Thursday, January 29, 2009

Michael Oakeshott, RIP

Not "rest in peace," but "rationalism in politics." My new article on Oakeshott is up at the website of The Freeman


  1. Good article. I'm glad I stopped by to read it.

  2. Nice piece. I note you do end up identifying certain general principles for the sake of specifying what exactly was wrong with the urban planners' designs though (principles such as there being a mix of businesses and residences in the same area). Now, I'd guess you would wish to deny classifying these principles as ones of good urban 'design', since your Oakeshottian point (I think) was that the very attempt at conscious design was itself a rationalist fallacy. Tweak the example, though, and I think this denial becomes difficult: specifically, change it from your American case, where there was a functioning urban life that the planners had to have destroyed, to the case of (say) Coventry or any other bombed out European city after WW2. With the latter, the postwar planners did to a large degree actually have a blank canvas to work upon, the old 'evolved' situation having been forcefully destroyed by others before they set to work. If one were to have criticised them at the time, then, the fact that they were applying an abstract design couldn't in itself have been one's criticism, since *some* sort of plan needed to be enacted (or were people to live in genine slums waiting for the place to gradually 'evolve' once more?) The focus of any criticism of the designs they came up with, then, would have had to have been those designs in themselves, to be countered with alternative designs based around alternative principles - principles such as those your article identified.

  3. Yes, I'd guess what you'd have to do was see what evolved cities look like and do your best to duplicate one -- or, you could just rebuild the old Coventry!

  4. But you get my point right? The principles you identified are ones that *could* be applied practically given how you stated them (they were *positive* principles after all), which contradicts the 'strong' reading of Oakeshott's critique, the one found in the Hayek line. So, instead of the postwar planners' 'rationalist' error being their seeking to apply abstract principles as such, it was their seeking to apply the 'wrong' abstract principles - or so the course of your article seems to allow, notwithstanding how you set it up.

  5. There's a good quote in one of Oakeshott's letters to Popper as to how he certainly doesn't want to deny reason a place in practice.

    So, people can look at existing practice and draw some useful rules of thumb from it, that can then aid practice -- sure! Oakeshott never denies that. What they can't do is start from first principles and design a practice from scratch.

  6. I'm not sure the distinction between 'useful rules of thumbs' and 'first principles' is particularly helpful here - at least, both your own principles of good urban design and the postwar planners' seem on the same level to me, all somewhere in between 'rules of thumb' and 'first principles' - so on the planner's side, the principle of having parks is hardly a 'first' principle. As for your's, what sorts of circumstance would justify ignoring the usefulness of mixing residential and business areas, or the ability of parents with very young children to be able to see where they are playing when at home? The less the range of things that would trump your principles here, the more the latter will edge towards having a status of first principles and the less they will have of mere rules of thumb.

    A dilemma you have, I think, is that the more you allow your principles to really be just rules of thumb (and so, accepting of many ad hoc exceptions), the less you can say the postwar planners were silly or misguided in ignoring them - at best, you would have to appeal to a lot more empirical data than you did in the article. While reasons of space (and producing a readable article!) naturally prevented this, as it is, you rhetorically imply your principles are ones reason would quickly intuit once the reasoner has uncluttered his mind of extraneous things (here, the alleged follies of 'rationalism') - a something ironic state of affairs, no?

  7. I don't agree -- they are principles whose use cannot be deduced, but which are abstracted from good practice. That's why I pointed out that Jacobs drew her guidelines from carefully watching a flourishing urban neighborhood, and not by deducing them from first principles. (Of course, the urban designers didn't either -- but they THOUGHT they were doing so!)

  8. 'That's why I pointed out that Jacobs drew her guidelines from carefully watching a flourishing urban neighborhood, and not by deducing them from first principles.'

    The crux is this: in sticking to your position that the planners' preferred principles and your own are different in kind, you are claiming that the planners would have been terribly affronted if it were put to them that (for instance) the principle of having nice big parks is hardly one of pure reason, and that more generally, they were working by analogy from their own (positive) experiences of living in the residential areas of their own social class. Well, to me, the idea that they would indeed have been affronted at these thoughts is one that affronts my own sense that a little charity is always needed when interpreting the practical reasoning of another; whether you are right or wrong, though, is of course an empirical matter.

    'they are principles whose use cannot be deduced, but which are abstracted from good practice'

    I think the bit before the 'but' and the bit after it are completely separate matters, concerning how one applies general principles vs. how one comes to them in the first place.

    So, I agree with you that if someone thinks they came to the practical principles they are presently applying by having deduced them from pure reason, they don't know their own mind. However, if you wish to go further and deny the application itself is 'deductive', I think I'll leave you.

    For, if a certain principle can be actively applied (and I think we've established that your urban design ones can be, given a Coventry-type situation), then it will feature as the means to a certain end - here, the end of good urban living - that enters into a practical inference; and some would argue (and I am personally sympathetic to this view) that practical inferences are inherently deductive in nature. (For example, Alan Donagan did, both as an interpretation of Collingwood and as a theory of rational explanation in his own name.) Looks like we'll just have to agree to disagree I think...