For sheer literary dexterity and the apt Latin catchphrase Professor Oakeshott’s Rationalism in Politicsfootnote＊ is the most civilised book I have read for a long time. But it is also a serious attempt to defend the deeper values of civilisation itself against reforming theorists and politicians with no real appreciation of what it is they are trying to reform. “Rationalism”, which the book is devoted to pillorying, covers virtually any philosophy which would set up independently premeditated goals and ideals for an individual or society and pursue these in opposition to a traditional and unreflective mode of behaviour. Oakeshott ranges in his argument from pure conservative ties and prejudices, including a general dislike of the illiterate and the half-baked and of most kinds of change and disturbance, to a priori discussions of the nature of history, poetry, education and political science; and although he denies that he is offering a conservative “philosophy”—itself perhaps “rationalism” by his generous definition—he brings all these things together into recognisably the same framework, and much of the interest and importance of his book must lie in the impression it gives of being a genuinely philosophical defence of traditional ways of life.
In a now famous paragraph, which will bear quoting yet once again, Oakeshott gives his central image of the human condition:
In political activity, then, men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting-place nor appointed destination. The enterprise is to keep afloat on an even keel; the sea is both friend and enemy; and the seamanship consists in using the resources of a traditional manner of behaviour in order to make a friend of every hostile occasion.
This passage comes in the essay on “Political Education”, but its relevance is not to that topic (in any narrow sense) alone. The image of the boundless and bottomless sea dominates Oakeshott’s philosophy in the same way that the allegory of the cave dominates Plato’s Republic, summing up an entire conception of life and giving
Oakeshott’s logical starting-place is the concept of “Rationalism”. In any art or human activity, he suggests, two kinds of knowledge are always involved: “technical” knowledge and “practical” knowledge. Technical knowledge is knowledge that can be formulated into rules: the technique of driving a car is to be found in driving manuals and the Highway Code, the technique of cookery is in cookery books, and the technique of scientific discovery in the appropriate rules of research, observation and verification. Practical knowledge is “knowing how”, and without it all rules and technical knowledge remain dead and meaningless: practical knowledge is the ability to interpret these in use, and it is what we mean when we speak of skill or craft or connoisseurship in any activity. It would not be misleading, Oakeshott says, to speak of this latter kind as “traditional” knowledge.