8 Adam Smith likewise urged the freeing of the American colonies—and other colonies as well—in addition to suggesting a number of domestic reforms and being opposed to slavery.9 In America, the men who wrote The Federalist Papers—Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay—first came to public notice as leaders in the revolt against British rule. The constrained vision was not synonymous with (or camouflage for) acceptance of the status quo.

The Unconstrained Vision

The unconstrained vision had no such limited view of human knowledge or of its application through reason. It was the eighteenth-century exemplars of the unconstrained vision who created “the age of reason,” as expressed in the title of Thomas Paine’s famous book of that era. Reason was as paramount in their vision as experience was in the constrained vision. According to Godwin, experience was greatly overrated—“unreasonably magnified,” in his words—compared to reason or to “the general power of a cultivated mind.”10 Therefore the wisdom of the ages was seen by Godwin as largely the illusions of the ignorant. The age of a belief or practice did not exempt it from the crucial test of validation in specifically articulated terms. In Godwin’s words, “we must bring everything to the standard of reason.” He added:

Nothing must be sustained, because it is ancient, because we have been accustomed to regard it as sacred, or because it has been unusual to bring its validity into question.11 Similarly, according to Condorcet, “everything that bears the imprint of time must inspire distrust more than respect.”12 It was “only by meditation,” Condorcet said, “that we can arrive at any general truths in the science of man.”13

Given the ability of a “cultivated mind” to apply reason directly to the facts at hand, there was no necessity to defer to the unarticulated systemic processes of the constrained vision, as expressed in the collective wisdom derived from the past. “The pretense of collective wisdom is the most palpable of all impostures,” according to Godwin.14 Validation was not to be indirect, collective, and systemic but direct, individual, and intentional. Articulated rationality was to be the mode of validation, not general acceptance based on pragmatic experience. According to Godwin, “persons of narrow views and observation” readily accept whatever happens to prevail in their society.15 Therefore, this cannot be the method by which to decide issues.

Implicit in the unconstrained vision is a profound inequality between the conclusions of “persons of narrow views” and those with “cultivated” minds. From this it follows that progress involves raising the level of the former to that of the latter. According to Godwin:

Real intellectual improvement demands, that mind should, as speedily as possible, be advanced to the height of knowledge already existing among the enlightened members of the community, and start from thence in pursuit of further acquisitions.16

Also implicit in the unconstrained vision is the view that the relevant comparison is between the beliefs of one sort of person and another—between x and y, rather than between (1) systemic processes working through successive generations of individuals a through x, as expressed through the living generation x, versus (2) the articulated rationality of y in isolation. The rejection of the concept of collective wisdom leaves individual comparisons as the standard of judgment. Since the experiences of a through w no longer count, the issue reduces to the articulated rationality of x versus that of y. Therefore, the unconstrained vision necessarily favors the “cultivated mind” y, while the constrained vision necessarily favors the views expressed through x, seen as representative of the unarticulated experience of many others (a through w). The two visions thus lead to opposite conclusions as to which opinion should prevail, and why.

Burke clearly saw himself in the role of x rather than y:

I give you opinions which have been accepted amongst us, from very early times to this moment, with a continued and general approbation, and which indeed are so worked into my mind, that I am unable to distinguish what I have learned from others from the results of my own meditations.17

The kind of knowledge or understanding referred to by Burke was conceived as a common fund in which he participated. That of Godwin was the knowledge or understanding of “cultivated minds”—a knowledge which, by its nature, was concentrated in a few rather than dispersed among the many. The very meaning of knowledge was also different, which is why it was distributed so differently in the two visions. In the constrained vision, where knowledge was a multiplicity of experience too complex for explicit articulation, it was distilled over the generations in cultural processes and traits so deeply embedded as to be virtually unconscious reflexes—widely shared. This was, in Burke’s words, “wisdom without reflection.”18

Wisdom without reflection was a concept utterly foreign to the unconstrained vision, in which human beings have both the capacity and the obligation to exercise explicit reason on all issues. “Reason,” according to Godwin, “is the proper instrument, and the sufficient instrument for regulating the actions of mankind.”19 Passions and biases may exist, but “if we employ our rational faculties, we cannot fail of thus conquering our erroneous propensities.”20

Given that explicitly articulated knowledge is special and concentrated, in the unconstrained vision, the best conduct of social activities depends upon the special knowledge of the few being used to guide the actions of the many. What is needed is to infuse “just views of society” into “the liberally educated and reflecting members” of society, who in turn will be “to the people guides and instructors,” according to Godwin.21 This idea was by no means peculiar to Godwin but rather has been a central and enduring theme of the unconstrained vision. Along with it has often gone a vision of intellectuals as disinterested advisors. Voltaire declared, “the philosophers having no particular interest to defend, can only speak up in favor of reason and the public interest.”22 Condorcet likewise referred to “truly enlightened philosophers, strangers to ambition.”23 Rousseau considered it “the best and most natural arrangement for the wisest to govern the multitude.”24 Even if non-intellectuals run the actual machinery of government, according to D’Alembert, “the greatest happiness of a nation is realized when those who govern agree with those who instruct it.”25

These eighteenth-century themes were repeated, with at least equal vigor, by John Stuart Mill in the nineteenth century. To Mill a special role was reserved for “the most cultivated intellects in the country,”26 for “thinking minds,”27 for “the best and the wisest,”28 for “the really superior intellects and characters.”29 Much could be accomplished “if the superior spirits would but join with each other,”30 if the universities would send forth “a succession of minds, not the creatures of their age, but capable of being its improvers and regenerators.”31 Similar prescriptions remain common today. In short, the special role of “thinking people” or of “the brightest and the best” has for centuries been a central theme of the unconstrained vision.

For those with the constrained vision, however, a special role for intellectuals in the running of society has long been seen as a grave danger. In Burke’s words:

Happy if learning, not debauched by ambition, had been satisfied to continue the instructor and not aspired to be the master!32

John Randolph was likewise repelled by the idea of “professors in a university turned statesmen.”33 In a similar vein, Hobbes regarded universities as places where fashionable but insignificant words flourished34 and added that “there is nothing so absurd, but may be found in the books of Philosophers.”35

The central danger, as seen by those with the constrained vision, is the intellectuals’ narrow conception of what constitutes knowledge and wisdom. They are, in Burke’s words, “endeavouring to confine the reputation of sense, learning, and taste to themselves or their following,” and are capable of “carrying the intolerance of the tongue and of the pen into a persecution” of others.36 Adam Smith spoke of the doctrinaire “man of system” who is “wise in his own conceit” and who “seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board.”37 The whole notion of a philosopher-king was abhorrent to Smith, who declared that “of all political speculators sovereign princes are by far the most dangerous.”38

The superiority of experts within a narrow slice of the vast spectrum of human understanding was not denied. What was denied was that this expertise conferred a general superiority which should supersede more widely dispersed kinds of knowledge. “It may be admitted that, as far as scientific knowledge is concerned, a body of suitably chosen experts may be in the best position to command all the best knowledge available,” according to Hayek. But, he added, with respect to other kinds of knowledge, “practically every individual has some advantage over all others because he possesses unique information of which beneficial use might be made, but of which use can be made only if the decisions depending on it are left to him or are made with his active cooperation.”39 With knowledge conceived of as both fragmented and widely dispersed, systemic coordination among the many supersedes the special wisdom of the few.

Nor was this systemic coordination to be planned or imposed by the wise few. It was an evolved natural order, in the phrase of one of the eighteenth-century Physiocrats,40 the group who coined the expression laissez-faire. The same kind of reasoning was found in Adam Smith, the most famous exponent of this doctrine:

The statesman who should attempt to direct people in what manner they ought to employ their capitals, would not only load himself with a most unnecessary attention, but assume an authority which could safely be trusted, not only to no single person, but to no council or senate whatever, and which would nowhere be so dangerous as in the hands of a man who had folly and presumption enough to fancy himself fit to exercise it.41

The marketplace was only one of a number of evolved systemic processes for making decisions. The family, languages, and traditions are other examples, among many. Believers in the constrained vision rely heavily on such processes to make better decisions than any given individual could make, however talented or knowledgeable compared to other individuals.

In short, starting from different conceptions of how much a given individual can know and understand, the constrained and the unconstrained visions arrive at opposite conclusions as to whether the best social decisions are to be made by those with the most individual knowledge of a special kind or by systemic processes that mobilize and coordinate knowledge scattered among the many, in individually unimpressive amounts.


The power of specifically articulated rationality is central to the unconstrained vision. The power of unarticulated social processes to mobilize and coordinate knowledge is central to the constrained vision.

In the unconstrained vision, to act without “explicit reason” is to act on “prepossession and prejudice.”42 According to Godwin: “Discussion is the path that leads to discovery and demonstration.”43 “Accuracy of language is the indispensable prerequisite of sound knowledge,”44 in Godwin’s vision, where knowledge is synonymous with articulated rationality. Virtue is promoted when men must “avow their actions, and assign the reasons upon which they are founded.”45 If we could “render the plain dictates of justice level to every capacity,” according to Godwin, “we may expect the whole species to become reasonable and virtuous.”46 To Condorcet as well, the task is to “render common to almost every man those principles of strict and unsullied justice.”47

Reason has at least two very different meanings. One is a cause-and-effect meaning: There is a reason why water expands when it freezes into ice, even though most of us who are not physicists do not know what that reason is—and at one time, no one knew the reason. The other meaning of reason is articulated specification of causation or logic: When it is demanded that individuals or society justify their actions before the bar of reason, this is what is meant. The more constrained one’s vision of human capabilities and potential, the greater the difference between these two meanings. Everything may have a cause and yet human beings may be unable to specify what it is. Since no theory is literally unconstrained entirely, there is always some awareness of the difference between the two meanings of reason.

Conversely, no theory is so constrained that man can understand nothing, which would imply a total lack of overlap between the two meanings of reason. But at the more unconstrained end of the spectrum, the overlap between the two concepts is considered to be so great that to say that a reason exists is virtually to say that we can specify it. At the very least, our decision-making must proceed on the basis of those reasons which we can specify. But, at the more constrained end of the spectrum, knowledge and reasons unknown to any given individual must be brought to bear on many decisions, through social processes in which articulated rationality plays at best a subordinate role.

Classical and neo-classical economics, especially of the Austrian school, exemplify this constrained vision of systemic rationality, in which individual articulation means little. In an uncontrolled market, as seen in this vision, changing prices, wages, and interest rates adjust the economy to shifting demands, technological changes, and evolving skills—without any of the actors in this drama knowing or caring how his individual responses affect the whole. It can be analyzed as a general process of interaction with its own characteristic patterns and results—otherwise there would be no Austrian economics—but cannot be specified in such concrete detail as to make it feasible for any individual or group to plan or control the actual process. The rationality in it is systemic, not individual—and such individual rationality as may exist is largely incidental, so that the much-vexed question as to just how rational man is has little relevance in this vision.48

A similar difference between individual and systemic rationality can be found in religious doctrines in which (1) the Deity is conceived to act directly to affect natural and human phenomena, versus (2) those in which a Providential systemic process makes life possible and beneficent without requiring Divine superintendence of details.49 What both the secular and the religious versions of systemic processes have in common is that the wisdom of the individual human actor is not the wisdom of the drama. Conversely, there are both secular and religious versions of individual rationality, the religious version being one in which the Deity directly decides on individual events, from daily weather changes to deaths of individuals. Fundamentalist religion is the most pervasive vision of central planning, though many fundamentalists may oppose human central planning as a usurpation or “playing God.” This is consistent with the fundamentalist vision of an unconstrained God and a highly constrained man.

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