What Is Rationalism?
"Rationalism" is an unfortunately overloaded term. In mainstream
analytical history of philosophy, it is often used as a contrast
class to "empiricism."
"Rationalists" believe that "pure reason" gives us the best guide
to truth, while "empiricists" favor experience.
In this usage, Plato, Descartes, Spinoza,
and Leibniz are "rationalists," while Hobbes, Locke, Berkeley, and
Hume are characterized as "empiricists." While we do not object to
this use of "rationalism," it has nothing to do with what we wish
to address in this work.
Instead, the notion of "rationalism" we are dealing with is about
the relationship of the abstract and the
concrete. The common thread connecting our critics of rationalism
is that each of them, in one way or another, criticized "abstract
thought" not in and of itself, but insofar as it tried to replace
"concrete thought," or tradition, or evolved moral rules,
as a guide to how people actually should behave,
or how they actually should evaluate certain proposals.
(One thing that differentiates these thinkers is what exactly they
contrast rationalism to.)
So, as a preliminary effort at clarifying what "rationalism" means,
let us describe how we understand the "rationalism" that each of
our thinkers criticizes, if not explicitly, then at least
Hayek developed his critique of rationalism in the context
of defeasing the socialist planner's pretense that he could
"rationally" direct the entirety of a society's economic
activity according to a plan worked out from purely
theoretical knowledge of that society: no knowledge of "the
circumstances of time and place" was necessary, according
to the socialist planner. Unlike Oakeshott, Hayek tended to
see the complement of rationalism as nonrational,
rather than as a different form of reason from abstract
MacIntyre's chief rationalist target is Enlightenment, or
"encyclopedic," morality, which claims that it can work out
moral behavior from abstract principles, without
an "irrational" reliance on moral customs and habits.
For Oakeshott, rationalism is first and foremost the
attempt to dispense with practical know-how by substituting
for it an abstraction drawn from practice.
Such an attempt has no possibility of success, but it can
nevertheless have pernicious consequences for those who try
to pursue this "ideal." He sees rationalism as having an
especially strong hold on politics, as the practitioners
may not directly suffer the consequences of their faulty
decision making themselves, but can impose those effects on
Polanyi did not employ the term "rationalism," instead
drawing a distinction between knowledge that can be
explicitly stated, and "tacit knowledge," or knowing how to
do something, perhaps without being able to state in rules
or abstract principles exactly what one knows.
Gilbert Ryle's critique of rationalism focuses
on the claim made by many modern
epistemologists that all knowledge can
be reduced to 'knowing that...'
statements, while Ryle instead insists
that there are multiple forms of
knowledge that cannot be reduced to
mere statements of fact. Indeed, questions
about 'knowing how' to do something
(e.g. hit a baseball, ride a bicycle, speak
Spanish, play the mandolin, formulate
a scientific hypothesis, etc.) are not
reducible to statements of fact, at all.
He associates the reductionist
argument with a misguided notion about
the relevance of the methods of the
natural sciences to other forms of knowing.
Again, Voegelin does not use the term "rationalism" in the
way that Oakeshott and Hayek do, and instead attacks
"ideology." While there is some difference in meaning here,
there is also common ground: to Oakeshott, "rationalism in
politics" presents itself as ideologies. And Voegelin
understands ideologies to be destructive, for one reason,
because they denigrate "common sense" and pragmatism, so
that we would sensibly see Oakeshott and Voegelin both as
advocates of "practical politics" as opposed to ideological
Wittgenstein's main rationalist target was the attempt to
turn thought, and in particular philosophical thought,
into pure formalism. He noted that, for instance, our
ability to follow a rule cannot have a merely formal
foundation, but rests in a way of life that gives meaning
to the formal specification.