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 poetic support to a system of arguments developed systematically and in detail elsewhere. And as with Plato, the compulsion of the image can easily distract us from the arguments it is used to reinforce; so that the safest approach, having once responded to the image, is to put it out of our minds so far as we are able and to examine the arguments themselves by methods appropriate to the examination of arguments. How poetry relates to philosophy is itself a question raised by Oakeshott’s discussion; but short of a definite answer the two things are best kept as distinct as possible.

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.

Technical knowledge can be learned from a book; it can be learned in a correspondence course. Moreover, much of it can be learned by heart, repeated by rote, and applied mechanically: the logic of the syllogism is a technique of this kind. Technical knowledge, in short, can be both taught and learned in the simplest meanings of these words. On the other hand, practical knowledge can neither be taught nor learned, but only imparted and acquired. It exists only in practice, and the only way to acquire it is by apprenticeship to a master—not because the master can teach it (he cannot), but because it can be acquired only by continuous contact with one who is perpetually practising it.

Rationalism, Oakeshott says, is the attempt to deny the existence of this second kind of knowledge. It is: