O MacGuffin

domingo, fevereiro 29, 2004


Arguing With Oakeshott
"This is a good time of year to step back from daily events and commune with big thinkers, so I've been having a rather one-sided discussion about this whole Iraq business with Michael Oakeshott.
One of the most important philosophers of the 20th century, Oakeshott lived and died, in 1990, in England. As Andrew Sullivan, who did his dissertation on him, has pointed out, the easiest way to grasp Oakeshott is to know that he loved Montaigne and Shakespeare. He loved Montaigne for his skepticism and Shakespeare for his array of eccentric characters. Oakeshott seemed to measure a society by how well it nurtured idiosyncratic individuals, and he certainly qualified as one.
Oakeshott was epistemologically modest. The world is an intricate place, he believed, filled with dense patterns stretching back into time. We have to be aware of how little we know and how little we can know.
But the fog didn't make Oakeshott timid. He believed we should cope with the complex reality around us by adventuring out into the world, by playfully confronting the surprises and the unpredictability of it all. But we should always guard against the sin of intellectual pride, which leads to ideological thinking. Oakeshott's doctrine was that no doctrine could properly describe the world.
In his 1947 essay, "Rationalism and Politics," he distinguished between technical and practical knowledge. Technical knowledge is the sort that can be put into words and written down in books. If you pick up a cookbook, you can read about the ingredients and proportions and techniques for preparing a meal.
But an excellent cook brings some other body of knowledge to the task, which cannot be articulated. This knowledge comes from experience. It can't be taught but must be acquired through doing, by entering into the intrinsic pattern of the activity.
Oakeshott cites a tale by Chuang-tzu about a wheelwright who tells a scholar that the stuff in books is but "the lees and scum of bygone men." When making a wheel, the man says, a craftsman has to feel his way to know how much pressure to put on his tools. "The right pace, neither slow nor fast, cannot get into the hand unless it comes from the heart."
Oakeshott was living in the hubristic age of social science, when governments were building monstrous housing tracts they thought would improve the lives of the poor. Long before others, he understood the fallacy of social engineering. He believed instead that government should be prudent, limited and neutral, so that individuals would have the freedom to be daring and creative.
We can't know how Oakeshott would have judged the decision to go to war in Iraq, but it is impossible not to see the warnings entailed in his writings. Be aware of what you do not know. Do not go charging off to remake a society when you don't understand its moral traditions, when you do not even understand yourself. Do not imagine that if you conquer a nation and impose something you call democracy that the results will be in any way predictable. Do not try to administer a country from behind a security bunker.
I try to reply to these warnings. I concede that government should be limited, prudent and conservative, but only when there is something decent to conserve. Saddam sent Iraqi society spinning off so violently, prudence became imprudent. The Middle East could not continue down its former course.
I remind Oakeshott that he was ambivalent about the American Revolution, and dubious about a people who had made a sharp break with the past in the name of inalienable rights and other abstractions. But ours is the one revolution that worked, and it did precisely because our founders were epistemologically modest too, and didn't pretend to know what is the good life, only that people should be free to figure it out for themselves.
Because of that legacy, we stink at social engineering. Our government couldn't even come up with a plan for postwar Iraq — thank goodness, too, because any "plan" hatched by technocrats in Washington would have been unfit for Iraqi reality.
I tell Oakeshott that the Americans and Iraqis are now involved in an Oakeshottian enterprise. They are muddling through, devising shambolic, ad hoc solutions to fit the concrete realities, and that we'll learn through bumbling experience. In the building of free societies, every day feels like a mess, but every year is a step forward."

(Nota: os realces a bold são da minha autoria)

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