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Oakeshott vs. America

Why politics needs practical reason, not written constitutions
Michael Oakeshott

An obscure college professor once wrote that the reception of English philosopher Michael Oakeshott by American conservatives resembled the sound of one hand clapping. Although interest in Oakeshott’s work among U.S. academic historians and political theorists has increased exponentially since his death in 1990, his influence on public intellectuals and policy makers here has remained negligible—with the notable exception of Andrew Sullivan, who, like Oakeshott, happens to be British.

This lack of influence among the movers and shakers of American political life should not be surprising, given Oakeshott’s insistence on the irrelevance of political philosophy to practical politics. As he once wrote, “reputable political behavior is not dependent upon sound or even coherent philosophy.” Such behavior is instead related to the concrete practical knowledge of an actual political tradition and what such a tradition intimates. Oakeshott was skeptical of philosophers who meddled in practical affairs, insisting that he was not concerned with establishing “a seminary for training political hedge-preachers in some dim orthodoxy.”

Further, Oakeshott’s critique of ideological or rationalistic politics makes him an unlikely source of inspiration to a people whose entire political tradition has been informed by that style of political discourse. The rationalistic or ideological style manifests itself in the abstract and often vacuous pronouncements about foundational principles that animate American political life. As Oakeshott observed in a review of a book by Walter Lippman:

when Mr. Lippmann says that the founders of our free institutions were adherents of the philosophy of natural law, and that ‘the free political institutions of the Western world were conceived and established’ by men who held certain abstract beliefs, he speaks with the shortened perspective of an American way of thinking in which a manner of conducting affairs is inconceivable without an architect and without a premeditated ‘dedication to a proposition.’  But the fact is that nobody ever ‘founded these institutions.’ They are the product of innumerable human choices, over long stretches of time, but not of any human design.

Such a long view is not likely to be welcome in a country that has from the beginning considered itself a novus ordo seclorum.

With these considerations in mind, it was with a great deal of excitement that I read Gene Callahan’s new book, Oakeshott on Rome and America, which is a well-written examination of Oakeshott’s own work, but also a novel application of Oakeshott’s critique of rationalist or ideological politics to American constitutional history. Callahan argues quite convincingly that Oakeshott’s analysis of the errors of modern rationalism is both acute and accurate and that the American constitutional tradition has been informed by a highly rationalistic rhetorical style from the beginning.

So what is rationalism, in the Oakeshottian sense of the term?  First, it involves the claim that the only adequate type of knowledge is that which can be reduced to a series of rules, principles, or methods—and thus it is also a claim that “knowing how” to do something is nothing more than “knowing that” the rules are such and such.  Second, because of this denigration of practical knowledge, it is a claim that rational action can only take place following the creation of a theoretical model. As Oakeshott once observed, modern rationalism is literally “preposterous” because theoretical reflection can only occur after a practice already has made itself distinct and more or less concrete.

Finally, as Callahan points out, since rationalism is a mistaken description of human knowledge and its relation to human activity, it is also an impossible way of acting, politically or in any other sphere. Human action, including political action, is inherently an engagement of practical reason working within a particular tradition or and attempting to follow through on some of the inchoate suggestions that the vagueness of the practice offers. The opposite of rationalism for Oakeshott is not irrationalism but authentic practical reasonableness. Thus, and contrary to many of his reading-impaired critics, his critique of rationalism is not a critique of reason but a defense of it against a false modern conception of it.

To use one of Oakeshott’s favorite examples, if one has no knowledge of cookery, a cookbook is useless.  If, on the other hand, one is an experienced chef, a cookbook is superfluous. The cookbook is relevant only in a situation where either the great majority of cooks are relatively inexperienced and there is a dearth of connoisseurs or in a situation in which the traditions of cookery are in a state of confusion and a reminder is needed of some of the tradition’s neglected resources.

Oakeshott used the term “ideology” to describe the attempted application of this rationalistic style to political activity. The rationalist’s or ideologist’s desire is to solve permanently the problems of political life and leave everything else to administration. Yet politics isn’t concerned with the search for truth. Instead, as Oakeshott noted, “it is concerned with the cultivation of what from time to time are accepted as the peaceable decencies of conduct among men who do not suffer from the Puritan-Jacobin illusion that in practical affairs there is an attainable condition of things called ‘truth’ or ‘perfection.’”

Thus the alternative to ideology is not nescience. As Callahan writes, it is instead a politics that

remains grounded in the concrete circumstances and earlier experiences of the participants in a polity, and resists the temptation to reject the ambiguities and uncertainties of the practical world by embracing some theoretical abstraction of political life that boasts it can provide definitive resolutions, incontrovertibly justified through their deduction from first principles, to any and all political issues.

The relevance of ideology to political experience is the same as the relevance of the cookbook to cookery. If there is little or no experience of, for example, liberal democratic institutions in a particular political community, a written constitution supposedly instantiating such principles will be useless; while, where there is extensive experience of and commitment to liberal democracy, a written constitution will be redundant.

A written constitution might serve as a reminder of the “admitted goods” of a political community, but it won’t serve as a replacement for the actual conduct of politics within that community.  If, over the course of time, the admitted goods change, then the constitution in the widest sense will change as well, whether there is any amendment to a written document or not. As Callahan notes, “a written constitution can offer, at best, a subsidiary support for the maintenance of some particular, desired manner of ordering a nation’s political life, the continuation of which depends primarily on the importance that citizenry assigns to preserving that form of government.”

We can see in Callahan’s account further reasons for the neglect of Oakeshott’s work by contemporary policy-mongers. Obviously, if Oakeshott is wrong about rationalism, then they are sensible to ignore him. But if he is right about the deficiencies of the ideological style, then they are unlikely even to understand him. The rationalist, when he fails, is like an American trying to speak to a foreigner who knows no English; the American thus continues by merely repeating himself in a much louder voice. If the rationalist’s project doesn’t work at first, his answer is to repeat it in a more expensive and expansive fashion.

Callahan offers an Oakeshottian explanation of the radical discontinuity between American constitutional fundamentalism and actual U.S. political practice.  His book goes beyond an examination of Oakeshott’s critique of rationalism and investigates the relevance of that critique for contemporary American politics.  He asks, first, “has the American political tradition been characterized by rationalistic discourse?” and second, “has the American constitution, which is an example of the rationalist disposition at work, been especially effective at limiting government?”

In answering these questions, Callahan undermines one of the central myths of American political culture (as well as movement conservatism): that the Founders created a nearly perfect Constitution which, if followed to the letter, would provide remedies to all of our political problems. The mythical element here is of a prelapsarian purity in which a flawless document appears like Athena emerging from the forehead of Zeus.  However, as the myth continues, a subsequent fall from grace and straying from the original constitution has led us into the sinful land of relativism and the “living Constitution.” We can only be rescued from the slough of despond by returning to the oracular pronouncements of the original document.

The question of the ideological or rationalistic character of the Founders is rather easily answered by briefly perusing the justifications advanced by those who rebelled against British rule and by their political descendants.  Here is just a brief sample. Alexander Hamilton claimed that “the sacred rights of mankind are not to be rummaged for among old parchments or musty records. They are written, as with a sunbeam, in the whole volume of human nature, by the Hand of Divinity itself, and can never be erased or obscured by mortal power.” (Does Hamilton believe that, in the entire history of mankind, he and his fellows are the first rational human beings?)  His colleague in the ratification debates, John Jay, argued that “the Americans are the first people whom Heaven has favored with an opportunity of deliberating upon, and choosing the forms of government under which they should live. All other constitutions have derived their existence from violence or accidental circumstances.” (Was Jay suggesting that the American Revolution was nonviolent?) And even that changeling John C. Calhoun pronounced that “we have a government of a new order, perfectly distinct from all which has ever preceded it. A government founded on the rights of man, resting not on authority, not on prejudice, not on superstition, but reason… . All civilized governments must in the course of time conform to its principles.” (This was before he discovered his real allegiance was with South Carolina.)

Examples could fill multiple volumes, but these should suffice to suggest that, at the very least, the tradition of American political rhetoric has been rationalist or ideological in the Oakeshottian sense from the beginning of the Republic. Oakeshott himself certainly thought so, and noted, “it was in a flight of fancy that the Federalist writer urged his contemporaries to bend themselves to the completion of their political task so that succeeding generations might be undistracted in their devotion to the arts of civilized living.” In other words, the Founders meant what they did, rather than merely what they said.

In suggesting that, Oakeshott neglected the exemplary rationalist of the early American Republic, but fortunately Callahan does not. Thomas Jefferson is exhibit A in Callahan’s case that, despite the rhetoric, American political practice has not really been so rationalistic after all because, as previously noted, rationalist human action is an impossibility. Jefferson, who claimed that each generation should wipe the slate clean and start again, and who also claimed an absolute allegiance to the letter of the Constitution, was notable throughout most of his presidency for disregarding it. Jefferson quite obviously ignored his own strictures on constitutional literalism when making the Louisiana Purchase and when engaged in his vengeful pursuit of Aaron Burr.  The former was the decision of a pragmatic and forward-looking politician, while the latter was a manifestation of Jefferson’s personal vindictiveness.  Further, the bombastic character of Jefferson’s public pronouncements on the natural equality and freedom of men rested quite uneasily with his rather traditional treatment of those men and women whom he owned. Jefferson as practical politician and traditionalist planter trumped Jefferson the ideologist every time.

Callahan offers many more examples of the discontinuity between American ideology and American practice, but he focuses on the rationalistic character of constitutionalism in contrast to the pragmatic character of American political life. He offers a conspicuous example in the election of 1800, which he describes as “a notable instance of the inability of rationalist planners to devise a scheme that could foresee the multitudinous contingencies thrown up by actual political practice.”  Despite the almost infinite wisdom of the writers of the Constitution, they somehow did not foresee the emergence of the single most important force in U.S. electoral history: political parties.  In the presidential election of 1800 there were significant problems with the balloting which should have voided Georgia’s ballot and thrown the election to the House of Representatives. But Jefferson (an interested party, perhaps) was the vice president and thus in charge of the decision, and predictably accepted the Georgia ballot. There was also no distinction made on the original Electoral College ballot between president and vice president, and there was no contingency described in the Constitution if the House could not come to a final decision.

Decisions were ultimately made, of course, and Jefferson took office, but none of it had anything to do with the original intent of the Founders. As Callahan soberly concludes, “the failure to follow the letter of the Constitution … is something that began almost as soon as the U.S. Constitution was adopted, and is not (primarily) a symptom of bad faith but, rather, an inevitable consequence of the fact that no such rationalist design can ever dictate subsequent practice in the way that it is meant to do.”

So what are the implications of Callahan’s assertions? I think there are two distinct sets of conclusions to take away from the book. First, the academic conclusion would be that a new approach to American political history and political thought is necessary. The first order of business will be to devise a more adequate periodization in which it is acknowledged that today’s U.S. constitutional arrangement has about as much to do with that of either 1785 or 1805 as the contemporary British constitutional arrangement has to do with its 18th-century “mixed constitution” ancestor. There have been at least four distinctive American republics, if not more, though, unlike the French, we don’t normally rip up our document and start over when we change constitutions.

Academic historians of American political thought should eschew hagiography and pay attention to what the participants actually say, why they say it, and how far what they say differs from the actual political and social reality of their time. Leave the hagiography to the journalists and focus on the historical meaning of various utterances and actions and the connection between such meanings and the self-conceptions (largely mythical) of Americans contemporary to the subjects of study.

Second, since the traditional discourse of American politics has been predominantly rationalist, there is little hope of an immediate cure. To paraphrase R.G. Collingwood, a person may think that he is a duck; that will not make him one, but it will affect his conduct, and for the worse. American politicians and those who serve them think that they’re ducks, and although they aren’t, they are likely to continue to quack ideologically. Thus it is doubtful that a non-ideological politics, which emphasizes both the limitations and the necessity of political activity—the need for real consensus, the need to address actual not “potential” problems, etc.—could succeed in the United States.

To look to Oakeshott’s work for a practical solution, however, is a mistake since he has no doctrine to sell in the market of ideologies, given that his alternative to rationalistic politics is a traditionalist pursuit of intimations. Indeed, as Oakeshott observed, “it is always depressing for a patient to be told that his disease is almost as old as himself and that consequently there is no quick cure for it, but… this is usually the case.”

Kenneth B. McIntyre is the author of Herbert Butterfield: History, Providence, and Skeptical Politics.




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