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on February 8, 2005
Originally written in 1947, this is still the most powerful and elegantly written and reasoned critique of modern political thought.

Oakeshott has long been well known in the UK (Andrew Sullivan did his Doctoral dissertation on Oakeshott), but his particularly British way of writing some Americans find difficult. Perhaps that accounts for his lack of popularity here, but I suspect something deeper.

In the title essay of this collection, Oakeshott builds a devastating critique of reason as an instructive mode of knowledge for governing political behavior. The argument he constructs equally calls into question the validity of the concept, indeed the very existence, of the particularly optimistic and American belief in progress. This is probably hard for us Yanks to stomach as we've been raised on a diet rich in unlimited optimism.

Recently, an essay was published in a UK newspaper which stated that Oakeshott's popularity was increasing in the academy and compared his rising intellectual reputation with Isaiah Berlin's diminishing one. While this may not be fair to Berlin (you decide), it certainly is overdue in regard to Oakeshott. He's influenced generations of opinion makers on both sides of the Atlantic.

"Rationalism in Politics" is a must read for anyone who wants to understand the limits of human knowledge but doesn't have the time and wherewithall to read Kant and Hume.
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on January 26, 2004
It's always interesting how different readers can react so differently to the same book. Unlike some of the reviewers below, I found Rationalism in Politics to be gracefully written and vastly more learned and interesting than most political philosophy these days. It's a great book for a rainy afternoon, with essays that can be read (and reread) in any order, illuminating every subject they touch on, whether Hobbes, or poetry, or historiography. Oakeshott was pigeon-holed as a "conservative" during his life but his thought is too wide-ranging and nuanced to be shoved into simple categories. He was not as profound or influential as Isaiah Berlin, another great philosophical essayist -- but anyone who likes philosophical and political essays will enjoy and learn from this book.
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on October 1, 1998
michael oakeshott was a giant of 20th century british political philosophy, and this collection of essays is the best place for a reader interested in oakeshott to start. part of what's great about oakeshott is that he defies categorization yet makes his own kind of sense. he's conservative but not in any way that'll remind you of dumb american conservatism, he's libertarian in a way that won't remind you of wired magazine, he's liberal but mostly in the sense of being open-minded and cultured. some of the essays get pretty technical, and only specialists are likely to get through them. but a half-dozen you may find eye-opening. try the title essay, "rationalism in politics" -- it's a great study of the liberal/socialist character and mind. (ever wonder why so many political "liberals" turn out to be so darned unliberal as people? oakeshott has some insights.) and his "why i am a conservative" essay (that's not the exact title, but close enough)will have even liberals thinking, well, i guess in some respects i'm pretty conservative, and maybe that's ok. fans of hayek and sowell are likely to cotton to oakeshott. a bonus is that this liberty fund edition is very well made and well printed, and the price is great.
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on May 4, 2000
This handsomely-bound expanded Liberty Fund edition of Michael Oakeshott's essays features some material not included in the earlier edition (notably, but not only, Oakeshott's introduction to Hobbes's _Leviathan_). But the greatest treat is still the title essay.
In "Rationalism in Politics," Oakeshott sets out to dissect the sort of modern "rationalism" that reduces reason to explicit technical knowledge and has no place for the sort of "traditional" knowledge we soak up through imitation. (Readers of F.A. Hayek will find a parallel here, though not an exact one, with Hayek's own view of implicit knowledge and its role in market processes.) His deft characterizations of such "rationalism" will no doubt remind many readers of many leading lights of the political left, but they also remind me -- perhaps surprisingly -- of someone else.
I have a friend who insists, with much justice, that Ayn Rand was essentially a "leftist" despite her defense of views that have generally belonged to the political right. In support of his claim, he cites a number of well-known features of Rand's thought, including (of relevance here) her utter rejection of tradition and religion, her deep distrust of "implicit" reasoning, and her almost messianic plans to "remake" the world in accordance with her own explicit conceptual scheme while riding roughshod over basic human realities that might interfere. (For more on this general topic, see Paul Johnson's _Intellectuals_. Though unfortunately he does not take Rand as one of his targets, his remarks on what happens when such "intellectuals" put their ideas into practice could practically have been written about the "Objectivist" movement.)
This thesis gains a great deal of plausibility from a reading of Oakeshott. Rand's hideously inadequate understanding of "reason" is remarkably consonant with the variety of "rationalism" which he skewers here, and which she more or less enshrined in her own feeble attempts at epistemology.
And as her journals and letters show, she deliberately pitched her philosophy of "Objectivism" toward left-liberals, presenting it as a non-Statist replacement for traditionalism and conservatism while basing it on essentially the same "radical" empiricist-nominalist-materialist-secularist worldview (up to and including a remarkably similar view of "reason") as Marx and Lenin. (Readers will find further discussion of this last point in John Robbins's imperfect but helpful _Without A Prayer: Ayn Rand and the Close of Her System_.)
Now, I certainly don't mean to suggest that the _only_ reason for reading Oakeshott is to disabuse oneself of Rand-worship! Far from it; all of Oakeshott's immensely learned essays sparkle with insights that will be of interest to political thinkers of all stripes. But I do think he will be of special interest to the growing number of conservative libertarians who wish to recover classical liberalism from the spell of one of its most dangerously bewitching "defenders."
The enemies of liberty on the political left are fairly obvious, and most classical liberals are unlikely to be taken in by them. The greater hazard is posed by those "friends" who borrow more or less classical-liberal _conclusions_ and try to place them on a foundation which will not hold them, indeed which leads to their very opposite if (unlike Rand) one starts from the allegedly foundational premises and works forward.
I also don't mean to imply my own complete agreement with Oakeshott. But those who wish to exorcise Rand's demonic influence from the politics of classical liberalism will have a hard time finding a more powerful antidote than the opening essay in this volume.
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on June 4, 2015
Classic great book
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Before this book, I'd only heard of Michael Oakeshott through name-dropping from conservative friends. No one but that small conservative circle ever mentioned him and after reading this, I can and can not see why.
As noted below, this is an expanded collection of essays ranging from Oakeshott's views of political rationalism's follies to exegesis of Hobbes. The common thread of all of these essays is Oakeshotts distaste for the rationalistic tendency of, not faith in reason, but overconfidence in it. Reason, Oakeshott reasons (ha-ha)is an instrument. Life is a collection of emotions, faiths, conquests, mistakes, and a vast array of experiences that may or may not have to do with reason at all. Thus, the mistake made in political thought is its overreliance on utopian, "I know better than you" reason. Oakeshott, with this as a springboard, makes his case for a conservative libertarianism.
Oakeshott hints that this rationalism is all the most relevant on the 'left'. I'm not sure this is quite accurate, after all, how could we explain John Dewey, Herbert Marcuse and Richard Rorty, but as I said, Oakeshott only hints. Scott Ryan brilliantly points out that someone like Ayn Rand and I'd suggest, Plato, give the 'right' a tainted legacy of rationalism as well. The problem with Oakeshotts essays in the section on rationalism in politics is that after he expounds his view that with rationalisms inadequacies, political philosophy becomes muddy, he spends 300 more pages on political philosophy. It's like a bad joke!!
What this book is good for is section 3 (on Hobbes) and section 4 (on conservatism and politics). As Oakeshott is more conservative that liberarian, this book is a great exposition of why conservatives (or those true to the label) are how they are preferring big government where social tradition is concerned but small government in economics. Why does conservatism put such high value on tradition? Why does it see welfare centralization with skepticism? Why the religious tendencies? All of these are, advertently or not, elucidated in section 3 and 4.
Beware, Oakeshott has a tendency to be wordy - not in the sense of content, but in the, "If I can say it effectively in 100 words, I'll tack on an extra 300 for kicks," kind of way. About the physical book; as noted below, "The Liberty Fund" makes a habit out of publishing inexpensive, impressively beautiful books. The print and binding quality are phenomenal and if this is available in "Liberty Fund" hardcover, spend the extra money - it's worth it!
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on July 19, 2014
only read the parts I was interested in ....didn't need the biographical info on Hobbes
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