Oakeshott’s concept of ideology


A new paper from the very excellent David Corey.


Michael Oakeshott’s critique of ‘political rationalism’ is often regarded as a unique contribution to the study of 20th-century ‘ideologies.’ But, in fact, Oakeshott understood rationalism and ideology as distinct phenomena. This article exposes the essence of each in Oakeshott’s writings, analyses their complex relationship and shows how far back in human history they reached. Neither was, for Oakeshott, distinctly modern. In fact, he traced ideology and rationalism alike to the birth of philosophy in ancient Greece, even while he acknowledged important differences in their ancient and modern manifestations. Oakeshott’s outlook with respect to these phenomena was significantly more pessimistic than that of other 20th-century analysts. He did not think our problems were easily curable. He did, however, harbour some hope (albeit dreamy) that in the domain of politics in particular, the metaphor of ‘conversation’ might somehow loosen the grip of ideological thought and action.

Though the word ideology has many meanings, some of them mutually exclusive, it continues to be an indispensable analytical concept in contemporary political theory. Far from disappearing from the scene as was once expected, ideologies of all sorts appear to be thriving today—some grand, some modest; some negative, some positive; some new, some old. The endeavour to understand ideologies (including the various ways the word itself can be used) is therefore an important aspect of our effort to understand politics in general. Michael Oakeshott’s use of the term, which forms the subject of the present study, proves especially illuminating in this regard. Oakeshott’s concept of ideology was more original than has been hitherto recognized because commentators have tended to conflate his critique of it with his broader and more familiar critique of ‘modern rationalism.’ But ideology and rationalism were for him distinct. Oakeshott understood modern rationalism in the standard way as an intellectual temperament that emerged from the exuberances of the Renaissance and the upheavals of the Reformation. Though his concept of rationalism was not unique, his spirited critique of it certainly was, at least in its breadth and sophistication. However, Oakeshott in fact never described rationalism as an ideology, despite his view that ideology and rationalism were closely linked.

Thus, we need to wrestle with the following questions: what exactly did Oakeshott mean by ‘ideology’? What is the precise relationship between ideology and rationalism? And finally, what is the philosophical significance of Oakeshott’s work in this area? As I argue later, Oakeshott’s concept of ideology was critical, but not as critical as his view of rationalism, and yet, insofar as ideologies were problematic for Oakeshott, they were vexingly so because they seemed to him to spring not from some ephemeral defect of modernity but rather from certain propensities of human experience itself. This helps to explain why ideologies (as Oakeshott used the term) constitute a permanent feature of political life.