of books by Michael Oakeshott

MICHAEL OAKESHOTT (1901-1990) from Chelsfield, Kent, England. He was a Lecturer in History at Gonville and Caius College from 1933-1950 and Professor of Political Science at The London School of Economics and Political Science from 1951 to 1967.

Learn more about Oakeshott's writing and life from the Michael Oakeshott Association.

Rationalism in Politics and other essays
by Michael Oakeshott
Liberty Fund, 1991

I first read about Michael Oakeshott in the New York Review of Books. It was an enlightening moment. Here was a man who used a simple language to talk about a simple truth  --  rationalism.  Although rationalism appears as one of the most successful philosophies behind science and technology, rationalism gets all the credit for all the wrong reasons. The promise of rationalism is that as long as we can write something down on paper, it can be preserved for generations to come, because the simple power of logical reasoning will be enough to reproduce and understand what past generations have done. It is the idea of writing a recipe, a protocol, a rule to be used for whomever is interested. It is the promise of knowledge, however, only one of two kinds of knowledge that can be perpetuated indefinitely. Oakeshott calls it technical knowledge as opposed to practical knowledge. Both aspects of knowledge go into true knowledge of something, and the political arena is the prime example chosen by Oakeshott to prove his point. What is true for politics, however, is also true for science and the arts. Technical knowledge is knowledge of rules, practical knowledge the knowledge of skills. It is obvious to all of us that skills can only be transmitted from person to person, but cannot be acquired as easily by following rules alone. Practical knowledge is learning by doing under the watchful eye of the master (teacher). Applied to politics, Oakeshott's believes are truly conservative, for he blames the demise of a class of politicians (presumably an aristocratic system) who learn their profession from generation to generation. While such hereditary passing of political skills (and power) is suggestive, I believe that a democratic society very well promotes the perpetual generation and education of the animus politicus, the truly political personality.

The value of Oakeshott's analysis of rationalism, however, lies in its usefulness for understanding science, too. Science is not mechanistic, a cook book profession, but is pursued by truly involved people who are scientists who learn their profession during many years of apprenticeship. Science is commonly looked at as purely a representative of technical knowledge, of a body of facts, but the work behind the facts, the intuition, believes, and many hours of interactions with other scientists are the true motor behind the progress in science. Admitted, some aspects of science have become more technical in nature and application oriented  --  biotechnology, rocket science, computer technology  --  but basic research and what we mean with scientific literacy, is a product of both technical and practical knowledge. It is the focus on the former and lack of the latter that hinders us in achieving true scientific literacy.

Here is a quote taken from this volume. It summarizes very well the core concept of Oakeshott's criticism of rationalism.

"Now, I have suggested that the knowledge involved in every concrete activity is never solely technical knowledge. If this is true, it would appear that the error of the Rationalist is of a simple sort - the error of mistaking a part for the whole, of endowing a part with the qualities of the whole. But the error of the Rationalist does not stop there. If his great illusion is the sovereignty of technique, he is no less deceived by the apparent certainty of technical knowledge. The superiority of technical knowledge lay in its appearance of springing from pure ignorance and ending in certain and complete knowledge, its appearance of both beginning and ending with certainty. But, in fact, this is an illusion. As with every other sort of knowledge, learning a technique does not consist in getting rid of pure ignorance, but in reforming knowledge which is already there. Nothing, not even the most nearly self-contained technique (the rules of the game), can in fact be imparted to an empty mind; and what is imparted is nourished by what is already there. A man who knows the rules of one game will, on this account, rapidly learns the rules of another game: and a man altogether unfamiliar with 'rules' of any kind (if such can be imagined) would be a most unpromising pupil. And just as the self-made man is never literally self-made, but depends upon a certain kind of society and upon a large unrecognized inheritance, so technical knowledge is never, in fact, self-complete, and can be made to appear so only if we forget the hypotheses with which it begins. And if its self-completeness is illusory, the certainty which was attributed to it on account of this self-completeness is also an illusion."
May 29, 1999 /  © 1999  Lukas K. Buehler / go back to Book Review Home