The Quiet Revolutionary: Michael Oakeshott’s Challenge to Modern Rationalism

A Gentle Rebel

Philosobytes level 1: this article is mostly factual and easy to get your head around.In the grand tapestry of 20th-century philosophy, where threads of thought are often bold and conspicuous, Michael Oakeshott’s strand weaves a subtler, yet profoundly impactful pattern. At first glance, Oakeshott might appear as an academic recluse, nestled in the ivory towers of Cambridge and the London School of Economics, far removed from the clamour of political activism. However, beneath this serene surface bubbled a quiet revolutionary spirit, challenging the era’s dominant paradigms with a wit as sharp as his intellect. This is the tale of a philosopher who danced to the rhythm of tradition, yet questioned every step with the curiosity of a skeptic.

The Core of Oakeshott’s Philosophy

Michael OakeshottOakeshott’s philosophical journey is a voyage across the vast ocean of human experience, with particular navigational interest in the realms of political philosophy and the critique of rationalism. His skepticism towards the modern rationalist tradition, which advocates for a foundational approach to knowledge and society, marks him as a distinctive thinker. Oakeshott posited that life, especially political life, is not a problem to be solved but a complex reality to be understood and navigated. His key philosophies include:

  • The Critique of Rationalism: Oakeshott famously argued against the rationalist approach, which seeks to apply abstract principles to govern human society, advocating instead for a practical, experience-based understanding of social interactions.
  • The Role of Tradition in Political Society: He emphasized the importance of tradition and historical continuity, asserting that society operates within a context of inherited practices and conventions, which provide a more reliable basis for action than abstract theories.
  • Individuality and Civil Association: Oakeshott championed the idea of a civil society where individuals engage with each other as equals in a non-instrumental manner, contrasting this with the state’s role in managing society through rules and regulations.
Philosophies and Ideologies: Navigating the Oakeshottian Waters


Dall·e Image That Visually Represents Michael Oakeshott's Philosophy

Diving deeper into Oakeshott’s philosophical ocean, one finds themselves amidst currents of thought that defy the rationalist drive for universal solutions. Oakeshott’s critique of rationalism isn’t just a rebuttal; it’s an invitation to appreciate the complexity of human life. He saw the rationalist’s desire to redesign society according to scientific principles as not just misguided but dangerous, akin to navigating a ship ignoring the stars above and the sea below, relying solely on an untested map.

The Critique of Rationalism: Imagine, if you will, a gardener who approaches a wild, thriving garden with the intention to impose order, armed only with a ruler and a set of abstract geometric principles. Oakeshott viewed the rationalist’s approach to society in a similar light – as an attempt to simplify and regiment the rich, untidy diversity of human experience into neat, predictable patterns. He argued that this overlooked the practical knowledge and historical context that guide human conduct, akin to disregarding the natural contours and the ecosystem of the garden itself.

The Role of Tradition in Political Society: For Oakeshott, tradition is not the mindless repetition of the past but a living dialogue with it. He likened tradition to a conversation across generations, where the wisdom of the ages is neither blindly followed nor outright rejected, but engaged with and adapted. This approach fosters a society that respects the accumulated wisdom embedded in its customs and institutions, rather than seeking to overhaul them according to the latest theoretical blueprint.

Individuality and Civil Association: Oakeshott envisioned a society where individuals interact as equals in a shared space of laws and moral codes, not as means to an end but as ends in themselves. This vision contrasts sharply with a society organized purely around collective goals, where the state acts as an omnipotent manager. Oakeshott’s civil association is a complex dance of individual autonomy and communal bonds, where the music of personal freedom plays in harmony with the rhythm of social responsibility.

Legacies and Modern Context

Oakeshott’s philosophical legacy is like a beacon, illuminating the complexities of modern political thought. His critique of rationalism continues to resonate, offering a counterpoint to the pervasive influence of technocratic solutions in public policy. The appreciation for tradition and the nuanced understanding of human society he advocated for have found echoes in various fields, from political theory to the study of history and law. Modern movements advocating for decentralization, localism, and the importance of community and historical continuity can trace their intellectual lineage back to Oakeshott’s work.

Suggested Reading List
  1. “Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays” by Michael Oakeshott
  2. “On Human Conduct” by Michael Oakeshott
  3. “The Politics of Faith and the Politics of Scepticism” by Michael Oakeshott
  4. “Experience and its Modes” by Michael Oakeshott
  5. “Oakeshott on History” by Michael Oakeshott

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Online resources:

Contemporary thinkers: Michael Oakeshott
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Michael Oakeshott
Wikipedia: Michael Oakeshott

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