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Michael Oakeshott on Rationalism in Politics

Gene Callahan

The British philosopher and historian Michael Oakeshott is a curious figure in twentieth-century 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 subsequently 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 exactly backwards: The theoretical understanding of some activity is always the child of practical know-how, and never its parent. In fact, he sees the dependence of theory on practice as being so unavoidable that not only is the rationalist incapable of skillful performances 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 Wittgenstein’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” inter-
pretation 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 be learned tacitly, during a period of intimate apprenticeship. The formal rules purported to underlie success in an activity merely present an abstraction from the concrete and formally unspecifiable knowledge possessed by the true master, who may offer such an explicit set of precepts as a rough surface map of his deep sea of experience-born proficiency, useful so that the beginner does not feel lost when first venturing into those waters, but hopelessly inadequate as a guide to their depths.

To offer a concrete example, the rationalist cook is oblivious to the years that the skilled chef has spent establishing intimate relationships with his ingredients and tools, and tries to get by in the kitchen solely with what he can glean from a cookbook. As a result, he botches most of the dishes he attempts. However, his repeated failures typically do not lead him to suspect that his fundamental method of proceeding might be faulty. Instead, each disappointment only spurs the rationalist to search for a new, improved, and even more “rational” book of recipes.

Influence of Rationalism

Despite that modus operandi being no more workable in political activity than it is in cooking, Oakeshott points out that rationalism has had its greatest influence in the arena of politics: “But what, at first sight, is remarkable, is that politics should have been earlier and more fully engulfed by the tidal wave [of rationalism] than any other human activity. The hold of Rationalism upon most departments of life has varied in its firmness during the last four centuries but in politics it has steadily increased and is stronger now than at any earlier time.”
The preeminence that Oakeshott assigns to rationalist influence in modern political life may appear to be at odds with his assertion that the rationalist can never actually realize his program, but will always, in fact, wind up acting more or less along lines indicated by some existing practice. However, Oakeshott’s contention that the rationalist never really can proceed according to her avowed principles does not mean that her attempt to adhere to them will be inconsequential, but only that it will not succeed.

An analogy may be helpful here: A person who tries to fly by vigorously flapping his arms whenever he walks surely will fail to achieve his goal, but, in the endeavor, he will succeed in making his perambulations much more tiring, awkward, and comical. Similarly, since the pronouncements of the rationalist disparage current practices, customs, and morals, insofar as they do not follow from his rational deliberations about how his society ought to be ordered, they will erode the spontaneous ease of the communal life that those traditions nourished, while offering in its stead only the artificial routines and regulations of a “rational” bureaucracy. Oakeshott offers this example: “First, we do our best to destroy parental authority (because of its alleged abuse), then we sentimentally deplore the scarcity of ‘good homes’, and we end by creating substitutes which complete the work of destruction.”

Oakeshott’s view of the rationalist project as fundamentally misguided does not imply that all traditional practices are sacrosanct or even that they all are laudable. There is plenty of room in any healthy tradition for innovations and reforms, so long as those alterations spring from an appreciation of the life of that tradition, rather than representing an attempt to wipe it out and replace it with an abstract scheme. Traditions are like living organisms, in that both ought to and usually do grow and adapt in response to their external circumstances and internal tensions, or, failing to do so, soon cease to exist. But those adaptations, if they are to meet the challenges presented by novel situations successfully, must not promote the deterioration of the very organic order they purport to be serving. The political theorist can serve to diagnose and treat ills in his polity much like a physician does in his patients. But, as Oakeshott notes in his Lectures in the History of Political Thought, “[T]o cure is not to transform, it is not to turn the patient into a different sort of being; it is to restore to him such health as he is naturally capable of enjoying.” Because the rationalist physician attempts to transform rather than merely heal his charge, his treatments are likely to do far more harm than good.

Unfortunately, the “rationalist chef’s” counterpart in social reform similarly is inclined to interpret the social maladies produced by his projects not as evidence of any problem with his basic premises, but, quite to the contrary, as signaling the need for an even more energetic and thorough implementation of rationalist social engineering. This explains the tendency, noted by Ludwig von Mises, Hayek, Sandy Ikeda, and others, for each intervention in the economy to prompt yet further interventions. And the engineering metaphor itself encourages the planners to regard the rest of the citizenry as parts of a machine, cogs to be readjusted and rearranged as called for by each new blueprint, each drawn up to fix the problems generated by its predecessor. Since most people are disinclined to acquiesce to a life in which they are constrained to behave as an externally controlled mechanical device, the breakdown of each new, rationalist design for society is the predictable result.

In On Human Conduct, published in 1975, Oakeshott presents a dichotomy similar to that between the “rationalist” and the “traditionalist” found in his earlier works, which is worth discussing here for the additional light it sheds on his ideas. He opens the book with a meditation on the nature of theorizing. As he concludes that section, he segues into the discussion of the practice/theory dichotomy by noting the debt his ideas on theory owe to Plato’s analysis of the same topic, especially to the famous metaphor of the cave presented in The Republic. Given that similarity, Oakeshott wishes to note an important difference.

As Oakeshott understands Plato, the cave dwellers represent those individuals whose conceptual horizon is bound within the world of practical affairs. Plato was correct, in Oakeshott’s view, in holding that, because such people fail to recognize the limited nature of the practical understanding of reality—instead mistakenly accepting it as the only possible mode of comprehending experience—they therefore have, in effect, imprisoned themselves within its confines (Plato’s cave). And Plato also was accurate in regarding the understanding of the theorist—in that it represents at least an attempt to transcend those limits—as offering, in a sense, a higher form of knowledge than that gained by the solely practical thinker.

However, Oakeshott argues, contra Plato, the truth that the practical understanding of the world is inherently limited does not imply that what it yields it is not really knowledge at all, only that it is knowledge within a restricted domain. Moreover, quite crucially for Oakeshott, the superiority of theoretical knowledge over its practical counterpart in no way means that the former can replace the latter for dealing with the practical world.

As knowledge of the realm of the shadows is a real and hard-won achievement, the theorist goes gravely astray when he relies on his theoretical insights to issue directives to the practitioner, ridiculously trying to “set straight” the practical man on matters with which the theorist has no familiarity. The cave dwellers, first encountering the theorist on his return, might be impressed “when he tells them that what they had always thought of as ‘a horse’ is not what they suppose it to be . . . but is, on the contrary, a modification of the attributes of God. . . . But if he were to tell them that, in virtue of his more profound understanding of the nature of horses, he is a more expert horse-man, horse-chandler, or stable boy than they (in their ignorance) could ever hope to be, and when it becomes clear that his new learning has lost him the ability to tell one end of a horse from the other . . . [then] before long the more perceptive of the cave-dwellers [will] begin to suspect that, after all, he [is] not an interesting theorist but a fuddled and pretentious ‘theoretician’ who should be sent on his travels again, or accommodated in a quiet home.”

This passage provides a fresh perspective from which one can contemplate the character of the rationalist and perceive how it is that he has gone astray. Here the modern rationalist is understood as a “theoretician” who is reiterating Plato’s ancient misstep. Furthermore, Oakeshott now offers a more sympathetic picture of the rationalist than in his earlier, more polemical essays—the reader can appreciate how easy it is to fall into the error of rationalism, since the theorist really has broken through to a higher form of knowledge, and it is quite understandable that, elated by his achievement, he mistakenly concludes that theory ought to be the unquestioned master of practice. But while this model of rationalism significantly enriches the one put forward in the earlier essays, it does not contradict their central thesis.

“Rational” Urban Planning

A real-world example of the sorry effects of the rationalist mentality on society can be drawn from the works of the famed analyst of urban life, Jane Jacobs. Her detailed description of healthy urban neighborhoods is based on her close observation of them, not on armchair theorizing.

Unlike Jacobs, mid-twentieth-century urban planners, possessed by the rationalist mindset, looked at city tenements and saw only chaos. The residents of such neighborhoods were subjected to the noisy activities of industry and commerce, disturbing their peace. Their children, living in densely built-up districts, were forced to play on the sidewalks! What these people lacked was fresh air, sunshine, green spaces, and quiet. As Oakeshott predicted, the planners could not really free their thoughts from the world of practice—instead, what they actually tried to do was create a likeness of their own wealthy, suburban lives in the context of poor neighborhoods, completely ignoring the differences that made suburban life workable, such as greater wealth, ubiquitous ownership of automobiles, lower population densities, more homogeneous populations, the relative absence of strangers passing through the neighborhood, and so on.

Therefore, these planners claimed, the “obvious” solution to the discomforts of ghetto life was to tear down these “slums” en masse and in their place erect purely residential complexes, consisting of high rises separated by wide swaths of grass and trees—in other words, the giant housing projects of the 1950s and ’60s. As Jacobs noted, the rationalist planners, blind to the concrete reality of tenement life, failed to realize that the mix of businesses and residences increased the safety of the residents by providing “eyes on the street.” The neighborhood shopkeeper, who knows all the residents, is out sweeping his sidewalk early in the morning, the workers going to and from their jobs provide a steady stream of pedestrians, and even the neighborhood bar ensures that the streets are not deserted until the wee hours of the morning. Parents transporting their children to and from school appear on the street. Mothers with preschool children head to the parks, workers come out to eat lunch in them, and shoppers come and go from area stores.

The children playing on the sidewalks could be monitored easily by all of these people, many of whom knew them, as well as their parents, leaning out the second-story window to shout, “Johnny, cut that nonsense out!”

By contrast, the new, “rational” housing projects were empty of life around the buildings for most of the day. The basketball court and the lovely green parks were unsupervised because there was no one around. The mother, now living up in her 30th-floor modern apartment, was completely unable to watch over her children’s play if she let them go down to those “recreational” spaces. The result is well-known. The community ties of the bulldozed tenements were shattered, the spaces around the high rises became the domain of drug dealers and muggers, and the rationally designed inner cities of the late 60s exploded with crime and waves of riots.

The effects of rationalism in Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, Cambodia, and communist China were even more extreme, of course, leading to the deaths of millions upon millions of people in the twentieth century. But I offer the above example from Jacobs because I think it is important to see the relevance of Oakeshott’s work in a more familiar and less obviously rationalist society.

Lovers of liberty should keep Oakeshott’s work on rationalism in mind for at least two reasons. First, it offers a complementary but still significantly different critique of planning to those of Mises and Hayek. However, at the same time, it provides a warning to the advocates of freedom not to fall into the rationalist quagmire themselves. The relevance of the latter point is demonstrated by, for example, the tendency of many development economists, even those who are “market oriented,” to attempt to impose their theoretical schemes for taking a shortcut to westernization on some Third World country, while running roughshod over all the traditions, customs, and morals native to the place, which, whatever their short-comings, at least managed to sustain the society in question over previous centuries. Freedom cannot be “imposed” on a people according to some preconceived scheme. We all need to watch out for “the rationalist within.”

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