The Magazine

The Right Stuff

Michael Oakeshott and the 'disposition' to conservatism.

Apr 21, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 30 • By BARTON SWAIM
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Lectures in the History of Political Thought

Selected Writings of Michael Oakeshott, Vol. II

Edited by Terry Nardin and Luke O'Sullivan

Imprint Academic, 516 pp., $58

Michael Oakeshott on Religion, Aesthetics, and Politics

by Elizabeth Campbell Corey

Missouri, 253 pp., $39.95

"To be conservative," wrote Michael Oakeshott in 1956, "is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss."

These words first appeared in "On Being Conservative," later collected in Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays (1962). Thus did Oakeshott reject the notion that conservatism could be defined by reference to a coherent set of ideas or precepts; conservatism was, for him, a "disposition" to prefer and enjoy what one has rather than risk it for the possibility of something better.

Oakeshott's conservatism stands against what he took to be the principal fallacy of modern political thinking, Rationalism. What defines the Rationalist is his un-shakeable belief that social and political ills require only the application of human reason for their elimination. The Rationalist believes political governance must be based entirely on theoretical or technical knowledge--arguments, facts and figures, ideas--and he has no regard for practical knowledge, the kind of knowledge one acquires over time by being constantly engaged in an activity.

Practical knowledge can't be taught or written down, and so the Rationalist disregards it. If he applied his view of politics to cookery, says Oakeshott, the Rationalist would have to believe that great cooks are those who know and understand cookbooks. But trenchant though Oakeshott's analysis is, it leaves sympathetic readers wondering uncomfortably whether it's pointless after all to resist the encroachments of modern ideologies. Modern liberalism can't be fought with appeals to practical knowledge.

Thus, in 1975, Gertrude Himmelfarb published a mostly admiring essay on Oakeshott in which she objected to his conviction that conservatism has little to do with ideas and principles: However appealing his notion of a "conservative disposition" may be, a "disposition" is no match for the radical creeds seeking to remake society from top to bottom. What is disturbing about Oakeshott's critique of Rationalism, said Himmelfarb, "is his tendency to equate ideology with ideas, to be equally suspicious of both, to be impatient with the rigorous exercise of the mind." Oakeshott, she concluded,

is right to criticize the Rationalists for subverting all habits, the good together with the bad. But so long as he provides us with no means for distinguishing between good and bad, let alone for cultivating a disposition to do good rather than bad, we are obliged to look elsewhere for guidance--to invoke mind, principle, belief, religion, or whatever else may be required to sustain

It's hard to disagree with that criticism. Yet somehow I feel it fails to do justice to Oakeshott's enduringly relevant appraisal of modern politics.

So in a reprinted version of the essay in Gertrude Himmelfarb's recent collection The Moral Imagination (2006), the final, critical section has been completely rewritten. "Oakeshott's conservatism," she says after 30 years, "still speaks to us today not as a practical philosophy .  .  . but as a disposition that reminds us of more tranquil times, and which may still serve as a corrective to the more rigorous and strenuous modes of thought and conduct called for in a world that is anything but tranquil."

This revision comes nearer the truth, I think. Oakeshott was under no illusion that Rationalism could be resisted by means of a disposition to conserve; he was always amused when people wanted to know what could be "done" about Rationalism. Its roots stretch far too deeply into the history of Western civilization to "do" anything about it. His writings shouldn't be thought of primarily as a set of arguments and ideas, though they contain plenty of both. What Oakeshott offers is the dissection of a mindset--ours.