Hayek versus Oakeshott on rationalism

I am sketching out here the outline for a paper on which I am starting work:

F. A. Hayek and Michael Oakeshott were two of the most prominent 20th century critics of what they referred to as "rationalism." The two thinkers knew each other personally, and read each other's work. So it would be easy to assume that, when each attacked rationalism, each was aiming his arrows at the same enemy.

But was this really the case? In this paper, I will argue that, in fact, Hayek and Oakeshott understood the problem of rationalist thought quite differently. Furthermore, I contend, this difference is not a mere "brute fact," but can be understood as based in their differing philosophical outlooks.

Hayek's philosophy, while never articulated at great length, appears to have been a variety of "emergent phenomena" materialism. In his view, reason was not an aspect of human activities in general, but only emerged in the process of abstracting from "sensory input" any number of scientific laws, legal rules, heuristics for deciding on practical courses of action, and so on. Working from this base, Hayek criticized "rationalism" as a failure to recognize how limited reason is in its application. The "abuse of reason" consists in trying to use our rationality to direct irrational (or, at best, "ecologically rational") processes it cannot fully grasp, such as the historical development of our customs, norms, conventions and institutions. For Hayek, particular, historical situations cannot be rationally understood, since, for him, reason is identical to "abstract thought." Indeed, in The Sensory Order, he tries to depict how thought itself, which for him means abstractions, can arise from entirely thoughtless processes. But Hayek has left himself here a conundrum that I suggest is impossible to solve: How in the world can any sensible abstraction be drawn from a welter of particulars that are, in and of themselves, not susceptible to being understood?

Hayek's thought runs aground in this regard because he had not recognized the significance of the revolution in philosophy initiated by Hegel: he had not grasped the idea of the "concrete universal." On the other hand, Oakeshott's critique of rationalism is based upon that very concept.

For Oakeshott, the problem is not that our reason is not up to the job of grappling with our practical affairs, including those of our political life. Instead, as he points out in Experience and Its Modes, the world of practice is itself a world of ideas. Concrete reality is, in and of itself, comprehensible.

Thus when Oakeshott attacks rationalism, he is not claiming that it is a case of reason going beyond its limits, as Hayek does. Instead, rationalism for Oakeshott is the attempt to replace practical reason (phronesis) with abstract, theoretical reason (theoria).

In short, for Hayek, the rationalist is one who does not realize that the single tool human reason possesses, that of abstract, theoretical reasoning, is not up to all tasks. To the contrary, Oakeshott argues that the problem itself stems from believing that there is only one tool available to human reason. The rationalist is in the position of someone using a hand saw to cut the lawn.


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