Constructivism and Relativism in Oakeshott

Constructivism and Relativism in Oakeshott. In The Intellectual Legacy of Michael Oakeshott

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This paper highlights a troubling tension within the philosophy of Michael Oakeshott. The relativistic stance that informs his radical constructivism gives license to socio-political conclusions we know Oakeshott couldn’t possibly accept.

Politically, Oakeshott cannot accept constructionist social ontologies that are forged in the clamour for rights, an abstract and axiomatic foundationalist conception of rights which demands a corresponding morality not deduced from morally relevant considerations.

Educationally, Oakeshott laments that the notion of disinterested liberal learning is rendered redundant given the incessant impulse for RELEVANCE, now guaranteed with sociology as its master.

Scientifically, Oakeshott plays both sides and this is most problematic. On the one hand he commends science for its achievement against the sociology-of-knowledge view that science is at best an ideology, at worst, a tool of oppression. On the other hand, the constructivist/relativist Oakeshott berates science for being devoid of any truth value. Taken thus, bereft of any veritistic notions, Oakeshott is in no position to distinguish good science from pseudo-science. Oakeshott therefore plays into the hands of the scientism that has been the hallmark of his Rationalist and contravenes his own primary philosophical dictum – the error of irrelevance.

For Oakeshott these three dimensions have conspired to create a distinctly illiberal intellectual climate, a regime of “ready-made” or approved ideas, “oppressive uniformities of thought or attitude or conduct”. Behind the ostensibly liberal metaphysic of social constructivism, is a reformist programme that is not at all benign. Furthermore, behind the familiar appeal to notions of “social” justice, “social” conscience, “social” science and all manner of RELEVANCE, there lies a self-serving illiberal divisiveness functional to a realignment of power relations. In a word “socialization” is the order of the day – a gross example of an ignoratio elenchi.

The question then is why does Oakeshott’s constructivism and relativism not tally with his socio-political conclusions? Oakeshott accepts all of the philosophical pre-conditions of constructivism yet he cannot accept its natural conclusion. If Rorty’s co-option of Oakeshott’s metaphor of “conversation” in the service of his own radically relativist epistemology has any plausibility, this creates serious problems for Oakeshott: it throws up some surprising socio-political anomalies for those of us attracted to Oakeshott’s philosophical politics.