Ideas


OakeshottA symptom and a cause of the decline of British conservatism has been the absence of philosophical voices. That the publication of Michael Oakeshott’s notebooks occasioned interest, then, is welcome; if only as it might inspire more interesting conversations.

Oakeshott was an interesting man: sober and cautious in his thought and somewhat epicurean in his behaviour. In his work, he was both lucid and allusive; toying with ideas like a young man with a sheet of card before revealing a beautifully formed argument.

In Rationalism in Politics - his most accessible book – he offered essays that addressed a broad range of questions. Several of them concerned overambitious rationalism, of totalitarian and liberal forms, which assumed that men and his societies can be understood and altered with reference to abstract analysis and instruction. To his mind, such theories are hubristic in ignoring the need for practical knowledge. “Nobody supposes,” he wrote in the title essay of the book, “That the knowledge that belongs to a good cook is confined to what is or may be written down in a cookery book.”

In Oakeshott’s understanding, then, theorists are at best confined to a narrow understanding of the world. This positioned him against more people than one might imagine. There were the great advocates of the great utopian doctrines of his age, such as the architects whose visions of how people would and should want to live diverged from how they had lived and, in many cases, enjoyed living. The critique is also applicable to more apparently pragmatic thinkers, such as data-driven managerialists whose systematised understanding of people often fails to reflect their complexities. In Rotherham, for example, amid what seems to have been an epidemic of sexual abuse, the council was following a “risk-assessment tool” with a “numerical scoring system” that was tragically inadequate as a means of assessing different situations.

Oakeshott did not restrain himself from criticising the otherwise appreciative neoliberals who would go on to lead the British right…

…while formerly [rationalist politics] was tacitly resisted and retarded by, for example, the informality of British politics…that resistance has now itself been converted into an ideology. This is, perhaps, the main significance of Hayek’s Road to Serfdom – not the cogency of his doctrine, but the fact that it is a doctrine. A plan to resist all planning may be better than its opposite, but it belongs to the same style of politics.

He was, indeed, openly disparaging of consumerism, and from moral as well as epistemological premises. In “Work and Play”, published elsewhere, he addressed the prioritisation of “human wants”…

A creature composed entirely of wants, who understands the world merely as the means of satisfying those wants and whose satisfactions generate new wants endlessly, is a creature of unavoidable anxieties.

RationalismThis helps to create, he wrote – in what it Paul Franco observes was an age “before the advent of personal computers, the Internet, email, cell phones, Facebook and Twitter” – “a ceaseless flow of seductive trivialities which invoke neither reflection nor choice but instant participation”. It was a trenchant diagnosis.

This divergence from the ideological trajectory of the right, along with turning down an honour in the ‘80s, might have done Oakeshott’s posthumous reputation few favours. His own conservatism was dispositional. He wrote, in “On Being Conservative”, that…

To be conservative…is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss.

The trouble with Westerners, the essay continues, is that we are “ready to drop the bone we have for its reflection magnified in the mirror of the future”. One might note that this is so true of the present age that a disposition can be too placid a state of mind to have any effect. It is true that our society has taken shape less through the conscious acceptance of policies and principles than the evolution of arrangements but this does not diminish the value of arrangements that have formed. To return to the cooking metaphor, if I work in the kitchen for long enough I will make especially toothsome and nutritious meals. If I want to reproduce them I should create recipes, and if I want my kids to eat well and not regress to pot noodles I should promote and defend them..

In keeping with his sceptical disposition, Oakeshott’s hoped for political activities to be concerned less with directing the ship of state than keeping it “afloat on an even keel”. In a world where technological and institutional innovation has made such rapid advances, even this demands considerable purposive action. What remains true, however, is that this should be informed by experience. Some environmental measures might have to be innovative, for example, as threats to the natural world have made such progress, but one also thinks of Scruton’s point that if people are going to care about the planet they should be empowered to do what they have always done – tend to their own particular surroundings.

Oakeshott was not only concerned with men as social animals. In his essay “The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind” he turned to aesthetics. His aim was to distinguish man’s artistic life from his moral and intellectual concerns – to ensure, indeed, that art was not subjected to overmuch rationalistic analysis. It is true, of course, that art has no specific aim, and to suggest otherwise is to open the door to the worst kind of doctrinaire reductionists. Surely it can effect our ideas and behaviour, though? Oakeshott accepts this and makes a more subtle distinction between that which is inherent to art and that which is inferred…

 Shakespeare’s “view of life” may appear to us profound, or we may find it as unsatisfactory as Johnson found it…But it is an illusion; we have caught merely what is unpoetic…

I am unconvinced by this as I am unconvinced by Oakeshott’s line between fact and fiction…

…a poetic image can never “lie” because it does not affirm anything. These images – shapes, scenes, movements, characters, verbal constructions – do not belong to a universe of discourse in which “fact” and “non-fact” can be distinguished; they are fictions.

Art does not consist of scientific hypotheses, but what is “contrived”, “sentimental” and “obscure” art except art which misrepresents and muddies life as one experiences it? The written word is, in a sense, the elegant articulation of responses to phenomena, and it affects us as it accords with ideas and impulses we share or, at least, appreciate. Without our particular state of mind King Lear might not seem tragic and A Midsummer Night’s Dream might not amuse. To go into art with the expectation of being instructed is to confuse it with the school, the church or the town hall but to derive inspiration from one’s experience, I think, can be to appreciate and not ignore the power of its artistry. What starts in the spine can travel to the brain.

Oakeshott had little enthusiasm for purposive thought in and outside of politics. Like John Gray, he appeared to value a form of contemplative existence that “aims not to change the world or to understand it”. I have what both might consider to be an unhealthy urge towards seeking the truth – if only to know what value could be placed on life and whether or not it has purpose. This might be futile, but assuming either seems arrogant. Yet men should not do this alone, from the ground up, but where possible continue work that has been done on half-completed structures, if not just repair those which time has degraded. Experience gives one little excuse for immaturity.

UtopiaUtopian Reformism – Utopians tend to be thought of as revolutionaries: violent, clutching flags and copies of Das Kapital, or spiritual, with long hair, acoustic guitars and bongs. Yet a revolution need not be a sudden thing. Utopianism concerns ends more than it does means, and utopians can be gradualists. The important point is that while they are concerned with improvement and not insurrection their faith in its powers is all but boundless. Assuming that man has access to an almost infinite amount of solutions, they come across few dilemmas they think insurmountable. This overstates the powers of human ingenuity and makes it hard to accept the essential problems of existence. Reformists can be more dangerous than outright ideologues as their implications can be harder to spot.

Utopian Resentment – One might expect utopians to be cheerful. In a world beset by suffering and destruction they have hope for better times. This is a happy thought. Yet is often untrue. One reason is that they tend to be hostile towards people and institutions they believe are holding back progress. Another is that they are despairing of the imperfect nature of the present. They might have little faith in their dreams being realised but they cannot forgive the world for failing to meet their standards, and reject it without care for the scale of its flaws. This eliminates distinctions between “better” and “worse”, as one’s choices are between “awesome” and “atrocious”. (Think of discourses concerning societal collapse, in which it is almost invariably seen as a cataclysmic event, not a decline. That which is not wonderful might as well be dystopic.) This helps to explain how much time apparent idealists spend being cynical.

Utopian Presentism – A state in which modernity is assumed to be nice in all aspects. Adherents spend a lot of time being disillusioned.

Chesterton on life…

In the opening pages of that excellent book MANKIND IN THE MAKING, he dismisses the ideals of art, religion, abstract morality, and the rest, and says that he is going to consider men in their chief function, the function of parenthood. He is going to discuss life as a “tissue of births.” He is not going to ask what will produce satisfactory saints or satisfactory heroes, but what will produce satisfactory fathers and mothers. The whole is set forward so sensibly that it is a few moments at least before the reader realises that it is another example of unconscious shirking. What is the good of begetting a man until we have settled what is the good of being a man? You are merely handing on to him a problem you dare not settle yourself. It is as if a man were asked, “What is the use of a hammer?” and answered, “To make hammers”; and when asked, “And of those hammers, what is the use?” answered, “To make hammers again”. Just as such a man would be perpetually putting off the question of the ultimate use of carpentry, so Mr. Wells and all the rest of us are by these phrases successfully putting off the question of the ultimate value of the human life. (From Heretics.)

Burke on doubt…

If any inquiry thus carefully conducted should fail at last of discovering the truth, it may answer an end perhaps as useful, in discovering to us the weakness of our own understanding. If it does not make us knowing, it may make us modest. If it does not preserve us from error, it may at least from the spirit of error; and may make us cautious of pronouncing with positiveness or with haste, when so much labour may end in so much uncertainty. (From Selections From the Speeches and Writings of Edmund Burke.)

John Gray writes on Malcolm Gladwell…Balls

Pretending to present daringly counterintuitive views to his readers, he actually strengthens the hold on them of a view of things that they have long taken for granted. This is, perhaps, the essence of the genre that Gladwell has pioneered: while reinforcing beliefs that everyone avows, he evokes in the reader a satisfying sensation of intellectual non-conformity.

Despite forming a culture that does not hesitate to exclude people for cleaving to marginal opinions, we like to think of ourselves as bold, independent thinkers, flouting dull conformism. We call ourselves democrats but we remember that cool kids never constituted a majority at school. To distinguish oneself as a thinker one has to be distinguishable.

This inspires two tendencies. Some people frame their unextraordinary opinions as being somehow radical. In his tribute to Norman Geras, Nick Cohen mentioned the “liberal consensus” against Western wars, as if Aaronovitch, Hari, Lloyd, Burchill, Wheen and so on were embattled dissidents.

Others form an instinctual aversion to accepting mainstream ideas. I have sympathy with this, because I think conventional wisdom can be very flawed, but the fact that humans live for as long as they do, in a world that is as productive as it is, suggests that some things have been proved. Unthinking opposition to the mainstream can lead one to accept ideas on the grounds of their alternative status rather than their epistemic value, as well as to limit one’s opinions by defining them according to what they contradict rather than what they promote.

In the spirit of avoiding such tiresome tendencies, I offer ten conventional opinions that I’m proud to hold…

1. Fascism and communism were very unpleasant things.

2. The Sopranos was a televisual masterpiece.

3. People would be healthier if they adopted Mediterranean diets.

4. Vaccines are worth getting.

5. Tony Blair was not a good Prime Minister.

6. The Earth is very old.

7. Ingmar Bergman was a genius.

8. Humanity should reduce its fossil fuel consumption.

9. OK Computer is a better album than Kid A.

10. Life is probably worth living.

Edmund BurkeNorman Tebbit’s intervention into the debate surrounding same-sex marriage has been met with little respect. “When we have a queen who is a lesbian and she marries another lady and then decides she would like to have a child,” he asks, could the product of a sperm donor be heir to the throne? One could point out that this hypothetical scenario seems rather ludicrous, but it also seems rather irrelevant: the same dilemma would arise should this sapphic sovereign be in a civil partnership.

What is interesting to me is that Norman Tebbit, that war horse of old Toryism, is phrasing his opinions in the terms of practicalities rather than of values. He, and others like him, are unable or unwilling to defend the virtues of the present but merely admonish us regarding hazards of the future. They caution against change, but give little sense of the value of conserving. This, it seems to me, has long been a problem for conservatives.

The strangest writing in Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France come when the wise old Irishman begins to rhapsodise about Marie Antoinette: “the great lady” for whom “ten thousand swords [should] have leaped from their scabbards to avenge even a look that threatened her with insult”. Burke offers no reasons for admiring the Queen, and I cannot help wondering if he had thought his belief in the efficacy of institutions was too cerebral and that he had to promote not simply a belief in them but a love for them. This was not his strength.

Somewhat more recently, Ed West bid farewell to his Telegraph readers with a piece that revelled in its own miserabilism. “It’s my job as a conservative to depress you,” he said, for “conservatism is depressive realism”. “That’s not to say that things are always bad, or necessarily getting worse, but that there is a natural tendency among humans to ignore problems, and it’s our job to point this out”. I can’t help feeling that conservatives have done more than this or people would never have voted for the miserable sods.

I am not questioning West’s belief in the value of grim scepticism. To the extent that I am a conservative at all it is largely because, after years of indulging pleasant ideas about the world, and often being startlingly rude to people who cast doubt upon them, I have concluded that many of the world’s blessings are fragile and many of our attempts to multiply them are dangerous. Yet this does not make me much of a conservative because when I foresee no baneful consequences from the collapse of this or that institution I have little cause to spring to its defence.

It was simpler when everybody was religious, and believed that society functioned in accordance with God’s will. If something was alright with the man upstairs, people believed, it was alright with them. Being deprived of the language of religion made it hard for conservatives to articulate their values to themselves, never mind to other people. Once can see this in the prose of Mencken, who disliked change but did not seem especially fond of the present.

Leftism has few such problems. It offers the marquee attractions of faith in its ideas of progress towards an Edenic future, and of malicious forces that attempt to obstruct the path. Conservatives, though, tend to offer grievances and fear. This can be uninspiring at the best of times, and when they have no substantive cause for either in opposing change they seem peculiar.

This is not to imply that they heartless brutes. (Or, at least, that many of them are.) Pessimists tend to value a great deal. The primary reason that I have for fearing threats is that they might deprive me and others the things I treasure: freedom, peace and that which appears to be beautiful. Yet, as an agnostic mired in a swamp of subjectivity, I have no clear sense of the kind of society that it is right to inhabit. I’m not saying that one should be thrown together, as that would be like trying to build Rome over lunch, but without expressing what it is good as well as what is worrying conservatives are doomed to failure, as they are going up against teams of designers and marketers with no one but risk managers.

Chomsky Rand HitchensI have joked that the esteem in which Conservatives hold Christopher Hitchens shows that they prioritise waging war over loving God and opposing communism. As elegant a phrase to illustrate the strangeness of the reverence “decent leftists” extend towards him escapes me but, still, find someone else who has called David Irving “a great historian”, defended Chomsky over Cambodia and praised Lenin’s evisceration of the Russian church and they will treat them to a verbal barrage that would make a victim of the stocks feel privileged.

To explain this one has to consider more than Hitchens’ opinions. There are some theorists and commentators who inspire an admiration that transcends the intellectual. Such people are important to some of their admirers not merely for their ideas but for their personalities. Their esteem for them is important for their self-images and, thus, to criticise their heroes is to criticise them. Other examples might be Ayn Rand and Noam Chomsky.

The relationship is somewhat akin to that of a general and his men, in which devotion is inspired more by his character than his achievements or his cause and the nature of a battle is of less importance than the thrill of conflict. There are certain features that distinguish commentators who are liable to attain the status of guiding lights. They have individual characteristics that make them attractive to people – Hitchens, for example, provokes a desire to share a liquid lunch with him while Rand was no one’s idea of a drinking buddy – but these are the essential requirements.

1. Such commentators must have devoted critics. People love to feel as if they are engaged in some form of conflict and rally behind embattled commentators like troops behind officers in the field.

2. Such commentators must be disdainful of orthodoxies. Everybody wants to feel as if they are the underdog and, thus, admire people whose enemies appear to be powerful, and everybody wants to support a righteous cause and, thus, esteem people whose foes appear to be base, backward and dull-minded. Commentators who attain the status of authorities are thus seen to oppose influential but malignant and contemptible forces. The disdain, of course, is the crucial part of this requirement and the orthodoxies need only be perceived.

3. Much as people like to have the underdog status they have to feel as if they will be triumphant nonetheless. They have to feel, in other words, as if they are right. Commentators that people admire, then, are characterised by their rhetorical force: the assurance of their words and the argumentative force that they are thought to carry. Hitchens achieved this with his linguistic dexterity; Rand with her inventive logic and Chomsky with his daunting concentration of facts. This makes them equivalent to the warrior common soldiers believe that their enemies quake to imagine.

4. Such commentators have strong personalities and romantic images. Most of us suffer from self-doubt and fear of the perceptions of others, so the commentators we admire, different as they are, are often noted by their self-assurance and failure to give a damn about how they’re perceived. They also tend to have a bearing that distinguishes from the common man. Hitchens’ was the straightforwardly macho image of the hard-drinking, argumentative alpha male while Chomsky’s is of the frail and mild-mannered professor who can nonetheless take on a military empire. These backstories make them fitting heroes for internal narratives.

You will have noted that it is not essential for them to have intellectual substance or integrity. They might do, of course, but should they lack them it will not preclude the admiration of readers and listeners. Our thinking is as much on behalf of our ego as our intellect, and should you find that someone you admire is noted for these features it is worth reflecting on the cause you march for and your tactics as the banner you stride beneath.

Edmund BurkeMaria Bustillos has written a nice piece for The New Yorker on reading writers that you tend to disagree with…

Reading Burke, or any great polemicist, is a challenging test of one’s own intellectual swordsmanship. There is, or can be, a certain violence, even danger, in the clash of ideas. But I like to think that those hard-fought glimpses of understanding between ourselves and our rhetorical opponents open up the possibility of progress.

One of my healthier inclinations is towards exploring ideas that contradict my opinions. Had I been parochial enough to exclude myself to those who shared my prejudices I might still being waffling on about “intervention” and “conspiracy theorists”, or, indeed, “Islamophobia” and “Richard Littlejohn”.

These days I read people who include liberals, socialists, libertarians, reactionaries, sceptics, paranormalists, Christians, atheists, Islamic apologists, genetic determinists, vegans and Guardian columnists. Reading people with whom you have disagreed exposes you to data and analyses that test your preconceptions, and it is also a lot of fun. It can become a more active and enlightening experience than reading someone describe the view from your own window.

This could sound like a boastful assertion of my open-mindedness but it is not. One can read an argument that contradicts one’s prejudices yet be so biased against it that one need not have. An important point is that one must not approach the arguments with the expectation of their being incorrect but of their contradicting one’s preconceptions. The former attitude will ensure that one’s cognitive biases will do the rest of the work in dismissing them and the exersize will not transcend the anthropological. The latter, with its admission of the fallibility of one’s own ideas, creates room for intellectual contestation.

One must also be wary of the grounds on which one dismisses an idea. Is it because it is untrue or wicked or is it because it has been obstructed by a deeper layer of one’s prejudices? A Christian might reject an idea for being un-Christian, or a liberal might disdain an idea for being illiberal, yet they must first ask themselves if their religious and ideological premises are so firmly grounded that such objections have merit. It is hard to appreciate new intellectual terrain if one has yet to remove one’s tinted spectacles.

It is also worth ensuring that the thinkers whose ideas you choose to explore are not merely those people who your culture has designated as your ideological foes. A left-winger might think they are being open-minded in reading Toby Young, say, and a right-winger might assume they are being adventurous in reading Tanya Gold, but these tend to be court jesters of societies, arguing more for its amusement than its elucidation. It is worth venturing further into the territories of one’s supposed opponents: where the landscape is stranger and the beasts than one encounters seem more formidable yet also more fascinating.

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