Introduction to Political Theory

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influential 1947 essay ‘Rationalism in Politics’ (Oakeshott, 1962), with a few
comments on the later book.
The ‘rationalism’ to which Oakeshott refers characterises Western culture as a
whole, and not simply one particular ideology or party. Oakeshott’s critique is not,
therefore, directed solely at socialism, but at modern ‘conservatives’ who, in fact,
are liberal rationalists. A rationalist ‘stands (he always stands) for independence of
mind on all occasions, for thought free from obligation to any authority save the
authority of reason’ (Oakeshott, 1962: 1). Oakeshott goes on to provide a detailed
list of attributes of the rationalist in a florid style of writing that will attract some
readers but irritate those with a more analytical cast of mind. It is the analytical
approach that, for Oakeshott, characterises rationalism.
The rationalist rejects (Burkean) prejudice, custom and habit, and believes in the
‘open mind, the mind free from prejudice and its relic, habit’ (Oakeshott, 1962: 3).
The rationalist holds that it is possible to reason about political institutions, and
the fact that something exists, and has existed for a long time, is no ground for
respecting or retaining it. This lack of respect for the familiar engenders a political
attitude of radical change rather than gradual reform. Conservatives, who respect
the familiar, will seek to patch up existing institutions. The rationalist disrespect
for institutions extends to the world of ideas; instead of a careful engagement with
the complex intellectual traditions that have shaped Western societies, a rationalist
engages in a simplification – an ‘abridgement’ – of those traditions in the form of
an ‘ideology’ (Oakeshott, 1962: 7). The rationalist in politics is, in essence, an
engineer, obsessed with the correct technique for solving the problem he perceives
to be immediately at hand. Politics is a series of crises to be solved. Because he
rejects appeal to tradition, and tradition is specific to a particular culture, the
rationalist assumes that there are universal solutions to problems, and that political
institutions cannot be peculiar to this or that culture. Under the umbrella term of
rationalism Oakeshott places together what appear to be diverse political positions,
theories, projects and ideologies: the early nineteenth-century utopian socialism
of Robert Owen; the League of Nations and the United Nations; all statements of
universal human rights; the right to national or racial self-determination; the
Christian ecumenical movement; a meritocratic civil service. He even goes on to list
‘votes for women’ as a rationalist project (Oakeshott, 1962: 6–7). We have not
reproduced the entire list – it is long – but it is worth noting that it is so hetero-
geneous, and its items almost arbitrary, that one cannot help wondering whether
Oakeshott himself is guilty of abridging traditions of thought by subsuming diverse
phenomena under the pejorative label of rationalism. Aware of this charge, later
on in the essay he maintains that rationalism, like an architectural style, ‘emerges
almost imperceptibly’, and that it is a mistake to attempt to locate its origin
(Oakeshott, 1962: 13).
In Part Two of his essay Oakeshott’s argument becomes more interesting as he
advances a theory of knowledge. He distinguishes two kinds of knowledge: technical
and practical (Oakeshott, 1962: 7–8). Technical knowledge is formulated into rules
that are deliberately learnt, remembered and put into practice. Whether or not such
knowledge has in factbeen formulated, its chief characteristic is that it couldbe.
An example of technical knowledge is driving a car, the rules of which are, in many
countries, set out in books, such as, in Britain, The Highway Code. Another example
is cooking, where the rules can be found in cookery books. Practical knowledge,

202 Part 2 Classical ideologies

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