The Confusion of Language in Political Thought, With Some Suggestions for Remedying It

The Confusion of Language in Political Thought, With Some Suggestions for Remedying It. London: Institute of Economic Affairs (Occasional Paper 20), 1968/1976, 36 pp.


“Modern civilization has given man undreamt powers largely because, without understanding it, he has developed methods of utilizing more knowledge and resources than any one mind is aware of. The fundamental condition from which any intelligent discussion of the order of all social activities should start is the constitutional and irremediable ignorance both of acting persons and of the scientist studying this order, of the multiplicity of particular, concrete facts which enter this order of human activities because they are known to some of its members. As the motto on the title page expresses it, “Man has become all he is without understanding what happened.” This insight should not be a cause of shame but a source of pride in having discovered a method that enables us to overcome the limitations of individual knowledge. And it is an incentive deliberately to cultivate institutions which have opened up those possibilities.

The great achievements of the 18th Century social philosophers was to replace the naïve constructivist rationalism of earlier periods, which interpreted all institutions as the products of deliberate design for a foreseeable purpose, by a critical and evolutionary rationalism that examined the conditions and limitations of the effective use of unconscious reason.

We are still very far however from making full use of  the possibilities which those insights open to us, largely because our thinking is covered by language which reflects an earlier mode of thought. The important  problems are in large measure of obscured by words which imply anthropomorphic or personalized explanations of social institutions.”

IEA.Org [pdf]