Rationalism in Politics is an essay by Michael Oakeshott, a conservative political philosopher, in which he arguest that modern day politics is deeply infected with rationalism. Because of Oakeshott's distinctive understanding of knowledge, he thinks this is quite detrimental.

To Oakeshott, there are two kinds of knowledge, technical and practical or traditional. Technical knowledge is something one can learn from a book - the rules of a game, a recipe describing how to cook a certain dish, or the criteria set for scientific discovery. Practical knowledge is something one learns by engaging in a certain activity. Thus the poet gains a deeper knowledge of his art by practicing it - a knowledge that cannot be reduced to a set of rules, or a technique. The same is true of the scientist. While technique is obviously important in natural science, still inspiration and an ability to think beyond the obvious is clearly important. Perhaps one could refer to Thomas Kuhn in this context - the scientist who merely has technical knowledge of his field can further his science in times of 'normal science', but can hardly participate in a scientific revolution. Similarly, mere technique is inadequate in any field, certainly including politics.

The error of the rationalist is to assume that nothing but technical knowledge is needed. The rationalist reduces all politics to a set of problems which need solutions. There is no room for tradition or practical knowledge in the rationalist's conception of the world. Everything is evaluated out of context, the only criterion being whether it is rational.

Oakeshott traces the history of Rationalism to Bacon and Descartes. His historical analysis is perhaps the weakest part of his essay, since it is so limited. But even if it is difficult to pinpoint the actual point in European history when politics became rationalistic, it does seem clear that rationalism is a potent force in politics, and has been so for a considerable amount of time.

Central to Oakeshott's criticism of modern politics is his insight into ideology. Modern politics, perhaps more in his time (Rationalism in Politics was written in 1947) than today, is pervaded by ideologies. Communism is the ideology par excellence. The aim is to overthrow the whole existing society, and immediately replace it with a totally new set of social relations. The Communist Manifesto calls for not only for an economic revolution, but for a political one as well. One can hardly disagree with Oakeshott that this totally neglects the importance of tradition. The idea is that all that is needed is the application of a technique to society, be it that of the Communist Manifesto or of some other piece of communist literature. One might contrast the failure of communist states with the success of the Nordic welfare states in defence of Oakeshott's position. The Nordic welfare state was not achieved by sudden revolution, but gradual reform, while the communist state pursued a policy of immediate transformation.

Oakeshott draws two major conclusions from the pervasiveness of rationalism in modern society. First, he thinks rationalism has undermined education. Education, especially at university level, used to be about aquainting an individual with the intellectual and moral traditions of a society. In other words, the purpose of education was the creation of educated individuals. Modern education, on the other hand, has different aims. The purpose of a modern university is to produce graduates who are economically beneficial to the society. In other words, the technical knowledge, which contributes to economic growth, is preferred to the traditional knowledge, whose signifigance is much more subtle. Dr. Matravers argued in his lecture that this has caused universities to engage in such absurdities as 'skills training' - hiring consultants to teach students and staff 'time management' and 'personal effectiveness'.

Dr. Matravers argued that rationalism has led to a conception of politics which sees the activity as the solution of problems. A drug problem is identified, and thus a 'drug czar' - in other words, a technical expert - is appointed to deal with it. Businessmen are brought in to take care of political problems, because they are good at solving problems in the business world. These people have no sense of tradition or the political context, and thus tend to fail. The problem is that when a rationalistic solution fails, politicians do not see that the problem is rationalism itself. Instead, they formulate the technical problem in another way, and send in another group of experts.

Oakeshott's other major conclusion about the effects of rationalism is the undermining of traditional morality. He argues that morality only has relevance within a tradition, but the rationalist cannot accept this. The rationalist has no use for tradition, and thus evaluates morality out of context. Of course, it then becomes meaningless. One might perhaps adopt a moral relativist position and argue that while morality certainly has relevance to people within a certain tradition, it lacks any relevance when simply taken on its own.

What are we to make of Oakeshott's argument? The major problem is that one could argue that Oakeshott is simply describing those rationalists who have an incomplete understanding of knowledge. Surely it is possible to incorporate traditional knowledge within a rationalist framework. If tradition is indeed so important, then it is rational to take it into account, and irrational to ignore it, which is exactly the error that the rationalist commits according to Oakeshott. The problem is that Oakeshott sees the world fundamentally differently than the rationalist. To Oakeshott, my criticism would simply be a technicalization of traditional knowledge, which misses the point that such knowledge cannot be reduced to a set of rules or a technique. I think both ways of seeing the world are legitimate, but they are irreconcilable.

Oakeshott, Michael (1962) 'Rationalism in Politics' in his Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays (Indianapolis, Liberty Press), pp. 1-36.
Matravers, Matt (2004) lecture on Rationalism in Politics, Department of Politics, University of York.