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44 of 55 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fine collection, headed by a fine essay., May 4, 2000
This review is from: Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays (Hardcover)
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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