Oakeshott on Science as a Mode of Experience

Here is the intro to Byron’s essay from the Zygon symposium..

The obvious outcome of our total experience is that the world can be handled according to many systems of ideas, and is so handled by different men . . . science and religion are genuine keys for unlocking the world’s treasure house. Neither is exhaustive or exclusive of the other’s simultaneous use. And why, after all, may not the world be so complex as to consist of many interpenetrating spheres of reality? —William James ([1902] 2002, 122)

But the comparative freedom of the artist springs not from any faculty of wakefulness (not from any opposition to the dream) but from his power to dream more profoundly; his genius is to dream that he is dreaming. And it is this that distinguishes him from the scientist, whose perverse genius is to dream that he is awake. The project of science . . . is to solve the mystery, to wake us from our dream, to destroy the myth: and were this project fully achieved, not only should we find ourselves awake in a profound darkness, but a dreadful insomnia would settle upon mankind, no less intolerable for being only a nightmare. —Michael Oakeshott ([1947] 1975, 160)

Despite the ominous language of the latter passage, we must not be misled into jumping to the wrong conclusion with regard to Michael Oakeshott’s overall verdict on science. Oakeshott had a rather favorable, if detached, appreciation of natural science. He employed, as indeed was fit given the general exposition of the subject matter of Experience and Its Modes (1933), a neutral way of positing science as one among the most prestigious of modes of experience. Nevertheless, the mood expressed in the quoted passage contrasting literature and science, casting the latter in an unfavorable light, is genuinely negative and genuinely Oakeshottian. It serves as a reminder, at this early stage of our discussion, of the need for stressing the interrelationships of areas exhibited within Oakeshott’s oeuvre, interrelationships that must be set as the interpretative key in any understanding of what he was trying to convey. Oakeshott did not care to pose as either an apologist for or a detractor of science, except to criticize aberrations of the scientific mode of experience he identified as scientism (as he did also in the case of analogous deformations of the other modes). It is such a scientism that is castigated in the dictum quoted at the start: a scientism that does not let other voices be heard, scientism as a “superstition about scientific enquiry” ([1947] 1993, 99), the “neo-Pelagian assumption” (p. 105).

Notwithstanding his judicious way of laying down the elements of the scientific mind, however, Oakeshott’s treatment of science is at some points ambiguous, not free of contradictions,2 and at times doctrinaire and repetitive. It is thus difficult, if not superficial, to catalogue it. His view may strike some contemporary readers as naive in certain respects, given significant postwar developments in the history and philosophy of science. His position may seem narrow or austere, given the proliferation of contemporary proposals in favor of subtler models of science or the recent radical reappraisal of experiments and their place in scientific practice or the more elaborate “theories of theories” in science currently discussed. To so judge Oakeshott, however, for failing to envisage where the course of intellectual fashion would be heading, merely by reading pages of his from the 1930s or even later, would certainly be an anachronism no less than an injustice committed against the fecundity and the relative complexity of his thought on science.

His views of science, although not intricate in their detail, are complex in their relationship to other areas of his thought. Given that contemporary developments themselves are ridden with internal tensions, Oakeshott’s views should not be judged as flat or unrefined as they may appear after a first reading. To be sure, philosophy of science has become enormously more sophisticated and is currently on a roller-coaster course of ever more diffuse and richer hybrids of historical, sociological, philosophical approaches or other interdisciplinary blends.

Oakeshott’s treatment of science is quite interesting when assessed from the point of view of his entire work, juxtaposed to what he has to say about religion, politics, and art. To hold that there is a distinctively Oakeshottian view of science as opposed to simply “Oakeshott’s views on science” is questionable. Interest is appreciably increased when his views on science are placed either in juxtaposition to other intellectual developments or in relation to his overall philosophical outlook. The latter holds both in relation to the negative side—his celebrated critique of what he takes as technical rationalism (“raisonnement” [1991, 25]) to be, that is, his rejection of any “scientific politics” or the wrong type of “philosophical politics,” as well as in relation to his more positive pronouncements regarding religion and art.

I do not think that, as far (and only as far) as my present theme is concerned, there is significant alteration in Oakeshott’s ideas that would warrant any logical inconsistency. What he has to say about science in his later work On Human Conduct (1975), or briefly in other places, does not constitute a major departure from that in Experience and Its Modes. Compared to his later works, such as “The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind” ([1959] 1991), which could be more readily reappropriated by contemporary thinkers within a political or social context, Experience and Its Modes is a work directly relevant to discussions of science. It is thus better suited to facilitate links with modern epistemological pursuits such as holism, the underdetermination thesis, the Duhem-Quine thesis, reductionism, the notion of scientific paradigms or conceptual schemes, unity of science, the (ir)relevance of ontological claims to morality, or scientific essentialism and the return of naturalism.

I offer a reconstruction of certain central theses of his so as to stress interrelationships within his overall scheme that both illuminate and cast a critical light on his position on science. I also draw lines of connection reaching to some major developments outside Oakeshott in order to see if his somewhat isolated status could be lessened but also in order to enrich our understanding of his work thanks to some light from these other sources. Suitably but consistently reconstructed, Oakeshott himself may be seen as a source of such light, too, cast on others.

One of my main claims is that Oakeshott reserves an elevated status for philosophy, as he conceives it. Philosophy is the logical ground of the modes of experience. Philosophy envelops the modes while, in turn, their analysis envelops one of them—science. There is in this a series of nested relations. Instead of following an order of exposition starting bluntly with what Oakeshott has to say about science in particular and in isolation and then trying to connect this with the rest, by ascending toward the more general, I do the reverse: I follow a logical order of nested relations moving from philosophy to modes to science. This is in congruence with what he says in On Human Conduct (1975, 10–11) where he invokes the notion of “conditional understanding”—that is, inquiry into a certain field, which rests on prior epistemological postulates or conditions—an equivalent to modes. This exhibits a structure of nested levels of ascending unconditionality, each level of conditional understanding moving higher up from studying a certain item to studying its postulates and on toward the next higher level of studying the conditions of the one immediately below (for example, from identifying a thunderstorm to studying it as an electromagnetic event; from recognizing a piece of paper as of a certain form to studying the geometrical properties of this form and onward to studying the postulates of geometry itself, and so forth). Yet, compared to the earlier Experience and Its Modes, in On Human Conduct we learn something crucial having to do with the unattainable position of philosophy: that there is no highest level of total unconditionality from which to inspect the scala of the lower ones, nor is there such one in relation to which each and every partial understanding is to be asserted. There is only a perpetual process.