Volume Five, December 2004

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The key text for an understanding of Oakeshott’s view on Rationalism is the essay Rationalism in Politics.1 The object of Oakeshott’s essay Rationalism in Politics is to consider what he calls the most remarkable intellectual fashion in post-Renaissance Europe. For Oakeshott Rationalism is not the Rationalism of classical times, that is to say, it is not the same thing as the use of reason in intellectual inquiry. His Rationalism has a quality exclusively its own, a strong and highly mannered thinking, which can be detected in the intellectual composition of contemporary Europe.
The general character and disposition of the Rationalist, according to Oakeshott, are not difficult to identify. The Rationalist stands for independence of mind on all occasions, for thought, free of obligations to any authority, save the authority of ‘reason.’ The mental attitude of the Rationalist is at once skeptical and optimistic; skeptical because no opinion, no habit, no belief, nothing is so firmly rooted or so widely held, that he hesitates to question it and to judge it by what he calls his ‘reason’ and optimistic, because the Rationalist never doubts the power of his reason to determine the worth of a thing, the truth of an opinion or the propriety of an action. Furthermore, he is fortified by a ‘belief in a reason common to all mankind,’ the common power of rational consideration. There is in the Rationalist a touch of intellectual Equalitarianism, and as a consequence, he finds it difficult to believe that anyone, who can think honestly and clearly, will think differently from himself.
It is in the nature of the Rationalist to reduce the tangle and variety of experience to a set of principles. These principles will be expanded into a system, and he will attack or defend the system only on rational grounds. For the Rationalist, the past is significant only as an encumbrance.2 The Rationalist’s forte is the power of recognizing the large outline which a general theory imposes upon events. The mind of the Rationalist is a finely tempered mental instrument which might be qualified as a well trained, rather than as an educated mind. His ambition is not so much to share the experience of the race as to be demonstrably a self-made man.
This gives to his intellectual and practical activities an almost preternatural deliberateness and self-consciousness, depriving them of any element of passivity, removing from them all sense of rhythm and continuity, and dissolving them into a succession of climacteric clashes, each to be surmounted by a tour de raison. The mind of the Rationalist has no atmosphere, no changes of seasons and temperature, his intellectual processes are insulated from any influences and go on in the void.3

Having cut himself off from the tradition of his society, the Rationalist strives to live each day as if it were his first. There is in the temperament if not in the character of the Rationalist a deep distrust of time, an impassioned hunger for eternity and an irritable nervousness in the face of everything topical and transitory. The Rationalist believes in the open mind, the mind free from prejudice and he believes that the unhindered ‘reason’ is an infallible guide in human activity. To the Rationalist, nothing is of value merely because it exists and certainly not because it has existed for many generations. Familiarity has no worth and nothing is to be left standing for want of scrutiny. And his disposition makes both destruction and creation easer for him to understand and engage in than acceptance or reform. To patch up, to repair, that is, to do anything that requires the patient knowledge of the material, he regards as a waste of time, and he always prefers the invention of a new device, to making use of a current and well-tried expedient. He does not recognize change, unless it is self-consciously induced change, and consequently, he falls easily into the error of identifying the customary and the traditional with the changeless.
This is aptly illustrated by the Rationalist attitude towards the whole realm of traditional ideas. For him there is, of course, no question either of retaining or improving on these, for both these attitudes involve a stance of submission. The old must be destroyed, and to fill its place, the Rationalist puts something of his own making, an ideology, the formalized abridgement of the supposed substratum of the irrational truth contained in the tradition.
The conduct of affairs for the Rationalist is a matter of solving problems, and no man can hope to be successful, whose reason has become inflexible, by surrender to habit, or is clouded by the fumes of tradition. In this activity, the character that the Rationalist claims for himself is the character of the engineer, whose mind is controlled throughout by the appropriate technique and whose first step is to dismiss from his attention everything not directly related to his specific intentions. Life is resolved into a succession of crises, each to be surmounted by the application of reason. Each generation should see un-rolled before it the blank sheet of infinite possibility. And if by chance, this tabula rasa has been defaced by the irrational scribblings of tradition-ridden ancestors, then the firs task of the Rationalist is to scrub it clean. As Voltaire remarks, the only way to have good laws is to burn the existing laws and to start fresh.
Let us now turn to the key element of Rationalism, the root, as it were, of the Rationalist attitude.4 Every science, every art, every practical activity requiring skill of any sort involves knowledge. Universally, this knowledge is of two sorts, both of which are always involved in any actual activity. It is possible to call theme two sorts of knowledge because, though in fact they do not exist separately, there are certain important differences between them.
The first sort of knowledge can be called technical knowledge, or knowledge of technique. In every art and science as well as in any practical activity technique is involved. In many activities, this technical knowledge is formulated into rules, which are, or may be, deliberately learned. Its chief characteristic is that it is perceptive of precise formulation, although special skill or insight may be required to give it that formulation. The second sort of knowledge can be called practical, because it exists only in use, is not reflective and, unlike technique, cannot be formulated in rules. This, of course, does not mean that it is an esoteric sort of knowledge; it means only that the method by which it may be shared, and becomes common knowledge, is not the method of formulated doctrine. In a way, it could be called traditional knowledge. In every activity this sort of knowledge is also involved, the mastery of any skill, the pursuit of any concrete activity is impossible without it. These two sorts of knowledge then, distinguishable but inseparable, are the twin components of the knowledge involved in any concrete human activity.
Of a great importance are the differences between these two sorts of knowledge. And the important differences are those that manifest themselves in the divergent ways in which these sorts of knowledge can be expressed and in the divergent ways in which they can be learned or acquired. Technical knowledge is susceptible of formulation in rules, principles, directions, maxims, comprehensibly in propositions. It is possible to write down technical knowledge in a book. It is no surprise, then, that when an artist writes about his art, he writes mainly about the techniques of his art. This is not so, because he is ignorant of, what may be called the aesthetical element, or thinks it unimportant, but because what he has to say about that, he has said already in his pictures, in his poems, in his music and he knows no other way of saying it. On the other hand, it is a characteristic of practical knowledge that it is not susceptible of formulation of this kind. Its normal expression is a customary, or traditional way of doing things, or simply in practice. This gives it the appearance of imprecision and, consequently, uncertainty, of being a matter of opinion, of probability rather than truth. It is indeed a knowledge that is expressed in taste, or connoisseurship, lacking rigidity and ready for the impress of the mind of the learner.
Technical knowledge can be learned from the book, it can be learned in a correspondence course, it can become the subject of academic lectures. Moreover, much of it can be learned by heart, repeated by rote, and applied mechanically. The logic of the syllogism is a technique of this kind. Technical knowledge in short can be both taught and learned in the simplest meanings of these words. On the other hand, practical knowledge can neither be taught, or learned, but only imparted and acquired. Since it exists only in practice, the only way to acquire it is by apprenticeship to a master, not because the master can teach it, for he cannot, but because it can be acquired only by continuous contest, with one who is perpetually practicing it. In the arts and in natural science, what normally happens, is that the pupil, in being taught and in learning the technique from his master, discovers himself that he has acquired also another sort of knowledge, than merely technical knowledge, without it ever having been precisely imparted and often without being able to say precisely what it is.
Rationalism, according to Oakeshott, is the assertion that what he has called practical knowledge is not knowledge at all, the assertion that, properly speaking, there is not knowledge which is not technical knowledge.

The Rationalist holds that the only element of knowledge involved in any human activity is technical knowledge and that what we have called technical knowledge is really only a sort of nescience. The sovereignty of “reason” for the Rationalist means the sovereignty of technique.5

At the heart of all these is the preoccupation of the Rationalist with certainty. Technique and certainty are for him inseparably joined, because certain knowledge is for him, knowledge which does not require to look beyond itself for its certainty. Knowledge is that, which not only ends with certainty but begins with certainty, and is certain throughout. And this is precisely what technical knowledge appears to be. It seems to be a self-complete sort of knowledge, because it seems to range between an identifiable initial point, and an identifiable terminal point, where it is complete. It has the aspect of knowledge that can be contained only between the two covers of a book, whose application is, as nearly as possible, purely mechanical and which does not assume a knowledge, not itself provided in the technique. For example the superiority of the ideology, over a tradition of thought, lies in its appearance of being self-contained. It can be taught best to those whose minds are empty and if it is to be taught to one who already believes something, the first step of the teacher is to administrate a purge, to make sure that all the prejudices and preconceptions are removed, to lay his foundation upon the unshakeable rock of absolute ignorance. In short, technical knowledge appears to be the only kind of knowledge which satisfies the standards of certainty which the Rationalist has chosen.
Oakeshott assumes that the knowledge involved in every concrete activity is never solely technical knowledge. If this is true, it would appear that the error of the Rationalist is of a simple sort, the error of mistaking the part for the whole, of equating a part with the qualities of the whole. But the error of the Rationalist does not stop here. If his great illusion is the sovereignty of technique, he is no less deceived by the apparent certainty of technical knowledge. The superiority of technical knowledge lay in its appearance of springing from pure ignorance, and ending in certain and complete knowledge, its appearance of both beginning and ending with certainty. But at a closer look, this is an illusion. As with every other sort of knowledge, learning a technique does not consist in getting rid of pure ignorance but in reforming knowledge which is already there. Nothing, not even the most nearly self-contained technique can in fact be imparted to an empty mind and what is imparted is nourished by what is already there. A man who knows the rules of one game will, on this account, rapidly learn the rules of another, and the man altogether unfamiliar with “rules” of any kind could be a most unpromising subject. And just as the self-made man is not literally self made, but depends upon a certain kind of society and upon a large, unrecognized inheritance, so technical knowledge is never in fact self-complete, and can be made to appear so only if we forget about the hypothesis with which it begins. And if its self-completeness is illusory, the certainty, which was attributed to it, on the account of self-completeness, is also an illusion.

What we, in fact, are trying to do, what we are considering is not merely the truth of a doctrine but the significance of an intellectual fashion in the history of post-Renaissance Europe. The question that arises is: what is the generation of this belief in the sovereignty of technique, whence springs the supreme confidence in the human reason as interpretative? What is the provenance, the context of this intellectual character?6

The appearance of a new intellectual character is like the appearance of a new architectural style, it emerges almost imperceptibly, under the pressure of a great variety of influences, and it is a misdirection of inquiry to seek its origins. Indeed, there are no origins at all, that can be discerned, out of the slow changes, of the shuffling and reshuffling, the flow and ebb of the tides of inspiration which issue finally in a shape identifiably new. The ambition of the historian is to escape that gross abridgement of the process, which gives the shape, a too early, or too late, and a too precise definition, and to avoid the false emphasis, which springs from being over impressed by the moment of unmistakable emergence. Yet, that moment must have a dominating interest, for anyone who is in the business of trying to understand its emergence.
In the emergence of modern Rationalism, in the formation of the intellectual character and disposition of the Rationalist, there is one element which is of supreme importance. This moment is the early Seventeenth Century, and it was connected with the condition of knowledge of both natural and civilized world at that time. The dominating figures in the emergence of the new intellectual character Oakeshott called the Rationalists are Bacon and Descartes, and we may find in their writings inclinations, of what later became the Rationalist character.
Bacon’s ambition was to equip the intellect, with what appeared to him necessary if certain and demonstrable knowledge of the world in which we live, is to be attained. Such knowledge is not possible for natural reason, which is capable of only ‘petty and probable conjectures,’ not of certainty.7 This imperfection is reflected in the want of prosperity of the state of knowledge. The Novum Organum begins with the diagnosis of the intellectual situation. What is lacking is a clear perception of the nature of certainty, and an adequate means of achieving it. “There remains but one course for the recovery of a sound and healthy condition, namely that the entirely work of understanding be commenced fresh, and the mind itself be from the very outset not left to take his own course but guided at every step.”8 What is required is a “sure plan,” a new “way” of understanding, an “art” or “method” of inquiry, an “instrument” which shall supplement the weakness of the natural reason. In short, what is required is a formulated technique of inquiry. Bacon recognizes that this technique will appear as a kind of hindrance to the natural reason, not supplying it with wings, but hanging weights upon it, in order to control its exuberance. It is lack of discipline, which stands between the natural reason and certain knowledge of the world.
The art of research, which Bacon recommends, has three main characteristics: first, it is a set of rules, it is a true technique, in that, it can be formulated as a precise set of directions, which can be learned by heart; secondly, it is a set of rules, whose application is purely mechanical, it is a true technique, because it does not require for its use any knowledge or intelligence, not even the technique itself; thirdly, it is a set of rules of universal application, it is a true technique, in that, it is an instrument of inquiry indifferent to the subject matter of the inquiry.
What is significant in this project is not the precise character of the rules of inquiry, both positive and negative, but the notion itself, that a technique of this sort is even possible. For what is proposed – the infallible rules of discovery – is something very remarkable, a sort of philosopher’s tone, a key to open all doors, a “master science.” From our point of view, the first of his rules is the most important, the precept that we must lie aside received opinions, that we must “begin anew from the very foundations.” Genuine knowledge must begin with a purge of the mind, because it must begin, as well as end, in certainty, and must be complete in itself. Knowledge and opinion are separated absolutely. There’s no question of ever winning true knowledge out of “the childish notions we at first imbibe.”
The doctrine of the Novum Organum may be summed up, from our point of view, as the sovereignty of technique. It represents, not merely a preoccupation with technique, combined with the recognition that technical knowledge is never the whole of knowledge, but the assertion that technique, and some material for it to work upon, are all that matters. “This is an early and unmistakable intimation of the new intellectual fashion.”9
Descartes, like Bacon, derived inspiration from what appeared to be the defects of contemporary inquiry. He also perceived the lack of consciously and precisely formulated technique of inquiry, and the method proposed in the Discours de la Methode and the Regulae corresponds closely to that of the Novum Organum. For Descartes, no less than for Bacon, the aim is certainty. Certain knowledge can spread only in an empty mind. The technique of research begins with an intellectual purge. Further, the technique of inquiry is formulated in a set of rules, which ideally compose an infallible method, whose application is mechanical and universal. And thirdly, there are no grades in knowledge. What is uncertain is mere nescience.
Descartes, however, is distinguished from Bacon in respect of the thoroughness of his education in the scholastic philosophy, and in the profound impression that geometrical demonstration had upon his mind. The effect of these differences in education and in inspiration is to make his formulation of the technique of inquiry more precise, and in consequence, more critical. His mind is oriented towards the project of infallible and universal method of research. But, since the method he advocates is modeled on that of geometry, its limitation when applied not to possibilities but to things is easily apparent. Descartes is more thorough than Bacon, in doing his skepticism for himself, and in the end, he recognizes it to be an error, to suppose that the method can ever be the sole means of inquiry.
The sovereignty of technique turns out to be a dream and not a reality. Nevertheless, the lessons his successors believed themselves to have learned from Descartes was the sovereignty of technique and not his doubtfulness of the possibility of an infallible method.10

Based on the above, it would not be an exaggeration to say that the Rationalist character may be seen as springing from the exaggeration of Bacon’s hopes and the neglect of the skepticism of Descartes. Modern Rationalism is “what commonplace minds made out of the inspiration of men of discrimination and genius.”11 But the history of Rationalism is not only the history of the gradual emergence and definition of this new intellectual character; it is also the history of the invasion of any department of intellectual activity by the doctrine of the sovereignty of technique. It is common knowledge that in the seventeenth century in poetry and in drama there was a remarkable concentration on technique, on rules of composition, on the observance of the bien séances of literature, which continued unabated for nearly two centuries. Neither Religion, nor Natural Sciences, nor Education, nor the conduct of life itself escaped from the influence of the new Rationalism. No activity was immune, no society untouched.
The deeper motivations, which encourage and develop this intellectual fashion are, for the most part, obscure. They are hidden in the recesses of the European society, but among its other connections it is certainly closely allied with the decline in belief in Providence.

A beneficent and infallible technique replaced, as it were, a beneficent and infallible God. Where Providence was not available to correct the mistakes of man, it was all the more necessary to correct such mistakes. A society or a generation which thinks that what it has discovered for itself is more important than what it has inherited, an age over impressed with its own accomplishment and liable to accept these illusions of intellectual grandeur which are the characteristic lunacy of post – Renaissance Europe, an age never mentally at peace with itself, because never reconciled with its past were the result.12

And the vision of a technique, which puts all minds at the same level, provided just that shortcut, which would attract a man in a hurry to appear educated, but incapable of appreciating the concrete details of the total inheritance. Indeed, it may be said that all, or almost all, the influences, which in its early days serve to encourage the emergence of the Rationalist character, have subsequently been more influential in our civilization.
Of course, Rationalism was not able to establish itself easily and without opposition. The significance of the doctrine of the sovereignty of technique becomes clearer, when we consider, what one of its first, and profoundest critics has to say about it. Pascal is a judicious critic of Descartes not to be opposing him at all points but opposing him, never the less, on points that are fundamental.13
Pascal perceived that the Cartesian desire for certain knowledge was based upon false criteria of certainty. Descartes must begin with something so sure, that it cannot be doubted, and was led, as a consequence, to believe that all genuine knowledge is technical knowledge. Pascal avoided this conclusion by his doctrine of probability. The only knowledge that is certain, is certain on account of its partiality. The paradox of probable knowledge is, that it has more to say about whole truth, than certain knowledge. Secondly, Pascal perceived that the Cartesian raisonnement is never, in fact, the whole source of the knowledge involved in a concrete activity. The human mind, he asserts, is not wholly dependent, for its successful working, upon a conscious and formulated technique. And even where a technique is involved, the mind observes the technique “tacitement, naturellement et sans art.” The precise formulation of rules of inquiry, endangers the success of the inquiry by exaggerating the importance of method.
Pascal was followed by others and, indeed, much of the history of Modern Philosophy revolves round this question. But, though latter writers were often more elaborated in their criticism, few detected more surely than Pascal that the significance of Rationalism is not its recognition of technical knowledge, but its failure to recognize any other.

Its philosophical error lies in the certainty it attributes to technique and in its doctrine of the sovereignty of technique. Its practical error lies in its belief that nothing but benefit can come from making conduct self-conscious.14

How deeply the Rationalist disposition of mind has invaded our current thought and practice is illustrated by the extent to which traditions of behavior have given place to ideologies, the extent to which the politics of destruction and creation have been substituted for politics of repair, the consciously planned and deliberately executed being considered (for that reason) conclusively better than what has grown up, and established itself unselfconsciously, over a period of time. This conversion of habits of behavior, which were never quite fixed or finished into comparatively rigid systems of abstract ideas, is not, of course, new.
By casting his technique in the form of a view of the course of events, past, present and future, and not of human nature, Marx thought he had escaped from Rationalism. But, since he has taken the precaution of first turning the course of events into a doctrine, the escape was an illusion.

Like King Midas, the Rationalist is always in the unfortunate position of not being able to touch anything without transforming it into an abstraction. The Rationalist finds the intricacy of the world, of time and contingency so unmanageable, that he is bewitched by the offer of a quick escape into the bogus eternity of an ideology.15

Rationalism involves an identifiable error, “a misconception with regard to human knowledge, which amounts to a corruption of the mind.”16 Consequently, it is without the power to correct its own shortcomings. It has no homeopathic quality. You cannot escape its errors by becoming more sincerely or more profoundly Rationalistic. This is one of the penalties of living by the book. It leads not only to specific mistakes but it also dries up the mind itself. Living by precept, in the end, generates intellectual dishonesty. And further, the Rationalist has rejected in advance the only external inspiration capable of correcting his error. He does not merely neglect the kind of knowledge which would save him; he begins by destroying it. First, he turns off the light and then complains that he cannot see.

In short, the Rationalist is essentially trapped and he can be educated out of his Rationalism only by an inspiration, which he regards as the great enemy of mankind. All the Rationalist can do when left to himself, is to replace one Rationalist project in which he has failed by another in which he hopes to succeed.17

The Rationalist inspiration has now invaded and has begun to corrupt the genuine educational provisions and institutions of contemporary society. Some of the ways and means by which hitherto genuine, as distinct from the merely technical knowledge has been imparted, have already disappeared. Others are on the way out and others, again, are in the process of being corrupted from the inside. The Rationalist never understands that it takes about two generations of practice to learn a profession. Indeed, he does everything he can to destroy the possibility of such an education, believing it to be mischievous. Like a man whose only language is Esperanto, he has no means of knowing that the world did not begin in the twentieth century.

The predicament of our time is that the Rationalists have been at work so long on the project of drawing off the liquid, in which our moral ideas were suspended, and poured it away as worthless, that we are left only with the dry and gritty residue, which chokes us, as we try to take it out.18

1 Oakeshott, Michael (1901-1990): best known as a conservative political philosopher. Educated at Cambridge as a historian, he developed an interest in the philosophy of John McTaggart (1866-1925), especially as regards the nature and non-existence of time. His first and only continuous book, Experience and its Modes (1933) was almost totally ignored but provides the philosophical structure for later volumes of essays in which he develops educational and political themes deeply influenced by Montaigne’s scepticism, as well as the political philosophies of Hobbes and Burke.
2 “He has none of that negative capability, (which Keats attributed to Shakespeare) the power of accepting the mysteries and uncertainties of experience, without any irritable search for order and directness, only the capability of subjugating experience” (Michael Oakeshott, Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays (London: Methuen, 1962), 2).
3 Oakeshott, op. cit., 10.
4 “The placid lake of Rationalism lies before us in the character and disposition of the Rationalist, its surface familiar and not unconvincing, its waters fed by many visible tributaries. But in its depths there flows a hidden spring which…is perhaps the pre-eminent source of its endurance. This spring is a doctrine about human knowledge” (Oakeshott, op. cit., 7).
5 Ibid., 9.
6 Ibid., 11.
7 Bacon, Novum Organum (Fowler, 1959), 184.
8 Ibid., 182.
9 Oakeshott, op. cit., 13.
10 Ibid., 14.
11 Vanvenarques, Maxims et Reflections (Paris: Pleiade, 1965), 221.
12 Oakeshott, op. cit., 14.
13 cf. Pascal, Pensees (vol. I, Paris: Brunscvicg, 1959), p. 76.
14 Oakeshott, op. cit., 15.
15 Ibid., 16.
16 Ibid., 18.
17 Ibid., 18.
18 Ibid., 19.

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