OK, So What Have I Been Up to These Last Four Years?

Well, by the end of this week I will be handing in the penultimate draft of my PhD dissertation to my advisor (penultimate in that I will revise it according to his comments before it is submitted to my examination committee). In keeping with his dictum to 'write the introduction last,' I have just completed my introductory synopsis of my work tonight. So, what the heck, let me put this synopsis out here -- I'm not sure what you can make of it, but a lot of my readers are very bright people, and might have something worthwhile to say about whether or not this summary conveys to the reader an initial sense of what the work is about. Comment away!


Chapter I explores Oakeshott’s concept of rationalism, and specifically rationalism in politics, in more depth. In particular, we will trace, in a way that I am not aware of having been done previously, how we can see the idea of rationalism forms a continuous thread running from his earliest book to his latest writings, and show how the idea of the rationalist conceit, while always present in his work, was developed and refined as Oakeshott’s thought matured.

In Chapter II, we will survey a number of criticisms of Oakeshott’s thesis on rationalism, with special emphasis as to how those various critiques present us with questions upon which our later historical analysis may shed some light.

Chapter III was motivated by two different, but interrelated, issues. The first of these is that, in presenting earlier versions of various parts of the present work at conferences, a number of commentators questioned whether Oakeshott’s ideas on rationalism are of contemporary relevance. These commentators’ scepticism about this matter generally was phrased along the following line: ‘True’, they would say, ‘this whole rationalism business was a major issue at the time Oakeshott was writing his chief essays on the topic, in the 1940s and 1950s, in the era of Hitler, Stalin, and Mao. But surely today, the whole notion of designing a society from the top down has been discredited to the extent that this is no longer really a live issue, is it?’ So, one impetus behind the inclusion of this chapter is to show that, while rationalism in politics has been taught some modesty by the events of the last few decades, it is far from moribund. The second motive is that it became apparent to the author, while dealing with the historical material offered by the Roman and the American Republics, that a crucial differentia between their approaches to politics, and one of which the American founders were keenly aware, has to do with how efficacious it is to plan out the basic form of a polity in advance—in other words, is there some distinct advantage a polity can gain by declaring the principles upon which it is to operate in written form, and, further, elevating that written statement of those principles to some plane seen as resting above the tumult of day-to-day politics? Because the American founders saw doing so as a prophylactic against the fate that befell the Roman Republic, and because their view is still prevalent in both contemporary political theory and practice (as evidenced by the case of Iraq with which we opened this work), this chapter is somewhat of a lynchpin tying together the previous, more theoretical chapters with the subsequent, more empirical ones.

Chapter IV is chiefly concerned with how justified Oakeshott was in his forwarding of the Roman Republic as an exemplar of the pragmatic style of politics that he opposed to rationalism. It is a fairly short chapter, chiefly because the consensus of historians of the period so overwhelmingly supports Oakeshott’s view. It would be quite possible to continue piling up witness after witness making Oakeshott’s case, but as this work already is hard up against the length limits of what its readers can be expected to endure, I have deemed the material assembled sufficient to the cause at hand.

Chapter V takes up the more controversial topic of the cause of the Roman Republic’s demise and whether or not additional dollops of rationalist design might, as the American founders suspected they might, have buttressed the Republic against the historical forces that were acting towards its dissolution. Here it is important to assert my modesty in examining this material, since several commentators on presentations of this chapter wondered just how it was that the author, who is far from being a professional historian specializing in this period, could be so immodest as to put forward his own explanation of the Republic’s downfall? My response is to protest that my work here has no pretension of historical originality whatsoever; the only claim to originality present, the warrant of which I leave it to my critics to judge, lies in employing the findings of the historians deemed most authoritative on this era as evidence weighing for or against Oakeshott’s thesis on rationalism, as well as for or against the American founders’ notion that the fate of the Roman Republic could have been forestalled by rational design.

Chapter VI surveys the development of republican thought between the classical era and the American Revolution. The intent of this chapter is to show how the American founders, while looking to Rome as their paragon, came to understand the activity of politics so differently than did the participants in their model republic. As such, it sets the stage for Chapter VII, which examines to what extent Oakeshott was on target in seeing the American founding as a salient instance of political rationalism. Chapter VII is, like Chapter IV, fairly brief, and for much the same reason: I find the testimony of the expert historians of this period fairly clear-cut, and, while it would be easy to amass much more evidence supporting my conclusion here, space limitations lead me to believe that any additional words I am granted are better spent elsewhere.

Chapter VIII examines some post-founding American history in light of Oakeshott’s contention that the rationalist can never really proceed as he purports to do. This chapter presents evidence suggesting that the ‘failure to follow the letter of the Constitution’ is not, as some contemporary, ‘strict constructionists’ contend, a peculiarly modern phenomenon, beginning, depending on which strict constructionist to which one is attending, with Lincoln and the American Civil War, with Roosevelt and the New Deal, with the Cold War, or with George W. Bush and the ‘War on Terror’, but is, instead, something that began almost as soon as the U. S. Constitution was adopted, and is not (primarily) a symptom of bad faith, but, rather, an inevitable consequence of the fact that no such rationalist design can ever dictate subsequent practice in the way that it is meant to do.

In our conclusion, besides summarizing the conclusions of the previous chapters, we will also briefly survey a handful of cases that, we suggest, add credence to the notion that rationalist designs can never operate as advertised. Once again, it is worth noting that there is no pretension here of being exhaustive in our survey or of presenting knock-down evidence defeasing any alternative hypothesis. Any work that attempted to achieve either of those goals would have to encompass many volumes and could easily occupy a lifetime and more of labour. Rather, our aim is only to offer evidence that Oakeshott’s thesis has some plausibility, and to suggest avenues for further research. While such a goal is far more modest than attempting to set forth a conclusive theory of politics, or attempting to ‘prove’ that Oakeshott was correct, I hope that it may be worthy in its own right, as well as, perhaps, being more in keeping with Oakeshott’s own programme of research than would be either of the above-mentioned alternatives.

UPDATE: It occurs to me I should note here a profound comment my advisor made to me while we were discussing this dissertation, which was to the effect that, "Oakeshott's thesis isn't really about what we should try to achieve through politics at all, is it? It's really about the limits, whatever we want to achieve, of the extent to which we can design in advance what really will be achieved by our programme, whatever it is."


  1. Top notch, Gene. Do you have any plans to try to get this published somewhere? I would like to read it.

  2. Congrats, Gene. Looks very interesting, esp. Ch. VIII.

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