Michael Oakeshott 1901-1990
Michael Oakeshott, the British political philosopher, made a significant contribution to conservative thinking on human imperfection and pragmatism in works such as Rationalism in Politics (1962) and On Human Conduct (1975).
Oakeshott’s collection of essays, Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays (1962), and his more systematic work of political philosophy, On Human Conduct (1975), were key texts of conservative traditionalism, exploring both the nature and implications of human imperfection. By highlighting the importance of civil association and insisting on the limited province of politics, he developed themes closely associated with liberal thought. Oakeshott is nevertheless best known for his powerful defence of a pragmatic and non-ideological style of politics, upholding traditional values and established customs on the grounds that the conservative disposition is to prefer ‘the familiar to the unknown’. Oakeshott’s style of conservatism was also characterised by the belief that governing is a ‘specific and limited activity’, amounting only to a means of enabling individuals to pursue their chosen activities through the formation of civil associations. In this light, he influenced many of the thinkers of the New Right.
Oakeshott, like Burke, rejected ideology and the idea that there are ‘correct’ answers to practical questions . He criticised the idea that politics can be organised on a rational basis based on abstract principles such as equality due to the limits of human understanding . He attacked rationalism as an idea that placed theory above knowledge, culture and tradition . Instead, Oakeshott argued that politics should be about practical knowledge and pragmatism, rather than ideas and theories that ignore the complexities of human society and tradition . He saw reform as tending to consist of a break with the past, when it was always better to try to create continuity . Creating something ‘new’ was usually a mistake and a failure . Oakeshott blamed the Enlightenment for the rise of the belief in rationality as the method of making political decisions . He argued that politics should be a ‘conversation, not an argument’ therefore rejecting the idea of absolutes . In ‘On Being Conservative’ (1962, in Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays) Oakeshott compared a society with too much personal freedom to a ship lost at sea, restless and without direction and order . Politicians can be seen as the officers on the deck, guided by experts but heading for disaster .
According to Oakeshott, modern society is both unpredictable and complex. Consequently, it cannot be understood in terms of abstract principles or theories. `Rational' attempts to make sense of society's behaviour inevitably distort and simplify the facts — a problem compounded by human imperfection, because people do not have the mental faculties to make sense of a complex modern world.
Also, the 'rationalist' political leader's impulse is to act solely on the 'authority of his own reason' rather than practical experience. This encourages the dangerous idea that the leader fully understands society and knows how it should be changed. Oakeshott considered that the brutal fascist and communist regimes established in the 20th century were clear examples of this misguided human rationalism in politics. He also concluded that parliamentary government in Britain had developed pragmatically over time, and had not followed a rationalist or ideological path, Oakeshott maintained that politics can only be successfully conducted if it accommodates existing traditions, practices and prejudices. This pragmatic approach:
can deliver what is in the best interests of the people without overstepping the limits of public acceptance
· maintains social stability and cohesion by emphasising moderation, cautious change where necessary, and a sense of historical continuity
· is flexible, reflecting complex and shifting social realities, unlike rigid theories and ideologies which encourage dogmatic decision-making.
In his essay "On Being Conservative" (1956) Oakeshott explained what he regarded as the conservative disposition: "To be conservative ... is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss."
“in political activity men sail a boundless and bottomless sea.” In other words, it has neither a starting point nor an appointed destination. The realm of political ideas is therefore beyond our limited understanding.