Oakeshott’s daft ranting masks sheer untruths

I’m always amused, when picking up Oakeshott, by the unapologetic bitch about rationalist thinkers which he indulges in for the first few (i.e. about 20!) pages of Rationalism in Politics. It truly strikes as a frustrated man letting off some steam. The problem with it is that some of it is patently untrue, and the fast pace of Oakeshott’s articulate rant masks this at first glance. I want to take one example;

If the rational solution for one of the problems of a society has been determined, to permit any relevant part of the society to escape from the solution is, ex hypothesi, to countenance irrationality. There can be no place for preferences that is [sic] not rational preference…

This is simply not true. If all a thinker holds is that rational thought is useful – valid – such that an omniscient thinker could rationalise a perfect answer, and does not assume their own infallibility in the arrogant manner which Oakeshott casually insists (with no substantiation) characterises all rationalists, then they could state that they have rationalised a position, that this position is open to criticism from other rational positions, but still hold without contradiction that this method has more validity than irrational ones.

Given that I’m spending the next few days reading Oakeshott, and he fills me with anger, this post could well be the first of a few…


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About Jon Robinson

Lefty ex-politics student turned med student, interested in current affairs, economics, gender politics and health issues. Occasionally pretends to understand philosophy. @jon__robinson

2 responses to “Oakeshott’s daft ranting masks sheer untruths”

  1. jacobwilliamson says :

    I’ll be tackling this beast over the summer. Too many people I respect hold him in high regard for me to ignore him. Got Rationalism out yesterday, actually!

    • Jon Robinson says :

      To his credit, he offers the most intelligent defence I’ve ever come across of a very widely held position. To his discredit, he’s a plank.

      For example, to justify the claim that the natural sciences are dependent on irrational, traditional methods, he cites the following (and nothing else);
      “Polya, for example… suggests that the root conditions of success in scientific research are, first, ‘to have brains and good luck’, and secondly, ‘to sit tight and wait till you get a bright idea’, neither of which are technical rules.”
      – THAT is your foundation for your argument that science cannot proceed in an entirely rational manner?! Quoting some quipping jester? I swear he’s a troll.

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