Saturday, May 12, 2012

Book Learning - Oakeshott (and Andrew Sullivan) in Tyranny of Cliches

“The young architects and artists who came to the Bauhaus to live and study and learn from the Silver Prince [Walter Gropius] talked about ‘starting from zero.’  One heard the phrase all the time: ‘starting from zero.’’ -Tom Wolfe, From Bauhaus to Our House

“The Declaration [of Independence] in both form and substance, has the virtues (and great virtues they are) of simplicity, clarity, logical order: the thought no less than the style is characterized by a ‘peculiar felicity.’  But the Declaration in both substance and form has perhaps a little too much felicity—that is its essential defect; and if the style is always a bit fragile, and sometimes in danger of becoming precious, is it not because the thought is a bit fragile also, too easily satisfied with what is open and visible, and therefore lacking in depth and subtlety, ignoring all that must be ignored if the life of man is to be understood and described , even with the felicity of genius, at the level of common sense?” -Carl Becker, The Declaration of Independence

In his new book, The Tyranny of Cliches, Jonah Goldberg in discussing ideology and book learning brings up Andrew Sullivan quoting with approval from Michael Oakeshott’s Rationalism in Politics the following:

Duke Huan of Ch’i was reading a book at the upper end of the hall; the wheelwright was making a wheel at the lower end.  Putting aside his mallet and chisel; he called to the Duke and asked him what book he was reading.  ‘One that records the words of the Sages,’ answered the Duke.  ‘Are those Sages alive?’ asked the wheelwright.  ‘Oh no,’ said the Duke, ‘they are dead.’  In that case, said the wheelwright, ‘what you are reading can be nothing but the lees and scum of bygone men.’…’Speaking as wheelwright I look at the matter this way; when I make a wheel, if my stroke is too slow, then it bites deep but is not steady; if my stroke is too fast, then it is steady, but it does not go deep.  The right pace, neither slow nor fast, cannot get into the hand unless it comes from the heart.  It is a thing that cannot be put into words; there is an art in it that I cannot explain to my son….In my opinion it must have been the same with the men of old.  All that was worth handing on, died with them; the rest they put into books.’”

Goldberg notes the absurdity of blogger Sullivan in a book, taking a quote from a book, recounting a tale from a book/scroll that opines that books are worthless.  Goldberg’s target here is Andrew Sullivan, and he does make a slight distinction between Sullivan and Oakeshott, but a reader might be excused for asking of Oakeshott as much as Sullivan, what in the wide wide world of sports is a goin’ on here?

The first thing I would note is that the above quote appears as a footnote rather than in the body of Oakeshott’s essay, and I read it as vivid myth rather than literally.  It is intended as an exaggerated example of the essay’s thesis and the obvious question is, what is that thesis.

The quote appears in the title essay of the book in which Oakeshott argues that rationalism has become the dominant  intellectual fashion in politics and that this is regrettable.  For Oakeshott the rationalist is: “for independence of mind on all occasions, for thought free from obligation to any authority save the authority of ‘reason.’  His circumstances in the modern world have made him contentious: he is the enemy of authority, of prejudice, of the merely traditional, customary or habitual…he has no aptitude for that close and detailed appreciation of what actually presents itself, what Lichtenberg called negative enthusiasm, but only the power of recognizing the large outline which a general theory imposes on events.  Already we are some way to understanding the context not only of the quote but also how Oakeshott defined ideology (a normative understanding of politics achieved through ‘reason’ which because distilled is necessarily abstract) and why he objected to it.

For the Rationalist, political conduct takes on the character of engineering.  It is the application of a technique to solve a series of problems (the alleged pragmatism and emphasis on what works that Goldberg discusses is clearly evident here).  And what supports rationalism is a theory of knowledge.

Oakeshott contends that any activity requiring skill of any sort involves knowledge of two types.  The first is technical knowledge, and a characteristic of technical knowledge is that it can be precisely formulated and thus can be transmitted through books.  The second is practical knowledge, which exists only in use.  In a practical art, such as cookery, nobody supposes that the knowledge that belongs to the good cook is confined to what is or may be written down in the cookery book: technique and what I have called practical knowledge combine to make skill in cookery wherever it exists…And what is true of cookery, of painting, of natural science and religion, is no less true in politics: the knowledge involved in political activity is both technical and practical.”  Oakeshott goes on to state that “there is no knowledge which is notknow how.’  And he then argues that to the Rationalist all knowledge is technical knowledge.  The sovereignty of ‘reason’ for the Rationalist, means the sovereignty of technique.”

To Oakeshott, the Rationalist views all knowledge as technical, “which can be wholly contained between the covers of a book”…and “the superiority of an ideology over a tradition of thought lies in its appearance of being self-contained.”  As example of this cast of mind besides Descartes, Oakeshott points to Bacon (hmmmm bacon!) and the Novum Organum: “’there remains,’ says Bacon, ‘but one course for the recovery of a sound and healthy condition—namely that the entire work of understanding be commenced afresh, and the mind itself be from the very outset not left to take its own course but guided at every step.’”

There is another footnote in the same essay which is less dramatic than the tale of the wheelwright but more closely aligned with the argument of the essay:

The authors of one such book, A Guide to the Classics, or How to Pick the Derby Winner, aware of the difference between technical and practical knowledge were at pains to point out that there was some limit beyond which there were no precise rules for picking the winner, and that some intelligence (not supplied by the rules themselves) was necessary.”

In its context then, it seems clear that Oakeshott’s apparent contradictory skepticism towards book knowledge is nothing of the sort.  As to Sullivan, I think a stronger argument is that for all his claims of being a follower of Oakeshott, none of it seems to have made a true impression on his mind.  Sullivan broke with conservatives over gay marriage.  Having put the issue of gay marriage before his reason, he seems to have concluded that for conservatives to oppose it they must be bigots, theocrats, or both, never mind the hundreds of years tradition of defining marriage as exclusively between a man and a woman.  And for Sullivan there was no waiting, no getting there by degrees, it should be instituted at once.  But then as Oakeshott observed, a characteristic of the Rationalist is to see “politics as the crow flies.” And one more thing, one of the authors of that book on picking derby winners, a philosophy professor, last name Oakeshott.

Tyranny of Cliches :