On Oakeshott's 'Rationalism in Politics': A Textualist Reading

In the wake of the Second World War, political theory took an increasingly critical and sceptical turn, beginning to question those traits associated with philosophical modernism. The products of the enlightenment had for over a century and a half been associated with the progressive move to a liberal and rational mindset. Science, both social and natural, was supposed to deliver us from mass suffering, and yet many perceived the rationalism at the foundation of science to be the very origins of the totalitarian collapse defining the second fifth of the century. The National Socialist abyss had been closed, and yet across the globe alternative projects of a totalitarian nature still reigned supreme. How could rationality and science have birthed the welfare state, modern economics, or individual freedom, and yet also the moral and ethical cataclysm of book burnings, eugenics and extermination camps?

Amongst others, the British philosopher Michael Oakeshott was a commentator on this very question.1 An often-overlooked thinker, after his service during the war Oakeshott returned to academia, pursuing the line of inquiry he began with the publication in 1933 of arguably his greatest single work ‘Experience and Its Modes’. A work of British Idealism in its final moments, Oakeshott here defends and elucidates a perception of philosophy conceptualised by experience. Experience is always a world in itself, and thus implies some form of thought or judgment because, through experience, the world is always and everywhere a world of ideas; to mediate it is to experience it, and to mediate and judge is to add to the ideas that form it. “Thus, truth and experience are given together, and it is impossible to separate them. Truth is what is given in experience, because what is given is given as a coherent world of ideas; without truth there can be no experience”.2

Nonetheless, the experience of the totalitarian nightmare adapted many a thinker’s grasp of how we experience the political realm, and equally the place of such concepts as ‘truth’ and ‘knowledge’ in that realm. In 1947, Oakeshott published an essay entitled ‘Rationalism in Politics’, where he chose to explore precisely what it says on the tin – the nature and experience of Rationalism in the modern political sphere.3  At the crux of the essay, Oakeshott takes a critical stance against what he pens as ‘modern rationalism’, judiciously investigating the connection between modern utopian thinking, ‘reason’, ‘knowledge’ and political action. Consequently, this essay has become a seminal text in the fields of political theory and political philosophy, hence, warranting an exhaustive reading.

The purpose of this paper is to interpret Oakeshott’s essay, explaining his critique for those who are unfamiliar with Oakeshott’s system of thought. I have chosen to undertake a textualist approach for two reasons. Firstly, as much as I would like to embellish and thrust upon the reader my own understanding of Oakeshott’s text, the scope of this piece is to simply explicate the ideas in the essay in the same manner and order in which they appear. Secondly, a textualist approach permits the structure of this piece to follow that of Oakeshott’s seminal essay. I have structured this paper so it’s sections delve into and explain each part of the essay in turn – mirroring its configuration. In this manner, the novice to Oakeshott’s system of thought may read this piece in one hand, and study the original essay with the other. Alongside this, I have chosen to focus on what I consider the most significant concept Oakeshott elucidates in the essay: ‘the sovereignty of technique (technical knowledge)’ as a defining feature of modern Rationalism. Consequently, this interpretation of ‘Rationalism in Politics’ reads and runs the essay through such a concept, utilising it as a key or legend to Oakeshott’s overarching critical evaluation of the political thinking which governs our time.4 From here, we turn to Oakeshott.


Michael Oakeshott’s ‘Rationalism in Politics’5


Rationalism as a Disposition of Perfectionism

The first section of Oakeshott’s essay is perhaps the most revealing of the entire work, declaring openly the purpose of his investigation. “The object of this essay is to consider the character and pedigree of the most remarkable intellectual fashion of post-renaissance Europe. The Rationalism with which I am concerned is modern rationalism”. From the beginning, Oakeshott clearly discloses the intention of his enquiry – to examine the wider tradition of modern rationalism and its connection to modern political theory.

It is broadly understood that we reside in the ‘modern’ era. In simple terms, ‘modernism’ is often associated with the philosophical traits that erupted out of the enlightenment, where empiricism, ‘reason’, secularisation and individual liberty became primary values. In this sense, the political discourses we engage with in the contemporary world are themselves mechanised within a rationalist framework. All argumentation in the political arena must be of a reasoned form, connected to some scientific logic one way or another – without such an affinity the very validity of one’s political knowledge is thrown into question. If we take this into account, all modern politics has become some incarnation of the wider Rationalist philosophical project. Asking how this has come to be requires the attitude of Hercule Poirot, Sherlock Holmes, or even Scooby Doo – one devoted to deduce the origins and qualities of such an all-encompassing predicate, one that validates the limits of acceptable political action, and it is Oakeshott who here brandishes the magnifying glass to interpret the history and character of modern rationalism. 

Oakeshott begins by associating Rationalism not to central idioms or principles, but to a specific disposition concerning the political sphere. Disposition or attitude to the experiences of the world can often reveal and connect with increasing depth, as opposed to merely categorising principles. Thus, the question becomes: what characterises the rationalist disposition? This is the underlying question Oakeshott is keen to answer, aspiring to unearth the dispositional fundamentals of modern rationalism as a whole entity.

Oakeshott ties rationalism to a singular epistemological foundation, one characterised by the constant appeal to ‘reason’. He identifies the underpinning of rationalism rests initially with its un-anchoring of thought from restriction; here affirming that freedom of thought stems from only the “obligation to any authority save the authority of ‘reason’”. Through such an appeal, the Rationalist disposition is coloured by an argumentative and somewhat paradoxical attitude. It is weary of authority and tradition, and as such, can sit in direct contradiction to ‘reason’ in certain circumstances where consensus and authority are necessary; “at once sceptical and optimistic”, critically assessing all but the power of reason itself.

Subsequent to the constant appeal to ‘reason’, the kind of categorical argumentation that lends itself to experiential knowledge falls into question, reassessing all experiences but one’s own as dubious. Reason demands that the experiences of others, of ancestors, of those in another spatial temporality are subject to the kind of scrutiny and doubt that the rationalist will not afford their own experiences. The appeal to reason lulls the rationalist to rest safe in the empirical knowledge that their own experience is the singular truth of such a phenomenon. Because of this: “he has no sense of the culmination of experience, only of the readiness of experience when it has been turned into a formula: the past is significant to him only as an encumbrance”. What Oakeshott affirms is that all life must be compounded into some formula in order to be rationalised. All experience must be derivable through the reason that anchors their episteme. The mysteries of life, the simple admiration of the sublime, myths, fables, the ‘uncertainties of experience’ – all lost to the abyss.

In order to rationalise all life under the banner of reason, the rationalist recalibrates the meaning of intellectual inquiry not to the education of their mind, but, rather, its fine-tuning to reasoning; to demonstrate their own mental capacity and draw conclusions as opposed to drawing on collective and shared experiential knowledge. “If he [the rationalist] were more self-critical he might begin to wonder how the race ever succeeded in surviving”. From this moment onwards, Oakeshott structures his inquiry by reviewing the very epistemological grounds that Rationalism rests upon, attacking the Rationalist scepticism of common experience. Oakeshott claims that consequent to their episteme of reason, the rationalist holds: “a deep distrust of time, an impatient hunger for eternity and an irritable nervousness in the face of everything topical and transitory”. Subsequently, as the present is always anchored in history, a loss of the past is always a loss of the present, a loss of something of ourselves in the here and now.

The greatest of victory for the Rationalist has been in the political sphere, where the philosophy of reason as a framework for mediating the world has been carried into the realm of public affairs. “He [the rationalist] believes that the unhindered human ‘reason’…is an infallible guide in political activity”. In simple terms, the mark of the Rationalist is the disposition to utilise reason as a legend or manual for conducting political activity. This is what has characterised the epoch defining shift to a bureaucratisation of life, the Kafkan transformation to the ‘rational’ administration of life itself, with its unlimited jurisdiction over the circumstances of experience.

Reason as the logic steering political activity: “makes both destruction and creation easier for him to understand and engage in, than acceptance or reform”. A prudent acceptance of that which cannot be rationalised in either the public or private spheres is a trait of traditionalist conservatism. The rationalist wishes to collapse and recreate in a cycle that undermines the extent to which collective past experience can inform our faculties of judgement in the present. “He does not recognise change unless it is self-consciously induced change, and consequently he falls easily into the error of identifying the customary and traditional with the changeless”. One only has to think of the revolutions littering modern history, in which factions have seized power, reduced the powers and institutions of the status-quo to ashes, and then attempted to recast the community anew.

Such a logic of and reliance on ‘reason’ alone traps ‘the political’ in a framework of a Rationalist making, where one can only be a political agent if they speak from a coherent, reasoned, body of logic aimed at recasting civil association in some way. This Oakeshott refers to as ‘ideology’, or as he explains it: “the formalised abridgment of the supposed substratum of rational truth contained in the tradition”.

‘Ideology’, as the primary means to interpret and act in the political arena, defines the Rationalist disposition to politics as one characterised by the “assimilation of politics to engineering”. Through the prism of rationalism, modern politics became a myth about engineering a social world, as opposed to working with the world of confusion within which we already reside. Politics, by way of ideology, is about dealing with abstractions, utopias, ideal types, and all by implementing quick fix engineering of policy to immanentise a world without contradiction or mystery. Sensitivity to that which we cannot know or explain is lost to the rational – all must fall to reason.

As a result of such a loss, Oakeshott contends that the politics rationalism inspires is a ‘politics of the felt need’, whereby the needs and feelings of the moment are paramount to all other modes of experience. The best explanation of this is, of course, in Oakeshott’s own words:

“His [The Rationalist’s] politics are, in fact, the rational solution of those practical conundrums which the recognition of the sovereignty of the felt need perpetually creates in the life of the society. Thus, political life is resolved into a succession of crises, each surmounted by the application of ‘reason’”.

The task of the rationalist is governed by the ‘sovereignty of the felt need’, where the issues of the day are of paramount importance, more significant than grander principles or questions that stretch across time. In this sense, the sovereignty of the felt need dictates that political practice be an exercise of rewriting experiential knowledge with every juncture.

At this point, Oakeshott makes clear what he defines to be the two most central qualities of Rationalism, indicating that rationalist politics are a combination of (a) perfectionism and (b) uniformity. Rationalism, therefore, operates in the space between these characteristic traits. Here, there is no political issue that cannot be rationalised, and this applies to even the most ambiguous and mystic of questions. In this sense: “the ‘rational’ solution of any problem is, in its nature, the perfect solution”. Perfection comes through reason, and reason dictates that such perfection can be universal, and in this vein, eradicates a certain notion of plurality in favour of reasoned uniformity. For the rationalist, there is no place for epistemological variety. “There may not be one universal remedy for all political ills, but the remedy for any particular ill is as universal in its application as it is rational in its conception…Political activity is recognised as the imposition of a uniform condition of perfection upon human conduct”.

Rationalist politics, because of its emphasis on perfectionism and uniformity of reasoned application, is ‘projectional’. All modern history is littered with examples of grandiose projects intended to alleviate the ills of current experience by the application of a rational ideological framework of theory and praxis upon the realm of human conduct. Power becomes the capacity to enforce one’s framework of reason and application of a solution over a certain territory As such, modern sovereignty is understood by the rationalist as the ultimate decision making power of such an ends. Be it by the Declaration of the Rights of Man, by the cosmopolitan notions of a world state, by the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, or by the supposed natural predicates of racialist science, the founding of society, for the Rationalist, sits on a grounds of eradicating the old and instituting the new by the logic of some supposed self-contained unified truth of reason. Such a logic is posited in the theory and praxis of projects that can be universalised with but the click of one’s fingers.


The Two Modes of Knowledge and The Sovereignty of Technique 

In order to dissect and analyse the episteme of Rationalism, Oakeshott devotes the second section of the essay to addressing the Rationalist grasp of knowledge. He begins this discourse by reasserting the connection between epistemology and practical conduct, stating that: “Every science, every art, every practical activity requiring skill of any sort, indeed every human activity whatsoever, involves knowledge”. Here, he reminds us that all human activity involves some form of knowledge in order to engage in a course of action, bisecting knowledge into two kinds: (a) Technical Knowledge, and (b) Practical Knowledge. Oakeshott discusses each in turn.

Technical knowledge is the kind of knowledge that can be learnt and is without a doubt involved in every practical activity, as in almost every practical activity there is a technique. An essential aspect of technical knowledge is its formulation into a series of rules, which can be meticulously learnt in order to put a specific technique into practice effectively. Oakeshott gives a good example of the ‘Highway Code’ in which part of the technique of driving a car on British roads is disclosed, or how the techniques of cooking can be located in cookery books. All one has to do is rigorously learn the technique in order to practice it perfectly, reaping results.

The second mode of knowledge is Practical knowledge. Unlike technical knowledge, practical knowledge exists in its use and cannot be codified or formulated into rules which can be learnt. Essentially, Oakeshott confirms that practical knowledge is the kind which may be shared and over time become common knowledge. In every activity there is always also this sort of knowledge at play. In fact, the pursuit of any concrete activity, the mastery of some practice so that it may become a ‘skill’ is impossible without the interplay of practical knowledge and technical knowledge, both distinct and symbiotic simultaneously.

“These two sorts of knowledge, then, distinguishable but inseparable, are the twin components of the knowledge involved in every concrete human activity…technique and what I have called practical knowledge combine to make skill”.

Even in scientific activity, the very methods of modernist empiricism exist within the confines of the interplay between the two modes of knowledge. Simply put, there is no activity which exists outside of the orbit of this dualism, technique may create guidelines of practice, but only common knowledge may reveal how to follow such guidelines, and in this sense there is no such thing as ‘know-how’. Both modes of knowledge are simply inseparable.

It is at this moment that Oakeshott begins to assess his two modes of knowledge through a political lens. He claims that in the same manner as all other conduct, political activity is both technical and practical. One must be able to engage common knowledge and technique in order to develop political skill. In a somewhat existential manner, Oakeshott maintains that being a political agent requires both practical knowledge and mastery of technique in order to achieve the goals of political activity, whatever they may be. After addressing their inseparability in application, Oakeshott seeks to then differentiate them.

 The first difference is that technical knowledge may be codified, and as such, receives a sense of validity in the Rationalist episteme that is not afforded to practical knowledge. “Technical knowledge, in short, can be both taught and learned in the simplest meanings of these words. On the other hand, practical knowledge can be neither taught nor learned, but only imparted and acquired”. Precisely because technique can be learnt, it has acquired a sense of validity, or even elevated to the status of truth, whereas this gives practical knowledge: “the appearance of imprecision and consequently of uncertainty, of being a matter of opinion, of probability rather than truth”. Practical knowledge can only be acquired by observing its application in practice, as opposed to merely learning it from a set of codified rules. For example, the statement that there are ‘seven days in the week’ is common knowledge. However as it is ultimately not objective fact written within the fabric of reality itself, but rather a human artificial framework of ‘time’ placed over reality, its very validity may be questioned as a truth all together.

Another example may be that of ‘style’. Whether it is the style of the Cricketing batsman, the pianist, the dancer, the writer, the painter, and so on, style cannot be taught but is acquired through practice over time. As it cannot be learnt, however, its validity as valuable knowledge falls into question. Bach’s style of playing is often deemed subordinate to his outstanding technical ability, Michelangelo’s style of sculpture, or even Dostoyevsky’s writing similarly so. In the modern world, technicality is increasingly validated, with style and practical knowledge de-valued.   

For Oakeshott, revealing his overarching critique, Rationalism asserts that practical knowledge is no knowledge at all, and that there is no knowledge which cannot be reduced to technicality – e.g. if it cannot be taught or codified into rules, it is not knowledge. Equally, knowledge is only that which can be taught. Such a position Oakeshott charges as the ‘sovereignty of technique’, and constitutes the grounds of the epistemological foundations of Rationalism. The grievance here, in Oakeshott’s typically conservative fashion, is that the sovereignty of technique erases the validity of practical and traditional knowledge altogether; that knowledge which cannot be written or taught is lost, and as such the capacity to engage with all forms activity with it. With the loss of one is the loss of the necessary interplay to act politically. Common experience becomes inadequate to confirm the existence of a mode of knowledge itself. The sovereignty of reason is hence connected to the sovereignty of technique.

In this manner, ‘knowledge’ transmutates into a rough teleological frame. One begins at a point of distinguishable sheer ignorance (prior to teaching) and the process of acquiring knowledge ends at an identifiable terminus, where teaching is complete and one has successfully ‘learnt’ what there is to know, like learning the rules of a sport, or how to use a mechanical device. In fact, under the epistemological boot of Rationalism, knowledge itself is seen to be applied mechanically.

At the initial point of ignorance, the teacher must administer a purge in order to mechanically rebuild the student’s knowledge of the topic at hand, where all prejudices and preconceptions are removed, reinstating it with a sense of learned certainty. This Oakeshott exclaims is the work of ideology over traditions of thought, purging the student of prejudices and preconceptions so to give the appearance of self-containment and reasoned validity.

The self-contained validity of mechanising all knowledge as technical knowledge presents the illusion of certainty. The error of the rationalist, Oakeshott contends, is the illusion of the sovereignty of technique, convincing the individual of its superiority as it appearance springs by washing away ignorance, both beginning and ending in the certainty of such a relation in the first instance. “As with every other sort of knowledge, learning a technique does not consist of getting rid of pure ignorance, but reforming knowledge which is already there”.

A self-contained technique cannot be imparted to an ‘empty mind’. Rather, technical knowledge builds from practical knowledge, the kind of knowledge that we begin all endeavours with. By neglecting practical knowledge, by the sovereignty of technique, the rationalist hacks away at the very grounds of technical knowledge. Through such a self-contained certainty of technical knowledge, the rationalist unhooks themselves from their own grounds, ignoring the relational symbiosis of both forms of knowledge. To privilege one is not just to devalue the other, but by this process of devaluation, corrupt the very grounds that are prioritised, precisely as the two are but parts of the same whole.

Before continuing to the third section, Oakeshott makes note that his object is not to refute rationalism, per se, but merely to highlight its errors so to reveal something of its character. Thus, with its epistemological illusions in mind, he goes on to assess its character, with the priority of the sovereignty of technique and the confidence in human reason by such sovereignty in the third section.


Certainty and Method Concerning the Infallible Rules of Discovery

In the third section of the essay, Oakeshott directs his efforts to examining the emergence of Rationalism as connected to the early modern philosophy of science. In this sense, Oakeshott utilises the third section of his investigation in order to sketch out the connection between the scientific notions of ‘truth’, ‘method’ and ‘reason’, and the political principles of Rationalism in practice. Ultimately, this began with the insights of Sir Francis Bacon, and his discourse on the scientific method in the seventeenth century.

Bacon identified a lacuna in the methodological habits of inquiry. What lacked in the seventeenth century was a: “consciously formulated technique of research, an art of interpretation, a method whose rules had been written down”. In order to make understanding and ‘truth’ manifest, Bacon highlighted that inquiry lacked a procedure of honing ones knowledge through the practice of a technique itself. The assumption that Bacon made was that a ‘sure plan’ was necessary in order to access ‘truth’. What was deemed requisite for accessing truth was “a ‘way’ of understanding, an ‘art’ or ‘method’ of inquiry, an ‘instrument’ which…shall supplement the weakness of natural reason: in short, what is required is a formulated technique of inquiry”. Once again, Oakeshott draws the reader’s attention to his single greatest critique of Rationalism: the sovereignty of technique.

The sovereignty of technique begins with Bacon precisely as he identifies that ‘truth’ is not manifest, it does not merely make itself accessibly immanent to the individual, but rather through a technique, a ‘method’, truth is uncovered. Such technique would only become manifest if it can be accordingly codified, and subsequently made objective in its certainty of success. ‘The art of research’ that Bacon recommends has a three-fold character. Firstly, it appears as a set of rules. A technique of inquiry can be formulated as a detailed set of guidelines, which can be learned by heart. Thus the priority of technical knowledge, as something that can be learned, is at the heart of Bacon’s scientific method. Secondly, this set of rules may be applied mechanically. This technique of inquiry is truly a technique because it is replicable by any who seek ‘truth’, and can be practiced time and again, simply, by following the same steps of procedure to achieve success repeatedly. It is the interplay between these first and second characters which make Bacon’s technique of enquiry a ‘method’ in and of itself. Lastly, Bacon’s ‘method’ is universal in character. Bacon’s method is grasped as a ‘true’ technique because it is applicable in all scenarios, in all forms of inquiry, irrespective of the subject matter. At least supposedly.  

What Oakeshott identifies as being critically significant is that such a form of technique is itself plausible in the first instance. What Bacon proposes is a universal key to accessing any and all forms of truth, irrespective of subjectivity. Such a proposition is what Oakeshott is deeply critical of. “For what is proposed – infallible rules of discovery – is something very remarkable, a sort of philosopher’s stone, a key to open all doors, a ‘master science’”.  In this the primacy of method comes to bear and its universality apparent in certainty.

Certainty of knowledge became the aim of the early Rationalists, the telos of their endeavours. Like Bacon, Descartes pursued a precisely formulated technique of enquiry, one that could unlock the certainty of truth universally. At the core of Descartes technique of inquiry was, like Bacon, a purge of the mind precisely as certainty would only surrender itself to the emptied mind, the erased canvass. One must find a manner of jettisoning preconceptions and prejudices for certainty and truth to become manifest in the wake of truly objective enquiry. Such an intellectual purge is the first pillar of Descartes tripartite. The second is, in keeping with the sovereignty of technique, a codified set of rules that compose an infallible, mechanical and universal method to unlock the truth and certainty of knowledge.  Lastly, Descartes affirms that there are no grades of knowledge, what is not certain is simply as good as unknown, what is not certain is as good as ignorance or nescience. Nonetheless, although Bacon and Descartes share these qualities in their perspective concerning a technique of inquiry, Descartes’ framework permits critical enquiry when applied, affording a sense of scepticism through his affinity to the significance of doubt upon the mental categories. Thus, through his own critical capacity, even Descartes comes to recognise that supposing method is the sole means of inquiry is to err, as behind all method is the reality of an existing human, bound up with their own inconsistencies and passions. Nonetheless, the intellectual successors of Descartes, to this very day, believed to have learnt from him “the sovereignty of technique and not his doubtfulness about the possibility of an infallible method”. From here, the rationalist character “may be seen springing from the exaggeration of bacon’s hopes and the neglect of the scepticism of Descartes”.

. The focal charge Oakeshott presents is that as time has passed, the epistemological foundation of Rationalism has become rougher, ignorant of practical knowledge so entirely, that the sovereignty of technique has left the modern Rationalist unable to conceptualise even its barest and simplest of qualities. Therefore, the very fact of life and our approach to is reduced from an art to, unsurprisingly, a mere technique. “It is important only to observe that, with every step it has taken away from the true sources of its inspiration, the Rationalist character has become cruder and more vulgar…What was the Art of Living has become the Technique of Success”.  At the heart of this turn away from simple humanity to a promethean monism of truth was the decline in the belief of providence, displaying how modernist secularism was not simply a turning away from religion in its entirety, but merely a mutation of theological epistemology: “a beneficent and infallible technique replaced a beneficent and infallible God”.

This being said, Rationalism did not establish itself without resistance or opposition. The first of such critics, it can be said, was Pascal – in response to the empiricism of Descartes. Firstly, Pascal perceived that the Cartesian technique for acquiring knowledge was grounded “upon a false criterion of certainty”. Simply, this implies that Descartes begins with an indubitable foundation upon which to build his notion of certainty anchoring his technique of inquiry. This led him, according to Pascal, to believe that all knowledge must be technical. Secondly, Pascal affirmed that the influence of method endangers the success or outcome of inquiry. This is so, precisely as the importance of method may undergo exaggeration of some form. Thus, the method is the key to unlocking knowledge, not the understanding and interpretation of reality itself. Art is, once again, substituted for technique. The best explanation of this, I believe, comes from Oakeshott himself, who at the end of the third section claims that:

“The significance of Rationalism is not its recognition of technical knowledge, but its failure to recognise any other: its philosophical error lies in the certainty it attributes to technique and in its doctrine of the sovereignty of technique; its practical error lies in its belief that nothing but benefit can come from making conduct self-conscious”.

It is what Rationalism deems as facile, limited or insignificant that Oakeshott laments as being lost with its tide. What has been lost is the very existence of common knowledge, the practical knowledge that one can only acquire, in favour of sovereignty of technique, where all ills and issues are solvable, all is knowable, simply by the application of method, by applying the correct technique of inquiry. Just as Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle testifies, with emphasis of understanding and inquiry upon a single entity, understanding of another independent unit is lost. Just as Rationalism emphasises method to achieve knowledge, that which cannot be achieved by technique alone is itself disregarded as certain knowledge – something becomes lost unintentionally and this is what Oakeshott wishes to guard against.


Rationalism as an Ideology of Technique for the Inexperienced

Leading on from the third section, Oakeshott states that he is still yet to discuss the circumstances under which rationalism became the predominant ideational force in modern Europe. In fact, he goes so far as to pen rationalism by the term ‘infection’ reducing his considerations for it to that of a disease. Although this has a certain unsavoury basis, as with all pathologisation, reducing an entity to that of an illness requiring antidote or eradication (a rationalist predicate in itself), the thrust of Oakeshott’s argument is to contend that Rationalism has become the defining feature of the totality of our epistemological, and as such normative, political experience. “Not only are our political vices rationalistic, but so are our political virtues…Rationalism has ceased to be merely one style in politics and has become the stylistic criterion of all respectable politics”. The question thus becomes how has such a condition come to be.

The answer to this is, at least for Oakeshott, a rather succinct one. As Rationalism widely took hold of modern epistemological categories, the traditional resources of resistance to the tyranny of Rationalism were converted into ideological doctrines – plans to resist planning, as in the case of Hayek’s ‘The Road to Serfdom’ for example. Thus, even the traditional modes of resistance against Rationalism had become paradoxically rationalist themselves; Rationalism became like a black hole, absorbing and adding to its own mass the masses of objects which stood in its path. The essential feature here is the conversion of all political discussion onto the sublimated plane of doctrinal or ideological projects, fiercely in dialogue with one another. “It seems that now, in order to participate in politics and expect a hearing, it is necessary to have, in the strict sense, a doctrine; not to have a doctrine appears frivolous, even disreputable”. Here we find one of Oakeshott’s most enlightening conservative critiques of the modern age – to be considered political one must now have a doctrine or face disrepute Acting as a lone thinking agent or from a loose tradition of discourse is no longer acceptable, and as such, limits the boundaries of what and who may be considered ‘political’; an anti-political decision in itself.

Rationalism appears as the politics of ‘the felt need’. This perspective is qualified not by ‘concrete knowledge of permanent interests’ by a ‘reason’ and “satisfied according to the technique of an ideology: they are the politics of the book”. Rationalism has itself a theological hermeneutics of reason, where normative issues (‘the felt need’) and the deliverance of a response to such issues are defined by appealing to and interpreting a single series of doctrinal texts, or merely going to the trouble of constituting one themselves. This is the triumph of technical knowledge par excellence, where the boundaries of the political are itself defined by which rules of technique, to appeal to ‘the felt need’, are deemed acceptable. Thus, we have witnessed in response to the dominance of such a condition the abandonment of the ‘the self’ and the long process of truly subjective critical inquiry, sold in exchange for simply grasped and ‘reasoned’ doctrines. Practical and perennial knowledge of experience traded for mechanical technical knowledge which “does not extend beyond the written word”. Such a theological hermeneutics appeals to abstraction – and as such modern politics has become a single practical discourse of supposedly antagonistic pelagian and projectual technical knowledge.

Through its dependence on such a mode of knowledge, Rationalism and the doctrines under its broad conceptual umbrella can never present more than abstract technique. What we have gained is the pharmaceutical syndrome – ‘take this x times a day and the problem will be solved’. All issues become ludicrously solvable, no matter how ingrained into human experience and existence they are, and as such, the partnership between the present and past knowledge of this fact becomes lost. Nevertheless, the intent to solve all ills leads to techniques of control, and politics becomes an exercise not in civic association, as it is by definition, but an exercise in administration – simply which technique should be employed to address the ‘felt need’. In this sense, one does not need an understanding of experience to engage in the political, but only an understanding of technique – “the politics of Rationalism are the politics of the politically inexperienced”. We must always be aware that, as Oakeshott contends, we have forgotten Rationalism is not a magic technique which will remove the handicap of inexperience and lack of political understanding – “to offer such a technique will seem to him [the rationalist] the offer of salvation itself”. We must never forget that we are not Gods; the promise of a mechanically applied technique of immanentising salvation is precisely that – an empty promise that is always too good to be true.

Although in the previous chapters Oakeshott had traced where Rationalism as a tradition of thought stems from (the modernism of Descartes and Bacon), what Oakeshott now seeks to do is triangulate the location of the Rationalist approach in the field of political studies, and, as either the first political modern or final medieval, he locates it in the work of Niccolo Machiavelli. In his famed work ‘The Prince’ [1532], Machiavelli aims at forging a pamphlet for princes and rulers alike so they may learn to be the best rulers they can, what has often been called a ‘Mirror for Princes’. Despite a widespread misunderstanding of Machiavellism, essentially converting his name into a slur, at the heart of his project was to forge a ‘science’ of politics, a technique by which an individual can study and mechanically enact – like a recipe book for good and virtuous statecraft.  In this sense, according to Oakeshott, Machiavelli is the initial domino of political Rationalism, forging a work similar to a ‘correspondence course in technique’, or rather as Oakeshott pens it rather well: “The project of Machiavelli was, then, to provide a crib to politics, a political training in default of a political education, a technique for the ruler who had no tradition”. It is this last clause which makes all the difference for Oakeshott – in lieu of the capacity to judge for oneself, off the back of one’s own experience and understanding of the world, the ruler in this position (without tradition) could make manifest a technique to incur a desired outcome, once again neglecting the symbiosis of both technical and practical knowledge.

The issue however does not rest with Machiavelli. Machiavelli understood the limitations of his technical manual for statecraft. Machiavelli clearly grasps and sceptically questions the limits of technical knowledge as a replacement for tradition and philosophical inquiry. The normative and epistemological political tyranny of Rationalism does not begin with Machiavelli, but with his successors, those followers of Machiavelli who: “believed in the sovereignty of technique, who believed that government was nothing more than ‘public administration’”. This is the beginning of the road to Rationalism’s totalising influence over ‘the political’.

Oakeshott goes on to discuss Rationalism at what he considers its most concentrate – the thought of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Although the nineteenth century Marxians engaged with genuine philosophical inquiry at seminal moments (for example, in Marx’s magnum opus ‘Capital: A Critique of Political Economy’), their most influential text was of course ‘The Communist Manifesto’ of 1848. Here, Oakeshott interprets The Manifesto as an instructional pamphlet composed for the least politically educated faction of society who has ever brandished the capacity to hold power (assuming this faction being ‘the proletariat’). Every facet of the manifesto deals in the rationalism associated with the sovereignty of the technique. Oakeshott charges the mechanisation of technique by the masses as requiring being a ‘Midas-like’ operation, where all that Marxians touch must be transformed into a philosophy of abstraction in order to be applied, a paradox in and of itself. In these abstractions, the world appears as concrete, vested in the Historical Materialist Dialectic that Marx and Engels disclose, and as such, such a form of knowledge imposes on the world itself.

Essentially, the onset of political modernism, as typified by the Liberal Democratic American political system, is defined by the conflict between lived experiential tradition and abstract principles – principles that were advanced to the status of natural entities. Two such examples of abstract principles would be (a) Lockean inalienable rights, that ‘by nature’ every individual possess rights which cannot be subtracted away (such as ‘life’, ‘liberty’ and ‘property’), or (b) the Marxist materialist conception of history, that ‘by nature’ production divides society by the roles we play in the process of producing articles of existence (objects). In the Rationalist understanding, modern political society is limited in its potential trajectory with the hampering of tradition and ‘the chains of custom’. Tradition therefore is something to be emancipated from, as opposed to being stood on the shoulders of. It is this very fact that Oakeshott takes issue with; perfection is the aim and reconstruction of the political realm the mechanism to deliver salvation. In this manner, the past is always further from perfection itself.

The important point that Oakeshott makes however is that we cannot expect an impending shift from Rationalism as a whole. Ultimately, to plan for such a social shift is to slip into the vestiges of Rationalism itself. Oakeshott contends that:

“The view I am maintaining is that the ordinary practical politics of European nations have become fixed in vice of Rationalism, that much of their failure (which is often attributed to other and more immediate causes) springs in fact from the defects of the Rationalist character when it is in control of affairs, and that (since the rationalist disposition of mind is not a fashion which sprang up only yesterday) we must not expect a speedy release from our predicament”.

Rationalism posits itself between politics and perfection, and it is because of this that the citizen of the modern civil association, the political agent, can be bewitched by the offer of fusing the apple back to the tree of knowledge. Attempts to do this, Oakeshott argues, always result in not only failure but the adaptation of the social and political world for the worse – like Icarus, falling from the skies and his certainty of knowledge.



In the final section of the essay, Oakeshott summates his overall argument. This most important summative notion he focuses attention to is the dual manner in which Rationalism is a danger to political society. The first charge that Oakeshott puts to the Rationalist mindset is the misconception of knowledge as the sovereignty of technique. By applying mechanically the techniques disclosed in a single text, one loses a sense of holistic critical inquiry: “living by precept in the end generates intellectual dishonesty”. Such dishonesty can be untangled, but only by reasserting the importance of practical, historical and tradition knowledge. The paradox of course arises as the Rationalist themself sees such a form of knowledge as ‘the great enemy of mankind’. This invariably will lead to governance by one rationalist project after another, with the wake of one failed project becoming the launch pad for another.

Secondly, rationalism breeds rationalism. A rationalist society that privileges the sovereignty of technique over practical knowledge will educate future generations in the idioms which themselves suppress an appreciation of past, traditional, and contemplative knowledge. Thus, training in technical knowledge has become the only training worthwhile. This, for example, we can see in the academic study of political theory, as many prone to the Rationalist conjecture simply wish to be delivered the thought of individuals such as Nietzsche or Heidegger through a simple technique, ignoring the fact that an understanding of their systems of thought can only be met by being honed, through a long hermeneutic relationship that is constantly in a state of flux – not ‘knowledge’ administered as a pill in the form of a simple all-encompassing explanation at most three minutes in length. The best example of Rationalism’s epistemological domination of the times comes in the form of ‘The Dummies guide to…’ or ‘an idiots guide to…’ books, where dense subjects are reduced to mere technique to be mechanistically employed by the in-experienced, who then may consider themselves a master.

In the final moments of Oakeshott’s essay, he leaves the reader with an interesting thought. As Rationalism distrusts all practical knowledge by ‘reason’, we in the contemporary world experience the suspension of moral and ethical foundations. Simply put, Oakeshott reaches out through the page and asks the reader: How are we to act if we must distrust all that we in the past have judged to be true? 6


1 For more works discussing this very same topic, see: Hannah Arendt (1998) The Human Condition, 2nd Edition, Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press; Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer (1997) Dialectic of Enlightenment, London: Verso; E.H. Carr (2001) The Twenty Years’ Crisis 1919-1939: An Introduction To The Study of International Relations, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan; Hans J. Morgenthau (1946) Scientific Man vs Power Politics, Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press; Hedley Bull (1966) ‘International Theory: The Case for a Classical Approach’, World Politics, 18(3), pp. 361-377.

2 Michael Oakeshott (1985) Experience and Its Modes, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 323.

3 Michael Oakeshott (1962) Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays, London: Methuen & Co Ltd, pp. 1-36.

This I have chosen to do in order to streamline my interpretation of this essay into a single, unified, critique, easily accessible to the novice. Nonetheless, this being said, nothing can replace one’s own multi-faceted interpretation of an essay. I strongly advise the reader to make their own interpretations of this work of philosophical art.

Quotations from here on out are from: Michael Oakeshott (1962) Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays, London: Methuen & Co Ltd, pp. 1-36

For more information concerning Oakeshott’s political theory, see: David Boucher (2008) ‘Oakeshott, Freedom and Republicanism’, The British Journal of Politics and International Relations, 7(1), pp. 81-96; J. R. Archer (1979) ‘Oakeshott on Politics’, The Journal of Politics, 41(1), pp. 150-168; David Orsi (2015) ‘Oakeshott on Practice, Normative Thought and Political Philosophy’, British Journal for The History of Philosophy, 23(3), pp. 545-568; Bhikhu Parekh (1979) ‘The Political Philosophy of Michael Oakeshott’, British Journal of Political Science, 9(4), pp. 481-506; Paul Franco (2004) Michael Oakeshott: An Introduction, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press; Terry Nardin (2015) Michael Oakeshott’s Cold War Liberalism, New York: Palgrave Macmillan; Kenneth Minogue (2012) “The Fate of Rationalism in Oakeshott’s Thought”, in Paul Franco and Leslie Marsh (Eds.), A Companion To Michael Oakeshott, University Park, PA: The Pennsylvanian State University Press, pp. 232-247.