Essay In Other Politics Rationalism

When British political philosopher Michael Oakeshott died in 1990, the world lost one of its greatest defenders of liberty. Not that Oakeshott ever stood near the Berlin Wall and asked for it to be tom down; nor had he published a systematic critique of the failures of socialism. Rather, Oakeshott’s contribution lay in carrying on a continuing conversation on the origins, opportunities, and future prospects of human freedom. In doing so, he offered some important insights that other writers missed or ignored.

Fortunately, a transcript of much of that conversation is now available from Liberty Fund. When Rationalism in Politics was first published in 1962, it was a major event, promoting Oakeshott to the forefront of contemporary political philosophers. This new edition adds six essays, five previously published, and the never-before published “Political Discourse,” each of which is consistent with the themes of the original book.

Along with Hobbes (Oakeshott was an expert on the author of Leviathan) Oakeshott agreed that life was short, but not necessarily nasty and brutish. What made life worth living were the possibilities offered by our ability to choose. But because life is short, it is impossible for any individual or group to usher in an ideally “free” society. Instead, much of life has to be spent in learning a culture’s existing patterns of behavior and traditions, then making wise decisions based on these traditions. Traditions that enhance individual liberty—trial by jury, voluntary associations, religious freedom, and so forth—should be encouraged, while those that inhibit the human spirit should be discarded.

Men and women are free to choose, but they will not always make the right decisions, Oakeshott says, and will consequently hold back the progress of human freedom. That there are those who fail is one of the mysteries of the human condition; there is no single formula for solving this defect.

According to Oakeshott, the best we can do—the only thing we can do—is follow those “intimations” that lead to a better world. Oakeshott frequently employs the word “intimation” because he wants to avoid the idea that there is a logical, rational direction in which we can go. Timothy Fuller, who wrote the foreword, says that “Oakeshott the man wouldn’t be so much concerned with where you planned to go as how you proposed to travel.” Karl Marx had a seemingly rational, detailed plan on how to order society. Over 100 years later, many Russian, East European, and Chinese citizens know by hard experience the consequences of such rationalism in politics.

But Oakeshott doesn’t stop at criticizing Marxism; he turns his critical mind to all rational plans to remake society in man’s image—the modern Towers of Babel. Whether it’s a Great Society or a New Deal, rationalism in politics always runs roughshod over the existing practices, associations, and political traditions that men have developed to make life easier: “The Rationalist has rejected in advance the only external inspiration capable of correcting his error; he does not merely neglect the kind of knowledge which would save him, he begins by destroying it. First he turns out the light and then complains that he cannot see, . . . In short, the Rationalist is essentially ineducable; and he could be educated out of his Rationalism only by an inspiration which he regards as the great enemy of mankind. All the Rationalist can do when left to himself is to replace one rationalist project in which he has failed by another in which he hopes to succeed. Indeed, this is what contemporary politics are fast degenerating into: the political habit and tradition, which, not long ago, was the common possession of even extreme opponents in English politics, has been replaced by merely a common rationalist disposition of mind.”

To the practical American way of thinking, Oakeshott’s armchair philosophy may seem too simplistic. We want a plan of action, a set of marching orders. We want to do something, even if it’s wrong. But as Oakeshott points out, every time social engineers have tried to solve problems through “rational politics,” they have only created new ones that are worse. By contrast, most of the liberties we enjoy were developed during a long historical process, totally outside the offices of the world’s central governments. New freedoms that we experience as part of the computer and information age are coming not from rational political planning, but from private sector initiatives and voluntary associations.

Oakeshott’s laissez-faire philosophy may work in societies with long traditions of individual liberty, such as the United States and Great Britain. But what about societies with no recent memory of freedom? We are already seeing how difficult it is for the Eastern European countries to free up their economies and people. What Oakeshott might suggest is that freedom in these countries cannot develop overnight, but only through many years in which existing institutions—the “black market,” religious groups, the family, voluntary associations—are cultivated and allowed to take over spheres of life once dominated by government.

Years ago, Oakeshott predicted the breakup of the Soviet empire, as he felt the human spirit could only be suppressed for so long. (Unlike many economic historians, Oakeshott finds the origins of modern freedom in the works of the artists and artisans of the Renaissance.) But he was also concerned that the nations which cast off Communism might replace one form of rational politics for another, and that the West might unwittingly aid in such folly. This book can help us avoid that temptation. 

Robert A. Peterson is the headmaster of The Pilgrim Academy in Egg Harbor, New Jersey.

Robert A. Peterson

Mr. Peterson is headmaster at the Pilgrim Academy in Egg Harbor City, New Jersey. He is the author of In His Majesty’s Service (Huntington House).

Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays (1962)


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The general characteristics of this [conservative] disposition are not difficult to discern, although they have often been mistaken. They centre upon a propensity to use and to enjoy what is available rather than to wish for or to look for something else; to delight in what is present rather than what was or what may be . . . an appropriate gratefulness for what is available, and consequently the acknowledgment of a gift or an inheritance from the past.
    -Michael Oakeshott, On Being Conservative


It is a curious coincidence that two of the greatest British philosophers of the 20th Century are each known primarily for just one essay--Isaiah Berlin for The Hedgehog and The Fox and Michael Oakeshott for Rationalism in Politics. That's neither to denigrate their other writings nor to diminish the two remarkable essays, but it is odd.

Michael Oakeshott followed in the footsteps of a long line of English skeptics, the greatest of whom was probably David Hume. In Rationalism in Politics, as the title suggests, Oakeshott turned the full glare of his skepticism upon the notion that Man, through the application of pure reason, could comprehend and reorder the world so as to achieve desired ends. It may well have been the most cherished project of the Age of Reason to use the tool of rationality to free Man from the "bondage" of ancient culture, religion and morality, to replace faith and tradition, the hoary wisdom of our ancestors, with a new "science" of society, arrived at by rethinking things anew in light of reason alone. What Mr. Oakeshott did here was to demonstrate why such a project must be so dangerous.

It's our great good fortune in the age of the Internet to have the entire essay on-line, but here's his devastating description of the Rationalist temperament:
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 from them 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, so 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 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. And if, with as yet no thought of analysis, we glance below the surface, we may, perhaps, see in the temperament, if not in the character, of the Rationalist, a deep distrust of time, an impatient hunger for eternity and an irritable nervousness in the face of everything topical and transitory.

Now, of all worlds, the world of politics might seem the least amenable to rationalist treatment--politics, always so deeply veined with both the traditional, the circumstantial and the transitory. And, indeed, some convinced Rationalists have admitted defeat here: Clemenceau, intellectually a child of the modern Rationalist tradition (in his treatment of morals and religion, for example), was anything but a Rationalist in politics. But not all have admitted defeat. If we except religion, the greatest apparent victories of Rationalism have been in politics: it is not to be expected that whoever is prepared to carry his rationalism into the conduct of life will hesitate to carry it into the conduct of public affairs.

But what is important to observe in such a man (for it is characteristic) is not the decisions and actions he is inspired to make, but the source of his inspiration, his idea (and with him it will be a deliberate and conscious idea) of political activity. He believes, of course, in the open mind, the mind free from prejudice and its relic, habit. He believes that the unhindered human 'reason' (if only it can be brought to bear) is an infallible guide in political activity. Further, he believes in argument as the technique and operation of reason'; the truth of an opinion and the 'rational' ground (not the use) of an institution is all that matters to him. Consequently, much of his political activity consists in bringing the social, political, legal and institutional inheritance of his society before the tribunal of his intellect; and the rest is rational administration, 'reason' exercising an uncontrolled jurisdiction over the circumstances of the case. To the Rationalist, nothing is of value merely because it exists (and certainly not because it has existed for many generations), familiarity has no worth, and nothing is to be left standing for want of scrutiny. And his disposition makes both destruction and creation easier for him to understand and engage in, than acceptance or reform. To patch up, to repair (that is, to do anything which requires a patient knowledge of the material), he regards as waste of time: and he always prefers the invention of a new device to making use of a current and well-tried expedient. He does not recognize change unless it is a self-consciously induced change, and consequently he falls easily into the error of identifying the customary and the traditional with the changeless. This is aptly illustrated by the rationalist attitude towards a tradition of ideas. There is, of course, no question either of retaining or improving such a tradition, for both these involve an attitude of submission. It must be destroyed. And to fill its place the Rationalist puts something of his own making--an ideology, the formalized abridgment of the supposed substratum of rational truth contained in the tradition.


One of the glories of the rationalist mind was the invention of the Calculus, whether by Newton or Liebniz or both, just because it was needed. But had the Calculus not worked, though these men would have been disappointed, it would not have much harmed their fellow citizens. Unfortunately, the same can not be said when a philosopher, political scientist, economist, or whomever invents a new ideology and someone tries out the corresponding political regime on a society. It is of course characteristic of the age of Rationalism in the West that a series of such ideologies have risen up--socialism, communism, fascism, Nazism, Maoism, etc.--and, precisely because they hold existing institutions in such disregard and find it necessary to destroy them, each has devolved into nothing better than totalitarianism and nearly all have ended in mass murder on a scale previously unimaginable to mankind. Even experiments on a smaller scale--from Welfare to high-rise public housing to abortion rights--have ended up causing damage that the theorists who dreamed them up never anticipated. It is because the process of trial and error, which is integral to the scientific method, reaps such a horrible harvest when applied to human affairs that the projects of the Rationalists must be avoided like the (often less deadly) plague.

Now, the fact that newfangled social experiments--particularly when they ignore thousands of years of human history, culture, and tradition--will end in ignominious failure must seem obvious to the man of conservative temperament. However, even their past disastrous track record seems unlikely to deter the Rationalists. So, perhaps the minimum that we can require is that they, like Dr, Frankenstein, limit the scope of their schemes. Perhaps the next Lenin could be convinced to try out his theories on just one small city instead of on all of Russia. Perhaps the next Robert Moses could be convinced to build just one housing project, rather than remodeling all of New York City. Perhaps during the next Depression, the president could be convinced to parcel out his new deal one card at a time, rather than shoving the whole deck down our throats. The important thing to note is that, while the conservative will perforce be skeptical that any of these ideas will pan out, it may be appropriate to at least let them fail, and if, mirabile dictu, they should work, then by all means allow the experiment to widen.

This was, for a long time, part of the genius of the American Republic. Because the federal government was comparatively small and had fairly little power, states, cities, localities, neighborhoods were laboratories of democracy, free to try out new ideas as they saw fit. Obviously, or hopefully, no one would replicate those experiments that failed, but if one worked it could spread. Mr. Oakeshott's writings are a timely reminder that we ought return to that more organic and less dangerous system that served us so well.

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