oral history: The 1978 UCLA Interviews With Friedrich Hayek

If you want to understand who Friedrich Hayek is and what his life was all about, you can’t do better than read the transcripts of the 1978 interviews with Friedrich Hayek conducted by Earlene Craver, Axel Leijonhufvud, Leo Rosten, Jack High, James Buchanan, Robert Bork, Thomas Hazlett, Armen Alchian, and Robert Chitester in October and November of 1978.  The interviews are available in these formats:  pdf, text, flip book, and others.  In important ways these interviews with Hayek are more insightful than the Hayek biographies and most of the peer reviewed literature.  Here are some excerpts (more later):

On his early interests and ambitions:

My interests, even from the beginning, were — my reading was largely philosophical. Well, not philosophical; it was method of science. You see, I had shifted from the wholly biological approach to the social field, in the vital sense, and I was searching for the scientific character of the approach to the social sciences. And I think my career, my development, during those three years exactly at the university was in no way governed by thoughts about my future career, except, of course, that tradition in our family made us feel that a university professor was the sum of achievement, the maximum you could hope for ..

The role of socialism in his turn toward the study of economics:

I never was a social democrat formally, but I would have been what in England would be described as a Fabian socialist. I was especially influenced — in fact the influence very much contributed to my interest in economics — by the writings of a man called Walter Rathenau, who was an industrialist and later a statesman and finally a politician in Germany, who
wrote extremely well. He was Rohstoff diktator in Germany during the war, and he had become an enthusiastic planner.  And I think his ideas about how to reorganize the economy were probably the beginning of my interest in economics.  And they were very definitely mildly socialist.

Perhaps I should say I found a neutral judge. That’s what made me interested in economics. I mean, how realistic were these socialist plans which were found very attractive? So there was a great deal of socialist inclination which led me to  – I never was captured by Marxist socialism. On the contrary, when I encountered socialism in its Marxist, frightfully doctrinaire form, and the Vienna socialists, Marxists, were more doctrinaire than most other places, it only repelled me. But of the mild kind, I think German Sozialpolitik, state socialism of the Rathenau type, was one of the inducements which led me to the study of economics.

On growing up in pre-war Vienna:

I have only recently become aware that the leading people [of Vienna] were really a very small group of people who somehow were connected with each other. It was only a short while ago, when somebody like you inquired about whom I knew among the famous people of Vienna, that I began to go through the list, and I found I knew almost every one of them personally. And with most of them I was somehow connected by friendship or family relations and so on. I think the discussion began, “Did you know [Erwin] Schrodinger?” “Oh, yes, of course; Schrodinger was the son of a colleague of my father’s and came as a young man in our house.” Or, (“Did you know Karl von] Frisch, the bee Frisch?” “Oh, yes, he was the youngest of a group of friends of my father’s; so we knew the family quite well.” Or, [“Did you know Konrad) Lorenz?” “Oh, yes, I know the whole family. I’ve seen Lorenz watching ducks when he was three years old.” And so it went on ..

On studying economics at the U. of Vienna:

when I arrived there was nobody but a socialist economic historian.  Then [Friedrich] Wieser came back, and he became my teacher.  He was a most impressive teacher, a very distinguished man whom I came to admire very much, I think it’s the only instance where, as very young men do, I fell for a particular teacher. He was the great admired figure, sort of a grandfather figure of the two generations between us. He was a very kindly man who usually, I would say, floated high above the students as a sort of God, but when he took an interest in a student, he became extremely helpful and kind. He took me into his family; I was asked to take meals with him and so on. So he was for a long time my ideal in the field, from whom I got my main general introduction to economics.

The influence of Ernst Mach & positivism:

I think my introduction to what I now almost hesitate to call philosophy — scientific method, I think, is a better description — was to Machian philosophy. It was very good on the history of science generally, and it dominated discussion in Vienna. For instance, Joseph Schumpeter had fully fallen for Mach, and when– While I was still at the university, this very interesting figure, Moritz Schlick, became one of the professors of philosophy. It was the beginning of the Vienna Circle, of which I was, of course, never a member but whose members were in close contact with us. [There was] one man [Hayek is referring to philosopher Felix Kaufmann] who was supposedly a member of our particular circle, the Geistkreis, and also the Schlick circle, the Vienna Circle proper, and so we were currently informed of what was happening there. [tape recorder turned off] Well, what converted me is that the social scientists, the science specialists in the tradition of Otto Neurath, just were so extreme and so naive on economics that it was through [Neurath] that I became aware that positivism was just as misleading as the social sciences. I owe it to his extreme position that I soon recognized it wouldn’t do.

On Mach, logical positivism, Karl Popper, and the philosophy of science:

It took me a long time, really, to emancipate myself from it [Mach & logical positivism]. It was only after I had left Vienna, in London, that I began to think systematically on problems of methodology in the social sciences, and I began to recognize that positivism in that field was definitely misleading.  In a discussion I had on a visit to Vienna from London with my friend [Gottfried] Haberler, I explained to him that I had come to the conclusion that all this Machian positivism was no good for our purposes. Then he countered, “Oh, there’s a very good new book that came out in the circle of Vienna positivists by a man called Karl Popper on the logic of scientific research.” So I became one of the early readers. It had just come out a few weeks before. I found that Haberler had been rather mistaken by the setting in which the book had appeared. While it came formally out of that circle, it was really an attack on that system, [laughter] And to me it was so satisfactory because it confirmed this certain view I had already formed due to an experience very similar to Karl Popper’s. Karl Popper is four or five years my junior; so we did not belong to the same academic generation. But our environment in which we formed our ideas was very much the same. It was very largely dominated by discussion, on the one hand, with Marxists and, on the other hand, with Freudians.

Both these groups had one very irritating attribute: they insisted that their theories were, in principle, irrefutable. Their system was so built up that there was no possibility — I remember particularly one occasion when I suddenly began to see how ridiculous it all was when I was arguing with Freudians, and they explained, “Oh, well, this is due to the death instinct.” And I said, “But this can’t be due to the [death instinct].” “Oh, then this is due to the life instinct.” [laughter] Well, if you have these two alternatives, of course there’s no way of checking whether the theory is true or not. And that led me, already, to the understanding of what became Popper’s main systematic point: that the test of empirical science was that it could be refuted, and that any system which claimed that it was irrefutable was by definition not scientific. I was not a trained philosopher; I didn’t elaborate this. It was sufficient for me to have recognized this, but when I found this thing explicitly argued and justified in Popper, I just accepted the Popperian philosophy for spelling out what I had always felt. Ever since, I have been moving with Popper. We became ultimately very close friends, although we had not known each other in Vienna. And to a very large extent I have agreed with him, although not always immediately. Popper has had his own interesting developments, but on the whole I agree with him more than with anybody else on philosophical matters.

On Hayek’s own Vienna Circle, the “Geistkreis” or “Mind Circle”:

It may have been purely accidental in our circle that the interest in methodology was so high. It was, to some extent, brought by some of my colleagues who went elsewhere for a semester. When people like [Alfred] Schutz and [Felix] Kaufmann went to Freiburg to study under [Edmund] Husserl, or when [Herbert] Furth and [Use] Minz went to Heidelberg to study there for a semester, they brought back philosophical ideas, partly because an Austrian student going to another German university doesn’t use that semester to continue law, but he looks around for other subjects.

So we had special stimuli in our discussion circle who were interested in philosophical problems, and whether apart from these special reasons it would have been– Well, of course, there was also a great general fashion in Vienna due to the influence of Mach on the whole intellectual outlook.  There was this almost excitement about matters of scientific method due to the influence of Mach, very largely ..

But our group, while we happened to be all ex-law students, law was the least subject we ever considered in our circle. It was either the social sciences or literature or — well, sociology is a social science, but sociology in the widest sense — Felix Kaufmann brought in from the Schlick circle [i.e. the “Vienna Circle”] the approach of the natural sciences. There were a great deal of semi-practical aspects. I mean, the fact that somebody like Alfred Schutz was, by profession, secretary of the banking association, but he was in one sense most philosophical, and he was most intimately connected with daily events.

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