Rationalism and Teaching the Constitution

Elizabeth Corey’s recent discussion in Academic Questions. An extract below:


Oakeshott’s Critique

In his most famous essay, “Rationalism in Politics,” published in a book of the same name, Oakeshott calls the American Founding a “Rationalist” project. In Oakeshott’s lexicon, Rationalism is not something to be praised but a pathological condition, a cast of mind exhibited by many people in the present day and especially by those involved in politics. It is the notion that what is most important in any activity is not the knowledge acquired in the practice of an art or science, but instead the principles and precepts that can be distilled and written down about it. These precepts can, in turn, be used as guides or directives for novices. Thus does an ideology substitute for an inherited or hard-won understanding of political activity.

This is the kind of knowledge one finds in technical handbooks and how-to manuals: “Teach Yourself Piano in Six Weeks” or “How to Become a Food Critic in Nine Easy Steps.” The presupposition is that in showing novices how to engage in an activity, somehow these abridgments can assume the place formerly held by teachers and expert practitioners. Another assumption is that these precepts are somehow self-generating—bright ideas thought up by enterprising individuals or committees—owing little to tradition and almost everything to the exercise of a supposedly pure, unaided reason.

If it is not already clear from the above description, being called a Rationalist is no compliment. Yet these are precisely the terms in which Oakeshott describes the authors of the Declaration of Independence. The American colonists believed that “the proper organization of a society and the conduct of its affairs were based upon abstract principles.” Such principles were “not the product of civilization; they were natural, ‘written in the whole volume of human nature’…to be discovered in nature by human reason.” He credits John Locke with having set out an ideology that was adopted wholesale by people such as Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, who then claimed “a positive superiority over older societies not yet fully emancipated from the chains of custom.”4 Allied with this indictment is Oakeshott’s severe skepticism about written constitutions and their ability to constrain political practice in the way their authors intended.

Historians and political philosophers will no doubt find much to quibble with in this account, since it is brief and deliberately provocative. In painting with a broad brush, Oakeshott is certainly guilty of simplifying a situation that is far more complex than he admits. Yet there is something persuasive about his critique of the Founding as a Rationalist project and his idea of written constitutions as an integral part of this Rationalism. This places the current debate between timeless truths and fluid experiment—often framed as the difference between “Originalism” and “Living Constitutionalism”—on a somewhat different footing.

Oakeshott’s criticisms highlight the contingent character of documents that many of us might be inclined to view as foundational, even quasi-scriptural. And yet he does not careen off into unfettered relativism. Oakeshott is perhaps most helpful in reminding us that traditions must be learned and maintained—that they constitute a kind of endowment that must be continuously replenished by emerging generations of students. Yet while he is undoubtedly right that no written abridgment can adequately capture a tradition, neither, he might suggest, should we abandon the one we have inherited, even if it is built on the “Rationalistic” documents of the Declaration and Constitution.