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Rationalism in Politics by Michael Oakeshott

Anika Vijapur revisits Michael Oakshott’s critique of rationalism in politics.

Upon reading Michael Oakeshott’s (1901-90) Rationalism in Politics (1962), it was almost impossible for me not to agree with every criticism he had of rationalism in modern politics – at least at first glance.

Oakeshott starts by listing the characteristics of a rationalist – someone who thinks that truth is accessed solely through reason – many of which characteristics are paradoxical. For instance, a rationalist’s often deep distrust of any kind of tradition screams of hypocrisy as he himself sets out to create his own universality for whatever social behaviour he espouses. When I read this, I couldn’t help but reevaluate how I’ve viewed traditions my whole life. Much like a rationalist in this regard, I have been quick to shun most traditions as regressive, and tried to question everything. But Oakeshott redefined how I perceive traditions: they equip us with knowledge we cannot simply gain any other way, and they evolve, too.

Michael Oakeshott
Michael Oakeshott, author of Rationalism in Pipe-Smoking

This leads to the second part, where Oakeshott differentiates between technical knowledge, which is formulated in rules, and practical knowledge, which is gained through experience, and often passed down orally instead of being formally recorded. A simple example would be raising a baby. This cannot be learnt merely through reading parenting books; it’s learnt through what our elders teach us and the experience of parenting itself. As Oakeshott points out, although these two types of knowledge are distinguishable, they cannot exist separately, even though rationalists often only pay attention to technical knowledge and try to ignore practical traditions. The rationalist insistence of purging the mind of all cultivated opinions in order to gain ‘reason’ became a real thorn in my side, and I started taking more stock of the nuances that practical knowledge has taught me.

I read this book as a part of a syllabus on Justice, so naturally, I tried to apply rationalist thinking to questions of justice. To think of jurisprudence, for example, in rationalist terms, would require that every case presented in court can have a potential ‘rational’ solution: that we can work out the guilt or innocence through reason alone. Past cases would have no bearing, and the judge’s reviewing of former cases would have no influence on the final ruling. But this is obviously not true, as no case exists in a legal vacuum. This is in fact my biggest problem with rationalist ideology – that everything is assumed to exist in a vacuum of thought lacking traditions and precedents.

The race to find an infallible technique for knowledge makes rationalists susceptible to what they fear most: forming mental habits through a rigid system that does not allow for improvement and evolution. Thus the rationalists fail in their primary goal of creating an infallible technique of inquiry. When you keep demolishing the floor – in this case, cumulative experience, including knowledge of past mistakes – how will you build the house – that is, build a system better than the one you lived in before?

Even as I criticized the rationalists, I couldn’t help but recall how my friends and I have adhered to rationalist ideas almost unconsciously. The post-Renaissance period led to the percolation of rationalism through every political and social sphere in the West, in fact, spilling over into the former European colonies as well (I’m writing from India). And rationalism has only grown stronger over the past four centuries, to the point that most of the colonized consider Western ideals of rationalism as standard and modern, and their own traditions as backward. We pride ourselves for being educated enough to think with a ‘free mind’. However, it would be an exaggeration to say that everyone thinks as extremely as a rationalist. Most of us use ‘pure reason’ with healthy skepticism.

So I also started doubting the intensity with which Oakeshott critiques rationalists here. I don’t think that every aspect of rationalism is bad. Some people may not be able to grasp what past experience yields, and so do need guidelines or a technique that will help them maneuver through life. Rationalism in some spheres, such as moral education, can also be a good thing, if ingested in small doses. It is good to question the practical knowledge you’ve gained, to evolve. At the same time, one must appreciate the value of traditions – just as Oakeshott is trying to emphasize.

After reading this book I took a walk, then spoke to my friends and family, trying to understand if Oakeshott was perhaps a bit too harsh in his critique; if there’s a compromise to be made here. I felt as if Buddha’s principle of the Middle Path is the most fitting when it comes to choosing an ideology for yourself. By contrast, Oakeshott and the rationalists seem to exist at two extremes, clinging on to the credible features at either end.

So I finally found Oakeshott too polemical to lean more towards him, as I do believe that a healthy amount of rationalism is also important. The formulation of a basic technique of inquiry is good as long as you can leave room for improvisation and improvement. Just as Descartes was aware of the limitations of his own rationalism, so someone will be a healthy and wise rationalist if he has enough self-awareness to recognize the shortcomings of his position, and enough space in his mind to solve those shortcomings through utilising different methods. Then, with any luck, rationalism in politics will take a turn for the better.

© Anika Vijapur 2023

Anika Vijapur is pursuing a degree in International Relations at Shiv Nadar University, Delhi.

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