Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Oakeshott's Rationalist

The first time I encountered Michael Oakeshott was in a contemporary political theory class in 2001, from which this paper issued. From the time of Hobbes, the first conservative theorist in the face of the spread of modern democracy, through the 19th century, a hot topic in political philosophy was that of sovereignty. It kind of recedes after that, but still exists under varied guises.

Hobbes, whom Oakeshott is one of the major interpreters of, saw the problem of sovereignty as the problem of where the buck stops--every state must have a sovereign, and though Hobbes expressed preference for the single authority of a king in the Leviathan, he did concede that an oligarchy would do, just so long as the authority chain did not lead into an infinite regress--some body had to have the final say.

The United States stands, of course, as something of a practical refutation of the philosophical problem--the US Constitution effectively disperses the very idea of final authority and replaces it with various interim authorities amongst its bodies that can be checked in the fullness of time by its other bodies (a "system of checks and balances," as we are consistently taught in school--or at least were taught until Reagan started eviscerating the American educational system). I suspect that the practical survival and success of more and more democracies set up in manners similar to the United States has caused political theories to spend more of their time on other subjects.

Oakeshott was identified to me then as the contemporary conservative theorist par excellence. The file the paper was saved under was called "oakeshottispureevil". Oakeshott's problem in "Rationalism in Politics" is that the ability to negotiate the arena of politics is not something that one can learn in a book, but something that must be experienced in a tradition, like that of farming, handed down father to son over a long period of exposure. My response, though probably not that carefully carried out (and, oh my god, is the writing bad--only about half the paragraphs are worth anything), was simple--why isn't politics like that for democratic citizens? How isn't the 18 years of watching political discussion by politicians and deliberation over who to vote for by one's family members before one has a chance to cast their first vote not analogous to an aristocratic tradition of familial heritage? The problem of rationalism, like sovereignty, seems to me to stand and fall with the practical experience of modern democracies (though, here again, the Reagan Revolution which birthed American neoconservatism is eviscerating this experience, though now in a much more real way as the decline of a democratic political education leads directly to the demise of democracy, and the feeling that an authoritarian elite--whether aristocratic or corporate--should rule, an outcome neocon political strategists foresaw quite clearly).

Since reading more widely, my opinion on Oakeshott has changed somewhat. He's certainly a conservative, but I see now his real enemy was theory, at the time identified as Marxism, the then political Left of the world. Rank-and-file Americans have never taken Marxism seriously, and so I had no real idea why Oakeshott was writing against this mysterious Rationalist as he was. I see now, however, that Oakeshott's Rationalist was also the basic enemy Rorty identified as "the Academic Left"--that by mastering a theory we would better the world, politically speaking. This family resemblance between people like Oakeshott (and MacIntyre and others who lauded "tradition") and Rorty, I think, is largely what garnered catcalls of "crypto-conservative" and the like from other philosophers. Be that as it may, Rorty was a lifelong political liberal, though he quite rightly saw that political theory was kind of silly, and that what we perhaps need more of is philosophical rallyment around "tradition" and "virtues," rather then around "reason" and "principles." Specifically, it is the distinction between tradition and reason that Oakeshott takes for granted (to take down the Rationalist) that grounds my bafflement, and the erasure of which would produce a better dialogue between a conservative and liberal political philosophy by agreeing on the stupidity of Theory problems and getting down to empirical problems like the stupidity of the pundit-class produced by corporate media conglomeration.

All parenthetical references are to Michael Oakeshott's Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays, Expanded Ed. (Liberty Fund: Indianapolis, 1962, 1991).


In his essay “Rationalism in Politics,” Michael Oakeshott attempts to justify his own conservatism by refuting the value of rationalism in politics. He does this by defining the Rationalist and then attempting to show that everything a Rationalist stands for is bad. His conservatism is then justified because it is everything that a Rationalist is not. I will show that Oakeshott fails to justify his own conservatism in two ways: 1) Oakeshott discredits reason by aligning it with the Rationalist, but then smuggles it into tradition to allow for change and 2) his central tenet of “experience only” for participating in a tradition fails in the face of an educated democracy.

The first place to start is with Oakeshott’s definition of a Rationalist. He first links it intrinsically with reason by saying, “…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’…” (6) He also opposes it to experience when he says, “He has no sense of the cumulation of experience, only of the readiness of experience when it has been converted into formula: the past is significant to him only as an encumbrance.” (ibid.) Oakeshott actually goes on for several pages worth of definition of what a Rationalist is. He ends up with a very narrow definition that I cannot imagine anyone actually following.

Oakeshott has a very specific purpose in mind with such a narrow definition. With such a narrow definition that no person could completely agree to, Oakeshott can easily “refute” Rationalism, which immediately endorses his own conservatism. It works like this because Rationalism is linked intrinsically with reason and opposed to its philosophical counterpart experience. Experience is aligned directly with Oakeshott’s traditionalist conservatism and from it he argues that one should not participate in politics if one has never had experience in it.

His refutation of Rationalism mainly consists of accusing Rationalism of denying a form of knowledge. Oakeshott splits knowledge into two parts: technical and practical. Oakeshott contends that Rationalism only acknowledges technical knowledge as real knowledge. Traditionalists, presumably, acknowledge both kinds, but seem to be more inherently aligned to practical knowledge because practical knowledge is gained through experience. This error on the part of Rationalism is really the only place Oakeshott stages an argument outside of name-calling.

The critique of Oakeshott begins with the question of change. It is obvious how change occurs in Rationalism: the Rationalist is constantly critically analyzing his position with reason. What is questionable is how change occurs “naturally” and not self-consciously in a tradition. Oakeshott says that a Rationalist “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.” (8) But where does this change happen then? Nowhere does Oakeshott answer this question and the reason is this: reason is needed for change. And since reason is linked directly to the Rationalist it needs to be held as far away from his traditionalism as possible.

To illustrate the need of reason in change, let us take the example of a metalsmith. Our metalsmith is hammering away at his smithy. Becoming tired he stops and begins to think about his arm motion. Believing that he is wasting energy by lifting his arm so far into the air, the metalsmith thinks of a different way of hammering. He projects that his new way would use less energy and then tries it out. Seeing it work he continues with his new arm motion. Did the metalsmith not just abstract his arm motion when thinking of a new way? This was an addition to practical knowledge, not technical knowledge. But since practical knowledge is only acknowledged by the traditionalist we find that Oakeshott has smuggled reason into his traditionalism.

Oakeshott might come back and say that he’s not trying to refute the value of reason in politics, but the Rationalist in politics. He might say that Rationalism is a plague because those who become infected can no longer acknowledge tradition and history. Here we come to the root of the problem within Oakeshott’s essay. Oakeshott has set up a straw man. His Rationalist is no man. Oakeshott has tailored his definition of Rationalism so tightly that no one could be wholly identified with it. Whoever his Rationalist is, I certainly don’t agree with him. Completely ignoring history and scraping tradition for the sake of scraping it is definitely a mistake. So Oakeshott refutes the Rationalist, an extreme position if there ever was one, and flees to the other extreme: only tradition has a place in politics. Oakeshott’s refutation of his Rationalist is no big deal, but by doing so he destroys any value to be gained from Rationalism. This being his plan, he could then go to the opposite extreme since everything about his Rationalist must be bad. By chucking the Rationalist’s crib of politics, Oakeshott ends up throwing out the baby, too.

The baby is us. The baby Oakeshott throws out is thinking individuals. Every person has a mind and is entitled to use it. Oakeshott might argue that he isn’t restricting the use of an individual’s mind. A person must be able to think about his job or trade. The metalsmith must be able to think about his craft, his tradition to improve upon it. But why should the metalsmith restrict his thinking to his craft? Why can’t he think about politics? Oakeshott would say that the metalsmith should stick to his craft for the same reason that he shouldn’t be thinking about quantum physics, computer programming, or shoe cobbling: he has no experience in the field. But now Oakeshott is ignoring history and tradition. How did any of those fields get started, but with an innovative use of reason upon an older tradition? Quantum physics came out of a tradition of classical physics, computer programming out of a tradition of making physical tools to help calculation, and shoe cobbling out of a tradition of walking in bare feet. In each of these three cases, reason was used to improve a tradition. If you back up far enough in human history, almost all traditions could be seen as coming from the hunter-gatherer’s tradition of survival.

Oakeshott might concede that he was a little hasty in throwing out reason, but he would be quick to point out that if we take survival as the original tradition, the increase of specialization in traditions and the breaking off of new traditions fits exactly into what his argument is for change within tradition. Oakeshott would say that the slow, gradual improvements made to an existing tradition could produce new traditions, which would then produce its own tradition. Oakeshott would then say that after a new tradition has broken off, a person shouldn’t go back to the old tradition or to any of the other branches of traditions. In this case, a quantum physicist wouldn’t go back to food production/accumulation, he would stick to quantum physics. And because of this, politicians should stick to politics and not metalsmithing and vice versa. This is why the metalsmith should restrict his thinking to his craft and not politics. A politician doesn’t come into the smithy and start telling the metalsmith what to do. And the metalsmith, I can assume, wouldn’t want him to.

I would accept this point, but only if the metalsmith and the politician know nothing of the other’s craft. If the politician did metalsmithing on the side for fun, he might have a few pointers for the metalsmith. The two should stay out of each other’s hair only if they have no experience in the tradition. Oakeshott would probably agree with this. Experience is the key. My problem becomes, Why restrict the gaining of experience in various traditions? No man is born a politician or metalsmith. They are educated as such. If Oakeshott is afraid of letting un-politically educated people into politics, why not give them a political education and let them participate? In a democracy, all people take part in the political experience. And if we give them a political education before we allow them to participate (say before a voting age of 18) what is the problem? Why restrict? In a tradition of democracy and education there isn’t a problem and there should not be a restriction on people’s involvement in politics.

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