Michael Oakeshott’s Rationalism In Politics

rationalism-in-politicsI came to Michael Oakeshott by way of Ross Douthat, the New York Times’ resident conservative writer, whose blog I admire and read regularly. The overwhelming reaction, of friends and family, upon learning that I have been reading Oakeshott, has been one of surprise, for his name has largely passed from public memory. This is unfortunate, a symptom of the intellectual trends of the 20th century rather than some defect in his thinking or writing, and means some biographical outline is necessary. Oakeshott was born in 1901, in Britain, to a father who was a Fabian and civil servant. He studied history at Cambridge before serving in the Second World War, and thereafter took up teaching full time, first at Cambridge, then briefly at Oxford, and finally at the London School of Economics, where he worked for two decades until his retirement in 1969. If he made his living as a professor of history, his real passion was for philosophy, and his written works explore the use and abuse of political philosophy in his own time. Rationalism In Politics, his best known work, was originally published in 1962, but the expanded version now available, approved by Oakeshott just before his death in 1990, includes thematically relevant essays on the study of history, as well as two larger pieces introducing the work and thought of Thomas Hobbes. Oakeshott’s primary target in this book is summed up in the derisive word “rationalism,” a species of reasoning devoid of historical or practical knowledge that masquerades as reasoned argument when in fact it is closer to sophistry.

The opening essay, “Rationalism In Politics,” begins by stating explicitly what should be abundantly clear: in contemporary politics, all arguments are rationalist in nature. That is to say, it is no longer acceptable, within the Western world, to deny the preeminence of “reason” in evolving a political platform. Liberals might claim x, while conservatives claim y, but both claim to have arrived at their propositions through reason. Monarchies and theocracies are two modes of government that unseat the primacy of reason, and both are defunct in the Western world. But to say that a politician or platform is rationalist in nature is not to say that its reasoning is sound, or even plausible. In the 1960s, both the Soviet and Maoist regimes made overt claims to reasoned governance, to employing a “scientific” approach to organizing society, and the results of their experiment suffice to demonstrate the lunacy of the claim. “Rationalism,” then, is not reasoning at all, but a quasi-reasoning, one that might proceed with logical argument but whose foundational beliefs are erroneous or incomplete. Oakeshott correctly perceives that some minds will be more vulnerable to rationalism than others, and so he offers a portrait of the rationalist that seems to me as applicable today as it was in 1960:

At bottom he stands (he always stands) for independence of mind on all occasions, for thought free from obligation to any authority save the authority of ‘reason.’ His circumstances in the modern world have made him contentious: he is the enemy of authority, of prejudice, of the merely traditional, customary or habitual. His mental attitude is at once sceptical and optimistic: sceptical, because there is no opinion, no habit, no belief, nothing so firmly rooted or so widely held that he hesitates to question it and to judge it by what he calls his ‘reason’; optimistic, because the Rationalist never doubts the power of his ‘reason’ (when properly applied) to determine the worth of a thing, the truth of an opinion or the propriety of an action. Moreover, he is fortified by a belief in a ‘reason’ common to all mankind, a common power of rational consideration, which is the ground and inspiration of argument: set up on his door is the precept of Parmenides–judge by rational argument. But besides this, which gives the Rationalist a touch of intellectual equalitarianism, he is something also of an individualist, finding it difficult to believe that anyone who can think honestly and clearly will think differently from himself.

It should be noted that Oakeshott is mocking the Rationalist for exactly those qualities that John Stuart Mill exalts; whereas, for Mill, the willingness to subject everything to the “acid test” of reason is a positive thing, for Oakeshott it is folly, because, for one, even the most intelligent of people are fallible in their reasoning, and, for another, because “reason” is not common to mankind. People really do “reason” differently, which is not to say that there is no way to make qualitative judgments about which reasoning is sound and which fallacious, but that in larger questions about politics, history and the values a society “ought” to hold or pursue, there will inevitably be large disagreements. What Oakeshott is here touching on is one of the foundational distinctions between the conservative and liberal worldview: liberals, in general, have greater faith in the power of reason; conservatives, in general, are skeptical about it, or at least more keenly aware of its limitations. Oakeshott continues in his profile of the Rationalist mind in terms worth quoting, for we are at present raising an entire generation of Rationalists under the guise of giving them a college education:

There are some minds which give us the sense that they have passed through an elaborate education which was designed to initiate them into the traditions and achievements of their civilization; the immediate impression we have of them is an impression of cultivation, of the enjoyment of an inheritance. But this is not so with the mind of the Rationalist, which impresses us as, at best, a finely-tempered, neutral instrument, as a well-trained rather than as an educated mind. Intellectually, his ambition is not so much to share the experience of the race as to be demonstrably a self-made man. And this gives to his intellectual and practical activities an almost preternatural deliberateness and self-consciousness, depriving them of any element of passivity, removing them from all sense of rhythm and continuity and dissolving them into a succession of climacterics, each to be surmounted by a tour de raison. His mind has no atmosphere, no changes of season and temperature; his intellectual processes, as far as possible, are insulated from all external influence and go on in the void. And having cut himself off from the traditional knowledge of his society, and denied the value of any education more extensive than a mere training in a technique of analysis, he is apt to attribute to mankind a necessary inexperience in all the critical moments of life, and if he were more self-critical he might begin to wonder how the race had ever succeeded in surviving. With an almost poetic fancy, he strives to live each day as if it were his first, and he believes that to form a habit is to fail.

To be initiated into the “traditions and achievements” of civilization, in Oakeshott’s understanding, is to enter into an old and ongoing conversation, awareness of which acts as a kind of inoculation against the sloppy thinking of the Rationalist, characterized by a “technique of analysis,” a single, omnipotent standard applied in all situations. The ultimate manifestation of this “technique” is the ideology, which cuts through the many variables presented by history, economics and society to offer a schema for achieving a desired political end. In Oakeshott’s time, this technique was Marxism, and there existed an endless number of Marxist intellectuals certain that every economic collapse, every minor revolution or worker’s strike, could be explained through the lens of their ideology; indeed, that each such event was predictable given the “class struggle.” Today, they go by other names, but these tedious pedants are no less prevalent, eager to substitute their analytical techniques for actual thought, and they have produced a university system that mirrors their worldview: facts and figures, history and literature, are of secondary importance, at best; what counts is the theory.

In “The Activity Of Being An Historian,” Oakeshott extends these principles to the study of history, which he believes to have been newly corrupted by those eager to reduce history to a set of axioms or lessons, to develop a “science of history.” This essay pairs well with another, “The Voice Of Poetry In The Conversation Of Mankind,” as literature has likewise fallen prey to the theorizers. This essay affirms for poetry a role in shaping society, but not, as the Rationalists would have it, by offering a kind of watered down image of the human being, one that can likewise be distilled into easily digestible lessons. For Oakeshott, to read poetry didactically is not to read poetry at all, to miss the fundamental beauty of the form, which resides “in contemplating and delighting.” Poetry, like history and unlike science, is not an argument but a conversation, and one that requires an initiation. The last essay I wish to discuss is perhaps the one I will return to most often in the future: “The Masses In Representative Democracy.” It begins by tracing the rise of individualism in Europe, from the Middle Ages to Renaissance Italy, culminating in the works of the great ethical philosophers, most notably Kant, for whom the ultimate test of a moral theory was its treatment of the individual. Art, literature and music were celebrated as expressions of individuality, and politics gradually amended itself to accord the individual greater scope. But, Oakeshott argues, not all were equally equipped to take advantage of these newly-won liberties:

Nevertheless, in a world being transformed by the aspirations and activities of those who were excited by these opportunities, there were some people, by circumstance or by temperament, less ready than others to respond to this invitation; and for many the invitation to make choices came before the ability to make them and was consequently recognized as a burden. The old certainties of belief, of occupation and of status were being dissolved, not only for those who had confidence in their own power to make a new place for themselves in an association of individuals, but also for those who had no such confidence. The counterpart of the agricultural and industrial entrepreneur of the sixteenth century was the displaced labourer; the counterpart of the libertine was the dispossessed believer. The familiar warmth of communal pressures was dissipated for all alike – an emancipation which excited some, depressed others. The familiar anonymity of communal life was replaced by a personal identity which was burdensome to those who could not transform it into an individuality. What some recognized as happiness, appeared to others as discomfort. The same condition of human circumstance was identified as progress and as decay. In short, the circumstances of modern Europe, even as early as the sixteenth century, bred, not a single character, but two obliquely opposed characters: not only that of the individual, but also that of the ‘individual manqué.’ And this ‘individual manqué‘ was not a relic of a past age; he was a ‘modern’ character, the product of the same dissolution of communal ties as had generated the modern European individual.

This individual manqué gradually discovered that he was not alone, that, in fact, what Oakeshott calls the “burden” of individuality was burdensome to many, perhaps most, and that in their disaffection, in their utter inability to exist as individuals, they could assume a new identity, that of the mass man. The mass man, aware of his deficiencies, seeks to dissolve himself in a group identity, to have his choices made for him, and so he needs a leader, an enlightened monarch or an active government – someone who will help him “assimilate the world to his own character by deposing the individual and destroying his moral prestige.” Out of this desire emerges a new morality, a morality of the anti-individual, one that prizes not liberty and self-determination but “equality” and “solidarity.”

The nucleus of this morality was the concept of a substantive condition of human circumstance represented as the ‘common’ or ‘public’ good, which was understood, not to be composed of the various goods that might be sought by individuals of their own accord, but to be an independent entity.

Mao might starve millions “for the public good,” as he and his followers defined it; Stalin could violate every precept of Kantian morality, of the morality of the individual, if it meant accomplishing “the public good” as understood by Marxists. But these are only extreme examples. Oakeshott is more attentive to how the nuances of this thinking have inserted themselves into Western political thought:

To govern was understood to be the exercise of power in order to impose and maintain the substantive condition of human circumstance identified as ‘the public good’; to be governed was, for the ‘anti-individual,’ to have made for him the choices he was unable to make for himself. Thus, ‘government’ was cast for the role of architect and custodian, not of ‘public order’ in an ‘association’ of individuals pursuing their own activities, but of ‘the public good’ of a ‘community.’ The ruler was recognized to be, not the referee of the collisions of individuals, but the moral leader and managing director of ‘the community.’ And this understanding of government has been tirelessly explored over a period of four and a half centuries, from Thomas More’s Utopia to the Fabian Society, from Campanella to Lenin.

The European Union is merely a modern embodiment of this idea of government, one among many – perhaps only America remains as an example of a government focused on the human individual, though it threatens to follow Europe as well.

This has been the longest of my blog posts in over three years of writing, and yet I have barely skimmed the surface of Oakeshott’s ideas or their relevance to us today. He so thoroughly interrogated the currents of thought in his time that I cannot find anywhere around me – from Brexit to the American presidential election, from college campuses to modern literary theory – something that would surprise him, something that has not been anticipated in his writing. He is dead, but he has joined the ranks of the philosophers he reveres to become a part of that never-ending, cross-generational conversation, from which he will continue to inspire and influence and challenge all who are fortunate enough to discover him.