In which a group of graying eternal amateurs discuss their passions, interests and obsessions, among them: movies, art, politics, evolutionary biology, taxes, writing, computers, these kids these days, and lousy educations.

E-Mail Donald
Demographer, recovering sociologist, and arts buff

E-Mail Fenster
College administrator and arts buff

E-Mail Francis
Architectural historian and arts buff

E-Mail Friedrich
Entrepreneur and arts buff
E-Mail Michael
Media flunky and arts buff

We assume it's OK to quote emailers by name.

Try Advanced Search

  1. Seattle Squeeze: New Urban Living
  2. Checking In
  3. Ben Aronson's Representational Abstractions
  4. Rock is ... Forever?
  5. We Need the Arts: A Sob Story
  6. Form Following (Commercial) Function
  7. Two Humorous Items from the Financial Crisis
  8. Ken Auster of the Kute Kaptions
  9. What Might Representational Painters Paint?
  10. In The Times ...

Sasha Castel
AC Douglas
Out of Lascaux
The Ambler
Modern Art Notes
Cranky Professor
Mike Snider on Poetry
Silliman on Poetry
Felix Salmon
Polly Frost
Polly and Ray's Forum
Stumbling Tongue
Brian's Culture Blog
Banana Oil
Scourge of Modernism
Visible Darkness
Thomas Hobbs
Blog Lodge
Leibman Theory
Goliard Dream
Third Level Digression
Here Inside
My Stupid Dog
W.J. Duquette

Politics, Education, and Economics Blogs
Andrew Sullivan
The Corner at National Review
Steve Sailer
Joanne Jacobs
Natalie Solent
A Libertarian Parent in the Countryside
Rational Parenting
Colby Cosh
View from the Right
Pejman Pundit
God of the Machine
One Good Turn
Liberty Log
Daily Pundit
Catallaxy Files
Greatest Jeneration
Glenn Frazier
Jane Galt
Jim Miller
Limbic Nutrition
Innocents Abroad
Chicago Boyz
James Lileks
Cybrarian at Large
Hello Bloggy!
Setting the World to Rights
Travelling Shoes

Redwood Dragon
The Invisible Hand
Daze Reader
Lynn Sislo
The Fat Guy
Jon Walz


Our Last 50 Referrers

« New Cultureblog | Main | Knowledge Loss »

October 12, 2002

Free Reads – Oakeshott redux


I’ve been turning over the essay you recommended in your posting, Michael Oakeshott’s 1947 essay, “Rationalism in Politics." As I believe you pointed out somewhere, this “Portrait of the Rationalist as a Young Politician” describes a human type which has not limited its activities to politics. In fact, I came across a description of this human type in action while reading a story in October 10’s New York Times, “White Elephant in Vermont Reincarnated.” The individual in question is an architect, Peter Eisenman. What struck me, frankly, was the astonishing accuracy with which Oakeshott had described the life, work and mentality of a man who was only 15 at the time this essay was published.

Peter Eisenman: The Rationalist

The NY Times story depicts how a retired furniture manufacturer, John Makau, searching for a lot on which to build a summer home near Sugarbush, Vermont, spotted the unusual house, designed by Mr. Eisenman. Upon making inquiries, he discovered the house had been vacant and on the market for years. He bought it and began renovations, only learning by accident that it was rather famous in architectural circles. According to the Times:

[The abandoned home] was one of a series of 10 designs [by Peter Eisenman], of which four were built…The four houses were legendary experiments in pure theory rendered on a domestic scale with notoriously mixed results. “This was Eisenman’s first freestanding building, and it was a kickoff project,” said Joseph Rosa, the Helen Hilton Raiser curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. “He was helping architecture rethink itself and become self-critical [emphasis added].”

Oakeshott: To the Rationalist, nothing is of value merely because it exists (and certainly not because it has existed for many generations), familiarity has no worth, and nothing is to be left standing for want of scrutiny.

Consider the couple who commissioned House II, Florence Falk, now a psychologist in Manhattan, and Richard Falk, an emeritus professor of international law at Princeton. The Falks and Peter Eisenman started talking at a Princeton cocktail party in the late 1960s. Mr. Eisenman was then known for contentious, densely written architectural manifestoes. He had completed one project, an addition to an existing Princeton residence, which he called House I. Mr. Eisenman and Mr. Falk shared an interest in Noam Chomsky’s theories of language and mused about Mr. Eisenman called a Chomskyesque house. “I don’t know what it meant,” Mr. Falk said in a recent interview, “but it sounded good.” [Emphasis added.]

Oakeshott: [The Rationalist’s] circumstances in the modern world have made him contentious: he is the enemy of authority, of prejudice, of the merely traditional, customary or habitual.

The Falks had purchased an old dairy farm in Hardwick [Vermont] for $22,000; Mr. Eisenman suggested they tear down the house and erect a Chomskyesque successor. [Emphasis added]

Oakeshott: …[The Rationalist’s] disposition makes both destruction and creation easier for him to understand and engage in, than acceptance or reform.

Mr. Eisenman said: “I worked my tail off on this house. I drew and drew and drew.” When the Falks returned from a California sabbatical, they found a catastrophe: a house with a flat roof, impractical in an area renowned for heavy snowfalls, and numerous skylights that leaked. Worse, positioned directly under the skylights were a series of openings through the upper floor, the smallest, 27 inches square, the largest, 27 inches by 12 feet. They created a remarkable sense of openness and light, but also a hazard for the Falks’ 1-year-old son, Dimitri. Then there was the wall thing—more specifically, the lack of walls. Between what passed for bedrooms were half-walls, and even in the bathroom there was no privacy. The softest whisper was audible everywhere…Still unfinished, the house had already cost far more than the Falks’ $45,000 budget. “We couldn’t affort to finish it, we couldn’t live in it, and we couldn’t sell it,” Mr. Falk said. “Peter misled me, somewhat deliberately, about the economics.” [Emphasis added.]

Oakeshott: And this gives to [the Rationalist’s] intellectual and practical activities an almost preternatural deliberateness and self-consciousness, depriving them of any element of passivity, removing from them all sense of rhythm and continuity and dissolving them into a succession of climacterics, each to be surmounted by a tour de raison.

Mr. Eisenman sees it differently: “I don’t design houses with the nuclear family idea because I don’t believe in it as a concept . I was interested in doing architecture, not in solving the Falks’ privacy problems.” …Sitting in his Chelsea studio, the architect…said he had shown the Falks plans and models for the house and that cost overruns are an unavoidable risk when embarking on a radical new design. The fact that he has never lived in such a high-concept house (he resides in the John Adams, a Greenwhich Village 1950’s white-brick co-op) seems to him beside the point. [Emphasis added.]

Oakeshott: [The Rationalist’s] mind has no atmosphere, no changes of season and temperature; his intellectual processes, so far as possible, are insulated from all external influence and go on in the void.

…For Richard and Florence Falk, the way light moved through the house helped compensate for the staggering maintenance costs. But living in what amounted to a large sculpture held no allure for Dimitri…The unconventional look of the house branded him an outsider with local children, and the open structure made playing inside impossible, as his parents needed quiet. [Emphasis added.]

Oakeshott: And having cut himself off from the traditional knowledge of his society, and denied the value of any education more extensive than a training in a technique of analysis, he is apt to attribute to mankind a necessary inexperience in all the critical moments of life, and if he were more self-critical he might begin to wonder how the race had ever succeeded in surviving.

…[The new owner Mr. Makau’s] most significant departure [from Mr. Eisenman’s design] is the addition of a chemically treated exterior baseboard, which interrupts the flat wall but eliminates the rot caused by placing plywood directly on the concrete foundation. [Emphasis added]

Oakeshott: To patch up, to repair (that is, to do anything which requires a patient knowledge of the material), he regards as waste of time: and he always prefers the invention of a new device to making use of a current and well-tried expedient.

You know, just when you think philosophy is just a bunch of bloodless abstractions, something like this comes along and smacks you in the face. Thanks for the recommendation to read Michael Oakeshott, I’ll be doing lots more of it in the future.



posted by Friedrich at October 12, 2002


Post a comment

Email Address:



Remember your info?