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Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays ()

National Review's List of the Top 100 Nonfiction Books of the 20th Century

The general characteristics of this [conservative] disposition are not difficult to discern, although they have often been mistaken. They centre upon a propensity to use and to enjoy what is available rather than to wish for or to look for something else; to delight in what is present rather than what was or what may be . . . an appropriate gratefulness for what is available, and consequently the acknowledgment of a gift or an inheritance from the past.
    -Michael Oakeshott, On Being Conservative

It is a curious coincidence that two of the greatest British philosophers of the 20th Century are each known primarily for just one essay--Isaiah Berlin for The Hedgehog and The Fox and Michael Oakeshott for Rationalism in Politics. That's neither to denigrate their other writings nor to diminish the two remarkable essays, but it is odd.

Michael Oakeshott followed in the footsteps of a long line of English skeptics, the greatest of whom was probably David Hume. In Rationalism in Politics, as the title suggests, Oakeshott turned the full glare of his skepticism upon the notion that Man, through the application of pure reason, could comprehend and reorder the world so as to achieve desired ends. It may well have been the most cherished project of the Age of Reason to use the tool of rationality to free Man from the "bondage" of ancient culture, religion and morality, to replace faith and tradition, the hoary wisdom of our ancestors, with a new "science" of society, arrived at by rethinking things anew in light of reason alone. What Mr. Oakeshott did here was to demonstrate why such a project must be so dangerous.

It's our great good fortune in the age of the Internet to have the entire essay on-line, but here's his devastating description of the Rationalist temperament:
There are some minds which give us the sense that they have passed through an elaborate education which was designed to initiate them into the traditions and achievements of their civilization; the immediate impression we have of them is an impression of cultivation, of the enjoyment of an inheritance. But this is not so with the mind of the Rationalist, which impresses us as, at best, a finely tempered, neutral instrument, as a well-trained rather than as an educated mind. Intellectually, his ambition is not so much to share the experience of the race as to be demonstrably a self-made man. And this gives to his intellectual and practical activities an almost preternatural deliberateness and self-consciousness, depriving them of any element of passivity, removing from them all sense of rhythm and continuity and dissolving them into a succession of climacterics, each to be surmounted by a tour de raison. His mind has no atmosphere, no changes of season and temperature; his intellectual processes, so far as possible, are insulated from all external influence and go on in the void. And having cut himself off from the traditional knowledge of his society, and denied the value of any education more extensive than a training in a technique of analysis, he is apt to attribute to mankind a necessary inexperience in all the critical moments of life, and if he were more self-critical he might begin to wonder how the race had ever succeeded in surviving. With an almost poetic fancy, he strives to live each day as if it were his first, and he believes that to form a habit is to fail. And if, with as yet no thought of analysis, we glance below the surface, we may, perhaps, see in the temperament, if not in the character, of the Rationalist, a deep distrust of time, an impatient hunger for eternity and an irritable nervousness in the face of everything topical and transitory.

Now, of all worlds, the world of politics might seem the least amenable to rationalist treatment--politics, always so deeply veined with both the traditional, the circumstantial and the transitory. And, indeed, some convinced Rationalists have admitted defeat here: Clemenceau, intellectually a child of the modern Rationalist tradition (in his treatment of morals and religion, for example), was anything but a Rationalist in politics. But not all have admitted defeat. If we except religion, the greatest apparent victories of Rationalism have been in politics: it is not to be expected that whoever is prepared to carry his rationalism into the conduct of life will hesitate to carry it into the conduct of public affairs.

But what is important to observe in such a man (for it is characteristic) is not the decisions and actions he is inspired to make, but the source of his inspiration, his idea (and with him it will be a deliberate and conscious idea) of political activity. He believes, of course, in the open mind, the mind free from prejudice and its relic, habit. He believes that the unhindered human 'reason' (if only it can be brought to bear) is an infallible guide in political activity. Further, he believes in argument as the technique and operation of reason'; the truth of an opinion and the 'rational' ground (not the use) of an institution is all that matters to him. Consequently, much of his political activity consists in bringing the social, political, legal and institutional inheritance of his society before the tribunal of his intellect; and the rest is rational administration, 'reason' exercising an uncontrolled jurisdiction over the circumstances of the case. To the Rationalist, nothing is of value merely because it exists (and certainly not because it has existed for many generations), familiarity has no worth, and nothing is to be left standing for want of scrutiny. And his disposition makes both destruction and creation easier for him to understand and engage in, than acceptance or reform. To patch up, to repair (that is, to do anything which requires a patient knowledge of the material), he regards as waste of time: and he always prefers the invention of a new device to making use of a current and well-tried expedient. He 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. This is aptly illustrated by the rationalist attitude towards a tradition of ideas. There is, of course, no question either of retaining or improving such a tradition, for both these involve an attitude of submission. It must be destroyed. And to fill its place the Rationalist puts something of his own making--an ideology, the formalized abridgment of the supposed substratum of rational truth contained in the tradition.

One of the glories of the rationalist mind was the invention of the Calculus, whether by Newton or Liebniz or both, just because it was needed. But had the Calculus not worked, though these men would have been disappointed, it would not have much harmed their fellow citizens. Unfortunately, the same can not be said when a philosopher, political scientist, economist, or whomever invents a new ideology and someone tries out the corresponding political regime on a society. It is of course characteristic of the age of Rationalism in the West that a series of such ideologies have risen up--socialism, communism, fascism, Nazism, Maoism, etc.--and, precisely because they hold existing institutions in such disregard and find it necessary to destroy them, each has devolved into nothing better than totalitarianism and nearly all have ended in mass murder on a scale previously unimaginable to mankind. Even experiments on a smaller scale--from Welfare to high-rise public housing to abortion rights--have ended up causing damage that the theorists who dreamed them up never anticipated. It is because the process of trial and error, which is integral to the scientific method, reaps such a horrible harvest when applied to human affairs that the projects of the Rationalists must be avoided like the (often less deadly) plague.

Now, the fact that newfangled social experiments--particularly when they ignore thousands of years of human history, culture, and tradition--will end in ignominious failure must seem obvious to the man of conservative temperament. However, even their past disastrous track record seems unlikely to deter the Rationalists. So, perhaps the minimum that we can require is that they, like Dr, Frankenstein, limit the scope of their schemes. Perhaps the next Lenin could be convinced to try out his theories on just one small city instead of on all of Russia. Perhaps the next Robert Moses could be convinced to build just one housing project, rather than remodeling all of New York City. Perhaps during the next Depression, the president could be convinced to parcel out his new deal one card at a time, rather than shoving the whole deck down our throats. The important thing to note is that, while the conservative will perforce be skeptical that any of these ideas will pan out, it may be appropriate to at least let them fail, and if, mirabile dictu, they should work, then by all means allow the experiment to widen.

This was, for a long time, part of the genius of the American Republic. Because the federal government was comparatively small and had fairly little power, states, cities, localities, neighborhoods were laboratories of democracy, free to try out new ideas as they saw fit. Obviously, or hopefully, no one would replicate those experiments that failed, but if one worked it could spread. Mr. Oakeshott's writings are a timely reminder that we ought return to that more organic and less dangerous system that served us so well.


Grade: (A)


Michael Oakeshott Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Michael Oakeshott
    -ENTRY: Michael Oakeshott (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
    -SPECIAL ISSUE: Rationalism in Politics: sixty years on (Cosmos & Taxis, C+T 10:7+8)
    -SPECIAL ISSUE: Symposium on David McIlwain’s Michael Oakeshott and Leo Strauss: The Politics of Renaissance and Enlightenment (Cosmos & Taxis)
-INDEX: MIchael Oakeshott (Man Withour Qualities)
    -INTRODUCTION: Hobbes: Oakeshott’s Introduction to Leviathan (Liberty Fund)
    -VIDEO DISCUSSION: Right Ideas: Michael Oakeshott (This "Right Ideas" webinar features a discussion between Baylor professor of political science Elizabeth Corey and NAS fellow John Sailer on the work and relevance of this unique scholar.)
    -AUDIO: Oakeshott on the Philosophy of History (n other posts since it was first posted some thirteen years ago. The University Programme: Arts – Philosophy of History by Michael J. Oakeshott. Originally broadcast by the BBC 13.1.48)
    -ESSAY: Conservative Theory as Sympathetic Dissent: The Example of Michael Oakeshott (Eno Trimcev, 2019, Journal of Political Ideologies)
    -ESSAY: Rationalism in Ideal Theory: Michael Oakeshott on John Rawls (BECKETT RUEDA, Cosmos & Taxis)[PDF]
    -ESSAY: Oakeshott and Weaver: Two Types of Conservatism (William Reddinger, March 21, 2024, Online Library of Liberty)
    -ESSAY: Remembering Michael Oakeshott (DANIEL MCCARTHY, 11/01/22, Chronicles)
    -ESSAY: Michael Oakeshott: A Hero for Whom? (Alberto Mingardi, Library of Economics & Liberty)
    -ESSAY: Michael Oakeshott’s Conservative Disposition (ELIZABETH COREY, 7/11/22, Public Discourse)
    -ESSAY: Michael Oakeshott, 30 Years Later (NATE HOCHMAN, December 18, 2020, National Review)
    -ESSAY: The Conversationalist (Joseph Epstein, | June 15, 2015, Washington Examiner)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: Michael Oakeshott, conservative thinker who went beyond politics: An unassuming figure little known in life but hailed after his death as “perhaps the most original political philosopher of this century”. (Jesse Norman, 4/17/14, New Statesman)
    -ESSAY: Learning for Life: Political Education According to Michael Oakeshott: Michael Oakeshott aimed to carve out a space for political education without ideology: this makes him especially vital to reread today. (emina melonic, 7/26/18, Law & Liberty)
-ESSAY: Rationalism in politics (Michael Oakeshott, Cambridge Journal, Volume I, 1947)
    -ETEXT: On Being Conservative (Michael Oakeshott)
    -ESSAY: Work and Play (Michael Oakeshott, First Things, June/July 1995)
    -ESSAY: On Misunderstanding Human Conduct: A Reply to My Critics (Michael Oakeshott, August 1976, Political Theory)
    -REVIEW: of Hobbes Studies by K. C. Brown (Michael Oakeshott, The English Historical Review)
    -REVIEW: of Between Past and Future by Hannah Arendt (Michael Oakeshott, Political Science Quarterly)
    -REVIEW: of Two Treatises of Government by John Locke (Michael Oakeshott, The Historical Journal)
    -REVIEW: of An Introduction to Philosophy of History by W. H. Walsh (Michael Oakeshott, Philosophical Quarterly)
    -REVIEW: of History, its Purpose and Method by G. J. Renier (Michael Oakeshott, Philosophical Quarterly)
    -REVIEW: of The Idea of History by R. G. Collingwood (Michael Oakeshott, The English Historical Review)
    -REVIEW: of A New Social Philosophy by Werner Sombart (Michael Oakeshott, The Economic Journal)
    -REVIEW: of Marx, his Time and Ours by Rudolf Schlesinger (Michael Oakeshott, The Economic Journal)
    -Michael Oakeshott Association
    -Oakeshott, Michael (1901 - 1992) (xrefer)
    -Michael Oakeshott (1901 - 1990) (Philosophy Research Base)
    -Upstream: People: Michael Oakeshott
    -OAKESHOTT, MICHAEL JOSEPH 1901-1990 PROFESSOR OF POLITICAL SCIENCE (British Library of Political and Economic Science)
    -OBIT : Michael Oakeshott, R I P. (J.H. Ahn, National Review, 01-28-1991)
    -LECTURE: The Skeptical Conservative (Andrew Sullivan, November 4, 2002 , Bradley Lecture delivered at the American Enterprise Institute)
    -EXCERPT: Oakeshott: Life and Works (Robert Grant)
    -ESSAY: Michael Oakeshott and the Political Economy of Freedom (John Gray, SEPTEMBER 1988, World & I)
    <-ESSAY: Conservatism and Classical Liberalism: A Rapproachment (Sam Roggeveen, Winter 1999, Policy)
    -ESSAY: The Love of Learning : Michael Oakeshott and Colorado College (TIMOTHY FULLER, Dean of the College)
    --ESSAY: Michael Oakeshott on Life: Waithing With Godot (Glenn Worthington)
    --ESSAY: Michael Oakeshott on History, Practice and Political Theory (Thomas W. Smith)
    -ESSAY: Negatives (Andrew Sullivan, 7/26/01, New Republic)
    -ESSAY: On Being Conservative (David W. Hall, March 29, 1996 , Premise)
    -ESSAY: The Case for Discrimination (Graeme Hunter, First Things, April 1993)
    -ESSAY: The Voice of Michael Oakeshott in the Conversation of Mankind (in In Memoriam: Michael Oakenshott, 1901-1990) (Patrick Riley, August 1991, Political Theory)
    -ESSAY: Michael Oakeshott as Liberal Theorist (Paul Franco, August 1990, Political Theory)
    -ESSAY: The Philosophical Michael Oakeshott (Harwell Wells, January 1994, Journal of the History of Ideas)
    -ESSAY: The Political Philosophy of Michael Oakeshott (Bhikhu Parekh, October 1979, British Journal of Political Science)
    -ESSAY: Oakeshott on Politics (J. R. Archer, February 1979, The Journal of Politics)
    -ESSAY: Bibliographical Note (in A Symposium on Michael Oakeshott) (Josiah Lee Auspitz, August 1976, Political Theory)
    -ESSAY: Oakeshott's Hobbesian Myth: Pride, Character and the Limits of Reason (Bruce P. Frohnen, December 1990, The Western Political Quarterly)
    -ESSAY: Oakeshott's Theory of Civil Association (Bhikhu Parekh, October 1995, Ethics)
    -ESSAY: Voices in Conversation: Philosophy and Politics in the Work of Michael Oakeshott (Steven A. Gerencser, August 1995, The Journal of Politics)
    -ESSAY: The Work of Michael Oakeshott (in In Memoriam: Michael Oakenshott, 1901-1990) (Timothy Fuller, August 1991, Political Theory)
    -ESSAY: A Rationalist Malgre Lui: The Perplexities of Being Michael Oakeshott (David Spitz, August 1976, Political Theory)
    -ESSAY: Inhuman Conduct and Unpolitical Theory: Michael Oakeshott's On Human Conduct (Hanna Fenichel Pitkin, August 1976, Political Theory)
    -ESSAY: The Creation of the Past: British Idealism and Michael Oakeshott's Philosophy of History (David Boucher, May 1984, History and Theory)
    -ESSAY: Individuality, Civility, and Theory: The Philosophical Imagination of Michael Oakeshott (Josiah Lee Auspitz, August 1976, Political Theory)
    -ARCHIVES: Conservatism : Michael Oakeshott (1901-1990) (Policy Library)
    -ARCHIVES: Michael Oakeshott (
    -ARCHIVES: "Michael Oakeshott" (Find Articles)
    -ESSAY: A Guide to the Classics: The Skepticism of Professor Oakeshott (Neal Wood, November 1959, The Journal of Politics)
    -REVIEW: of Rationalism in Politics by Michael Oakeshott (Walter Berns, The American Political Science Review)
    -REVIEW: of Rationalism in Politics (Dorothy Emmett, Philosophical Quarterly)
    -REVIEW: of Rationalism in Politics (George E. Gordon Catlin, The Western Political Quarterly)
    -REVIEW: of Rationalism in Politics (Chandran Kukathas, Political Theory)
    -REVIEW: of Rationalism in Politics (David Kettler, World Politics)
    -REVIEW: of Rationalism in Politics (Julian H. Franklin, The Journal of Philosophy)
    -REVIEW: of Rationalism in Politics (John Plamenatz, The British Journal of Sociology)
    -REVIEW: of Experience and Its Modes by Michael Oakeshott (1934) (S. P. L., The Journal of Philosophy)
    -REVIEW: of Social and Political Doctrines of Contemporary Europe by Michael Oakeshott (1943) (Jerome G. Kerwin, The Journal of Political Economy)
    -REVIEW: of On Human Conduct by Michael Oakeshott (1976) (Gordon Graham, Philosophical Quarterly)
    -REVIEW: of On Human Conduct (D. A. Lloyd Thomas, Mind)
    -REVIEW: of On Human Conduct (David Copp, The Philosophical Review)
    -REVIEW: of On Human Conduct (Timothy Fuller, The Journal of Politics)
    -REVIEW: of Hobbes on Civil Association by Michael Oakeshott (1978) (Thomas A. Spragens, Jr., The American Political Science Review)
    -REVIEW: of On History and other essays by Michael Oakeshott (Josiah Lee Auspitz, National Review)
    -REVIEW: of On History and Other Essays by Michael Oakeshott (1984) (William H. Dray, Ethics)
    -REVIEW: of On History and Other Essays (John Gray, Political Theory)
    -REVIEW: of On History and Other Essays (Robert Nicholas Berard, The History Teacher)
    -REVIEW: of The Politics of Faith and the Politics of Scepticism by Michael Oakeshott; Timothy Fuller (1997) (Paul Franco, The American Political Science Review)
    -REVIEW: of The Politics of Faith the Politics of Scepticism (Peter Berkowitz, First Things)
    -REVIEW: of Morality and Politics in Modern Europe: The Harvard Lectures by Michael Oakeshott and Religion, Politics and the Moral Life by Michael Oakeshott; Timothy Fuller (Patrick Riley, The American Political Science Review)
    -REVIEW: of The Political Philosophy of Michael Oakeshott by Paul Franco (Paul Nelson, The Journal of Politics)
    -REVIEW: of The Political Philosophy of Michael Oakeshott by Paul Franco (Patrick Riley, The American Political Science Review)
    -REVIEW: of The Voice of Liberal Learning: Michael Oakeshott on Education by Timothy Fuller (Erwin V. Johanningmeier, History of Education Quarterly)
    -REVIEW: of Nardin, Terry, The Philosophy of Michael Oakeshott (Chandran Kukathas, Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews)
    -ESSAY: Michael Oakeshott and the Critique of Rationalism (Matt McManus, 9/17/20, Aero)
    -REVIEW: of Michael Oakeshott on the Human Condition by Timothy Fuller (Elizaberth Corey, Law & Liberty)

Book-related and General Links:

-ESSAY: A Question of Temperament: Conservatism is not about profit but about loss. (ROGER SCRUTON, December 10, 2002, Wall Street Journal)
    -ESSAY: Types of Right: How the conservatives break down (John O'Sullivan, 10/11/99, National Review)
    -REVIEW: of Conservatism: An Anthology of Social and Political Thought. Edited by Jerry Z. Muller (Daniel J. Mahoney, First Things)
    -REVIEW: of A Case for Conservatism. By John Keke (Brian C. Anderson, First Things)
    -REVIEW: of Liberalisms: Essays in Political Philosophy by John Gray (Tibor Machan, Religion & Liberty)
    -ESSAY: Sullied Heritage: The decline of principled conservative hostility to China. (John B. Judis, 04.23.01, New Republic)