Sunday, April 04, 2004

Rules We Follow Without Knowing It

Neal’s post below, in which he described his 5-year-old son’s use of a rule of English pronunciation that he almost certainly could not describe, reminded me of the following passage from Hayek:
The first of these attributes which most rules of conduct originally possessed is that they are observed in action without being known to the acting person in articulated (‘verbalized’ or explicit) form. They will manifest themselves in regularity of action which can be explicitly described, but this regularity of action is not the result of the acting persons being capable of thus stating them.
Hayek was speaking of rules in a different context – the rules of ethical and just conduct. But he recognized the generality of his point:
We cannot consider here the difficult question of how men can learn from each other such, often highly abstract, rules of conduct by example and imitation … This is a problem most familiar to us in the learning of language by children who are able to produce correctly most complicated expressions they have never heard before; but it occurs also in such fields as manners, morals, and law, and in most skills where we are guided by rules which we know how to follow but are unable to state.
(Both passages appear on p. 19 of Hayek’s Law Legislation and Liberty, Vol. I: Rules and Order.)

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