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On the idea of rationalism

In comments here and at Marginal Revolution, there have been some questions about my use of the term “rationalism.” Herewith some relevant passages from the Rationalism, Pluralism, and Freedom.

I want to show that these problems of groups and freedom—the freedom of groups from the state, and the freedom of persons within groups—are not novel, anomalous, or separate from one another. What we have lately encountered as discrete odd problems about multiculturalism, religious freedom, freedom of associations, universities, and local government are just the recent manifestations of a set of deep and perennial problems. Liberalism, and the earlier theoretical frameworks out of which liberalism grew, have been centrally occupied with them for centuries.

We will follow two broad patterns and traditions of answers to these questions: one inclined toward the use of state power to protect individuals from local group power, one inclined to see groups as the results of individual free choice and the protectors of freedom against state power. I will call these patterns and traditions rationalist and pluralist liberalisms. I adopt these words for some of their connotations but not others. “Rationalism” is meant to encourage the reader to think of Weber, not Descartes: processes of bureaucratic rationalization, not theories of knowledge or standards of argumentation. Rationalist liberalism is sometimes associated with a kind of demand that rational accounts be given to justify customs, norms, and beliefs, demands that can perhaps never be wholly satisfied. This is obviously connected to the more abstract sense of rational knowledge and belief; but it is a demand that is made in a particular institutional context, i.e. states demanding justification of the practices of non-state groups.

“Pluralism” is meant to evoke associational, cultural, religious, and jurisdictional pluralism. In the first instance, pluralism should suggest allowing a plurality of associations, cultures, religions, and so on, to follow their own various norms. As a secondary matter, it is tied to a claim of descriptive sociology: that the sources of social organization are many, not one. It is not meant to be tied to the idea of moral pluralism made famous by Isaiah Berlin, though we will return to possible connections with that idea. In short, I ask the reader to keep in mind a contrast between state rationalization and the self-government of a plurality of non-state social groups, not such possibly related ideas as cognitive rationality or the supposed plurality of ultimate human ends.
These are not directly analogous categories. In describing these two tendencies within liberal thought, I deliberately oppose concepts that are not natural contrasts: pluralism and rationalism, rather than, e.g., decentralization and centralization, or tradition and reform, or culture and reason, or for that matter pluralism and monism, or rationalism and sentimentalism. I do not mean to make rationalism and pluralism into direct contrast concepts. These strands within liberalism each encompass arguments of various kinds, many of which are not mutually exclusive.

And later on:

The Centralizing Temperament and the Man of System
An important but little-noted chapter late in Spirit of the Laws says:
There are certain ideas of uniformity, which sometimes strike great geniuses (for they even affected Charlemagne), but infallibly make an impression on little souls. They discover therein a kind of perfection, which they recognize because it is impossible for them not to see it; the same authorized weights, the same measures in trade, the same laws in the state, the same religion in all its parts. But is this always right and without exception? Is the evil of changing constantly less than that of suffering? And does not a greatness of genius consist rather in distinguishing between those cases in which uniformity is requisite, and those in which there is a necessity for differences? In China the Chinese are governed by the Chinese ceremonial and the Tartars by theirs; and yet there is no nation in the world that aims so much at tranquility. If the people observe the laws, what signifies it whether these laws are the same?

The Burkean idea in the middle of that passage—that changes in laws are costly, and sometimes those costs are greater than the costs of an imperfect status quo—is familiar. But the surrounding argument is perhaps not. It contains at least two distinct ideas: a gesture toward a defense of pluralism, and a worry about the character of the legislator who would suppress it. The latter idea was echoed in a somewhat better-known passage from the final edition of Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments:

The man of system, on the contrary, is apt to be very wise in his own conceit; and is often so enamoured with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it. He goes on to establish it completely and in all its parts, without any regard either to the great interests, or to the strong prejudices which may oppose it. He seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board. He does not consider that the pieces upon the chess-board have no other principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses upon them; but that, in the great chess-board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might chuse to impress upon it.


It is easy enough (even discounting the “hand” metaphor) to see a connection with the Wealth of Nations, and to suppose that the man of system is what we would think of as an economic central planner, failing to see that individual persons have their own interests to pursue. But that is not the topic of this passage. In the surrounding text he discusses “confirmed habits and prejudices of the people,” the rights and privileges of cities, provinces, the nobility, and long-established orders, even when these are “in some measure abusive,” all contributing to the constitution that the man of system seeks to “new-model” in all its parts—the traditional rights defended by Montesquieu. To put it in a perhaps surprising way: the principles of motion of their own are not, or at least not necessarily, individualistic or proper to each individual. The problem is not that they each have their self-interest to pursue. Rather, they have principles of motion—rules to follow, ends to pursue—that in part derive from the habits and prejudices of their respective groups, from the rules and norms of the corps to which they belong.

This is ordinarily taken as Smith’s late-in-life commentary on the French Revolution, though the point is expressed in general terms. If so, that is worth some attention. It appeared in the first half of 1790, before even Burke’s Reflections, which itself was a particularly early critique of the Revolution’s rationalizing tendencies. If this passage was indeed a response to events across the channel, the trigger was not, say, the 1793 imposition of a maximum price on grain. Smith was not complaining of bad economics. Rather, the trigger had to be some combination of the abolition of feudal privileges, the replacement of traditional provinces with départements, the suppression of religious and monastic orders, the nationalization of church property, and the amalgamation of the Estates into the National Assembly. The text around the passage makes clear that it refers to changes in the “constitution or form of government.” The reformer who would avoid the errors of the man of system is counseled to respect the “privileges” of “the great orders and societies, into which the state is divided” or “the confirmed habits and prejudices of the people.”

Like Montesquieu, Smith suggests that the power available to the political reformer encourages a particular kind of mindset. That power will be especially attractive to those galled by the disorder of variety. The “spirit of system” “inflames” public-spirited reformism, “even to the madness of fanaticism.” Like Montesquieu, Smith sees that the disorderly variety most likely to gall, in his day, is that of the inherited constitution itself, in need of remodeling by centralization and rationalization.

The psychology of the “man of system” should seem familiar to readers of Foucault on Bentham. The most powerful recent account of the idea is to be found in James Scott’s Seeing Like a State, and the best philosophical account is in Michael Oakeshott’s “Rationalism in Politics.” The latter is concerned with the rationalist as a type of actor, not with “rationalism” as a free-floating gross concept. That is, like Smith and Montesquieu, Oakeshott is interested in the habits of thought, disciplines, and mindset, of the individual human beings who come to occupy positions of state power. I think these, rather than Hayek’s information-based critique of economic planning, provide the closest modern analogs to Smith’s “man of system.”

If the diagnosis of the man of system (or the high modernist, or the rationalist) is right, then states—which is to say, state officials, with this characteristic mindset—will tend to be excessively skeptical of the jurisprudential pluralism generated by intermediate groups, of their adherence to custom or to local reasons that do not mirror the balance of reasons considered appropriate by the state. Insofar as individual humans move for reasons and in ways that reflect the moves the man of system would have them make anyway, no conflict arises. But the “principles of motion” of their own that differ from those desired by the state are often generated by intermediate groups—cities, provinces, religious and cultural groups, and so forth.

I hope that helps. I mean “rationalism” to have to do with institutional rationalization, and the confidence in reason combined with institutional power– not with the mere application of brainpower.

Published on:
Author: Jacob T. Levy
  • adrianratnapala

    Thanks, the excerpts above were interesting. Also I was being tendentious when I asked “…does the title of your book even make sense?” in the last thread.

    I’m afraid I don’t know enough of Weber to compare him to Descartes, but from the rest of the text it does seem that you use “rationalism” in a sense similar what Hayek’s “constructivist rationalism” — or rather with the type of official behaviour that accepts constructivist arguments.

    I think Tyler Cowen was missing the point when he came down on the rationalist side. His kind of rationalist argument didn’t seem to be the kind you are talking about.

    • jtlevy

      Adrian, I’m not as wholly critical of rationalism as Hayek is of , and Hayek *does* think that what’s at stake is partly a theory of knowledge itself (with Cartesians among the villains)– and that it’s a pretty short step from the bad theory of knowledge to the official behaviors you mention. But, yes, what I’m talking about is much more like “official behavior that accepts constructivist arguments” than it is like “thinking.”

      I think I can figure out what Tyler means– that we have to accept that states do and will make policy, and we want it to be better-thought-out rather than worse-thought-out, but the pluralistic order can’t be wholly spontaneous anymore. But I’m not entirely sure, and I do think he and I are using the word pretty differently.

  • j_m_h

    Helpful excerps and clearly the book’s written so nothings going to change but I’m still stuggling with the usage. It seems that rationalism would applie equally to pluralism with the different in detail that it’s the local groups that then demand justification for the practices of state agencies. In this sense it’ really a case of top down versus bottom up rationalism.
    I’m not sure that’s really allowing you to get at what you’re looking at as it may be that you are exploring the issues of polycentric/heterogenous strucutres versus centralized/homogenous structures and how the ramifications for social interactions.

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