Michael Oakeshott belongs alongside F. A. Hayek, Alasdair MacIntyre and, unfortunately, Carl Schmitt as among the most significant intellectual influences on the political right. He was one of the most creative and thought-provoking conservative thinkers; a man unafraid to upend sacred cows where needed, but always with an eye to balance and reflection. One of his most important contributions was a critique of rationalism, which Oakeshott saw as a permeating ideology that distorts many different spheres of life. His solution wasn’t to turn to the outright irrationalism with which reactionaries like De Maistre and Carl Schmitt flirted, but to a rejuvenation of tradition and community, which even someone on the political left might admire. However, he underestimates the importance of democracy as a stepping stone towards deeper and closer knit community.
Oakeshott’s Early Philosophy
Despite the fact that he is most famous for his ruminations on conservatism, Oakeshott’s critique of rationalism didn’t get its start in political theory. Oakeshott’s first interest was in Hegelian philosophy, which at the time bordered on taboo in English speaking analytic philosophy. Many analytic philosophers agreed with Bertrand Russell’s lacerating critique of Hegel as a mystical, pseudoscientific charlatan. Russell and his early kin were determined to develop a purely logical, scientific way of apprehending the world, which would do away with the need to appeal to religion or romanticism. Many analytical philosophers followed Russell in being inspired by this rationalistic outlook to adopt a broadly progressive politics. They saw politics, particularly conservative politics, as dominated by irrational affect. People were attached to traditional ways of life, despite their inefficiency or association with hierarchy, simply because that was the way things had always been done. By contrast, a more rational politics would ultimately provide objective criteria for how to organize the world most effectively, securing the greatest happiness for the greatest number, qua Jeremy Bentham and the utilitarians.
Hegel appealed to Oakeshott because he believed that he provides a very different philosophy. This has political connotations. In Experience and Its Modes, Oakeshott argues that there are a variety of proper ways to interpret the world: including science, history and practice. This pluralistic epistemology is quite generous in its democratic connotations. He acknowledges the calculative power of scientific rationalism in providing a factual description of material reality. But Oakeshott was an early opponent of reductive scientism. In true Hegelian vein, he contends that history is another way of interpreting the world, with its own evaluative criteria beyond simple facticity. This apparently methodological point would become significant later on, when Oakeshott pushed for a vision of conservative politics that stresses history and community over the dictates of imperialist rationalism.
Michael Oakeshott and the Critique of Rationalism
To be conservative, then, 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. Familiar relationships and loyalties will be preferred to the allure of more profitable attachments; to acquire and to enlarge will be less important than to keep, to cultivate and to enjoy; the grief of loss will be more acute than the excitement of novelty or promise. It is to be equal to one’s own fortune, to live at the level of one’s own means, to be content with the want of greater perfection which belongs alike to oneself and one’s circumstances. With some people this is itself a choice; in others it is a disposition which appears, frequently or less frequently, in their preferences and aversions, and is not itself chosen or specifically cultivated.—Michael Oakeshott, On Being Conservative
By far Oakeshott’s most famous piece is his seminal 1962 essay “Rationalism in Politics,” in which he argues against the scientistic conclusion that there are simply right ways to settle all moral and political questions: either by applying proper rules or by engaging in utility maximizing calculations. Many modern political doctrines, including liberalism and socialism—which have much in common—are tempted by this conceit. They discern universal natural rights, or the scientific “laws of motion” that govern history, and seek to apply them wholesale to very distinct communities with different traditions and practices. Practically, this leads to an emphasis on planning and organizing directed by rationalistic experts who apply their methods mechanically and with a disinterested attitude towards the communities they are impacting. The consequence is the gradual corrosion of traditions and practices which are seen as having little value to the rationalist eye, but in fact provide a tremendous sense of meaning to their practitioners. Indeed, Oakeshott sometimes seems to flirt with the Wittgensteinian point that, without being embedded in a distinct “form of life” that obeys its own internal logic, we cannot even make sense of the world.
There is a place for rationalism and planning, of course. A general leading a military campaign shouldn’t dogmatically follow tradition and ignore calculations of cost and benefit. Nor should the head of a major corporation. Oakeshott’s anxiety is that rationalism has become so epistemologically and morally dominant that it is gradually swallowing all alternatives. It is also discontented with pluralism in practice, even if it might be willing to countenance it in theory for the sake of rationalistic deliberation. This is because, in practice, there must be one correct way to organize the world. Oakeshott is stubbornly resistant to such claims, and posits conservatism as a natural corrective. This is because the conservative loyalty to “familiar relationships” and preference of the “convenient to the perfect” makes conservatives suspicious of the grandiose ambitions of planners who promise a utopia yet to come. They also have a deep attachment to traditional—rather than technical—knowledge, which contains forms of wisdom that the rationalist ignores or even disdains.
Conclusion: Oakeshott and Democracy
So, what kind of politics and government would achieve the requisite balance between rationalism and traditionalism? Unfortunately, here Oakeshott is less creative than in his more purely theoretical works. His dense opus On Human Conduct pivots on a distinction between what he calls an “enterprise association” and a “civil association.” The former is oriented towards the achievement of a singular overarching purpose and bends the social world to that purpose, while the latter establishes the rule of law, but does not attempt to inspire or compel fidelity to any such grand project. While Oakeshott is never one to place all his bets on a single horse, he feels that a civil association is to be generally preferred, except in rare moments. This is more or less in keeping with the thrust of the liberal Anglo tradition.
Oakeshott’s work is an interesting synthesis of romantic inclinations counterbalanced by hard-edged realism. His early writings object to the totalizing gaze of technical thinking and its tendency to swallow alternative modes of experience: in this, they often resemble the work of nineteenth-century English critics of industrialization and even of liberal capitalism. Yet he is never willing to embrace illiberalism or irrationalism—perhaps worried that doing so would open the door to the total existential state advocated for by the most virulent of continental romantics. While his admiration for Anglo-American civil associations gestures towards a solution, it is a troubled one, since it is not immune to the kind of rationalizing pressures Oakeshott criticized. In many ways, we are faced with a similar dilemma today, as neoliberalization has swept over much of the globe and reduced every political imperative to a matter of economic calculation, while all too often marginalizing the interests of everyday people.
The solution I propose is one that Oakeshott rarely addresses substantially: democratic renewal. He is absolutely correct that the kind of technocratic rationalization emblematic of the overreaching state and neoliberal governmentality corrodes meaningful ways of life and practices. Ironically, he shares many of these concerns with many postmodern critics—as Marxist Terry Eagleton observes in The Illusions of Postmodernity. But to counter these tendencies we cannot just look to the rule of law as it has existed for many decades. Instead, citizens need to see their interests and wishes more directly reflected in the laws that govern them, and engage in the kinds of deliberative engagements so necessary to build ties of civic friendship and lasting association. Democratic renewal can grant people the power to uphold their own traditions in a pluralistic dialogue with one another, rather than let rationalizing power overturn them in the name of so-called higher goals. It can also prove a useful counterforce to the emergence of pseudo-democratic populist movements like postmodern conservatism. These all too often purport to represent the demos but devolve into exclusionary antagonisms in which a strongman claims to represent the real “people” over and above the actual majorities that make up the polity. Rather than allow Viktor Orban or Donald Trump to decide who the people are and what their traditions should be, we need to encourage more deliberative efforts to allow the demos to sort that out for itself.