Oakeshott proposes that there are two types of knowledge involved in every science, art, or practical activity: (1) technical knowledge and (2) practical knowledge. Technical knowledge is "susceptible of precise formulation" in terms of "formulated rules," such as the "technique of cookery" contained in a cookbook. Practical knowledge is called practical "because it exists only in use, is not reflective and (unlike technique) cannot be formulated in rules. This does not mean, however, that it is an esoteric sort of knowledge. It means only that the method by which it may be shared and becomes common knowledge is not the method of formulated doctrine. And if we consider it from this point of view, it would not, I think, be misleading to speak of it as traditional knowledge. In every activity this sort of knowledge is also involved; the mastery of any skill, the pursuit of any concrete activity is impossible without it."
These two sorts of knowledge [i.e., the technical and the practical], then, distinguishable but inseparable, are the twin components of knowledge involved in every concrete human activity. In a practical art, such as cookery, nobody supposes that the knowledge that belongs to the good cook is confined to what is or may be written down in the cookery book: technique and what I have called practical knowledge combine to make skill in cookery wherever it exists... And what is true of cookery ... is no less true of politics: the knowledge involved in political activity is both technical and practical. Nor ... is it correct to say that whereas technique will tell a man what to do, it is practice which tells him how to do it... Even in the what ... there lies already this dualism of technique and practice: there is no knowledge which is not "know how" ...
Technical knowledge, we have seen, is susceptible of formulation in rules, principles, directions, maxims—comprehensively, in propositions.... And it may be observed that this character of being susceptible of precise formulation gives to technical knowledge at least the appearance of certainty: it appears to be possible to be certain about technique. On the other hand, it is characteristic of practical knowledge that it is not susceptible of formulation of this kind. Its normal expression is in a customary or traditional way of doing things, or simply, in practice. And this gives it the appearence of imprecision and consequently of uncertainty, of being a matter of opinion, of probability rather than truth. It is, indeed, a knowledge that is expressed in taste or connoisseurship....
Technical knowledge can be learned from a book: it can be learned in a correspondence course. Moreover, much of it can be learned by heart, repeated by rote, and applied mechnically: the logic of the syllogism is a technique of this kind. Technical knowledge, in short, can be both taught and learned in the simplest meanings of these words. On the other hand, practical knowledge can neither be taught nor learned, but only imparted and acquired. It exists only in practice, and the only way to acquire it is by apprenticeship to a master—not because the master can teach it (he cannot), but because it can be acquired only by continuous contact with one who is perpetually practising it. In the arts and in natural science what normally happens is that the pupil, in being taught and in learning the technique from his master, discovers himself to have acquired also another sort of knowledge than merely technical knowledge, without it ever having been precisely imparted and often without being able to say precisely what it is. Thus a pianist acquires artistry as well as technique, a chess-player style and insight into the game as well as a knowledge of the moves, and a scientist acquires (among other things) the sort of judgement which tells him when his technique is leading him astray and the connoisseurship which enables him to distinguish the profitable from the unprofitable directions to explore.Oakeshott's theory is important for my own critique of Objectivism, because much of what I say against Rand assumes the existence of a tacit, intuitive dimension that is very similar to Oakeshott's practical knowledge. Keeping this in mind, consider how Oakeshott uses his distinction of technical and practical knowledge to criticize what he calls "rationalism":
Now as I understand it, Rationalism is the assertion that what I have called practical knowledge is not knowledge at all, the assertion that, properly speaking, there is no knowledge which is not technical knowledge. The Rationalist holds that the only element of knowledge involved in any human activity is technical knowledge and that what I have called practical knowledge is really only a sort of nescience which would be negligible if it were not positively mischievous. The sovereignty of 'reason,' for the Rationalist, means the sovereignty of technique
The heart of the matter is the pre-occupation of the Rationalist with certainty. Technique and certainty are, for him, inseparably joined because certain knowledge is, for him, knowledge which does not require to look beyond itself for its certainty; knowledge, that is, which not only ends with certainty but begins with certainty and is certain throughout. And this is precisely what technical knowledge appears to be. [Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays, 12-16]Now when Oakeshott talks about Rationalism, he doesn't mean only philosophers like Descartes and Spinoza. He also would include under the term any philosopher who emphasizes conscious, formalized "reason" at the expense of tacit, intuitive, "practical" knowledge. Rand would be a rationalist in Oakeshott's sense of the word, although she is not of the extreme type criticized in his essay. Rand would not necessarily have denied the existence of practical knowledge. She might have, instead, insisted that practical knowledge, in order to have any "validity" or usefulness, must be based on technical knowledge. Or, in other words, from an Objectivist point of view, practical knowledge, if it exists at all, is merely technical knowledge that has been "automatized." Even with this amendment, the Randian view is not compatible with Oakeshott's view, because Oakeshott insists that "practical knowledge can neither be taught nor learned," and this pretty much rules out the notion that practical knowledge can simply be automatized technical knowledge. Also note Oakeshott's equation of technical knowledge with the "appearance" of certainty. This, perhaps, explains Rand's prejudice against tacit, intuitive, or practical knowledge and her desire to, in effect, make all knowledge reducible, in the final analysis, to technical knowledge. Rand needed certainty because of her foundationalism, which is so critical to the eschatological components of her system. For Rand, the (secular) salvation of Western Civilization depends on establishing the foundation of reason and man's "conceptual faculty." If technical knowledge is not supreme (or "primary"), this foundationalist salvation is impossible and unnecessary.
Now the question arises: which view, Rand's or Oakeshott's, come closest to the truth? This question will be the focus of my next post.