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Saturday, February 5, 2011


I have many times remarked that I am, this semester, teaching two courses: a course on Plato's REPUBLIC in a learning-in-retirement program at Duke University, and a graduate seminar at UNC Chapel Hill on "Normative Dimensions of Public Policy." My weekly preparation for these courses, which I confess is more taxing than I anticipated, is to re-read the materials I have assigned for the week. This morning, I finished reading the portion of the REPUBLIC in which Plato advances the controversial proposal that women and men should be trained for and serve equally as Guardians in the ideal state. It is mildly amusing to reflect that America has finally gotten around to a point of view that Plato arrived at twenty-four hundred years ago. Oh well.

Then, having completed my preparation for Monday's Duke class, I turned to this week's reading for the wednesday UNC seminar -- two famous essays by the British Conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott. I have expressed before on this blog my admiration for Oakeshott's writing, but I am compelled to say a few words about it again, because after re-reading only the first nine pages of the first of the essays, "Rationalism in Politics," I am enraptured by the brilliance, the elegance, and the penetration of it. For those who do not know the essay [and I urge you all to get a copy of the volume in which it appears, also called RATIONALISM IN POLITICS, and read it immediately], it is a deadly accurate description, anatomization, and ridicule of people like me.

I shan't succumb to the temptation to type into this blog long passages from the essay, and from the second essay I have assigned, "Rational Conduct." You must bestir yourselves to seek the essays out and read them for yourselves. Oakeshott is the ego ideal of people like David Brook and Andrew Sullivan and Ross Douthat and countless other conservative commentators. I suppose he bears to them roughly the relation that Marx bears to me, although, interestingly enough, I think there is a good deal in Marx that is compatible with, and resembles, what Oakeshott has to say. Marx, after all, was himself scornful of the deracinated rationalism of those he labeled Utopian Socialists.

What does it say about me that I admire Oakeshott's writing so? I hope it says that I am a big enough person to recognize and freely acknowledge brilliance even in my opponents. But some will suggest that it reveals a secret ambivalence in me, a shameful lust for tradition that has heretofore found expression in my respect for the philosophy of Immanuel Kant and shows that I am not, for all my protestations, the philosophical anarchist I claim to be. So be it. I feel when I read Oakeshott, the way I feel when I listen to Bach. Johann Sebastian and I could never have been drinking buddies, what with his religiosity and all, but that does not diminish my love for his music.


Chris said...

How does your predilection for Kant imply you have an implicit conservative nature? Most of the political works I've read by Kant, if extrapolated to their final conclusions, lead to extremely radical political philosophy.

Murfmensch said...

I have another question: Is there any home in the US for conservatives like Oakeshott and the commentators you mention? I benefit from reading John Gray and Francis Fukuyama.

Sullivan and Fukuyama endorsed Kerry and Obama.

Does this mean there is a stronger question of where a home would lay for those who seek strong action to tamp down causes of exploitation?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

In referencing Kant, I simply meant that I had a special place in my heart for old time great philosophers, not the very latest falvor of the month.

The relationship of Oakeshott to American conservatives is interesting. They are really, for the most part, what he is calling rationalists and liberals [in the English tradition], but they think they are in synch with him. In American politics, the people who look most ike Oakeshotteans are the old Senate types who have enormous respecdt ofr, and are steeped in the traditions of, the Senate.

GTChristie said...

You repeatedly surprise me. I've wondered at the fact that you understand and respect Kant and Marx, but I chalk that up to wide-ranging interests and several good professors in your past.

Your ability to recognize cogent thinking, regardless of its putative color on the rainbow, explains your balanced view of Oakeshott. And the same talent allows you to fairly and clearly point out weaknesses as well as strengths in Marx. You are not doctrinaire about Marxism and you are not a polemicist. You have a very open mind which values the quality of an idea above its possible inconvenience, and you would allow a fact to kill a theory. This is not always found among progressives and in the current polarized political climate it's almost not found at all, in any part of the spectrum.

For these reasons I salute you once again, for you are truly in the finest sense "liberal."

Thank you for this long Marx series. I may never become a Marxist but it's fascinating.

Makes me want to come to Chapel Hill.

Phil said...

For a brilliant analysis of Oakeshott framed from within a comparative matrix with Strauss, Schmitt, and Hayek, see Perry Anderson's essay in his Spectrum. He examines the different receptions in the US and British contexts that Oakeshott received after his death.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

GT, thank you. I can think of no higher praise. I really mean that. And I would not seek to convert anybody to anything. I see myself more as a painter who paints a picture and hopes that people enjoy looking at it. Two old and good friends have, in their different ways, taught me that in the end, friendship is more important than ideology. It took me a long time to see their wisdom.

Angus said...

This kind of describes you:

"At bottom he stands (he always stands) 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."

Although I sometimes get the sense you regard politics as closer to a matter of taste than Oakeshott's rationalist does.

But you definitely escape his most scathing passage:

"There are some minds which give us the sense that they have passed through an elaborate education which was designed to initiate them into the traditions and achievements of their civilization; the immediate impression we have of them is an impression of cultivation, of the enjoyment of an inheritance. But this is not so with the mind of the Rationalist, which impresses us as, at best, a finely tempered, neutral instrument, as a well-trained rather than as an educated mind."

You strike me as well educated, and not particularly well-trained (in the pejorative, "backwards E drawing" sense only, of course!).

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I love that wonderful parenthesis: "[he always stands]" That is a marvelous sentence.

I like to think that radicals, like Marx, combine the best of the liberal and the conservative mindsets. Marx, like Oakeshott, was dismissive of Utopians. But Oakeshott cannot see that the radical turn of mind is also a way of being, with long traditions, and a negative capability.

Murfmensch said...

John Gray, an Oakeshott sort, diagnoses a "batty rationalism" in the right.

His example was someone who argued that the UK should privatize the Navy and many CP'ers said "There's someone for the future!"