Michael Oakeshott warns us of abuse

Michael Oakeshott warns us of abuse

Exactly thirty years ago, in December 1990, Michael Oakeshott, one of the leading political philosophers of the twentieth century, died. On the occasion of this anniversary, the Bruno Leoni Institute has published what is perhaps the most important book by Oakeshott, “Rationalism in politics and other essays“. Below we propose an excerpt from the introduction, written by Giovanni Giorgini (full professor of history of political theories at the University of Bologna).


It is an interesting and important fact that Oakeshott chose “Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays” as the title for his 1962 collection of essays, thus giving prominence to the subject of rationalism in politics.

It can be said with certainty that the essay represents the theoretical heart and driving force of the book and that the other essays collected here develop the implications and consequences of that topic. By the term rationalism, Oktscht means unconditionally that unconstitutional and improper use without reason will lead to a definite improvement of the human condition.

The precursor to this vision is of course Francis Bacon, who caused the human conquest of nature; One reason, however, was the cleaning up of society’s derived prejudices from the principle of authority, from common opinion (he idolizes them). Because of this critical vision of logic for politics, it is unavoidable that this belief can function in spite of circumstances, for example by abstract frameworks in an ideal state, which will then be put to the work of government: perfection ”, Who wants to attain heaven on earth and requires great sacrifices from men.

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It is a vision, which Hayek calls a “misuse of reason” typical of the “engineering mindset”, and what Popper calls “utopian social engineering”. Thus Oakeshott aimed to show the inherent wisdom based on collective lifestyles and central planning.

Oakeshott then stigmatized the theoretical error of considering “knowledge” as mere technical knowledge, which can be expressed in rules and then taught and learned (such as proof of a theorem or highway code); There is also another type of knowledge, which they call “practical” or “traditional”, which can only be gained through use and practice, and therefore experience.

It is this type of knowledge that deals with human activities such as politics and … cooking! One does not become a good cook just by reading cookbooks, which can teach culinary techniques but does not produce flavor; Only the cook who has apprenticeship and practical experience knows how much salt to add when the recipe indicates “to taste”.

Note that this view is both a revival of the Aristotelian notion phronesis – That “practical knowledge” that makes it possible to identify the true meaning while avoiding the error (and vice) of the two extremes – is a polymorphism against the then dominant idea in philosophy of a neo-positivist nature, according to which Is the only knowledge that can be clearly formulated. In this critique of Neo-positivism, the idea that philosophy functions is to formulate and test hypotheses that are empirically verifiable in those years, Oakeshott in those years, Michael Pauly, Gilbert Ryle, and Frederick a. Is united with thinkers such as von Hayek.

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As profound as it is entertaining in an essay, “Rational Conduct” (1950), Oakeshott showed the theoretical fallacy of thinking that reason can operate in a vacuum, without interference from ideas of society and historical circumstances; And he did so by resorting to the simple example of “rational clothing” envisioned by Victorian designers for cycling women: they sought absolute rationality and perfection, but concluded with being rational and appropriate to the conventions of the time. Removed: Not shorts, shorts, but long and tight trousers with knee and length skirts to soften the very masculine aspect of clothing, blooming!

If, therefore, reason can never work in abstraction, then the pursuit of perfection in politics is done by considering “rational” only for the purpose of achieving a predetermined objective and abstracted from circumstances, an illusion. is; However, it is a dangerous illusion when one tries to put it into practice, as it inevitably dreams of complete control of society and is therefore tortured. A theoretical mistake turns into a nightmare in practice.

OkShot not only illustrates the errors and problems inherent in reasonableness but also presents alternatives. He adopts the specific vision of Scottish Enlightenment and then the founder of the Austrian School of Economics, Karl Menger, taken by Hayek in the same years, according to which modern state and political institutions are “the fruit of innumerable human choices”, over a long period of time , But not of a specific human design ».

Furthermore, those choices were not a response to abstract beliefs, but to specific contingency situations. The idea that there is an “architect” behind them, someone who has set a goal and has dedicated himself to that specific purpose, is a logical argument. For rationalism, its belief in truth and perfection, Oakeshott resists the skeptical vision of knowledge, the foundation of a liberal conception of the state in which the notion of tradition plays a central role.

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By Giovanni Giorgini “Rationalism in politics and other essaysI am“, By Michael Oakeshott, Istituto Bruno Leoni Libri, 2020, p. 284, Euro 20


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