rationalism in politics

a utilitarian conversation

Political philosophers, it would follow, should have a politics. Unlike writers of imaginative literature, philosophers are engaged in a descriptive effort to understand the world, to declare how it works. Flowing naturally from the descriptive is the prescriptive, and there is no more central prescriptive activity than politics. Political philosophers, more than any other type of thinker, should attempt to marry the descriptive to the prescriptive. It is their form of abstract thinking that should translate most easily to a prescriptive project.

It would be interesting, then, for a political philosopher to decry politics altogether and eschew association with any practical program. And that is exactly what Michael Oakeshott did.

Oakeshott was a political philosopher in the 20th century in England who has consistently eluded attempts at classification and categorization. Oakeshott’s political writings are centered around one volume, “Rationalism in Politics,” in which he attacks the influence of what he terms “Rationalism” on statecraft. Rationalism, to Oakeshott, is the attitude of an engineer. It sees politics as a series of problems to be solved. Oakeshott writes, “Now, as I understand it, Rationalism is the assertion that what I have called practical knowledge is not knowledge at all, the assertion that, properly speaking, there is no knowledge which is not technical knowledge.” The failure of the Rationalist is, according to Oakeshott, one of vision. They fail to understand the incommensurability of different realms of life, that politics and science are not one and the same and that the methods and approaches of one cannot be applied to the other.

In opposition to Rationalism, Oakeshott seeks to ground politics on tradition. He does not believe that societies can be judged outside of their history and what they have inherited. There is no neutral space from which their practices can be judged. His great metaphor for society and the role of governance is that of a ship. “In political activity, then, men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting-place nor appointed destination. The enterprise is to keep afloat on an even keel; the sea is both friend and enemy; and the seamanship consists in using the resources of a traditional manner of behaviour in order to make a friend of every hostile occasion.” There is no end to which politics aspires, no final state of being that it seeks to achieve. The job of government is to keep the ship afloat and this can only be done through the mobilization of practical experience.

Oakeshott fixates upon the importance of practical experience throughout his works as an antidote to the sort of disembodied, abstract reasoning that motivates the Rationalist and serves as the core of his project. This emerges in Oakeshott’s other great metaphor for politics: that of cooking. The Rationalist thinks that all one needs to know in order to cook is a cookbook. Like all activities, it can be reduced to a set of directions. Great cooks, however, are formed by habit and practical experience. Merely following directions from a cookbook is not the essence of what cooking actually is. Practical experience is handed down from generation to generation and becomes encoded in habit and tradition. This is the source of his fierce opposition to ideology in any form. Ideology is the premier creation of the Rationalist.

As a result, Oakeshott becomes nearly fetishistic about tradition. To him, it is the only legitimate basis for governance, the only form of governance that respects the nature of human life and human communities. It is not so much that tradition is inherently good, but rather that tradition is the only possible guide. Without it, human beings and human communities would fall into incoherence. Unlike another great English conservative, Edmund Burke, Oakeshott does not seek to evaluate the good and bad parts of his community’s inheritance. Indeed, Oakeshott would have found Burke’s valorization of the principles of the Glorious Revolution as troublingly close to ideology. A critical posture towards tradition, for Oakeshott, threatens the entire project of establishing a political community.

This leads Oakeshott into some positions that are, to say the least, challenging to understand for us residents of the 21st century. Oakeshott would have had nothing but contempt for the opening lines of the Gettysburg Address, that “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” He would have called them incoherent and misguided. A government cannot be dedicated to anything other than governance. It is not motivated by principle or ideal. It is not designed beforehand. It consists of the reception of habits and practices that have been developed by a community over centuries. He would have reserved the same criticism for the Declaration of Independence, which seeks to found the American project upon the truth “that all men are created equal.” Following Burke, Oakeshott held that the notion of universal rights was prima facie absurd. Rights were not abstract principles; they were specific privileges that were the product of a particular community’s history. He continued to offer withering criticism of women’s suffrage long after it became an entrenched reality as an example of dangerous Rationalist attempts to think of society as motivated primarily by ideals such as justice or equality.

What, then, is the value of this anachronistic philosopher? It is true that his attack on ideology is valuable, as it gives brilliant insight into the source of the danger of totalitarian movements that ravaged the Western world and the core of their destructiveness. His prose, unlike that of most philosophers, is creative and clean. In reading him, you see a powerful mind at work sifting through the vagaries and challenges of rigorous thinking. All of these make him worthy of reading. But above all else, Oakeshott requires us to question how we imagine the human individual and human communities. He demonstrates the persistent narrowness of how we think about ourselves as we constantly reduce the plurality of realms in which we operate to a unity that simplifies life unnecessarily, destroying the wonder of our inheritance.

We live in a world in the grips of a poverty of collective imagination. The communal has been relentlessly degraded in pursuit of the individual. Unmoored from tradition and history, our collective memories grow shorter and shorter. This has deprived us, it seems, not only of our powers of vision, but also of a great deal of what makes us meaningfully human. If your memory is short, your vision will be small, your entire being will be impoverished. We have attempted to compensate for this smallness by obsessing over visions of the future and attempting to implement them through convulsive and destructive social transformation. Oakeshott does not repudiate modernity. He is not a counterrevolutionary who would seek to roll back time to before 1968, 1789, 1776, 1648, 1517, or whichever other date certain traditionalists have identified as being the cause of the world’s ills. With these efforts, Oakeshott seeks to refocus our attention on things almost universally overlooked by politicians and political philosophers: the preciousness of the everyday. In an election cycle in which great promises are made and great furies are whipped up, we would all do well to step back from the political madhouse and remember that which makes life worth living.

Oakeshott instead exhorts us to pause and consider the transient, fragile joys of life that do not fit into any political program, that elude any attempt at categorization. To Oakeshott, this is the substance of a life well lived, and any politics that threatens these precious goods is a threat that must be combatted. It is easy to call for big changes, for sweeping renewals and revolutions. It is much harder to appreciate the goods that trouble our powers of articulation: love, friendship, poetry, ritual, religion.

Oakeshott instead would like man to see himself as a participant in an ancient and eternal endeavor, “As civilized human beings, we are the inheritors, neither of an inquiry about ourselves and the world, nor of an accumulating body of information, but of a conversation, begun in the primeval forests and extended and made more articulate in the course of centuries. It is a conversation which goes on both in public and within each of ourselves.” It is Oakeshott’s reverence for our ability to converse, to wrestle and struggle and learn with one another, that lies at the core of his thought. This is what he seeks to defend from utilitarian reductiveness that sees man as nothing but a problem to be solved.