Revising Oakeshott on Rationalism

A symptom and a cause of the decline of British conservatism has been the absence of philosophical voices. That the publication of Michael Oakeshott’s notebooks occasioned interest, then, is welcome; if only as it might inspire more interesting conversations.

Oakeshott was an interesting man: sober and cautious in his thought and somewhat epicurean in his behaviour. In his work, he was both lucid and allusive; toying with ideas like a young man with a sheet of card before revealing a beautifully formed argument.

In Rationalism in Politics - his most accessible book – he offered essays that addressed a broad range of questions. Several of them concerned overambitious rationalism, of totalitarian and liberal forms, which assumed that men and his societies can be understood and altered with reference to abstract analysis and instruction. To his mind, such theories are hubristic in ignoring the need for practical knowledge. “Nobody supposes,” he wrote in the title essay of the book, “That the knowledge that belongs to a good cook is confined to what is or may be written down in a cookery book.”

In Oakeshott’s understanding, then, theorists are at best confined to a narrow understanding of the world. This positioned him against more people than one might imagine. There were the great advocates of the great utopian doctrines of his age, such as the architects whose visions of how people would and should want to live diverged from how they had lived and, in many cases, enjoyed living. The critique is also applicable to more apparently pragmatic thinkers, such as data-driven managerialists whose systematised understanding of people often fails to reflect their complexities. In Rotherham, for example, amid what seems to have been an epidemic of sexual abuse, the council was following a “risk-assessment tool” with a “numerical scoring system” that was tragically inadequate as a means of assessing different situations.

Oakeshott did not restrain himself from criticising the otherwise appreciative neoliberals who would go on to lead the British right…

…while formerly [rationalist politics] was tacitly resisted and retarded by, for example, the informality of British politics…that resistance has now itself been converted into an ideology. 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 was, indeed, openly disparaging of consumerism, and from moral as well as epistemological premises. In “Work and Play”, published elsewhere, he addressed the prioritisation of “human wants”…

A creature composed entirely of wants, who understands the world merely as the means of satisfying those wants and whose satisfactions generate new wants endlessly, is a creature of unavoidable anxieties.

This helps to create, he wrote – in what it Paul Franco observes was an age “before the advent of personal computers, the Internet, email, cell phones, Facebook and Twitter” – “a ceaseless flow of seductive trivialities which invoke neither reflection nor choice but instant participation”. It was a trenchant diagnosis.

This divergence from the ideological trajectory of the right, along with turning down an honour in the ‘80s, might have done Oakeshott’s posthumous reputation few favours. His own conservatism was dispositional. He wrote, in “On Being Conservative”, that…

To be conservative…is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss.

The trouble with Westerners, the essay continues, is that we are “ready to drop the bone we have for its reflection magnified in the mirror of the future”. One might note that this is so true of the present age that a disposition can be too placid a state of mind to have any effect. It is true that our society has taken shape less through the conscious acceptance of policies and principles than the evolution of arrangements but this does not diminish the value of arrangements that have formed. To return to the cooking metaphor, if I work in the kitchen for long enough I will make especially toothsome and nutritious meals. If I want to reproduce them I should create recipes, and if I want my kids to eat well and not regress to pot noodles I should promote and defend them..

In keeping with his sceptical disposition, Oakeshott’s hoped for political activities to be concerned less with directing the ship of state than keeping it “afloat on an even keel”. In a world where technological and institutional innovation has made such rapid advances, even this demands considerable purposive action. What remains true, however, is that this should be informed by experience. Some environmental measures have to be innovative, for example, as threats to the natural world have made such progress, but one also thinks of Scruton’s point that if people are going to care about the planet they should be empowered to do what they have always done – tend to their own particular surroundings.

Oakeshott was not only concerned with men as social animals. In his essay “The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind” he turned to aesthetics. His aim was to distinguish man’s artistic life from his moral and intellectual concerns – to ensure, indeed, that art was not subjected to overmuch rationalistic analysis. It is true, of course, that art has no specific aim, and to suggest otherwise is to open the door to the worst kind of doctrinaire reductionists. Surely it can effect our ideas and behaviour, though? Oakeshott accepts this and makes a more subtle distinction between that which is inherent to art and that which is inferred…

 Shakespeare’s “view of life” may appear to us profound, or we may find it as unsatisfactory as Johnson found it…But it is an illusion; we have caught merely what is unpoetic…

I am unconvinced by this as I am unconvinced by Oakeshott’s line between fact and fiction…

…a poetic image can never “lie” because it does not affirm anything. These images – shapes, scenes, movements, characters, verbal constructions – do not belong to a universe of discourse in which “fact” and “non-fact” can be distinguished; they are fictions.

Art does not consist of scientific hypotheses, but what is “contrived”, “sentimental” and “obscure” art except art which misrepresents and muddies life as one experiences it? The written word is, in a sense, the elegant articulation of responses to phenomena, and it affects us as it accords with ideas and impulses we share or, at least, appreciate. Without our particular state of mind King Lear might not seem tragic and A Midsummer Night’s Dream might not amuse. To go into art with the expectation of being instructed is to confuse it with the school, the church or the town hall but to derive inspiration from one’s experience, I think, can be to appreciate and not ignore the power of its artistry. What starts in the spine can travel to the brain.

Oakeshott had little enthusiasm for purposive thought in and outside of politics. Like John Gray, he appeared to value a form of contemplative existence that “aims not to change the world or to understand it”. I have what both might consider to be an unhealthy urge towards seeking the truth – if only to know what value could be placed on life and whether or not it has purpose. This might be futile, but assuming either seems arrogant. Yet men should not do this alone, from the ground up, but where possible continue work that has been done on half-completed structures, if not just repair those which time has degraded. Experience gives one little excuse for immaturity.