The Fate of Rationalism in Oakeshott’s Thought

However long Ken Minogue has been writing about rationalism he always has a knack of bringing something new and elegant to the topic.

Oakeshott was passionate about ideas, and in casual conversation he did not stint on expressing his disdain for folly, but his philosophical instincts were always to discover some element of rationality in what he most detested. Living in a generation of philosophers, some of whom were so enthusiastic about criticism that they adopted it as a self-identifying slogan, Oakeshott always regarded criticism as merely a preliminary to further understanding— not, of course, in the sense of tout comprendre, c’est tout pardoner, but as a vision of the world in which everything is a necessary evil. In the essay “Rationalism in Politics,” “rationalism” has few if any redeeming features. The interesting question is how he rethinks its character as he goes along.

Rationalism featured in the original essay as a vice of practical life, parasitic on history, science, and poetry—indeed, particularly on philosophy itself. The busy rationalist is unmistakably the most crashing bore in the conversation of humankind. Rationalism confuses part and whole. It corrupts the mind because it is both false and debasing (RP, 37). It offers a false dream of competence to the ignorant and cuts them off from whatever tradition is relevant to their enterprises, making them fancy that a doctrine is more flexible and responsive to reality than the inventive tradition that it merely abridges. Rationalism is idolatrous. In its political appearance it becomes a device for mechanically imposing some limited dream on an entire population. Individuals are corralled into abstract categories that suppress variety and aspire to uniformity. Rationalist projects inevitably fail, but in a rationalist atmosphere, an ignorant population can conceive of no better response to failure than to embrace some new collective project, so long as it promises an abstract social perfection. The outcome is an unstable political world, in political philosophy which what Tocqueville called la république, “the slow and tranquil action of society on itself,” is lost.

For Oakeshott the politics of skepticism is, at least in England, historically generated by legal assumptions and constitutes an escape from the abstractions of the politics of faith. Skeptical politics recognizes human beings as creatures responding to wants and ideas and as living in a contingent world whose spring of action is responsiveness to situations rather than in a world in which social conditions actually determine how people behave. It might well seem, however, that in escaping from the politics of faith by moving toward a politics of skepticism generated by legal thought, Oakeshott had merely substituted one kind of abstraction for another.

Oakeshott takes the view that the essence of the politics of faith is the failure to keep religion and politics apart. In all other cultures but our own, however, no such separation ever took place. In our current circumstances, “religion” has in any case become an ambiguous word. Humanism and secularism are beginning to take on many of the features of a faith. They increasingly parade their sensitivity to the presence of religious symbols (the cross, rosary beads, etc.) and demand an environment free of religious symbols. It is true that their concern is almost exclusively with Christian symbols, those of other religions being tolerated under the rubric of multiculturalism. For that reason, secularism has in part the character of a spiritual civil war within European states, and a secularism making such demands is clearly taking on faithlike attributes. We thus find ourselves in a rather paradoxical situation, in which for all our value of freedom, increasing numbers of Western people come to be subject to forms of supposedly enlightened despotism.