Michael Oakeshott on Rationalism in Politics

By Callahan, Gene | Freeman, January/February 2009 | Go to article overview

Michael Oakeshott on Rationalism in Politics


Callahan, Gene, Freeman


The British philosopher and historian Michael Oakeshott is a curious figure in twentiethcentury intellectual history. He is known mostly as a "conservative political theorist," although he rejected ideology and his conservatism was primarily temperamental. Furthermore, his work on politics was only a fraction of his output, which comprised idealist philosophy, aesthetics, religion, education, the philosophy of history, and even horse racing. His popularity reached its zenith in the 1950s and early 1960s, when he was well known on both sides of the Atlantic, appearing on the BBC and becoming the favorite philosopher at National Review. But he never seemed to seek popularity, and did little or nothing to boost his own when it subsequendy faded. Today, despite the growing interest in Oakeshott since his death in 1990, even his best-recognized work, his essay "Rationalism in Politics," is, I contend, not appreciated widely enough - thus, this article.

One noteworthy aspect of Oakeshott's work on rationalism, which I address initially because it often has been misunderstood or denied, is that it is not an ideological platform, not an endorsement of conservatism, liberalism, libertarianism, or any other political stance. In "Rationalism in Politics" he explicitly points out that rationalism is a primary ingredient in all of the major brands of modern politics, having "come to colour the ideas, not merely of one, but of all political persuasions, and to flow over every party line." Oakeshott even accused F.A. Hayek, who might seem to be his natural ally, of responding to the proposals for improving society according to a "rational" plan with a rationalist system of his own: "This is, perhaps, the main significance of Hayek's Road to Serfdom - not the cogency of his doctrine, but the fact that it is a doctrine. A plan to resist all planning may be better than its opposite, but it belongs to the same style of politics," he writes.

Oakeshott's Critique

So what is the substance of Oakeshott's critique of rationalism? As he saw it, the primary feature of the rationalist approach is the belief that the essentials of any human practice can be conveyed adequately by means of a "guidebook" comprising explicitly stated rules, formalized technical procedures, and general abstract principles. Such a belief implies that understanding a theoretical model for some subject is all that is required for its mastery. Indeed, to attend to other features of a practice, such as experienced participants' rules of thumb or tacit understandings on how to proceed in the domain, could serve only to impede the necessary rational reconstruction of the subject in question.

To the contrary, Oakeshott argues that the rationalist, in awarding theory primacy over practice, has gotten things exacdy backwards: The theoretical understanding of some activity is always the child of practical know- how, and never its parent. In fact, he sees the depend- ence of theory on practice as being so unavoidable that not only is the rationalist incapable of skillful perform- ances guided solely by theory, he is not even able to stick to his purported guidelines while performing poorly. Instead he inevitably will fall back on some tradition of how to proceed in order to give context to his abstract instructions. (This is similar to Wittgen- stein's insight that every attempt to follow a set of formalized rules necessarily is grounded on informal customs and practices that determine what it means to follow a rule "correctly" - the formal rules cannot also embody their own, "correct" interpretation because any effort to incorporate that interpretation into the first-level rules would create a set of "meta-rules" themselves requiring meta-meta-rules to guide the interpretation of the meta-rules, and so on, in an infinite regress.)

Oakeshott contends that the essence of an accomplished practitioner's skill cannot be conveyed to a neophyte through explicit technical instructions, but instead must learned tacidy, during a period of intimate apprenticeship.

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