Introduction to Political Theory

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on the other hand, is acquired only in use. It is not reflective, and cannot be
formulated as rules. Most activities involve the use of both types of knowledge, so
a good cook will draw on both technical and practical knowledge. If you want to
be a cook technical knowledge will be insufficient, for what you need is practice.
The acquisition of practical knowledge requires an apprenticeship, but the key
feature of an apprenticeship is not subordination to a ‘master’, but continuous
contact with the object of the practice: it is the food that is important, not the
master chef. This argument gives Oakeshott’s observations a libertarian, even an
anarchist, cast.
Rationalists reject practical knowledge, and recognise only technical knowledge.
Because the latter can be contained between the covers of a book it seems to
guarantee certainty, whereas practical knowledge is diffuse. An ideology, which is
a form of technical knowledge, can be expressed in a set of propositions, whereas
a tradition of thought – which is a kind of practical knowledge – cannot be. The
list of features of conservatism provided in the first section of this chapter might
be an example of rationalism, as it appears to reduce conservatism to a set of
propositions, or elements (we would, however, argue that these elements were open,
and fluid, and were only intended to orient the thinker, rather than provide an
exhaustive description).
At the time of writing the essay – 1947 – Britain, as with most other Western
European democracies, was in the process of creating a relatively comprehensive
welfare state, and developing more state interventionist economic policies, such as
the nationalisation of key industries. The essay ‘Rationalism in Politics’ can be seen
as part of a broader intellectual intervention. It is notable that a number of works
that could be interpreted as critical of the extension of state planning, and state
power, were published at this time, including Friedrich von Hayek’s Road to
Serfdom (1944) and Karl Popper’s The Open Society and its Enemies(1945).
However, both of these works were clearly in the liberal (or libertarian) ‘rationalist’
tradition. Oakeshott observes that Hayek’s book, although critical of state planning,
exemplifies rationalism, for it develops one rationalist doctrine – free market
libertarianism – in order to counter another – namely, state socialism (Oakeshott,
1962: 21–2). What this shows is that one can only participate in contemporary –
that is, 1940s – politics by advancing a doctrine. This argument is leant retrospective
force by the fact that Hayek became one of the major influences on the free-market,
or neo-liberal, reaction to the welfare state in both Britain, under Margaret Thatcher,
and in the United States, under President Ronald Reagan. As we suggested at the
beginning of this chapter, the Thatcher government (1979–90) was not really
conservative, and despite the Republicans’ use of the term conservative the Reagan
administration (1981–9) was likewise not, in Oakeshott’s terms, conservative, but
Oakeshott is quite rude about politicians:
[B]ook in hand (because, though a technique can be learned by rote, they have
not always learned their lesson well), the politicians of Europe pore over the
simmering banquet they are preparing for the future; but, like jumped-up kitchen-
porters deputizing for an absent cook, their knowledge does not extend beyond
the written word which they read mechanically – it generates ideas in their heads
but no tastes in their mouths.
(Oakeshott, 1962: 22)

Chapter 9 Conservatism 203
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