Hayek (1948) introduced this now famous dichotomy, certainly in the continuity of Edmund Burke, between "true individualism" (of the British empiricist tradition) and the "false individualism" (of the French rationalist tradition).

The true individualism which I shall try to defend began its modern development with John Locke, and particularly with Bernard Mandeville and David Hume, and achieved full stature for the first time in the work of Josiah Tucker, Adam Ferguson, and Adam Smith and in that of their great contemporary, Edmund Burke-the man whom Smith described as the only person he ever knew who thought on economic subjects exactly as he did without any previous communication having passed between them.2 (Chapter 1)

This second and altogether different strand of thought, also known as individualism, is represented mainly by French and other Continental writers - a fact due, I believe, to the dominant role which Cartesian rationalism plays in its composition. The outstanding representatives of this tradition are the Encyclopedists, Rousseau, and the physiocrats; and, for reasons we shall presently consider, this rationalistic individualism always tends to develop into the opposite of individualism, namely, socialism or collectivism. (Chapter 1)

It was developed by Thomas Sowell, and is now a pervasive argument in pro-free market liberal conservatives (in the US, "conservatives") circles. It divides the leftists, with a "utopian" vision of human nature (everything is a social construct, and human society therefore can be molded), and the rightists, with a "realist" vision of human nature (everything follows and a natural order, and human society should follow this natural order) (Arnhart, 2009).

Did someone point the factual and logical flaws in this Burkean/Hayek/Sowell argument?


Arnhart, L. (2009). Darwinian conservatism: A disputed question. Andrews UK Limited.

Hayek, F. A. (1948). Individualism and economic order. University of chicago Press.

3 Answers 3


Drawing the line "rationalism" --> "socialism" --> "stalinism", seems quite flawed, for a lot of reasons:

(1) Rousseau (whom Hayek cites along with French Enlightenment thinkers) had nothing to see with French rationalism, quite on the contrary. He is often identified as a counter-Enlightenment and a proto-romantic.

(2) It was Rousseau, a proto-romantic, but also a proto-ecologist and proto-communist, who said that everything bad about humans was brought by civilization. So the idea that everything bad about humans is cultural, again, has originally nothing to do with rationalism.

(3) Marx was in continuation with the Roussean idea. He believed the human essence was the ensemble of the social relations, suggesting the possibility of changing the human essence by changing the social relations (Arnhart, 2009). Marx was very critical of the Enlightenment.

(4) the idea of the "tabula-rasa" (of the human brain, which therefore could be molded as desired) was introduced by Locke, an empiricist, not a rationalist.

(5) the socialist most central value and goal is "social justice", or "charity", not "rationalism". Classical liberalism most central value and goal is "freedom", or "dignity", not "empiricism". Both of these values have no relationship with rationalism vs. empiricism. On the other hand, "rationalism"/"empiricism" is something that belongs to the development of science (in the general sense of the term), not political philosophy.

(6) rationalism is not necessarily against the classical liberals "spontaneous order", key notion of free-market theory. Mises, one of the most prominent figure of this theory, was a rationalist. The parallels between "spontaneous order" / "empiricism" and "controlled economy" / "rationalism" is not obvious, also since we can "rationalize" the economy without having the state controlling all and every means of production (the very basic tenet of socialism).

(7) the reasoned critic of society (society which therefore could be improved according to this critic) is an Enlightenment thing, no matter British, French, Netherland or German Enlightenment, so, believing that the "human mind" can "improve" society is again not a prerogative of the French rationalist and materialist Enlightenment.

(8) many French Enlightenment thinkers were not rationalists, but empiricists (Voltaire, Condillac, Helvétius, Antoine Destutt de Tracy).

(9) the "Utopia" idea was originally and most dramatically brought by Thomas More, in his book Utopia. Not sure Thomas More, a British Catholic canonized as a marty by the Church, has anything to do with French Continental rationalism and materialism.

(10) I think that those liberal-conservatives exactly fall in the very defect that they argue against : their values, that they want to impose top-down (from the power of the constitutional monarchy and Church) are chosen a-priori, from their own personal feeling and opinion. "Liberal-democracy is good because it is good and I love it, Western judeo-christian-hellenistic values are good because they are good and I love them" (pretty what Roger Scruton says in substance).

Of course it seems quite obvious to me that this attack from the conservatives on the French Enlightenment (marked by rationalism and materialism) is motivated by a fear of its critic of the clergy and of religion. Maybe it was also fueled by an anti-French British sentiment.

Nonetheless, maybe French rationalism / British empiricism has had indeed an influence on both central government approach to the knowledge of external facts, which can be traced in their different approach to colonization and immigration, and also to the French more centralized approach to the country's education, administration (vs. U.S. strong federalism), even economy (the technocratic intervention. But technocratic intervention in the economy and socialism are not synonyms). Indeed, many "Écoles centrales" ("Central schools") were designed by the French post-Enlightenment thinkers (the Idéologues) to form the elite of the country.

Not saying that there is absolutely no relation between socialism and rationalism, but the equation rationalism = socialism, or rationalism --> socialism is flawed to me. Maybe rationalism is a feature of socialism (and even there, it would be more specifically the "scientific socialism", as Marx said), but it is absolutely not its origin, as the Burke/Hayek/Sowell argument puts it.


Arnhart, L. (2009). Darwinian conservatism: A disputed question. Andrews UK Limited.


An obvious problem with that reasoning is that it completely ignores the specific circumstance of being which heavily influences if not outright determines the consciousness, as noted by Marxism.

English empiricism lives in a greenhouse where it is shielded from the elements. They have not seen land-based invasions and the political instability correlated with those. The same people and institutions which were in power before empiricism started developing are in place now. Obviously, any change induced by empiricism will be evolutionary, slow and tacit. At the same time it may be persistent and underway for a long time.

French rationalism lives in completely different world with wars where your capital is occupied and in return you get to invade your neighbours via land border. In this world you see military defeats followed by uncontrolled regime change. That brings in radical utopist projects which may be executed, that tend to be collectivist, because there's no such thing as an individualist megaproject.

However, these social experiments are run in a fashion that basically guarantees their failure or at least heavy struggle, due to the context of military defeat, civil strife and power vacuum.


I mean when he speaks of "British empiricist traditions" and "French rationalist tradition", I assume that he refers to this distinction between continental and analytical philosophy.

Where "continental philosophy" is some sort of pejorative for all sorts of philosophy which have been popular in continental Europe and to which the anglosphere (Britain and the U.S.) didn't pay much attention. According to the articles that's more of a difference in the institutions traditions than it is a difference in philosophy and neither the actors would have grouped themselves as such, nor can you draw that sharp line between them as they both show interests in what the others are doing as well.

Like apparently the rational philosophers forwarded math and argued that in theory you could rationalize everything, but that in practical terms "we are all mere Empirics in three fourths of our actions". So yeah good luck doing science without math... So while empiricists and rationalists battle about who takes the cake as ultimate source of knowledge, they are not mutually exclusive.

While, yeah, apparently it was empiricists who proposed the clean slates:

Historically, empiricism was associated with the "blank slate" concept (tabula rasa), according to which the human mind is "blank" at birth and develops its thoughts only through later experience.(Scheibe, Erhard. (2001). Between rationalism and empiricism : selected papers in the philosophy of physics. Springer.)

Which makes sense, if you express the idea that all knowledge comes from experience and vigorously fight the concept of prior (to experience) knowledge, what you end up ought to be a clean slate.

Like sure in the broader sense you could argue that rationalism would propose an ideal (~= utopia) before testing, while empiricism would look at the ~="real world" (we still only see it as ideals as our perception is quite limited (we use tools) and already does a lot of preprocessing (light enters our eyes upside down, yet we see "normal") before hypothesizing, but still.

What this looks like is as if he tried to reason backwards. That is, he must make the point that socialism is bad and liberalism is good, but he is faced with the problem that both liberalism and socialism claim their origin in the enlightenment. And for example the liberal revolutions like the one in France proclaimed "liberté, egalité, fraternité", which puts him in a predicament of either having to give up his claim to liberty or giving up on the enlightenment origins... or ... you know throw the French under the bus, actually the whole non-anglosphere for good measures and pretend as if there is a "good enlightenment" and a "bad enlightenment". Where the bad enlightenment leads to socialism and the good enlightenment leads to liberalism.

As he's likely preaching to the anglosphere who at that point (1948) might not have heard extensively about the continental philosophy, teaching them started apparently in the 60s and 70s, so he might have gotten away with this in the late 40s.

It was developed by Thomas Sowell, and is now a pervasive argument in pro-free market liberal conservatives (in the US, "conservatives") circles. It divides the leftists, with a "utopian" vision of human nature (everything is a social construct, and human society therefore can be molded), and the rightists, with a "realist" vision of human nature (everything follows and a natural order, and human society should follow this natural order) (Arnhart, 2009).

Realistically that battle ground is no longer philosophy anyway but social sciences, psychology and biology are probably the domains which tell people how we actually think and whether it is a clean slate or not. Not to mention that "follow the natural order" is pretty "utopian", either you follow the natural order because you have to choice but to do that or you have a choice in which case it's not really an order but just someone's IDEA of an order. So that sounds pretty disingenuous and artificial to make a narrative. Not sure someone found it necessary to "debunk" it given how shaky that is to begin with. Like that's most likely for internal use only, right?

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