Several of Oakeshott’s essays were re-published in Rationalism and Politics in 1962. They argued against the influence of a certain kind of ‘rationalism’, an ideology infecting much of modern life and politics in particular. It had surfaced clearly in the works of Francis Bacon and René Descartes, but was furthered by many French Enlightenment writers such as Voltaire. The essays indicted the ‘sovereignty of technique’ and the rationalist faith ‘in unhindered reason’ as ‘an infallible guide in political activity’ capable of application to any situation. Oakeshott countered that the study of politics involved contemplation of ‘practical’ activity and not ‘scientific’ investigation.
Rationalism in Politics brought him to a wider but still limited audience. His readership was not broad, especially in America, where conservative thought was, and remains, of a more evangelical or economic libertarian bent. The book reinforced a central thesis that a widespread style of rationalism informing much of post-Renaissance culture failed to acknowledge that experience of human affairs was a far better guide to action than the resort to ideological formulae.
So what is rationalism, in the Oakeshottian sense of the term? First, it involves the claim that the only adequate type of knowledge is that which can be reduced to a series of rules, principles, or methods—and thus it is also a claim that “knowing how” to do something is nothing more than “knowing that” the rules are such and such. Second, because of this denigration of practical knowledge, it is a claim that rational action can only take place following the creation of a theoretical model. As Oakeshott once observed, modern rationalism is literally “preposterous” because theoretical reflection can only occur after a practice already has made itself distinct and more or less concrete.
Finally, as Callahan points out, since rationalism is a mistaken description of human knowledge and its relation to human activity, it is also an impossible way of acting, politically or in any other sphere. Human action, including political action, is inherently an engagement of practical reason working within a particular tradition or and attempting to follow through on some of the inchoate suggestions that the vagueness of the practice offers. The opposite of rationalism for Oakeshott is not irrationalism but authentic practical reasonableness. Thus, and contrary to many of his reading-impaired critics, his critique of rationalism is not a critique of reason but a defense of it against a false modern conception of it.
To use one of Oakeshott’s favorite examples, if one has no knowledge of cookery, a cookbook is useless. If, on the other hand, one is an experienced chef, a cookbook is superfluous. The cookbook is relevant only in a situation where either the great majority of cooks are relatively inexperienced and there is a dearth of connoisseurs or in a situation in which the traditions of cookery are in a state of confusion and a reminder is needed of some of the tradition’s neglected resources.
Oakeshott used the term “ideology” to describe the attempted application of this rationalistic style to political activity. The rationalist’s or ideologist’s desire is to solve permanently the problems of political life and leave everything else to administration. Yet politics isn’t concerned with the search for truth. Instead, as Oakeshott noted, “it is concerned with the cultivation of what from time to time are accepted as the peaceable decencies of conduct among men who do not suffer from the Puritan-Jacobin illusion that in practical affairs there is an attainable condition of things called ‘truth’ or ‘perfection.’”
The most difficult of Oakeshott's works is On Human Conduct. Its argument is complex and couched in a technical vocabulary borrowed from Latin. Not surprisingly, it has been widely misunderstood. O'Sullivan's essay is a most illuminating explanation of what the book is about. I recommend it without reservation to all who want to understand Oakeshott's magnum opus. One of the many virtues of O'Sullivan's essay is that it avoids the obscurity of the book. But it is far more than merely exegetical. It considers the main criticisms of Oakeshott's argument and shows that they either rest on misunderstanding, or are easily countered by a deeper understanding of the argument. O'Sullivan then states and considers what he takes to be the most serious problems with Oakeshott's argument. Chief among them is Oakeshott's realization, reached during the years before his death, that the likelihood is virtually non-existent that the political arrangements he has favored would be approximated in the conditions that prevail in the Western world. O'Sullivan movingly describes the disappointment and sadness to which this realization had led Oakeshott and would lead those who share his political outlook. The emerging view is not tragic, but an elegiac lament for what might have been but will not be.
I've been seeing Oakeshott's name crop up on a regular basis recently, including a couple parallels drawn between his work and Isaiah Berlin's, so I'm looking forward to checking him out sometime. I'm given to understand that Andrew Sullivan considers himself something of a disciple, which in itself is hardly a glowing endorsement, but getting back to the plus side, I'm also interested to see how his critique of rationalism resembles Evgeny Morozov's recent writings on "solutionism".