Hayek and Oakeshott on Rationalism

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Michael Oakeshott 4

“Rationalism,” in the sense meant in this essay, might be understood as the idea that abstract thought, deducing answers to questions from first principles, is always superior to “mere” tradition, custom, and practical know-how. In the first half of the twentieth century, this rationalist ideal dominated elite thinking. The arts, child rearing, and business management were to be revolutionized according to rationalist precepts. In architecture and city planning, rationalism would sweep away that unnecessary clutter of old prejudices that restrained traditional architecture and customary urban organization and build the modern, functional buildings and communities that people truly needed. And, with the Soviet Union seen as setting the example, society as a whole was to be transformed into a utopia by tossing aside all attachment to atavistic customs and ancient moral relics and proceeding to design social affairs from first principles. (See, for instance, Callahan and Ikeda, 2014, for an examination of the deleterious effects of rationalism on urban planning, or Scott, 2008, for the negative outcomes of rationalist agriculture.) Hayek wrote that such a denigration of customary arrangements and exaltation of abstract reason had become so commonplace that it was common to think: “we should so re-design society and its institutions that all our actions will be wholly guided by known purposes. To most people these propositions seem almost self-evident and to constitute an attitude alone worthy of a thinking being” (1973: 9).

But since then, the many disappointing outcomes of the rationalist program have considerably dimmed its popularity. However, the evidence of those practical failures would not have been as convincing as it has been -— perhaps it was the case that we just had not found the proper rationalist program yet? — if not for the existence of a theoretical diagnosis of the malady. That diagnosis was provided by a number of theorists in the mid-twentieth century. This paper aims to compare and contrast the ideas of two of those leading critics of rationalism, F. A. Hayek and Michael Oakeshott. While each of them certainly criticized “rationalism,” did each mean the same thing by it? In what senses did their analyses of the issue overlap, and in what senses did they differ? I will argue that, in fact, Hayek and Oakeshott understood the problem of rationalist thought quite differently. Furthermore, I contend, this difference is not a mere “brute fact,” but can be understood as based in their differing philosophical outlooks. Clarifying these issues should provide insights into this important topic.

Hayek and Oakeshott

Hayek and Oakeshott had a curious intellectual relationship. Their backgrounds were fairly different: Hayek was an economist, first made aware of the limits of rationalism through analyzing the hurdles facing the central planner who was supposed to rationally reorganize production in the socialist commonwealth. Oakeshott was trained as an historian, and launched his investigations of rationalism from his study of philosophical idealism. Besides frequently being paired as major 20th-century critics of rationalism, they also have in common long periods of employment at the London School of Economics, as well as prominent places, which perhaps neither desired, in the pantheon of modern conservative heroes. Nevertheless, the only references I have encountered by Oakeshott to Hayek’s work are his somewhat dismissive summary of The Road to Serfdom, and a very sympathetic review of The Constitution of Liberty. Hayek praised Oakeshott, for example, in the introduction to Law, Legislation and Liberty, but Hayek never, to my knowledge, produced any in-depth commentary on the views of his purported counterpart.

Therefore, it may be useful to see what others have had to say about the relationship of Hayek’s and Oakeshott’s thought, before launching into our own analysis.

Comparing Hayek and Oakeshott

The initial impression one might adopt from seeing that both Hayek and Oakeshott criticize rationalism, and both regarded neutral rules important to civil society, is that they were saying essentially the same thing, perhaps merely using slightly different terms. Boyd and Morrison (2007) adopt this line, noting the preference of both thinkers for “spontaneous orders.” But the very phrase they use to connect the two in the title of their paper might give us pause, since Oakeshott never used the term “spontaneous order.”

On the other hand, Kenneth Minogue understood that there was a significant difference between Hayek and Oakeshott on this matter, which he summed up as follows:

“How might we formulate the difference between Hayek and Oakeshott? Let me suggest that it might be done in terms of levels of scepticism. At the least sceptical level, the socialist actually believes that revolutionary upheaval, or some plan of social engineering, can save the world. The twentieth century was full of such moths who found the flames of abstraction irresistible, and many perished as a result. We are far from having done away with their successors. Against this kind of thing, Hayek‘s sceptical account of an economy as a ‘discovery procedure’ was an exhilarating illumination of what socialist melodramas of oppression had obscured. A society whose power was dispersed among all its individuals was the epitome of freedom. It was also, as Hayek perhaps at times overemphasized, the epitome of prosperity. At the level of proposals to engineer society so as to remove the disharmonies of inequality, Hayek‘s scepticism was in good working order. It was not, however, a scepticism about abstract proposals in general, and it was on this point that the Oakeshott-Hayek disagreement emerged. Oakeshott‘s scepticism is a philosophical distancing from any form of human folly. He interprets the Hobbesian account of Christianity in particular as dealing (as he puts it) with ‘the local and transitory mischief in which the universal predicament of mankind appeared’ in his time. Hayek is too close to the mischief to recognize the universal predicament. (2002)”

As argued later in this paper, Minogue is not exactly correct to finger “levels of scepticism” as the key difference, but his noting that there is an important difference is accurate.

But the most important precursor of this paper is Chor-yung Cheung’s (2014) “The Critique of Rationalism and the Defense of Individuality: Oakeshott and Hayek.” In it, he presents a keenly insightful analysis of how Oakeshott’s understanding of rationalism differs from Hayek’s. In fact, his analysis is close enough to that offered in this paper that, were it not for the fact that he never explicitly identifies the basis of the differences he highlights, this paper would not have been written.

Cheung begins by noting that Hayek and Oakeshott share “the preference for emerging practices to deliberately designed institutions” (3): thus, the common albeit superficial impression that the two must be talking about pretty much the same thing. Nevertheless, he continues, “there are important differences between the two as regards the respective critiques of Rationalism…” (4)

In fact, Oakeshott’s claim about Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, that “A plan to resist all planning maybe better than its opposite, but it belongs to the same style of politics,” is correct. As Cheung puts it, Hayek is “employing an ideology… or a doctrine derived from abstract political principles to defend individual freedom and Western civilization” (4).

Cheung continues: “The problem with Rationalism, according to Oakeshott, is that it does not recognize practical knowledge as knowledge at all, and it asserts that only technical knowledge is rational…” (4) As though Hayek were seeking to illustrate this problem, Cheung quotes him claiming “one should not ‘disdain to seek assistance from whatever nonrational institutions or habits have proven their worth'” (5). The difference here is that Hayek, despite his critique of what he sees as ‘rationalism,’ still accepts the rationalist’s erroneous claim that only abstract reasoning is rational, while practical knowledge is “nonrational.”

Cheung illustrates Oakeshott’s view using the particular example of morality:

“Oakeshott tries to show that while the dominant reflective mode of morality in the West appears to be very self conscious, rational and scientific, reality, it is abstract, detached from the concrete day to day traditional moral habits, unstable and dogmatic… “if we use these abstracted principles as the supreme guides for our moral conduct, this is… putting the cart before the horse, because these principles are would have been distilled from the actual concrete practices, without which they will lose most of their meanings. (5)”

Cheung indicates Hayek’s mistake in thinking that we are “unconsciously following a rule” in activites like riding a bicycle or playing billiards, without quite being able to put his finger on what exactly the mistake is: “but it is not entirely clear in what sense riding a bicycle should be understood as following the laws of mechanics” (6). (See Callahan 2012a for an exploration of rule following.)

Cheung comes perilously close to obviating the need for this paper when he notes that “Hayek’s philosophical perspective it is very likely blind to a lot of the things that Oakeshott has said regarding the poetic character of human activity” (7). But he never makes explicit what it is that is different between Hayek’s philosophical perspective and Oakeshott’s. And thus, the remainder of this essay, which will proceed by turning first to Hayek on rationalism.

Hayek on Rationalism

Hayek’s philosophy, while never articulated at great length, appears to have been a variety of “emergent phenomena” materialism. In his view, reason was not an aspect of human activities in general, but only emerged in the process of abstracting from “sensory input” any number of scientific laws, legal rules, heuristics for deciding on practical courses of action, and so on. Working from this base, Hayek criticized “rationalism” as a failure to recognize how limited reason is in its application. The “abuse of reason” consists in trying to use our rationality to direct irrational (or, at best, “ecologically rational”) processes it cannot fully grasp, such as the historical development of our customs, norms, conventions and institutions. For Hayek, in particular, historical situations cannot be rationally understood, since, for him, reason is identical to abstract thought. Hayek did famously stress the importance of knowledge of “the particular circumstances of time and place” (in “The Use of Knowledge in Society”), but it is unclear how his epistemology makes such knowledge possible.

The Knowledge Essays

Hayek first began moving away from technical economics and into broader issues of social philosophy with his justly famed essays, “Economics and Knowledge” (1937) and “The Use of Knowledge in Society” (1945). In the first of these essays, Hayek recognizes the limitations of the abstractions of formal economic analysis in the following passage:

“Indeed my main contention will be that the tautologies, of which formal equilibrium analysis in economics essentially consists, can be turned into propositions which tell us anything about causation in the real world only in so far as we are able to fill those formal propositions with definite statements about how knowledge is acquired and communicated. (1937: 3.1)”

And Hayek indicates the falsifying nature of abstraction here:

“In the usual presentations of equilibrium analysis it is generally made to appear as if these questions of how the equilibrium comes about were solved. But if we look closer it soon becomes evident that these apparent demonstrations amount to no more than the apparent proof of what is already assumed. The device generally adopted for this purpose is the assumption of a perfect market where every event becomes known instantaneously to every member. It is necessary to remember here that the perfect market which is required to satisfy the assumptions of equilibrium analysis must not be confined to the markets of all the individual commodities; the whole economic system must be assumed to be one perfect market in which everybody knows everything. The assumption of a perfect market then means nothing less than that all the members of the community, even if they are not supposed to be strictly omniscient, are at least supposed to know automatically all that is relevant for their decisions. (1937: 3.22)”

In “The Use of Knowledge in Society,” Hayek furthers his exploration of the social aspect of economic decision making begun in “Economics and Knowledge.” He notes that economic knowledge is dispersed, rather than concentrated in a single mind or even a single organization:

“The peculiar character of the problem of a rational economic order is determined precisely by the fact that the knowledge of the circumstances of which we must make use never exists in concentrated or integrated form but solely as the dispersed bits of incomplete and frequently contradictory knowledge which all the separate individuals possess. (H.3)”

In another passage, Hayek nearly hits upon the idea of the “concrete universal”:

“Today it is almost heresy to suggest that scientific knowledge is not the sum of all knowledge. But a little reflection will show that there is beyond question a body of very important but unorganized knowledge which cannot possibly be called scientific in the sense of knowledge of general rules: the knowledge of the particular circumstances of time and place. (H.9)”

And he appears to recognize practical knowledge as genuine a little later on:

“We need to remember only how much we have to learn in any occupation after we have completed our theoretical training, how big a part of our working life we spend learning particular jobs, and how valuable an asset in all walks of life is knowledge of people, of local conditions, and of special circumstances…
It is a curious fact that this sort of knowledge should today be generally regarded with a kind of contempt and that anyone who by such knowledge gains an advantage over somebody better equipped with theoretical or technical knowledge is thought to have acted almost disreputably. (H.9-10)”

But Hayek’s philosophical perspective does not allow him to fully appreciate his own quite salutary insights, and we will demonstrate why in what follows.

The Sensory Order

In The Sensory Order, Hayek tries to trace how thought itself, which for him means abstract thought, can arise from entirely thoughtless processes. But he has left himself here a conundrum that I suggest is impossible to solve: How in the world can any sensible abstraction be drawn from a welter of particulars that are, in and of themselves, not susceptible to being understood?

Hayek, in this work, explicitly contends that the concrete is dependent upon the abstract:

“The continuous presence, while consciousness lasts, of these mental contents of a most abstract character, representing the spatial and temporal structure of the environment, is not always recognized. This is probably due to the preconception that concrete perceptions always precedes the more abstract mental contents. There can be little doubt, however, that the distinct conscious picture of particular phenomena is always embedded, or surrounded by a semiconscious and more shadowy outline of the rest of the surroundings… (2014: 138)”

Hayek’s thought runs aground in this regard because he had not recognized the significance of the revolution in philosophy initiated by Hegel: he had not grasped the idea of the “concrete universal.” On the other hand, Oakeshott’s critique of rationalism is based upon that very concept. (Claes Ryn describes Hegel’s contribution here: “Among the thinkers who prepared the way for a new, more subtle understanding of the relationship of the universal to the particular, Hegel stands out as a groundbreaking figure…” [2003: 79].)

Hayek’s Critique of Conservatism

Hayek’s essay “Why I Am Not a Conservative,” which was published as a postscript in The Constitution of Liberty, can be taken as an implicit criticism of Oakeshott. Hayek opens by acknowledging the virtue he detects in the conservative political stance, writing: “Conservatism proper is a legitimate, probably necessary, and certainly widespread attitude of opposition to drastic change. It has, since the French Revolution, for a century and a half played an important role in European politics” (1960: 397) Despite this acknowlegement, he has only “two cheers” for conservatism, as he continues:

“Let me now state what seems to me the decisive objection to any conservatism which deserves to be called such. It is that by its very nature it cannot offer an alternative to the direction in which we are moving. It may succeed by its resistance to current tendencies in slowing down undesirable developments, but, since it does not indicate another direction, it cannot prevent their continuance. It has, for this reason, invariably been the fate of conservatism to be dragged along a path not of its own choosing. The tug of war between conservatives and progressives can only affect the speed, not the direction, of contemporary developments. But, though there is a need for a ‘brake on the vehicle of progress’, I personally cannot be content with simply helping to apply the brake. (1960: 398)”

But when Hayek contends that a conservative stance “does not indicate another direction,” he misses Oakeshott’s point about the “intimations” that any tradition contains, intimations that indicate new ways of proceeding. (See Oakeshott, 1991, 53-58, for a discussion of the intimations of an activity.) In what might plausibly read as a direct criticism of Oakeshott, Hayek contends:

“This brings me to the first point on which the conservative and the liberal dispositions differ radically. As has often been acknowledged by conservative writers, one of the fundamental traits of the conservative attitude is a fear of change, a timid distrust of the new as such, while the liberal position is based on courage and confidence, on a preparedness to let change run its course even if we cannot predict where it will lead. There would not be much to object to if the conservatives merely disliked too rapid change in institutions and public policy; here the case for caution and slow process is indeed strong. But the conservatives are inclined to use the powers of government to prevent change or to limit its rate to whatever appeals to the more timid mind. (1960: 400)”

Hayek has set up somewhat of a strawman here: exactly which conservative of any note has admitted to “a timid distrust of the new as such”? Neverthelesss, Hayek can be understood as raising a genuine question for Oakeshott: can looking merely to the “intimations” of existing practice avoid providing justificatory cover for some fundamentally unjust political regime? We will look at Oakeshott’s probable answer later in this paper.

Law, Legislation, and Liberty

However, Hayek’s thought grew closer to Oakeshott’s over time, to the extent that his three-volume work from the 1970s, Law, Legislation and Liberty, often reads like an expansion of Oakeshott’s essays on rationalism, and posits a key distinction between ‘spontaneous orders’ and ‘organizations’ that closely parallels Oakeshott’s between ‘civil’ and ‘enterprise’ associations. He seems particularly close to Oakeshott, for instance, when he writes:

“The first view holds that human institutions will serve human purposes only if they have been deliberately designed for these purposes, often also that the fact that an institution exists is evidence of its having been created for a purpose, and always that we should so re-design society and its institutions that all our actions will be wholly guided by known purposes. To most people these propositions seem almost self-evident and to constitute an attitude alone worthy of a thinking being. Yet the belief underlying them, that we all owe all beneficial institutions to design, and that only such design has made or can make them useful for our purposes, is largely false. (1973: 8-9)”

That passage closely echoes Oakeshott’s “Rational Conduct” essay (1991: 102-103). And again, Hayek sounds like Oakeshott in this passage:

“Yet the basic assumption underlying the belief that man has achieved mastery of his surroundings mainly through his capacity for logical deduction from explicit premises is factually false, and any attempt to confine his actions to what could thus be justified would deprive him of many of the most effective means to success that have been available to him. It is simply not true that our actions owe their effectiveness solely or chiefly to the knowledge which we can state in words and which can therefore constitute the explicit premises of a syllogism. (1973: 11)”

Once again, Hayek is at the verge of recognizing concrete thought. However, even at this stage of his thinking, Hayek was still, despite his critique of what he calls ‘constructivist rationalism’, proposing abstract rules to fix the problem. And so Hayek writes, ‘That freedom can be preserved only if it is treated as a supreme principle which must not be sacrificed for particular advantages was fully understood by the leading liberal thinkers of the nineteenth century…’ (1973: 72), and one realizes there is something significantly different from Oakeshott is going on here. Taleb notes the unresolved tension in Hayek’s view: “We may… think that… Hayek would be in the antifragile, antirationalist category… But Hayek missed the notion of optionality…” (2014: 258).

Or, as Rowland wrote:

“On the one hand, Hayek appears to evaluate institutions according to whether they are the products of spontaneous evolution; liberty and order, he suggests, are a product of such evolutionary processes. On the other hand, his development of a model constitution appears to demonstrate his willingness to engage in rational design, exactly the process his traditionalism argues against. (1988: 222)”

The Fatal Conceit

In The Fatal Conceit. Hayek’s last work published before his death, he introduces the idea of group selection into his corpus. Here, we find a notion of “rationality” completely disconnected from any idea that the actors engaged in this “rational” behavior have any thoughts about how their behavior “makes sense” at all. Their patterns of behavior may be completely opaque to the actors themselves, yet they exhibit what Vernon Smith (2010) terms “ecological rationality”: in this construct, the behavior of the “agents” involved in an activity can be completely mindless, but it is termed “rational” because, to an outside observer, an “aim” can be assigned to this pattern of activity, which, despite not being the aim of any agent actually engaged in the activity, nevertheless makes the activity seem sensible to the observer.

But this sort of “rationality” renders the idea of “rational action” vacuous: if an outcome is not intended by any agent involved in achieving it, why in the world is their behavior deemed “rational” simply because a theorist, judging from outside the realm of their activities, deems that outcome satifactory according to his theory? By this criterion, a physicist could declare that electrons are “rationally” orbiting atomic nucleii, since he is in possesion of a theory that explains why they are doing so.

Oakeshott on Rationalism

For Oakeshott, the problem is not that our reason is not up to the job of grappling with our practical affairs, including those of our political life. Instead, as he points out in Experience and Its Modes, the world of practice is itself a world of ideas. Thus when Oakeshott attacks rationalism, he is not claiming that it is a case of reason going beyond its limits, as Hayek does. Instead, rationalism for Oakeshott is the attempt to replace practical reason (phronesis) with abstract, theoretical reason (theoria).

The central thesis of this paper is that the difference here between Hayek and Oakeshott turns crucially on Oakeshott’s heritage of British idealist thought. For example, here is R. G. Collingwood expressing the idealist emphasis on the concrete:

“The concept is not something outside the world of sensuous experience: it is the very structure and order of that world itself… This is the point of view of concrete thought… To abstract is to consider separately things that are inseparable: to think of the universal, for instance, without reflecting that it is merely the universal of its particulars, and to assume that one can isolate it in thought and to study it in this isolation. This assumption is an error. One cannot abstract without falsifying. (1924: 159-160)”

In shorter form, Bernard Bosanquet wrote: “the fullest universal of character and consciousness will embody itself in the finest and most specialized and unrepeatable responses to environment” (1927). Or, as contemporary idealist Claes Ryn puts it, “A precondition for really understanding and appreciating the distinctiveness of cultures, societies, and individuals is rejecting abstractionism and fully embracing the historical consciousness” (2003: 78).

For the British Idealists, abstract reasoning was not reasoning itself, which had to be opposed by some sort of “instinctual,” anti-rational reliance on evolution to sort things out. Instead, abstract reasoning is always a partial and therefore defective (although perhaps very useful!) form of reason, and concrete reason is always its superior. And Hayek never fully recognizes this form of reason.

Experience and Its Modes

Published in 1933, this book is a defense of philosophical idealism. In it, Oakeshott argues that only philosophy represents ‘experience without reservation or arrest’ (1933: 4), a view he would modify in later works, but never entirely abandon. Other ‘modes of experience,’ such as science, history, and practice, are inherently partial forms of understanding, as they arise from particular presuppositions, which they leave unquestioned, that form these ‘worlds of ideas’. This intrinsic conditionality means that these modes of experience not only fall short of grappling with the ‘totality of experience’, but also makes them categorically distinct. Each mode is constituted by its own presuppositions, so that no mode is in a position to dictate to any of the others. For this paper, what is most relevant is Oakeshott’s claim that science has no authority over practice. Per Oakeshott, the rationalists’ dream of reorganizing and improving the ‘irrational’ world of practice, grounded in tradition, by applying abstract, scientific principles to everyday conduct, is guilty of categorical irrelevance. Science, as Oakeshott explains, is an ‘attempt to find… a world of definite and demonstrable experience, one free from merely personal associations and independent of the idiosyncrasies of particular observers, an absolutely impersonal and stable world’ (1933: 169–170). As such, the ‘concepts [of science] do not, in any sense, refer to the world of practice, to the world given in sensation [and therefore,] the generalizations which express their necessary relations cannot be taken to imply that any event or occurrence will invariably take place. The concepts do not refer to events; and the generalizations are not in respect of events’ (1933: 183).

In the world of practice, on the other hand, experience is understood in terms of how a current state of affairs might be transformed into a future state understood to be more satisfactory to a specific agent. As such, ‘a scientific idea must be transformed, taken out of the world of scientific experience, before it can establish itself in the world of practice’ (1933: 265). For example, an engineer in his work cannot simply employ the laws of physics as they are given to him by physicists; in trying to solve a practical problem like designing a building, he must recast those laws in terms of concepts foreign to physics, as he seeks not universal laws, but to determine, for instance, ‘Will this particular building, built as designed at this particular location, provide an adequate safety margin for this particular predicted earthquake level and these particular wind shears while meeting this particular cost constraint?’ Those specifics, the inclusion of which is vital for any successful solution to the engineer’s problem, are categorically excluded from properly scientific laws. Given the divergent aims characterizing the modes of science and of practice, the scientist is no more in a position to dictate the course of practical affairs according to his theoretical conclusions than is the practical person in a position to direct scientific research according to her personal ambitions. The relevance of this early conclusion of Oakeshott’s to his later essays on rationalism is, I think, obvious, especially once it is recognized that the proper contrast class to rational politics is not “traditional politics,” as Hayek’s “Why I Am Not a Conservative” essay might suggest, but practical politics.

(In defense of the contention that Oakeshott’s later works modify his early idealism without overturning it, see, for instance, Nardin [2001: 48–53], Franco [2004], or Callahan [2012b]; for a dissenting view, arguing that Oakeshott should be understood to have left the idealism of his youth behind, see Gerencser [2000]. For a recent picture of the relationship between scientific laws and ordinary events that is supportive of Oakeshott’s, see Cartwright [1983].)

Rationalism Essays

It has not been generally recognized that Oakeshott’s most famous work, on rationalism in politics and in conduct, flows directly from the philosophical ideas put forward in Experience and Its Modes. The rationalist misapplies the standards of one mode (theoretical science) in another mode (practice) where they are categorically irrelevant.

As Oakeshott saw it, the rationalist believes that every essential aspect of any human practice can be conveyed adequately by means of a ‘technical manual.’ The rationalist view is that arriving at the correct theory on some subject is all that is required to achieve successful performances in its domain; indeed, attending to any anything else, such as long-standing traditions, is a positive barrier to success in a field. What is necessary to be ‘rational’ is to approach any activity with a tabula rasa upon which the correct technique for that activity can be cleanly inscribed; as Oakeshott put it, in this view, rational conduct involves ‘a certain emptying of the mind, a conscious effort to get rid of preconceptions’ (1991: 101).

Quite to the contrary of that understanding of the relationship between technical guidelines and tacit knowledge, Oakeshott argues that the rationalist, in awarding theory primacy over practice, has gotten things exactly backwards. Theoretical understanding is always a by-product of practical skill: we come to understand the general and abstract only through understanding the concrete and particular.

In fact, Oakeshott sees the dependence of theory upon practice as being so unavoidable that not only is the rationalist incapable of successful performances guided solely by a theoretical model of the activity to be performed, he is not able to stick to his purported guidelines at all: instead, he will fall back on some existing practice instead of actually following the abstraction that supposedly guides his conduct. Oakeshott’s point here is close to Wittgenstein’s on “following a rule”: at some point we have to go without rules and just know what we are doing as part of a way of life, since otherwise we need an infinite regress of rules: meta-rules to tell us how to follow the first level rules, and meta-meta-rules to tell us how to follow them, and so on. (See Wittgenstein, 1953: 85-86.)

However, Oakeshott‘s assertion that the rationalist never really can proceed according to her avowed principles does not mean that her attempt to adhere to them will be inconsequential, but only that it will not succeed. An analogy may be helpful here: A person trying to become a parrot by strapping on wings and a beak and some colorful feathers won’t become one, but they will make themselves look ridiculous and hamper their day-to-day activities. As Collingwood wrote, ‘A person may think he is a poached egg; that will not make him one: but it will affect his conduct, and for the worse‘ (1924: 206). That is the point Franco was making in noting that ‘an erroneous theory can have pernicious practical consequences‘ (2004: 93). Since the pronouncements of the rationalist disparage current practices, customs, and morals, insofar as they do not follow from his rational deliberations about how his society ought to be ordered, they will erode the natural ease of the communal life that those traditions nourished, while offering in its stead only the artificial routines and regulations of a ‘rational‘ bureaucracy, or worse. Oakeshott offered this example: ‘First, we do our best to destroy parental authority (because of its alleged abuse), then we sentimentally deplore scarcity of good homes, and we end by creating substitutes which complete the work of destruction‘ (1991: 41).

It does not follow, from Oakeshott‘s view of the rationalist project as ruinously misguided, that all traditional practices are sacrosanct, or even that they all are laudable. Traditions are like living organisms: both can suffer illnesses and other disabilities; both ought to and usually do learn and adapt in response to their external circumstances and internal tensions; or, failing to do so, both soon cease to exist. But those adaptations, if they are to successfully meet the challenges presented by novel situations, must not promote the deterioration of the very organic order they purport to be serving. An appreciation for such pragmatic adaptation does not entail denying that intellectual criticism of the present social order has a genuine and vital role to play in that process. The political theorist can serve to diagnose and treat ills in his polity much as a physician does with those ills he detects in his patients. But, as Oakeshott noted, ‘to cure is not to transform, it is not to turn the patient into a different sort of being; it is to restore to him such health as he is naturally capable of enjoying’ (2006: 114). Because the rationalist physician attempts to transform rather than merely heal his charge, his treatments are likely to do far more harm than good.

Unfortunately, the ‘rationalist doctor’s’ counterpart in social reform similarly is inclined to interpret the social maladies produced by his projects not as evidencing any problem with his modus operandi but, quite to the contrary, as signaling the need for an even more energetic and thorough implementation of rationalist social engineering. As Oakeshott writes:

“To the firm believer in this idea of ‘rationality’, the spectacle of human behaviour… departing from its norm maybe expected to confirm his suspicion that ‘rational’ conduct of this sort is difficult, but not to shake his faith in its possibility and desirability… He will readily admit that he has been the victim of an illusion: but the exact character of the illusion will elude him. (1991: 114)”

(Oakeshott goes on to cite Keynes as an example here: much like Hayek, Keynes did not realize that he had “the rational” by the wrong end of the stick, but decided instead that “the irrational” is valuable.)

On Human Conduct

In On Human Conduct, published in 1975, Oakeshott presents another pair of dichotomous ideal types, the first of which is that of the practitioner and the theorist; indeed, his previously cited remark, made while responding to critics of this book, that he had abandoned his earlier use of ‘tradition’ as an apt term for the style of politics he opposed to rationalism, was the basis for the adoption here of ‘practical politics’ as superior to the perhaps more common ‘traditional politics’ for designating that style. Oakeshott opens this work with a lengthy meditation on the nature of theorizing. As he concludes that section, he segues into the discussion of the practice/theory dichotomy by noting the debt his analysis of theorizing owes to Plato’s examination of the same topic, especially to the metaphor of the cave presented in The Republic. In light of the similarity of their views, Oakeshott continued, ‘it may be instructive to notice [our] divergencies’ (1975: 27). And indeed it may.

As Oakeshott understood Plato, the latter’s cave dwellers represent those individuals whose conceptual horizon is bound within the world of practical affairs. Plato was correct, in Oakeshott’s view, in holding that, because such individuals fail to recognize the intrinsically conditional nature of the practical understanding of reality, instead mistakenly accepting it as the only possible mode of comprehending experience so that, however clever and adept they become at dealing with the practical world, they have, in effect, imprisoned themselves within its confines (i.e., within Plato’s cave). As Corey wrote of Oakeshott’s understanding of the conditional nature of practical experience, ‘Nowhere in practice is there uninterrupted progress or final achievement… If human life were to consist wholly in engagement in practical affairs, then it would seem to be a depressing predicament’ (2006: 39). And Plato also was accurate in regarding the understanding of the theorist, in that it represents at least a recognition of those limitations, as being, in a sense, a higher form of knowledge than that gained by the solely practical thinker.

However, Oakeshott argued, ‘distracted by his exclusive concern with the engagement of theoretical understanding and with the manifest shortcomings of [the cave-dwellers’ world]… [Plato] is disposed to write [the latter] off as nescience. This, I think, is a mistake’ (1975: 27). That the practical understanding of the world is inherently limited does not imply that what it yields it is not really knowledge at all; rather, the proper conclusion is that practical understanding offers only a conditional form of knowledge—but conditional knowledge is nevertheless knowledge, and not mere ignorance. Moreover, quite crucially for Oakeshott, the abstract superiority of theoretical knowledge over its practical counterpart in no way means that the former can replace the latter in dealing with the practical world, which is, after all, precisely the conditional realm for which practical understanding is the appropriate species of knowledge. While it is true that discovering ‘a platform of understanding is conditional and to become acquainted with its proximate conditions is a notable step in the engagement of understanding’, such a discovery ‘is not like exposing a fraud [, since] shadows are not forgeries’ (1975: 28).

Given that genuine knowledge of the realm of the shadows is a real and hard-won achievement, the ‘pure’ theorist goes gravely astray if he erroneously employs his theoretical insights as grounds for issuing directives to accomplished practitioners, ridiculously trying to ‘set them straight’ on matters with which the theorist has no familiarity. Oakeshott wryly noted:

“The cave-dwellers, upon first encountering the theorist after his return to the world of the shadows [very well might be impressed] when he tells them that what they had always thought of as ‘a horse’ is not what they suppose it to be… but is, on the contrary, a modification of the attributes of God [, and they will] applaud his performance even where they cannot quite follow it. [The cave-dwellers can appreciate the exotic pronouncements of the theorist, as long as he confines those pronouncements to their genuine field of applicability.] But if he were to tell them that, in virtue of his more profound understanding of the nature of horses, he is a more expert horse-man, horse-chandler, or stable boy than they (in their ignorance) could ever hope to be, and when it becomes clear that his new learning has lost him the ability to tell one end of a horse from the other… [then] before long the more perceptive of the cave-dwellers [will] begin to suspect that, after all, he [is] not an interesting theorist but a fuddled and pretentious ‘theoretician’ who should be sent on his travels again, or accommodated in a quiet home. (1975: 30)”

The preceding passage from On Human Conduct provides a fresh perspective from which we can contemplate the character of the rationalist and perceive how it is that he has gone astray. Here, the modern rationalist is understood as an imperialist ‘theoretician’ who is repeating Plato’s ancient misstep. Furthermore, Oakeshott now offers a more sympathetic picture of the rationalist than did his earlier, more polemical essays — the reader can appreciate how easy it is to fall into the error of rationalism, since the theorist really has broken through to a higher form of knowledge, and it is quite understandable that, elated by his achievement, he mistakenly concludes that theory ought to be the unquestioned master of practice, failing to realize that the fundamentally different presuppositions of theoretical and practical thought render theoretical findings categorically irrelevant to practical matters, unless they are translated from their native idiom into that of practice.

On History

On History is most significant for our purposes in that it refutes writers such as Gerencser (2000) who contend that Oakeshott had at some point abandoned idealism for skepticism. For instance, right at the beginning of the work, we find Oakeshott declaring:

“By the modality of an enquiry I mean the conditions of relevance that constitute it a distinct kind of enquiry and distinguish it both from an inconsequential groping around in the confusion of all the maybe going on and from similarly distinct enquiries but of other kinds. These conditions of relevance are of course formal, but where there are none, where there is no specifiable modality, there can be no enquiry and so no consequential conclusions.
A mode of understanding, then, is not merely an attitude or a point of view. It is an autonomous manner of understanding, specifiable in terms of exact conditions, which is logically incapable of denying or confirming the conclusions of any other mode of understanding, or indeed of making any relevant utterance in respective of it. (1999: 2-3)”

This is, of course, just the understanding of modality Oakeshott had forwarded five decades earlier. Indeed, these two paragrpahs could be inserted at various points in Experience and Its Modes without changing that work’s argument at all. Thus, we see that the authors who wish to create an “idealist Oakeshott” and a later “skeptical Oakeshott” are merely projecting their own skepticism onto a writer who at times agrees with their point of view on this or that particular. In other wordss, they are skeptics, and they wish to discover a skeptical Oakeshott, and so they do.


The key to understanding why, despite the apparent similarity of their critiques of rationalism, Hayek and Oakeshott actually differ significantly in both their diagnosis of and their prescriptions for rationalism lies, as mentioned above, in the fact that Oakeshott was an idealist while Hayek was not. Since for Oakeshott the world is a world of ideas, the concrete is inherently intelligible in and of its self. For Hayek, on the other hand, what is opposed to abstract thought is not concrete thought, but instinct, mechanism, “nonrational” traditions, or emotion. Writing of Hegel’s statement that ‘the view which clings to abstraction is liberalism, over which the concrete always prevails…’ Hayek contends ‘he truly described the fact that we are not yet mature enough to submit for any length of time to strict discipline of reason and allow our emotions to constantly break through its restraints’ (1973: 33), he fails to understand that for Hegel, as for most of the Idealists who followed him, concrete thought was the telos of reason, and not a fall from it. Hayek believes that the relationships that make up his ‘Great Society’ are abstract because the theory of such relationships is highly abstract; but those relationships themselves are concrete: this businessman buys this amount of concrete from this vendor to be delivered at this time and this place. For Hayek, trying to intelligently decide policies on a case-by-case basis will only result in irrational, emotional interventions that eventually will lead us down ‘the road to serfdom’; only a dogmatic insistence on classical liberal principles can preserve freedom.

In short, for Hayek, the rationalist is one who does not realize that the single tool human reason possesses, that of abstract, theoretical reasoning, is not up to all tasks to which it has been assigned. To the contrary, Oakeshott argues that the problem itself stems from believing that there is only one tool available to human reason. The rationalist is in the position of someone using a hand saw to cut the lawn. But the lawnmower — in our metaphor, concrete reason — exists, and once its existence is recognized, we can address the practical problems of the world reasonably, and not as abstractions. Thus, Oakeshott’s understanding of rationalism provides a more robust defense of practical reason and tradition than does Hayek’s.



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Written by

Eugene Callahan is a Lecturer in Economics at St. Joseph’s College in Brooklyn, a research fellow at the Collingwood Centre at Cardiff University, and an Associate Editor of VoegelinView. He is author of Economics for Real People (CreateSpace, 2004) and Oakeshott on Rome and America (Imprint, 2012).