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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What João Knows

João have you heard about the new theory coming out of Prussia by that Copernicus guy?”

Teixeira, you spend too much time with your head in the clouds, why do you worry about these things?”

“João he says that we have been thinking about the earth and the sun all wrong, that actually it is the sun that is the fulcrum of the universe, and that all the planets and the stars revolve around it.”

“Teixeira, let me put your mind at ease. Think about this astrolabe. No matter where you are, you can just look into the sky, find the angle of that planet there, then go to this almanac and figure out exactly how far north or south you are. I can tell you right now that we are exactly three hundred miles south of Salamanca, right on line for Lisbon. Every one of the calculations in that almanac was done knowing that the earth was the fulcrum of the universe, and that the sun and all the planets orbit around it.

The that’s how you know it is the truth. It just works, every time, whether you believe in it or not”

The Stories We Tell

Welcome to Sweet Talk, Will. Willcome if you will. In your excellent inaugural post, you channel Shelley adroitly.

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away”.

Shangri-la, El Dorado (not to be confused with my good pal Eli Dourado or his twitterbot), Atlantis… there’s no shortage of myths surrounding lost cities, lost civilizations. Imagine trotting your goats around the plains of Tell el-Muqayyar and stumbling over the lost ruin of the great city-state of Ur for the first time. The past is an alien land, readily populated by the monsters of our imaginations. Even the canniest hypotheses of why this or that human settlement flourished or failed are difficult to defend against alternative stories, even with abundant archaeological evidence.

Swan’s classic account (1956, sorry, can’t find a non-gated copy) of capital accumulation is the standard economic story of boy-accumulates-capital-stock, boy-uses-capital-to-build-more-capital, boy-creates-economic-growth that fits very nicely with neoclassical econ, the Austrian business cycle story, even New Keynesian models. Heck, even Marx-flavored theories of economic development acknowledge that for groups of humans larger than a clan to thrive, you need the implements of capital. You need specialized buildings, specialized tools, and of course, specialized skills to work these tools, to fill these buildings with the glad hum of industry.

But for the neolithic mega-village, this capital accumulation was stunted. Will suggests that the failure can be traced to the rhetoric carried forth from folks’ forager heritage. The bookbound economist would pin the failure on a lack capital accumulation and specialization. The linguist would probably say that it was the development of writing ~6kya in Sumer that clinched it.

Of course, these three stories are not at all mutually exclusive. It seems eminently reasonable that capital accumulation cannot reliably emerge without a system of accounts supported by writing. Recall that the large bulk of cuneiform, hieroglyphics, and other early writing is the equivalent of the modern spreadsheet: accounts receivable, loans due, that sort of thing. Without a written record of trade, collecting on the seed corn forwarded for a capital expansion project is, in Coasean terms, prohibitively expensive. No capital accumulation, no specialization, no trade, no economies of scale, no proper cities, no gradual shift in the rhetoric of citizens to dignify the merchant, the weaver, or the bricklayer.

Of course, the past is a foreign land, so my suggestion that proper cities are coeval with that single defining characteristic of civilization, writing, is just another difficult-to-reject hypothesis. Even if archaeologists found evidence of accounting practices in a failed mega-village, I’m sure I could hem and haw my way through a shabby defense of my proposition, but the point isn’t necessarily to say that I’m right and everyone else is wrong. My point is that it’s important to give proper shrift to the keepers of the written word, that they execute their duties faithfully and with honor. To respect the long legacy of those that came before them, the unsung men and women who painstakingly transcribed grain warehouse figures onto clay tablets. To continue, unbroken, the heritage of scribes, scriveners, scholars, and typesetters that came before them. To preserve our frail civilization against the wolves that lurk in the outer darkness. It’s about honor. It’s about duty.

And above all, it’s about ethics. It’s about ethics in journalism.

Did a Change in Rhetoric Give Rise to Cities?

A peculiar phenomenon in early human history has stumped scientists. After learning to farm and establishing a more plentiful food supply about 10,000 years ago, humans began to congregate in larger groupings. Villages grew from 200 people to a few thousand inhabitants. These mega-villages were significantly larger than anything that came before but they clearly were not as large as the cities that would come later. Then, just a thousand years after they first sprung up, many mega-villages vanished and were abandoned.

A number of theories have been put forward to explain the sudden change. An early frontrunner was climate change, as one of the most excavated sites in Çatalhöyük Turkey underwent local environmental changes. But in English mega-villages experienced a similar dip in population without these exogenous changes, so climate has been ruled out. Another theory was that pestilence depopulated mega-villages. But upon closer inspection, this too seems not to hold weight, especially since villages suffer outbreaks of disease and survive.

The culprit for this drop may in fact be the rigid beliefs systems as this recent article at i09 explains:

The problem is that people in Neolithic mega-villages had inherited a system of social organization and spirituality from their nomadic forebears. Because nomadic life requires everyone in the group to share resources to survive, these groups would develop rituals and customs that reinforced a very flat social structure. Certainly there would be families that had more prominent positions in a hunter-gatherer group or small village, but if they ever started hoarding resources too much that would be bad for the entire group. So people would strongly discourage each other from ostentatious displays of social differences.

You can see this set of beliefs reflected in the built environment of Çatalhöyük, where everyone’s house is roughly the same size. Some houses have a lot more stuff in them — more pieces of art, or more ritual objects — but as I said earlier, nobody is living in the Neolithic equivalent of a mansion.

All of this works nicely in a small community, where you know all of your neighbors and only share with people whose lives are bound to yours (even if you don’t like them very much). But once you have a thousand people living together, it’s harder to have a flat social structure. People need local representatives to stand in for them, and perhaps even a system of writing to keep track of everyone and what they own. Some people start to do specialized tasks, and social differentiation begins.

Immediately, Deirdre McCloskey’s theory of industrial change comes to mind. As she argues, it isn’t society’s technical abilities as Joel Mokyr would suggest, the Protestant ethic of Weber or the property rights of Douglass North that explains the Industrial revolution. No, a change in our rhetoric, our ideology of business, is what made the difference.

She writes,

What changed in Europe, and then the world, was the rhetoric of trade and production and innovation… The bourgeois talk was challenged mainly by appeal to traditional values, aristocratic or religious, developing into nationalism, socialism, and environmentalism. But increasingly, as in Jane Austen, a rhetoric by no means enthusiastic for trade did accept — or at any rate acknowledged with genial amusement — the values of the polite and commercial people. The talk mattered because it affected how economic activity was valued and how governments behaved towards it.

Ideas matter. And in Auntie D’s writings, there is a parallel to the changes in beliefs that likely occurred between mega-villages and cities. Just as a change in rhetoric signaled the break from agrarian society to industrial society, the break from hunter-gatherer society to agrarian society required a similar change. The rhetoric that supported the aristocratic, religious world had to be created, which likely developed during this downward lull.

Between the mega-village and the cities that came later lies the formation of the state. Ultimately, this is the world of stratification buttressed through religion. With it came the creation of differing social groups and distinctions based upon rank or property. Yet, the acceptance of social specialization required a new view of the world, a new rhetoric in the McCloskeyian sense. And once that jump was made, benefits followed. Clustered people allowed for more trade and specialization of work, leading to more wealth, prestige and better equipped armies. While still a brutal world, cities had the potential for stability, but it came at the expense of radical equality.

A Free Society is an Advertising Society, a Rhetorical Society

No small part of why Sam posted Deirdre McCloskey’s video on freedom of speech is because at one point she says, with emphasis, “sweet talk,” and then pauses for effect. Thus providing documented proof that she does, indeed, say the phrase, and out loud!

But I suspect a big part of why Sam posted the video is also because it gets at the core of what Sweet Talk is all about (so much so that I’ve added it to the about page, on Sam H’s suggestion).

As someone who works in advertising, it may be a little self-serving to promote a video which argues that “a free society is an advertising society”. But her point that persuasion is the mechanism of informing one another’s judgment in a free society is an important one. It gets at what makes even the most forward-looking liberal uncomfortable with speech that is radically free—what if people cannot be persuaded to believe the right thing? McCloskey uses the example of the Pythagoras Theorem; you don’t start believing in it because you’ve witnessed unblemished Truth. You start believing in it because someone or someones have persuaded you that you should. As a child or young person perhaps you simply took it as a given; later in life you may be more likely to deliberate more before making such a judgment call.

But persuasion is persuasion. And the discomfort with relying on it alone is not unfounded—consider the anti-vaccine community, who have persuaded themselves and others to take a stance which actively puts other people at risk. Moreover, it provides a path for tyrants who haven’t enough strength to simply stage a coup—if you can persuade enough people that the headaches and gridlock of democracy ought to give way to decisive actions directed by one man, and that you are just the man for the job. (I can hear Evan Jenkins chiming in here with “you know who else persuaded people that he was the man for that job?”)

McCloskey’s remarks are highly clarifying—you can measure the extent of freedom in a society by how restricted persuasion’s importance is. For in the USSR persuasion was extremely important—within the party bureaucracy. Even Stalin had to cobble together coalitions to maintain his power, and the people at the top of those coalitions had to persuade the people at the next level down that they ought to be followed, and so on. It’s true that the threat of being disappeared often trumped rhetoric where Stalin was concerned—but this was only possible because of someone who Stalin could get to do his dirty work. And it is worth noting that Stalin always found it important to publicly smear the image of the ones he exiled or murdered, as if leaving a hint of good reputation was dangerous.

But the point is not really to look at the extent of persuasion’s importance within Stalin’s regime—the point is that for the rest of Soviet society, persuasion was essentially off the table. It wasn’t an option. In as much as black markets emerged and it was impossible for the center to completely regulate the reality on the ground, rhetoric could surface in the daily life of the typical Soviet citizen. But anything outside of some very narrow lines came with very high personal risks.

We now know even better than we did at the time the problems that come with such a national-level monoculture of politics, production, and persuasion. This is something that needs to be brought up again and again; it is a necessary foundation of the rhetoric supporting a free society.

Still, this does not mean we should get comfortable living our relatively free lives. The dangers of what persuasion can bring about are very real. It’s for that reason that we must consider ethics and rhetoric as deeply interconnected.

All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men be unpersuasive.

Ivanhoe, Israel, Virtue, and Vanity

It’s been several years since I’ve read clear through Sir Walter Scott’s subversive little ode to Medieval fantasy, Ivanhoe. I seem to recall as I worked my way through the glad-of-met hail-fair-warrior celebration of Armored Manliness that it had much more of a Dungeons and Dragons flavor to it than the libra verite sensation I suspect it engendered. Bold knights were bold, delicate damsels were delicate.

Cunning Jews were cunning.

What I didn’t do was think about how the novel fit in against its natural backdrop of Enlightenment virtues. By the time 1820 rolls around, the civilizing effects of doux commerce have tamed the savage English countryside, and the Glorious Revolution have long since made the British Parliament one of the most powerful organizations in Europe, if not on Earth. By 1820, Bentham had made his mark—prudence was ascendant, and though it’s hard to gauge from here, I’ve a suspicion that readers may have felt a twang of nostalgia for (relatively) ignored courage, or for self-satisfying myths of martial honor. 

I think I read it wrong. I think the characters were meant to be allegorical. And the character of Isaac of York was meant to represent the ascendant bourgeois affection towards commerce. 

There are a couple of ways to go with this interpretation, depending on how generous you want to be towards Scott. The portrayal of Isaac isn’t entirely unsympathetic. He has his moments of courage and honor, just like the Saxon characters have their moments of disrepute and cowardice. But the question of what Scott intended is less interesting to me than what his contemporary audience might have interpreted. Is it plausible that a typical reader might have gotten through the tale and said “hey! I have Saxon blood, and these dudes are pretty cool” while at the same time thinking, “golly, that Isaac sure is a calculating mercenary, what with hiring help to get his daughter back instead of strapping on a sword and doing it himself—what a coward.”

Tropes feed prejudices feed tropes. More viciously (or virtuously if we’re lucky enough, I guess) if the trope ends up embedded in a popular work. And Ivanhoe was (and is) popular, make no mistake. I’m comfortable claiming without citation that Soctt’s work probably bears the lion’s share of credit for propagating the myth of the noble knight and for the dreary longevity of the weird, sanitized version of the chivalric code that still plagues ordinary folks’ misunderstanding of Medieval society even unto this very day. Dragged along with that, digging its heels in the mud is the transplanted, fish-out-of-water, Merchant-of-Venice (and yes, the trope, like so many others, is hardly original to The Bard) depiction of the Craven Jew. Even though it was probably just for literary purposes, consider the possibility that real flesh-and-blood Jews suffered for it.

Tragically, this was at a time when the historically Jewish virtues of thrift, euvoluntary exchange, merchant honor, and prudence were now becoming commonplace. It’s understandable (if still unforgivable) that pre-Enlightenment folks could have heaped scorn upon the virtues displayed by career merchants (read: Jews), but for folks that have already begun to adopt those very virtues? That’s savage tragedy right there, people. Life exceeds art.

And we’re still paying the price. It has come to my attention recently that here and now, in 20-frigging-14 there are still people out there citing shit from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and making blood libel claims and spewing other bewilderingly benighted anti-Semitic rubbish. Surely Scott isn’t all to blame for this, not by a long shot, but this is strong—nay—very strong evidence in support of the claim that rhetoric matters… a whole lot.