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The Collected Wisdom of Great Teachers

Rationalism in Politics

Michael Oakeshott's essay first appeared in The Cambridge Journal (vol. 1, 1947). Although it is divided into five separate parts and touches upon several subjects, the essay primarily is about an examination of rationalism and the political manifestation of this epistemology. According to Oakeshott, rationalism comes from a "felt need" that humans experience: the urgency of the present moment bearing down upon our condition from which man reacts in pride to disregard tradition as a guide for action: past individual and collective experiences are discarded for the new and the rational. For Oakeshott, rationalism is defined as the worship of the rational faculty of reason that holds only technical knowledge to be the sole criterion of knowledge. With its illusion of certainty, technical knowledge provides the illusion of the independent, self-made man while downplaying or ignoring other factors that may have contributed to his success. The best examples of technical knowledge for Oakeshott can be found in Bacon's and Descartes' methodologies, although Descartes was more sensitive than Bacon to the limitations of a single technical method to derive knowledge from reality. Only in literature and in the science of probability do we find alternative epistemologies to rationalism's dominance of modern life. The political manifestation of rationalism is a politics that privileges abstract ideas over concrete tradition, as represented in the works of Machiavelli, Locke, and the political example of the American Founding. The force of rationalism continues to spill over into every sphere of modern life - education, human relationships, and politics - where pride triumphs over humility in man's search for progress and betterment in his life.

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Michael Oakeshott
Publication Info:
Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 1991 (pp.5-42)

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