Rationalism is a core tenet of liberalism, regarding reason as the primary source of knowledge and relying on reason as a justification of arguments. According to Michael Oakeshott:

“The conduct of affairs, for the Rationalist, is a matter of solving problems, and in this no man can hope to be successful whose reason has become inflexible by surrender to habit or is clouded by the fumes of tradition" -Michael Oakeshott, Rationalism in Politics.

Thus, at face value, Rationalism seems to be quite incongruous with Conservatism, which seeks to uphold traditional social and cultural institutions and practices. Rationalism would argue a pragmatic valuation of social and cultural institutions (i.e. this institution exists because it has value, and a new institution can and should replace it when the new institution is better able to provide societal value) whereas Conservatism holds that the existing institutions should be maintained. (It is unclear to me whether the Conservative viewpoint is that the institutions should be maintained because there is inherent value in durable or long-lasting ideas, or because they take the fact that the institution has long existed as implicit evidence of the institution's value).

However, Conservative legal schools of thought often appeal to Rationalism as the base justification, and Conservative legal practice (for instance Originalism or Textualism) in general treats the law almost as a set of rational principles from which coherent and logically consistent rulings can be derived. Some claim that a Rational interpretation of the law is inherently Conservative. In any case, at least within the practical confines of law Conservatism seems to have some claim to ties with Rationalism.

Given this apparent contradiction, I'm curious how Conservatism and Rationalism relate? Is Rationalism simply an argumentative tool used by reactionary Conservatives to fight for Conservative ideas and institutions, or is there some more internally consistent link between Conservatism and the idea of Rationalism?

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    liberals have ideas, conservatives have beliefs.
    – dandavis
    Jul 2, 2022 at 19:09
  • given how much Originalism is likely to be in the news in the near future, examining its framework and how it addresses its own contradictions with one of its motivating factors (assuming there is such a contradiction) seems relevant enough here. Jul 2, 2022 at 19:34
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    everyone happens to believe that they themselves are correct, and, that they are correct for rational reasons. "rationalists" happened to be the first group to think of using the term "rationalists" to assert that they themselves are correct, and, that they are correct for rational reasons.
    – Fattie
    Jul 3, 2022 at 17:46
  • Rationalism would argue a pragmatic valuation of social and cultural institutions (i.e. this institution exists because it has value, and a new institution can and should replace it when the new institution is better able to provide societal value) - I'm not convinced this is true. Certainly if you look at more extreme examples of "rationalism" such as the Jacobins or Marxism, but even absent that liberals often call for things to be done because they are the right thing (rationally) not necessarily because they work.
    – Stuart F
    Jul 4, 2022 at 10:48
  • Traditions are often pragmatic evaluations developed over the centuries - that a single person or a generation cannot reproduce within their lifetime. Freudians would even argue that the whole human culture has evolved in such a way. Looking from the other side: Rationalists often assume some some axiomatic values as invariable, and build their arguments upon those - like universal human values or Judeo-Christian values, etc. This is but following a less clearly defined tradition. I know when I see it. is the classical example. Jul 4, 2022 at 12:38

2 Answers 2


I'm having a hard time assuming this question is not being asked facetiously because a quick google search shows that Oakeshott was a conservative thinker and that his point in writing about Rationalism was to defang it on a simple argument that in modern (computational) terms can be summarized as "garbage in, garbage out", i.e. even with a perfectly rational inference engine, wrong premises produce wrong conclusions.

And consequently:

The notion of human rights is ridiculed by him no less than that of equality or racial purity.

So it's not much of a save to say some political philosophy is not incompatible with rationality in this sense, as you can use it to prove rationality equivalence even of Nazi genocides with much else (if your premise is that one group of people are causing all the problems in society, it's rational to exterminate them even at high cost.)

As belaboring such a point stopped being cool after WW2, Oakeshott drifted towards "liberal conservatism"... and lost most of his audience; his later writeups were famous for being rather impenetrable and for him arguing back and forth with reviewers about being misunderstood.

This somewhat besides the main point being discussed here, but in order e.g. to support enfranchisement for women, but simultaneously avoid any a priori commitment to human rights, Oakeshott argues from consistency, i.e. that since women already had most other rights (recognized) then so they should have had this one. As far as I can tell, Oakeshott did not explain however why consistency is not in itself an a priori principle that one should be weary about. And I'm sure that many American conservatives (dunno about British ones) would object to applying it to a bunch of situations, e.g. giving all the rights back to convicted felons after release etc. He does generally argue that "there is never a demonstrably correct course of action" though, so I suppose on that angle not enfranchising women would also have been fine by him.

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    I suspect that most Americans would fail recognize the latter philosophical position ("there is never a demonstrably correct course of action") as conservatism, as opposed to calling it case-by-caseism or something worse [from their perspective] like some kind of relativism. Jul 8, 2022 at 8:51
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    No facetiousness attempted on my part, but perhaps the question is ill-posed and should better be asked as something along the lines of: Conservatism (in politics or any other space) places value on existing norms and institutions. From whereis the basis of that value derived? And separately, I was curious whether Conservatism would eschew rationalism since it is generally embraced by Liberalism. I'll reformulate my question and ask a new one
    – DerekG
    Jul 8, 2022 at 19:26

The functioning of existing social and cultural institutions is often poorly understood; especially since they are often not "set up" by a responsible entity but came to be through history.

Thus, conservatism assumes we should rationally err on the side of caution when dealing with social and cultural institutions. After all they seemingly don't make these anymore.

And indeed, reformist critique of existing social and cultural institutions is often biased, relies heavily on a single political movement and fails to take into account the complexity of the studied object by oversimplifying it until it fits into the "current thing" narrative.

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    To be fair "conservatives" in the sense of advocates of conservatism often enough also don't advocate for researching and better understanding these institutions but just for keeping them and are, more often then not, biased in favor of them because they benefit from them existing.
    – haxor789
    Nov 8, 2022 at 14:56
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    You can usually say this about both sides. Neither conservative nor reformist politicians are usually not political scientists, so they have low interest in reproducibility, soundness of arguments, trials with control group, etc. What they care about is pushing their agenda.
    – alamar
    Nov 8, 2022 at 16:05

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