Michael Oakeshott and the Political Economy of Freedom


John Gray is a Fellow of Jesus college, Oxford University, Research for this article was undertaken during a period of residence as Distinguished Research Fellow at the Social Philosophy and Policy Center, Bowling Green State University, Ohio

In the work of Michael Oakeshott we find a decisive critique of contemporary rationalism and its offspring in modern collectivism. Yet Oakeshott's thought is subtle and sometimes hermetic in its expression, and his critique of contemporary life is often oblique and cryptic. In order to understand his critical perspective on modern morality and political life, we need to grasp Oakeshott's thought at its deepest and most difficult levels, where it addresses the very nature of knowledge and the character of human conduct. Our task is made no easier by the fact that, whereas Oakeshott's though issues in a darkly skeptical conservatism, it springs from a conception of knowledge and its relations with practical life that (although perhaps owing something to Hegel) is radically at odds with longstanding traditions in Western philosophy.

Oakeshott himself, a most recent personality, has not sought publicity for his views. Born in 1901 and elected to a Fellowship at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, in 1923, Oakeshott has always been a reclusive figure, but has exerted--particularly during his years as a professor of political science at the London School of Economics--a profound and subtle influence on political philosophy in our time. Not all of his books are addressed to questions of philosophy--for example, he published in the thirties A Guide to the Classic, which is a survey of the main horse races in Britain--but he is widely regarded as the leading twentieth-century British conservative philosopher.

There is in Oakeshott's conservative thought, in addition, the paradox that, despite his criticism of modern decadence, Oakshott is in no sense an anti modernist: If anything, he is an uncompromising modernist, perhaps even a postmodernist. How are these obscurities in his work to be clarified?

The Pursuit of Knowledge

We may set out on the path to understanding Oakeshott's thought by considering his first major statement of it in his book Experience and Its Modes (1933). The book's theme, which has remained with Oakshoot over a long and productive intellectual life, is that human experience cannot be understood or theorized in the terms of any single category of thought. This is to say, first and foremost, that the attempt of the positivist, and of their predecessors in the French Enlightenment, to grasp all human thought and practice in terms of science is doomed to failure. For Oakeshott science is only one idiom of understanding among many. It is no sense at the apex of a hierarchy of modes of thought in which ethics, religion and poetry, say, stand at lower levels. (At times in Experience and Its Modes Oakeshott seems to suggest that philosophy is the highest mode of human understanding, though this is a view he appears later to have abandoned.) Experience discloses itself to us not as a hierarchy but as a miscellany, in which a plurality of distinct modes of thought and practice may be discerned. Accordingly, the idea of a single sort of discourse being "true" or "rational" discourse, which is also the idea that all human knowledge can be organized into a single system, is stigmatized by Oakeshott as a confusion of categories.

This early argument of Oakeshott's goes against much in Western philosophy, at least since Descartes. But it is also a polemic against the scientism that during the thirties, both in Oakeshott's own Cambridge and elsewhere, sought to refashion all thought and action on a model supposedly derived from the natural science. Thus attempts were made to construe the activity of a historian or a moralist, for example, in scientific terms, and to dismiss as archaic and meaningless any activity, those of religion and poetry, for example, that could not be forced into a scientific mold. For Oakeshott in Experience and Its Modes, then the human world could never be a unified or hierarchical system of ideas, as perhaps it was for Plato and Aristotle. It is instead made up of a diversity of worlds, each separate and distinct each with its own peculiar characteristics; the human world cannot be brought under the roof of any single concept or category.

The task of philosophy in Oakeshott's early work is to track the contours of the various modes or worlds of human experience and to specify their peculiar characters. In the early work, Oakeshott was influenced by the philosopher F.E. Bradley, the leading member of the Oxford school of neo Hegelian idealist thought at the turn of the century, though he never accepted Bradley's metaphysical thesis that the world can be reduced in thought to its essence as a unitary absolute.

Oakeshott's next major statement in his book of essays Rationalism in Politics (1962) echoes his rejection of monism in philosophy, but its dominant concerns are different. There, Oakeshott is concerned primarily to show how a mistaken conception of knowledge had had a corrupting effect on practice. The conception of knowledge Oakeshott criticizes, which he calls rationalist, holds that all genuine knowledge is stably entirely in explicit, theoretical terms. All knowledge that is worthy of the name must, then be expressible in a system of propositions or, if it is knowledge of practical things, in a set of rules or maxims. Further, and still more drastically, the rationalist conception is that practice is irrational if it is not governed comprehensively by a system of propositions and principles. For the rationalist, then, practical life is unregenerate unless it is guided at every point by explicit principles. Rational conduct is, then, action in accordance with some proposition or maxim that can be held before the mind, embodied in a rule, and implemented in practice.

This conception of rational conduct contains many traces of the Cartesian method of systematic doubt, in which only those beliefs that embody incontestable truths are deemed authentic parts of human knowledge. But (as Oakshott acknowledges) Descartes himself abandoned this method when it came to practical life, where he recommended adoption of a "provisional morality." Contemporary rationalists, in contrast to Descartes, whose humility in this connection they do not share, have focused their attention most particularly on practical life. Their contention has been that any institution or practice that cannot be given a demonstrative justification--marriage, monarchy, or religion, say--is irrational and should be abolished forthwith. Many manifestations of this rationalist view are merely ridiculous--the early twentieth century manias for "rational dress" and an artificial "rational language" may be instanced - but on the whole it has had an impact on practice that has proved substantial and profound. Accordingly, traditional methods in education have been anathematized as repressive of self-expression and the idea of education as an initiation into a cultural tradition repudiated as a relic of servility. Many other examples could be cited. On a wide compass of practical life, rationalism has had a corrosive and undermining effect, and it has weakened the authority of practices and traditions that have hitherto given order and meaning to human life.

It is in political life, according to Oakeshott, that rationalism has had its most disastrous impact. For the rationalist, political life has to do, not with the patient repair of inherited practices, not with that reconciling and balancing of rival powers which has always been the craft of wise rulers, but with the construction of a new and ideal order in society and government. Rationalist politics, where it is not overtly a project of revolution - as it was in the most stupendous and catastrophic episode in the history of political rationalism, the Bolshevik Revolution - is always a project of radical reform. However tried and tested inherited institutions may be and how ever much they may be embedded in the affections of the people, they are condemned by political rationalism because they were not constructed in accordance with a conscious plan or modeled on the basis of an abstract principle. In its political expression, for these reasons, rationalism is a powerful engine of delegitimation a doctrine whose chief work is destruction.

Critique of Rationalism

What, in Oakeshott's view, lies at the root of the rationalist illusion? His answer is that rationalism rests upon a false and indeed barely coherent account of human knowledge. For Oakeshott, human knowledge is not the mother of practice, but only its stepchild. In all its branches, including the science, knowledge is an exfoliation from practice -from practices, more over, that we have inherited and not ourselves invented. When we theorize our practices, we are discerning coherences within them, not imposing form without any set of abstract principles. Like footpaths, our practices are made not form the footprints of any one man, but of uncounted generations of men. A cardinal error of rationalism then, is to regard practice as unreformed, as being almost a state of nescience, unless it is governed by a theory.

What does this mean of political life? The intrusions of rationalism into politics have been by way of that peculiarly modern heresy, political ideology. A political ideology purports to be a set of principles by the application of which ideal, or at any rate good, government may be realized. Such an ideology may have all the pseudoscientific elaboration of Marxism-Leninism, or it may be a collection of inchoate slogans (like contemporary American liberalism), but it always has the aspiration of applying universally valid principles or techniques to the vicissitudes of circumstance. The offspring of political rationalizing in our times have been prodigious. As Oakeshott observes: The notion of founding a society, whether of individuals or of States, upon a Declaration of the Rights of Man is creature of the rationalist brain, so also are "rational" or racial self-determination when elevated into universal principles. The project of the so-called Re-Union of the Christian Churches, of open diplomacy, of a single tax, of a civil service whose members "have no qualifications other then their personal abilities," of a self-consciously planned society, the Beveridge Report, the Education Act of 1944, Federalism, Nationalism, Votes for Women, the Catering Wages Act, the destruction of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the World State (of H.G. Wells or anyone else), and the revival of Gaelic as the official language of Eire, are alike the progeny of rationalism.

The impact of rationalism on political life in the West has, then, in Oakeshott's view, been substantial and destruct. It has had its starkest and most terrible effects, however, in the totalitarian regimes of our time, in which the practical knowledge that is our culture inheritance has been thrown away and vast and novel machineries of oppression built up in the serve of delusive theories. Against these excesses of rationalism, Oakeshott asks us to conceive human knowledge correctly, as primarily practical and embodied principally in our habits, skills, dispositions, and traditions, and only secondarily in our theorizing. If we view knowledge in this way, if we see theory as only a shadow cast by practice, as a practical art, whose successful practice requires skill and nous rather than mastery of any doctrine. We will also be likely to see politics as an inherently open-ended activity, in which men ceaselessly known their identities and communities, but do not progress toward any ideal goal: In political activity, then, men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbor for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting place nor appointed destination. The enterprise is to keep afloat on an even keel; the sea is both friend and enemy; and the seamanship consists in using resources of a traditional manner of behavior to make a friend of every hostile occasion.

It is worth nothing here that, whereas Oakeshott identifies as distinctively modern the species of rationalism he criticizes, he detects its roots in ancient times. Thus, moral life in Europe has almost from the beginning of our culture been distorted by a rationalist preoccupation with self-consciousness, and this informs (or occludes) both the Greco-Roman and the Judaeo-Christian elements in our cultural tradition. As Oakeshott puts it: The form of contemporary western European morality has come to us from the distant past. It was determined in the first four centuries of the Christian era…. In that Greco-Roman world the old habits of moral behavior had lost their vitality…. It was … an age of intense moral self-consciousness, an age of moral reformers who unavoidably preached a morality of the pursuit of ideals and taught a variety of dogmatic moral ideologies. The intellectual energy of the time was directed toward the determination of an ideal, and the moral energy towards the translation of that idea into practice. Moral self-consciousness itself became a virtue; genuine morality was identified with 'the practice of philosophy." … In short, what the Greco-Roman world of his period had to offer was a morality in which the self-conscious pursuit of moral ideals was pre-eminent.

The European legacy from the Greco-Roman world was, then, and perhaps unavoidably, not a stable tradition of moral life, but instead a variety of moral ideologies. For this reason, the European moral inheritance partakes of the decadence of the late Roman world, and all subsequent decadence, including our own, is in some measure infected by that of the ancient world. Importantly, Oakeshott see our inheritance form early Christianity as no less deformed by rationalism: Our inheritance from that other great source of our moral inspiration from early Christianity, was of a similar character . . . The morality of these (early Christian) communities was a custom of behavior appropriate to the character of faith…. It was a way of living distinguished in its place and time by the absence of a formatted moral ideal . . . But over these earlier Christian communities, in the course of two centuries, came a great change. The habit of moral behaviors was converted into the self-conscious pursuit of formulated moral ideals…. A Christian morality in the form of a way of life did not, of course, perish, and it has never completely disappeared. But from this time in the history of Christendom a Christian habit of moral behavior (which had sprung form the circumstances of Christian life) was swamped by a Christian moral ideology Oakeshott concludes: The fact … remains that the moral inheritance of western Europe, both from the classical culture of the ancient world and from Christianity, was not the gift of a morality of habitual behaviors, but of a moral ideology.

Unlike many if not most who detect the seeds of decadence in our culture - such as Alan Bloom, the disciple of Leo Strauss, in his The Closing of the American Mind - Oakshott does not explain contemporary decadence by pointing to the modernity rejection of classical culture in the form of Greco-Roman rationed. Not does he harbor any project of rolling back the frontiers of modernity. The thinkers form whom he has learned most - Hobbes (from whose taught Oakeshott has taken much but of whose conception of law as the common of a sovereign, he is deeply critical) and Hegel, for example - were themselves un equivocal modernists. The totalitarian theorists of the past few centuries, by contrast, were all of them - and above all Rousseau and Marx - animated by the project of stemming the tide of modernity and reviving, or fashioning in a new form, earlier and simpler forms of life. These totalitarian thinkers rejected the chief postulates of modernity - such as the experience of individuality, a reflexive self-consciousness, and an "abstract" civil society regulated by law - in the interests of an archaic (and largely imaginary) communal solidarity. By contrast with many conservative cultural critics, for whom modernity and decadence are almost synonyms, Oakeshott harbors no animus against modernity and indeed sees our task as moderns as that of coming to accept ourselves.


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