Michael Oakeshott, Critical Theorist

Michael Oakeshott is often cast as the representative conservative philosopher. I think this is a mistake, one I blame on Oakeshott himself. Taking Oakeshott and his admirers at their word, Jason took a look at Oakeshott’s version of conservatism and came away wondering what was going on there. The description of conservatism that Oakeshott offers is so broad and generic that, as Jason points out, you could fit just about anyone in there—including Karl Marx.

Most people who encounter Oakeshott do so through his most popular collection, Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays. People like Jason and myself who are more familiar with Hayek are likely to react well to the titular essay. It seems, at first reading, to boil down to something very Hayekian—modern politics is excessively rationalistic and reductionist, but reason is only a tool that works in a context defined by an enormous, non-rational background. By tradition. And Oakeshott even takes a swipe at Hayek; of The Road to Serfdom he remarks “A plan to resist all planning may be better than its opposite, but it belongs to the same style of politics.” More Hayekian than Hayek!

But if you actually read the whole collection (at 600 pages this is a rarity) it slowly becomes evident that something else is going on. The section on Hobbes seems like a contradiction to the sections on rationalism—who is more rationalist than Hobbes? The man gave us the myths of the social contract and the state of nature.

A couple of years ago I finally did read the whole collection, and I was so intrigued that I did some secondary reading. Turns out that Oakeshott came of intellectual age inside the British idealist school, an offshoot of the German idealists. I don’t want to get into all of that and I’m sure I couldn’t do it justice, but suffice to say that pegging Oakeshott as “the conservative with the criticism of rationalism” is not really doing him or his project justice.

 

Custom and Rhetoric

I think that Oakeshott is best understood as a critical theorist. Only not the sort who believe that they can stand outside of ideology and convention in order to deconstruct those things and make them anew. Oakeshott, like McCloskey (who has read him and references him frequently), understands that you can’t criticize anything unless you’re already inside a community of rhetoric of some sort.

If you want to begin to understand Oakeshott, my advice is to go past the beginning of Rationalism in Politics, which everyone has read, and instead go straight to the back. The last two essays, “The Tower of Babel” and “The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind,” are much more representative of what Oakeshott is all about.

The former is not so drastic a deviation from what one would expect from the author of “Rationalism in Politics.” In “The Tower of Babel” he distinguishes between two idealized versions of moral orders, one which unreflectively follows established customs, and one which is self-conscious and critical. He describes the customs-based order as follows:

The current situations of a normal life are met, not by consciously applying to ourselves a rule of behaviour, nor by conduct recognized as the expression of a moral ideal, but by acting in accordance with a certain habit of behaviour. The moral life in this form does not spring from the consciousness of possible alternative ways of behaving and a choice, determined by an opinion, a rule or an ideal, from among these alternatives; conduct is as nearly as possible without reflection. And consequently, most of the current situations of life do not appear as occasions calling for judgment, or as problems requiring solutions; there is no weighing up of alternatives or reflection on consequences, no uncertainty, no battle of scruples. There is, on the occasion, nothing more than the unreflective following of a tradition of conduct in which we have been brought up.

The second order is fundamentally self-conscious.

The second form of the moral life we are to consider may be regarded as in many respects the opposite of the first. In it activity is determined, not by a habit of behaviour, but by the reflective application of a moral criterion. It appears in two common varieties: as the selfconscious pursuit of moral ideals, and as the reflective observance of moral rules.

He continues:

Normally the rule or the ideal is determined first and in the abstract; that is, the first task in constructing an art of behaviour in this form is to express moral aspirations in words-in a rule of life or in a system of abstract ideals. This task of verbal expression need not begin with a moral de omnibus dubitandum; but its aim is not only to set out the desirable ends of conduct, but also to set them out clearly and unambiguously and to reveal their relations to one another.  Secondly, a man who would enjoy this form of the moral life must be certain of his ability to defend these formulated aspirations against criticism. For, having been brought into the open, they will henceforth be liable to attack. His third task will be to translate them into behaviour, to apply them to the current situations of life as they arise. In this form of the moral life, then, action will spring from a judgment concerning the rule or end to be applied and the determination to apply it. The situations of living should, ideally, appear as problems to be solved, for it is only in this form that they will receive the attention they call for. And there will be a resistance to the urgency of action; it will appear more important to have the right moral ideal, than to act.

The essay is not intended to pit each of these styles against the other; instead, Oakeshott believes that each has its strength and the best moral orders are a combination of both. Reason and rationality are not to be done away with entirely because of the inherent superiority of unarticulated knowledge and custom. Rather, reason and critical reflection have their value only when they are properly situated within the much broader context of tradition. The first type of moral order provides flexibility and responsiveness to a far broader range of scenarios; the second type allows for self-conscious reconstruction towards specific ideals that the first order may drift away from over time.

“Rationalism in Politics,” properly understood, is not a screed against reason or rationalism per se, but an argument that we have gone way too far in one direction. Oakeshott implores us to move towards a better balance, to recognize the value of the tacit and the contingent over the articulated and the universal. But notice what he’s doing: the very act of talking about the tacit involves self-consciously constructing an ideal form. Oakeshott could not ask us to get rid of self-consciousness entirely, because the very act of doing so requires that very self-consciousness.

And earlier in the collection, in “Political Education,” Oakeshott spoke of the “ideological style” of politics, which maps perfectly to the self-conscious moral order. Here’s how he describes John Locke, whom he places within the ideological style:

[C]onsider Locke’s Second Treatise of Civil Government, read in America and in France in the eighteenth century as a statement of abstract principles to be put into practice, regarded there as a preface to political activity. But so far from being a preface, it has all the marks of a postscript, and its power to guide derived from its roots in actual political experience. Here, set down in abstract terms, is a brief conspectus of the manner in which Englishmen were accustomed to go about the business of attending to their arrangements-a brilliant abridgment of the political habits of Englishmen.

Ideology—and political philosophy—merely abridge a living tradition, rendering it more accessible and possibly more transmittable. But something is lost in the abridging, and so too—therefore—in the transmission. Nothing beats the real thing, but the real thing takes a very long time to grow, and there’s no guarantee about what a given tradition is going to grow into. This context makes coherent Oakeshott’s partiality for Hobbes, which seems so confusing after just finishing “Rationalism in Politics.” Hobbes, like Locke, is abridging tradition. In his introduction to Leviathan, he says:

Leviathan is a myth. the transposition of an abstract argument into the world of the imagination. In it we are made aware at a glance of the fixed and simple centre of a universe of complex and changing relationships. The argument may not be the better for this transposition, and what it gains in vividness it may pay for in illusion. But it is an accomplishment of art that Hobbes, in the history of political philosophy, shares only with Plato.

Where you really see Oakeshott in his element—and where most of the readers who read the front of the book but not the back are likely to be out of their element, myself included—is in the last essay, “The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind.” Of all his essays, it’s the one I feel I have to most to learn from and the hardest time understanding. But my reading, including the supplemental book I mentioned above, is that Oakeshott felt that pragmatists and logical positivists had excessively narrowed the scope of public conversation.

To simplify to an unjust extent, I would summarize Oakeshott’s “voices” as follows:

  • The practical voice is concerned with effectiveness based satisfying the self’s desires.
  • The voice of science is concerned with “the world understood in respect of its independence of our hopes and desires, preferences and ambitions”; with rational systems we construct in the quest to gain that understanding.
  • The voice of poetry, which is concerned with delight and contemplation for its own sake.

But what is the conversation?

What I have called the conversation of mankind is, then, the meeting-place of various modes of imagining; and in this conversation there is, therefore, no voice without an idiom of its own: the voices are not divergences from some ideal, non-idiomatic manner of speaking, they diverge only from one another. Consequently, to specify the idiom of one is to discern how it is distinguished from, and how it is related to the others.

His concern is that poetry has been marginalized despite being an important and enriching part of what makes us human. Moreover, he feels the conversation has become too narrow and too stagnant in general. Now, rereading this essay after having read some McCloskey and discussed Habermas a little with our Sam Hammond, this line jumps out at me:

To rescue the conversation from the bog into which it has fallen and to restore to it some of its lost freedom of movement would require a philosophy more profound than anything I have to offer.

This seems—with my admittedly very limited understanding of it—to be as clear a statement of purpose for critical theory as one could hope for.

 

Empty Conservatism from Burke on Down

Jason accused Oakeshott’s conservatism of being “empty“. I think this is true, and that Oakeshott’s attempt to appropriate the word was misguided. Oakeshott has a tendency to deconstruct things down to such generic pieces that it takes a lot of building back up to get anywhere meaningful again. For instance, look at how he starts to talk about the voice of poetry:

By ‘poetry’ I mean the activity of making images of a certain kind and moving about among them in a manner appropriate to their character.

OK…and that means what, exactly? In this case, he goes on to build it up into something quite meaningful. In the case of conservatism, Jason’s criticism rings true—you could put just about anyone in there. Not his best work.

In fact this is a problem with many of the thinkers who position themselves as traditionalism, but present tradition as a sort of black box. Edmund Burke is the poster boy for traditionalism, which drives Alasdair MacIntyre crazy because Burke’s substantive positions were in fact exceedingly liberal for his day. He believed in the American republic. He was an advocate of property, trade, and commerce just as much as his contemporary, Adam Smith. All of this was not exactly traditional, even in England. He was very much a man of his moment.

But he spoke of the “general bank and capital of nations and of ages,” meaning tradition, and so he is called a traditionalist. But neither he nor Oakeshott are traditionalists in any more meaningful sense than post-modernists who believe in hermeneutic circles and the like. Burke opposed the French Revolution, and Oakeshott (I assume) voted Tory, and so we don’t tend to lump them in with that lot, who historically have been either Marxist or some watered down post-Marxist. But there really isn’t anything inherently conservative about their “traditionalist” philosophies.

I don’t want to exaggerate the extent to which they can be lumped with your garden variety post-modernist. Oakeshott is much more in the tradition of Protagoras of Abdera than the tradition of Heidegger.

In any case I concede to Jason’s point—which he intended as a barb—that Oakeshott’s take on conservatism doesn’t really leave much behind that anyone would recognize.

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