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Monday, March 25, A.D. 2013
Oakeshott and Rationalist America

Kenneth McIntyre published an interesting book review in The American Conservative last month of Gene Callahan’s Oakeshott on Rome and America: “Oakeshott vs. America.” McIntyre by Callahan explores Michael Oakeshott’s criticism of “rationalist” politics and consequently of American political thought. McIntyre explains:

So what is rationalism, in the Oakeshottian sense of the term?  First, it involves the claim that the only adequate type of knowledge is that which can be reduced to a series of rules, principles, or methods—and thus it is also a claim that “knowing how” to do something is nothing more than “knowing that” the rules are such and such.  Second, because of this denigration of practical knowledge, it is a claim that rational action can only take place following the creation of a theoretical model. As Oakeshott once observed, modern rationalism is literally “preposterous” because theoretical reflection can only occur after a practice already has made itself distinct and more or less concrete.

Finally, as Callahan points out, since rationalism is a mistaken description of human knowledge and its relation to human activity, it is also an impossible way of acting, politically or in any other sphere. Human action, including political action, is inherently an engagement of practical reason working within a particular tradition or and attempting to follow through on some of the inchoate suggestions that the vagueness of the practice offers. The opposite of rationalism for Oakeshott is not irrationalism but authentic practical reasonableness. Thus, and contrary to many of his reading-impaired critics, his critique of rationalism is not a critique of reason but a defense of it against a false modern conception of it.

To use one of Oakeshott’s favorite examples, if one has no knowledge of cookery, a cookbook is useless.  If, on the other hand, one is an experienced chef, a cookbook is superfluous. The cookbook is relevant only in a situation where either the great majority of cooks are relatively inexperienced and there is a dearth of connoisseurs or in a situation in which the traditions of cookery are in a state of confusion and a reminder is needed of some of the tradition’s neglected resources.

Oakeshott used the term “ideology” to describe the attempted application of this rationalistic style to political activity. The rationalist’s or ideologist’s desire is to solve permanently the problems of political life and leave everything else to administration. Yet politics isn’t concerned with the search for truth. Instead, as Oakeshott noted, “it is concerned with the cultivation of what from time to time are accepted as the peaceable decencies of conduct among men who do not suffer from the Puritan-Jacobin illusion that in practical affairs there is an attainable condition of things called ‘truth’ or ‘perfection.’”

I had never before heard of Oakeshott, but I see why Paleocons and Burkeans would like him. I, myself, cannot shake a certain rationalism. Practical reason involves action, but there are proper ends for practical action. Among such ends for a political community is justice. Can one be a wise, political leader without concerning himself with justice? “Yet politics isn’t concerned with the search for truth.” If a commonwealth aims not simply for the survival of its people but also for their flourishing, isn’t the truth of human nature—and of the proper human ends—that with which politics should be concerned?

Posted by Joseph on Monday, March 25, A.D. 2013
Philosophy | AnthropologyPoliticsPermalink

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