Michael Oakeshott: Rationalism and Self-Serving in Politics

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MICHAEL Oakeshott's essay 'Rationalism in Politics', first published in The Cambridge Journal in 1947 and reprinted in Oakeshott's 1962 volume Rationalism in Politics: and Other Essays, is generally recognized to be the most important single text by a philosopher who has come to be acknowledged as the leading British conservative thinker of the post-1945 era. It provides not only a devastating critique of the mind-set of left-leaning would-be social engineers but also an analytic tool, or at least a formula, for distinguishing between a conservative approach to public institutions, respecting the logic of their organic development, and the iconoclasticism of political progressives who suppose that in each generation there exist people (usually themselves) with the intellectual qualifications to dismantle public institutions and rebuild them in a more efficient form. Oakeshott's arguments have proved so serviceable in polemic that little attention seems to have been given to the possibility that he shared in the solipsistic errors which he denounced.

Oakeshott described the political rationalist as recognizing no authority but his own reason, as an enemy 'of prejudice, of the merely traditional, customary or habitual' (p. 1 of Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays); he tends to plump for the 'large outlines' (p. 2); 'much of his political activity consists in bringing the social, political, legal and institutional inheritance of his society before the tribunal of his intellect' (p. 4); 'the most stupendous of our political rationalism'--though by no means the only one--is of course Marxism (p. 26). He dates the emergence of political rationalism from the first half of the seventeenth century, from the writings of Francis Bacon and Rene Descartes: 'Bacon's ambition was to equip the intellect with what appeared to him necessary if certain and demonstrable knowledge of the world in which we live is to be attained ... What is lacking is a clear perception of the nature of certainty and an adequate means of achieving it. "There remains", says Bacon, "but one course for the recovery of a sound and healthy condition--namely, that the entire work of understanding be commenced afresh, and the mind itself be from the outset not left to take its own course, but guided at every step"' (p. 14).

The key element in rationalism according to Oakeshott is a privileging of what he calls 'technical knowledge' at the expense of what he somewhat inaptly characterizes as 'practical knowledge':

   In every art and science, and in every practical activity, a
   technique is involved. In many activities this technical knowledge is
   formulated into rules which are, or may be, deliberately learned,
   remembered, and, as we say, put into practice; but whether or not it
   is, or has been precisely formulated, its chief characteristic is
   that it is susceptible of precise formulation .... The second sort of
   knowledge I will call practical, because it exists only in use, is
   not reflective and (unlike technique) cannot be formulated in rules
   .... In a practical art, such as cookery, nobody supposes that the
   knowledge that belongs to a good cook is confined to what is or may
   be written down in the cookery book ... the same is true of the fine
   arts, of painting, of music, of poetry; a high degree of technique
   knowledge, even where it is both subtle and ready, is one thing; the
   ability to create a work of art, the ability to compose something
   with real musical qualities, the ability to write a great sonnet, is
   another, and requires, in addition to technique, this other sort of
   knowledge (pp. 14-15).

Where Oakeshott begins to be unconvincing is in his discussion of why people should be so wholehearted in mistaking merely technical knowledge for the whole of knowledge. He says that 'The new and politically inexperienced social classes which, during the last four centuries, have risen to the exercise of political initiative and authority . …