The Freeman is a magazine published by the Foundation for Economic Education, a non-profit organization founded by Leonard Read in 1946. I’ve attended lectures at the Foundation’s mansion in Irvington-on-Hudson, NY since 2002. Lately, however, I have been a little bit disappointed with some of the things I’ve been reading in the Freeman. I’m not sure if it’s just signs that I’m outgrowing FEE or if it’s something else. One of the recent articles that I happened to come across is an article by Gene Callahan in which he introduces us to Michael Oakeshott (Michael Oakeshott on Rationalism in Politics, Jan/Feb 2009), a philosopher who, I must confess, I had never heard of.
Apparently, Oakeshott’s best-recognized work is his essay “Rationalism in Politics” which Callahan feels is not “appreciated widely enough.” Callahan explains that according to Oakeshott’s views, the philosophy of “rationalism” ought not be used in politics. To him, the “primary feature of the rationalist approach is the belief that the essentials of any human practice can be conveyed adequately by means of a ‘guidebook’ comprising explicitly stated rules, formalized technical procedures, and general abstract principles.” Oakeshott instead believes, according to Callahan, that the “rationalist, in awarding theory primacy over practice, has gotten things exactly backwards: The theoretical understanding of some activity is always the child of practical know-how and never it’s parent.”
Now, by the time I reached that statement in the article, I was already pretty confused. But, I really could not imagine how anyone could believe that practice precedes theory. Honestly, that makes no sense at all to me. What exactly qualifies as a “theory” to Oakeshott? What qualifies as “practice”? To my mind, practice is defined by theory. After all, what exactly are you “practicing”? I can’t think of a single human endeavor that doesn’t require abstract thought on at least some level in advance. What could Oakeshott possibly mean?
I don’t like to think that people are purposefully obfuscating. I know it happens. But people also make honest mistakes. Therefore, I’ve made some effort to try to see how someone could think that practice precedes theory. Perhaps what Oakeshott means is that humans must have some sort of experience before they can develop a theory or be in a position to reason, i.e., no idea is truly a priori, that is without some reference to sensory experience. Still, to simply experience something is not the same as practicing something. If I burn my hand on a hot stove, I haven’t practiced anything yet. Almost immediately, however, I will develop a theory of hot stoves and I will begin practicing that, namely, I will use that theory to avoid burning myself again.
It occurred to me that some people might be confused by the fact that as children we are often taught things without knowing where they came from – hence we learn from practice – and only at some later date do we work backwards to reveal the theory behind our actions. It’s important to realize, however, that our practice ultimately develops from someone else’s theory. Sometimes, we ourselves have done the theorizing, we just don’t remember that we’ve done it. Thanks to our big brains, this sometimes happens faster than we can realize – for example, we often pick up concepts sub-consciously. Think of many of the words you use on a daily basis. You know what they mean, but could you define them? One of my favorites is the word “game”. Everyone knows what qualifies and what doesn’t, but a definition usually requires running through examples in order to pinpoint the essentials. In this case, it might seem like you are working backwards to discover the “theory” behind the word, but you already did the work, you just don’t remember doing it.
Another issue that might confuse people with regard to this idea is that evolution has endowed human beings with emotions which often seem to follow no theory. But in fact even emotions develop from a theory. They just eventually become so automated that we don’t remember how or why we have them. Emotions are in fact very raw versions of normative sciences. For example, vengeance is the emotional raw form of the normative science of law and compassion is a raw form of the normative science of ethics. Our understanding of these subjects occurs at such lightning speed that we don’t realize that the theory was ever there. But we ignore the fact that there is a theory at our own peril. Our so called “intuitive” theories – i.e., emotions, can sometimes be in contradiction with one another – if we don’t fix that we end up acting on our emotions to our own detriment.
It’s important to realize that theories exist on all levels of abstraction and like every other human endeavor, they are subject to human failings. What Oakeshott doesn’t realize is that his own position on practice preceding theory is in fact a theory. There is only one way a person gets away with not using a theory – and that brings me to Oakeshott’s view of practice.
Oakeshott asserts that “rationalists” believe that the “essentials of any human practice can be conveyed adequately by means of a ‘guidebook’ comprising explicitly stated rules, formalized technical procedures, and general abstract principles.” These don’t sound like very rational rationalists. They seem more like pragmatists to me. To my mind, a “guidebook” or list of explicit rules, or “formalized technical procedures” do not a theory make. These are, in fact, attempts to put a theory into practice. Theories, especially the normative kind (which is the kind that a political theory would be) are not really reducible to a list of rules because the context under which they are to be applied is constantly changing. We do it anyway, but only because there are many people who either can not or will not theorize and in order to help them practice the theory, we need rules. Hence, the normative science of law is put into practice as a list of legislated or concrete rules. The normative science of ethics is boiled down to ten commandments, and so on. But, do not mistake these “rules” for theory. They are practice pure and simple. And, as far as “abstract principles” go, these are but the starting point of a theory. In fact, there’s much more to it and that brings me to Oakeshott’s next issue.
According to Callahan, Oakeshott once criticized F.A. Hayek because he felt his ideas represented a “rationalist system” in their own right and, in Oakeshott’s words, “this is, perhaps, the main significance of Hayek’s Road to Serfdom – not the cogency of his doctrine, but the fact that it is a doctrine. A plan to resist all planning may be better than it’s opposite, but it belongs to the same style of politics.” In fact, as I understand it, Hayek points out that central planners lack information regarding “time and place.” Theories, being abstractions that are supposed to apply to all contexts, come necessarily with variables. A theory can be thought of as a kind of equation if you will, with variables (Hayek’s “time and place”) that need to be supplied in order for the equation to be useful at all. Hayek is essentially saying that central planners lack context and with that he hits the nail right on the head. This is exactly what they lack.
If central planners were indeed attempting to implement a “theory” they would quickly realize that they were lacking context. That this never occurs to them is a clue that they are NOT operating theoretically. Central planners are in fact hopelessly lost in practice, the very place Oakeshott thinks they ought to be!
That of course brings me to the REAL abstract principles that a free society is based upon. The theory upon which a free society is supposed to be based is known as “Natural Law.” You know, all those deducible principles like the one about men having property in themselves (a right to life) and all that logically follows from that? Central planners forget all that stuff, yet this is the theory upon which a proper government is based. It is also the theory that libertarian readers of the Freeman should recognize. Why then are they being asked to throw all that away and contemplate the pragmatism of Oakeshott? I think that’s a really good question.