Michael Oakeshott’s Dialogic Imagination

It would be far too easy to describe the British philosopher, Michael Oakeshott (1901-1990) as simply a conservative thinker. Yet that is generally what has been done, more or less. Any kind of descriptions, and especially those that involve a division between “liberal” and “conservative” are bound to limit our openness toward understanding someone like Oakeshott. He is a far more nuanced thinker that sees the strands that connect politics and ethics to metaphysics.

American reception of Oakeshott has been mixed. William F. Buckley, Jr. appreciated and agreed with much of Oakeshott’s philosophy, especially on the notion of conservatism as a disposition, and not an ideology to be manipulated. Others, like Irving Kristol, found Oakeshott’s philosophy to be “irredeemably secular” and incompatible with Judeo-Christian tradition. Some may find Oakeshott’s style to be too opaque, or quite simply, too British for American tastes. And others still find his conversational politics as lacking in practical import.

An expanded edition of Oakeshott’s famous and important work, Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays, published by Liberty Fund in 1991, offers readers a deeper way of looking at Oakeshott’s philosophical endeavors, while naturally retaining the text and adding previously unpublished work. Oakeshott considered all of his philosophical works to be a series of connected essays. As Timothy Fuller writes in an excellent introduction to the book, “Oakeshott, like Montaigne, who inspires the style of Rationalism in Politics, does not try to subjugate the experience in an intellectual scheme. He ‘essays’ in order to understand himself in relation to the circumstances of his time as he understands them, asking his readers to accept the invitation to respond out of their own reflections in conversation.”

This is a crucial description that Fuller offers because it captures the spirit of who Michael Oakeshott really is as a philosopher—a man, always interested in a dialogic and conversational way at figuring out the puzzles of the human condition. In fact, the notion of dialogue and discourse is, in many ways, at the center of all of his works, but most certainly in Rationalism in Politics.

The Rationalist Man

Oakeshott is a philosopher who understands and takes seriously the primacy of metaphysics. This is one of the reasons why his insights into politics and political philosophy are original and valuable. Without taking into consideration a metaphysical make-up of human beings and the world that surrounds them, comprehending political life will be difficult and incomplete.

For Oakeshott, life is composed of modes of being and individual experiences. Each mode of being, be it intellectual or practical, is working toward something in a particular sphere of existences. But this does not mean that all we are is just a bunch of “modes” swarming around, unrelated to each other, free of responsibility and consequences of our choices, however big or small they may be. Rather, the spheres that are composed of both experience and reality are in constant dialogue. As Oakeshott writes in Experience and Its Modes, “…no separation is possible between experience and reality. Reality is nothing but experience, the world of experience as a coherent whole. Everything is real so long as we do not take it for more or less than it is. Nothing is real save the world of experience single and complete. Thus, reality is a world, and is a world of ideas.”

The last part of this passage is crucial because Oakeshott connects a philosophy of what we may call ‘experiential metaphysics’ to the fact that our society ‘runs’ on ideas. While in Experience and Its Modes, we see explorations of a variety of experiences and knowledge that is centrally focused on the metaphysical explorations, in Rationalism in Politics, we witness an interesting development in Oakeshott’s thought. It is, in many ways, a continuation of what he has achieved in Experience and Its Modes, which focuses on the way we think and judge. In this case, mode has an ontological connotation, and Oakeshott defines modes of being as ideas of the world and their representation in thought and experience.

He divides the human experience into three modes: history, science, and practice. In this philosophical endeavor, which might be best described as ‘metaphysical epistemology,’ Oakeshott shows that three separate modes of being that are constantly communicating with one another, and bridging the theoretical ideal of a particular mode with that of practice. In other words, the modes are not mere philosophical constructs but are firmly connected to reality.

In Rationalism in Politics, Oakeshott has delved deeply into the question of what the modes of being can bring into our understanding of politics. Modes are now seen as ‘voices’ and this ‘metaphysical epistemology’ that we have seen in Experience and Its Modes becomes ‘metaphysical politics,’ in which the variety of voices are in a discourse with one another. The entire book is not so much about crudely applied metaphysics into politics but about a dialogue between thinking and political selves that are created from thought and deliberation.

Oakeshott criticizes the purely rationalist man. A rationalist only looks at one mode of being for an answer, and in many ways, this is how ideology comes to being, hence the grave danger of only rationalist thinking. Oakeshott clarifies that “A Rationalist holds that the only element of knowledge involved in any human activity is technical knowledge, and that what I have called practical knowledge is really only a sort of nescience which would be negligible if it were not positively mischievous. The sovereignty of ‘reason’, for the Rationalist, means the sovereignty of technique.”

In this pseudo-intellectual set up, the possibility of a holistic thought does not exist. A rationalist is either not capable of or rejects imagination. The most recognized offenders of unimaginative life are proponents of ideology. Throughout the book, this is one of the underlying arguments that Oakeshott keeps coming back to. For him, the most significant question is how a human being can remain a free individual in the midst of tyranny and oppression, which comes in many political and social forms.

According to Oakeshott, the rationalist favors a “sovereignty of technique” because:

…the superiority of an 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 must be to administer a purge… to lay his foundation upon the unshakable rock of absolute ignorance. In short, technical knowledge appears to be the only kind of knowledge which satisfy the standard of certainty which the Rationalist has chosen.

Oakeshott gives a perfect description of how an indoctrination begins and how it could very easily end in totalitarianism. He maintains that the problem with certainty that is entirely based on technical knowledge is in fact “an illusion” and it gives the receiver of knowledge an appearance of truth. The notion of absolute certainty also negates the need or importance of dialogue and discourse, which, for Oakeshott, is the foundation for the flourishing society. Ideology only has total power when it pretends to have complete and final answers for life’s perennial and elusive existential questions.

The Business of Being Political

Rationalism in Politics is not only concerned with thought but rather, as the title implies, about its impact on the “conduct of political life.” For Oakeshott, there is no doubt whatsoever that “the rationalist disposition of the mind” has completely infiltrated the public political sphere of life. This mode of technical thought has altered human behavior, which has “given place to ideologies.” Today, we see ideology carrying out its machinations under the pretense of science. People are either unable or unwilling to shed obsessive mode of repetitive thought, which is nothing more than an ideological lie designed to shape public opinion in order to seek and achieve a totalitarian effect. Many of our leaders and most of the media are entirely complicit in bringing the pseudo-scientific mode of being in order to alter reality. Oakeshott would be appalled at the revelation of totalitarian powers in the United States.

This kind of politics does not support the notion of an individual person living in relation to his or her community and vice versa. As Oakeshott writes, this kind of politics prides itself in being “self-contained” and does nothing more for the human being than render him an island onto himself. In fact, Oakeshott correctly points out that rationalist politics tells us that in order to participate in the public sphere of politics, we have to follow a particular doctrine, and if we don’t have one when we try to engage in a discourse, then we will appear “frivolous, even disreputable.” This perfectly summarizes our tragic situation of ideological cacophony: everyone has an opinion but it is entirely grounded in one single-and closed-minded strategy that inevitably leads to a dead end of discourse and political life. An immovable doctrine of ideology effectively kills the power of a citizen.

Rationalist politics undermines the authentic discourse and “are the politics of the felt need, the felt need not qualified by a genuine, concrete knowledge of the permanent interests and direction of movement of a society, but interpreted by ‘reason’ and satisfied according to the technique of an ideology: they are the politics of the book.” Today, we might call this scientism or something similar, but the truth of Oakeshott’s statement remains correct and true: anyone can interpret and invoke reason, preaching sanctimoniously “an ideology of unselfishness” in order to gain power.

Ending the discourse means effectively ending thinking, judging, deliberating, and ultimately, becoming enslaved by the tyranny of illusory correctness and incorrectness.

Commenting on the notion of the rational and the irrational for a 1970 Playboy interview, William F. Buckley, Jr. astutely observed that “Oakeshott has made a demonstration once and for all that rationalism in politics—which may be defined as trying to make politics as the crow flies—is the kind of thing that leads almost always and almost necessarily to tyranny.” Oakeshott (and of course, Buckley) fully understood the grave danger we are in once the appearance of a single and one-dimensional technical expertise about any matters in life becomes a substitute for the sovereign self. When this occurs, our lives are in the hands of so-called experts, and we see this clearly today, most obviously in the forceful incursion on private lives from public health experts. A citizen, who by the very definition has a voice, is rendered silent in the midst of a monopoly on public discourse as well as public policy by a chosen expert. What then is the meaning of citizenship if a citizen’s liberty is disregarded by vague words of ‘science’?

The Right Discourse

Thus far, we have seen what can happen when political discourse is skewed. One of the interesting parts of this edition of Rationalism in Politics is the inclusion of a never before published essay, “Political discourse.” In order to deal with politics, we must understand what its language is and whether the discourse we are engaging in is including the entirety of a person, or whether people as well as ideas are being treated as pure abstracts.

There is also the matter of language and the way we express ourselves and attempt to communicate with each other. Oakeshott never takes language for granted and when it comes to politics, he writes that “political discourse includes a great variety of different sorts of utterance,” and that he is limiting himself to what he calls an “argumentative discourse which purports to reveal (and not conceal) deliberation about response to political situations.” In other words, we deliberate, judge, think, and make appropriate conclusions. This is very much in great contrast to the earlier mentioned notion of the obsession with “doctrine” that every person must “wear” and make quite plain when communicating ideas.

All political discourses are designed to persuade, most notably we see this in Aristotle’s works, which is one of Oakeshott’s examples of discourse. They are also designed to prove ‘correctness’ or ‘incorrectness’ but to what end? According to Oakeshott, this question was, in many ways, what drove Karl Marx to declare “the end of ‘ideological’ political discourse.” Oakeshott is a rather generous reader of Marx, and shows an incredible amount of intellectual restraint in addressing Marx’s arguments logically. This is certainly not an easy task since Marxist doctrine has been the cause of great evil.

According to Oakeshott, Marx “understood himself to be proclaiming the end of undemonstrative political discourse and its replacement by discourse governed by a vocabulary of ‘scientifically’ validated political beliefs.” This only leads to the notion of elitist expertise. Who indeed has the right to determine what is “scientifically validated” if the main point of this kind of persuasive discourse is to “end the discourse” itself? Ending the discourse means effectively ending thinking, judging, deliberating, and ultimately, becoming enslaved by the tyranny of illusory correctness and incorrectness.

Despite Marx’s insistence on rationalism and end of ‘ideological’ discourse, his analysis ends up reducing human beings to constructs and abstractions. Oakeshott asserts that “Marx had very hazy notions” about scientific expressions. Furthermore, Oakeshott correctly argues that Marx and his followers were guilty of “gnosticism,” which might explain a pseudo-spiritual hold Marxist ideology still has over people.

A Polyphony of Voices

Throughout his writing, Oakeshott emphasized the significance of the variety of voices in intellectual discourse, as well as in society in general because the variety is what gives rise to the flourishing of society. In “The voice of poetry in the conversation of mankind,” Oakeshott observes that when a conversation is only including two voices, namely, “the voice of practical activity and the voice of ‘science’,” it is bound to produce mediocre results, not to mention the activity itself works on the principle of exclusivity. If one or two voices claim the space that should be opened up to everyone, it will “in the passage of time” take on “the appearance of virtue.” The more one voice is heard, the less possibility that it will be criticized until it becomes part of an entire political landscape, indistinguishable from truth. In fact, truth will disappear into the background.

Oakeshott writes that “An excluded voice may take wing against the wind, but it will do so at the risk of turning the conversation into a dispute. Or it may gain a hearing by imitating the voices of the monopolists; but it will be a hearing for only a counterfeit utterance.” Being excluded from the conversation that takes place in the public square does not only have a negative effect on the person but also on the larger notion of free speech. If free speech suddenly becomes only a purview of the self-titled and self-imposed ideological elite, then we have certainly entered into one stage of tyranny. For Oakeshott, freedom is something which is inherent in every human being, and tyranny presents an illusion of an existence. Despite the fact that throughout the book he warns us about the dangers of tyranny, Oakeshott is not a philosopher who dwells in darkness. Rather, in Rationalism in Politics, he illuminates for the reader what the difference is between a free person and a slave to ideology. He always looks toward the flourishing of society, rather than wallowing in the evil and vile ways of many ideological tyrants and their willing subjects. In all of Oakeshott’s works, but especially essays in this collection, there is always a sense of philosopher’s hope. Unlike many philosophers, who have falsely claimed that title precisely because of the overuse and misuse of reason, Oakeshott remains humbled by the constant unravelling of human possibilities towards the good.