The Fate of Rationalism in Oakeshott’s Thought

Here is Ken Minogue’s intro paragraph to his essay in the Companion to Michael Oakeshott (I recently had dinner with Ken and am pleased to report that he is doing quite well).

Michael Oakeshott is perhaps best known as the foe of a political vice called “rationalism,” and it is a vice because, in believing that all knowledge is technical, it fails to recognize the crucial role of what Oakeshott calls “practical knowledge.” The famous distinction between technical and practical knowledge, however, obscures the sheer complexity of Oakeshott’s understanding of political activity. We can, indeed, find a simple theme running through much of Oakeshott’s criticism at this period: namely, that the contingencies of the human world cannot be reduced to a simple, abstract (and manageable) plot. Rationalism does this, and Oakeshott detects it also in Whig history as analyzed by Herbert Butterfield: “What is, in fact, a resultant, or even a byproduct, of conflicting purposes and interests is made to appear as the consummation of a single homogeneous stream of activity triumphing over opposition and obstruction” (WIH 221). But this general theme becomes recessive as he developed his political philosophy in the years after the famous Inaugural. He seeks a more complex understanding of these things.