Oakeshott and Hobbes

Here are more extracts from Noel Malcolm’s essay for the Oakeshott Companion: Malcolm’s recent work has been listed as one of The Economist books of the year.

Oakeshott’s essay on “Rationalism in Politics” does make some attempt to locate the birth of rationalism historically. He observes that “the moment when it shows itself unmistakably” is in the early seventeenth century, and he identifies both Bacon and Descartes as foundational figures in the rationalist tradition (RP, 18, 19–22). In this account, Hobbes, whose philosophical formation took place in the early seventeenth century, and who enjoyed personal relations with both Bacon and Descartes (friendly with the former, rivalrous with the latter), is passed over without even a mention. In Oakeshott’s introduction to Leviathan, on the other hand, Hobbes is briefly identified as an exemplar of “rationalism,” but only in order to emphasize the gulf that separated his kind of rationalism from that of a thinker such as Descartes: “The lineage of Hobbes’s rationalism lies, not (like that of Spinoza or even Descartes) in the great Platonic-Christian tradition, but in the sceptical, late scholastic tradition. He does not normally speak of Reason, the divine illumination of the mind that unites man with God; he speaks of reasoning. And he is not less persuaded of its fallibility and limitations than Montaigne himself.” There is some tension between this discussion and the account given subsequently in “Rationalism in Politics”: in the later essay, Descartes is himself characterized as an exponent of “scepticism,” whose role as a founding father of rationalism was to a large extent foisted on him by later generations of vulgarizing Cartesians (RP, 21–22). More puzzlingly, that account also portrays the “reason” of the rationalists as something very different from “Reason, the divine illumination of the mind that unites man with God”: an important footnote in “Rationalism in Politics” declares that “The ‘reason’ to which the Rationalist appeals is not, for example, the Reason of Hooker, which belongs still to the tradition of Stoicism and of Aquinas. It is a faculty of calculation by which men conclude one thing from another and discover fit means of attaining given ends not themselves subject to the criticism of reason” (RP, 22–23)—a description which, while no doubt formulated with twentieth-century social engineers in mind, seems to match quite closely the Hobbesian notion of “reasoning.”

Thus far, it may seem that Oakeshott’s admiration for Hobbes can be rendered compatible with his hostility to rationalism in politics only on the basis of a misunderstanding: apparently, Oakeshott was prepared to overlook the many obvious similarities between Hobbes and the rationalists because he believed, wrongly, that on one fundamental issue—that of certainty—Hobbes represented a contrary point of view. But to leave the matter there would be to fail to acknowledge the most important way in which Oakeshott regarded political philosophy Hobbes as a representative of the non-rationalist or anti-rationalist position. The essential nature of his interest in Hobbes was summed up in the title he chose for the collection of his writings about him: Hobbes on Civil Association. More than anything else, what attracted him to the earlier philosopher was Hobbes’s account of the nature of a political community as something constituted by a web of mutual understandings and mutual commitments of a peculiarly open-ended and unconditional kind. In Oakeshott’s eyes, Hobbes was an archetypal non-rationalist in politics because he had a rich understanding of the non-instrumentality of the state.

What appealed to Oakeshott about Hobbes’s vision of the state was, above all, its non-instrumentality. In Hobbes’s story (or “myth”) of the covenant that founded the state, there was a transfer of rights that was entirely open-ended, political philosophy without specific conditions or purposes attached to it. The artifice that created the state consisted of non-substantive intentions; the only intention at work there was the intention that there be a sovereign authority. In Oakeshott’s view, an enterprise association was also a product of artifice, but one based on substantive intentions. Using the distinction outlined earlier, we might say that a grand rationalist state—a totalitarian one—was one in which the substantive intentions were structured in such a way that all intentions were subsumed under one highest intention, whereas a petty rationalist state—a mechanistic-liberal one, in which politics was the art of piecemeal social engineering— was one in which the role of the state was to adjudicate between particular substantive intentions, bundle some of them together, and find ways of fulfilling them.