Michael Oakeshott

From Academic Kids

Michael Joseph Oakeshott (11 December 1901 - 19 December 1990) was an English philosopher with particular interests in political thought, the nature of history as a form of knowledge, the philosophies of education and religion, and aesthetics. His father, Joseph Oakeshott, was a civil servant and a leading member of the Fabian Society. The family moved in intellectual circles; George Bernard Shaw was a friend. Michael Oakeshott attended St. George's School in Harpenden from 1912 to 1920. He enjoyed his schooldays, and the Headmaster Cecil Grant later became a friend. In 1920 he went up to read history at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge University, where he also took his MA, and subsequently became a Fellow. While at Cambridge he admired tutors such as the last of the great Victorian British Idealist philosophers, J. Ellis McTaggart, and the medieval historian Zachary Brooke. The historian Herbert Butterfield was a contemporary and fellow member of the Junior Historians society to which Oakeshott presented several papers in the 1920s.

Oakeshott's early work, some of which has been published posthumously as What is History? And Other Essays (2004), shows that he became more interested in the philosophical problems arising from his historical studies than in being an historian himself at an early stage of his intellectual career. Although employed as an historian at Cambridge Oakeshott's first published book, Experience and its Modes (1933), was a work of philosophy. The book itself owed much to Hegel and F.H. Bradley, but also to Plato and Spinoza, from whom he took the vocabulary of modality. It argued that our experience is often modal, in the sense that we always have a governing perspective on the world, be it practical or theoretical. There were various theoretical approaches one could take to understanding the world — natural science and history were separate modes of experience — but they were distinct from one another. It was a mistake, he always argued, to treat history as if it ought to be practised on the model of the natural sciences.

Philosophy, however, was not a modal arrest. At this stage of his career, Oakeshott tended to see philosophy (the world seen sub specie aeternitatis, literally, 'under the species of eternity') as the most satisfactory form of experience, in the sense that it remained free from presuppositions, whereas the theoretical modes of science and history and the practical mode relied for their relative stability as coherent forms of experience on certain assumptions 'arrests' in the natural tendency of experience to criticise itself. Later (there is some disagreement about exactly when), Oakeshott abandoned this view of philosophy as first among equals, adopting an entirely pluralistic view of the various modes of experience in which philosophy became just one 'voice' amongst others, though it retained its thoroughly reflexive, self-scrutinising character.

The dominating principles of scientific and historical thought were quantity (the world sub specie quantitatis) and pastness (the world sub specie praeteritorum), respectively. Oakeshott's insistence that the historian explains the past in terms of its own past was not a methodological observation but a philosophical one; he wanted to distinguish the academic perspective on the past from the practical one, in which the past is always seen in terms of its relevance to our present and future. His insistence on the autonomy of historical thought placed him close to R.G. Collingwood, a noted Oxford philosopher of the day who also argued for the autonomy of historical knowledge.

The practical world-view (the world sub specie voluntatis), Oakeshott believed, took circumstantial though not logical priority over the other perspectives or 'modes'. It presupposed and therefore could not question the ideas of will and of value in terms of which practical action in the arenas of politics, economics, and ethics made sense. Because all action is conditioned by presuppositions, Oakeshott was inclined to see any attempt to change the world in any way as reliant on a scale of values which themselves presupposed a historic context of experience. Even the conservative disposition to maintain the status quo is, in fact, at best an approach to managing inevitable change, he would later argue in an essay 'On Being Conservative'. Although he did not actively discuss politics in Experience and its Modes (1933), it is possible to see how the cautious streak in his writings on politics grew out of his broader philosophy.

Oakeshott was dismayed by the descent into political extremism that took place in Europe in the 1930s, and his surviving lectures from this period show that his dislike of National Socialism was particularly intense, though he certainly had no time for Marxism either, despite its popularity in certain sections of his own faculty at Cambridge. He was a severe critic, for example, of the Cambridge historian E.H. Carr, the author of a history of Soviet Russia, claiming that Carr had effectively adopted the standpoint of a Bolshevik sympathiser in his historical work, though he also recognised Carr's achievement in having assembled such a vast array of material. Although he defended the right of the individual not to become directly involved in political action in an essay on 'The Claims of Politics' (1939), he joined the British army to fight in 1941, and was on active service in Europe with the famous intelligence unit Phantom which had SAS connections, though Oakeshott himself was never in the front line. When he demobilised in 1945, he returned to Cambridge, but only stayed until 1947, when he left for Nuffield College, Oxford University. He spent only a year there, as he secured an appointment as Professor of Political Science at the London School of Economics from 1950 until his retirement in 1969. He was deeply unsympathetic to the student action at LSE which occurred in the late 1960s, seeing it as disrupting the aims of the university.

It was during this period that Oakeshott published what became his best known work during his lifetime, the collection entitled Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays (1962). Some of the polemics against the political direction post-WW2 Britain was taking, in which he focussed on a perceived slide towards socialism, gained Oakeshott a reputation as a conservative, concerned with the importance of tradition, and sceptical about rationalism and fixed ideologies. It was at this time that Bernard Crick described him as a 'lonely nihilist'. Oakeshott's opposition to what he regarded as utopian political projects Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays is summed up in his use of the image (possibly borrowed from Halifax, a seventeenth-century English author whom he admired)of a metaphorical ship of state which has "neither starting-place nor appointed destination. The enterprise is to keep afloat". However, not all of Oakeshott's output at this time was polemical; in an essay on The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind (1959) he decided that artistic experience should be added to the list of the distinct 'modes', and was not, as he had earlier argued, part of the practical attitude to the world.

Oakeshott's considered political philosophy, advanced in On Human Conduct, is subtle and far removed from party politics of any persuasion. It was divided into three parts. The first part develops a theory of human action as the exercise of intelligent agency in activities such as wanting and choosing, the second discusses the formal conditions of association appropriate to such intelligent agents, described as 'civil' or legal association, and the third examines how far this understanding of human association has affected the history of politics and political ideas in post-Renaissance European history. Oakeshott suggested that in fact there had been two major schools of political thought and practice. In the first, which he called 'enterprise' association, the state was understood as imposing some universal purpose (profit, salvation, progress, racial domination) on its subjects in which they were forced to participate. 'Civil' association however was primarily a legal relationship, in which laws imposed obligatory conditions of action but did not require choosing one action rather than another. Oakeshott used the linguistic analogy of the adverb to describe the kind of restraint law involves. For example, the law against murder is not a law against killing as such, but only a law against killing 'murderously'. Or, a more trivial example, the law does not dictate that I have a car, but if I do, I have to drive it on the same side of the road as everybody else. This contrasted with the rules of enterprise association in which those actions required by the directing purpose were made compulsory for all.

In certain respects, Oakeshott's mature political thought can intially appear to involve a complete reversal of his earliest views. In his earliest essays Oakeshott can be found arguing, in rationalistic fashion and under the influence of Plato and Spinoza, that the way to knowledge of a thing is correct definition. If we want to understand our government and politics in a truly philosophical way, for example, a definition of 'the state' had to be produced. In his later writings this position appears at first to have been abandoned; the first third of human conduct is devoted to developing a conception of knowledge ineluctably shaped by experience shot through with temporality. There is a difference between historical experience and ordinary experience, but ordinary experience is not the less 'historic' for not being historical in the theoretical, scholarly, sense; some kind of understanding of the past, not to mention of the future, are inseparable from our ordinary consciousness, according to Oakeshott. When we talk about 'political memory', or institutional continuity, or patriotism, or tradition, all these terms are laden with temporal associations. They may be put to use in practical political discourse, though some of them are also used in a different way by historians, in the course of which the terms themselves may become the subjects of historical investigation. Yet Oakeshott did not embrace an historicism in which philosophy turned into history, as Collingwood sometimes argued that it should. The second part of On Human Conduct is still devoted, in a sense, to the task of a definition of the state, only this task has been reconceived as the construction of an ideal model of 'civil association' which goes unreified and is not a replacement or substitute of any kind for the historical account which is offered in the third part.

Unpacking the complex and often technical style of On Human Conductis much harder work for the reader than the lively and accessible polemics found in Rationalism in Politics, however, and ensured On Human Conduct found far fewer readers. Its initial reception was mostly one of bafflement, and Oakeshott, who rarely replied to his critics, was particularly sarcastic to some of the contributors to a symposium on the book published in the journal Political Theory in 1976.

The final work Oakeshott published in his own lifetime, On History (1983) returned to the idea of history as a distinct mode of experience, but built on the theory of action developed for On Human Conduct. Much of On History had in fact been written at the same time, in the early 1970s: Oakeshott was never hasty in publication. In the mid-1960s, Oakeshott had publicly declared an admiration for the nineteenth-century philosopher Wilhelm Dilthey, one of the pioneers of hermeneutics or the philosophical study of meaning, and On History can be interpreted as an attempt to continue the essentially neo-Kantian enterprise of working out the conditions of the possibility of historical knowledge that Dilthey had begun. The first three essays in the book set out the distinction between the present of historical experience and the present of practical experience, as well as the concepts of an historical situation, an historical event, and what is meant by change in history. This attempt at something like a deduction of the categories of historical thought is controversial; other notable philosophers of history, such as the American Leon Goldstein, have rejected it in favour of the philosophical examination of actual historical practice. Oakeshott, however, believed that even if the discipline of history had never come into existence, it would still have been a possible philosophical enterprise to ask what the conditions of a way of thinking that understands the past in terms of its own past would need to be.

On History also included an essay on jurisprudence ('The Rule of Law') and a pessimistic re-telling in the modern setting of the story of 'The Tower of Babel', in which modern Western societies fall victim to their own materialism and greed. It is perhaps no surprise, given this dislike of much that came with modernity, that in his retirement Oakeshott retreated to live quietly in a country cottage in Dorset. He lived long enough to enjoy growing recognition of his philosophical writings, and has become far more widely written about since his death.

Oakeshott's other works included a documentary reader on The Social and Political Doctrines of Contemporary Europe consisting of selected texts illustrating the main doctrines of liberalism, national socialism, fascism, communism, and roman catholicism (1939). He was editor of an edition of Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan (1946), for which he provided an introduction recognised as a significant contribution to the literature by later scholars such as Quentin Skinner, another former Gonville and Caius student. Several of Oakeshott's essays on Hobbes were published in 1975 as Hobbes on Civil Association. He wrote, with his Cambridge colleague Guy Griffith, A Guide to the Classics, or How to Pick The Derby Winner (1936), a guide to the principles of successful betting on horse-racing; this was his only non-academic work. He was the author of well over 150 essays and reviews, most of which have yet to be republished.

Just before he died, Oakeshott gave his blessing to two edited collections of his works, The Voice of Liberal Learning (1989), a collection of his essays on education, and a second, revised and expanded edition of Rationalism in Politics itself (1991). Posthumous collections of his writings include Morality and Politics in Modern Europe (1993), a lecture series he gave at Harvard in 1958, Religion, Politics, and the Moral Life (1993), essays mostly from his early and middle periods, The Politics of Faith and the Politics of Scepticism (1996), a manuscript from the 1950s contemporary with much of the material in Rationalism in Politics but written in a much more considered tone. The bulk of his papers are now in the Oakeshott archive at the London School of Economics. Further volumes of posthumous writings are in preparation, as is a biography, and the first decade of the twenty-first century has seen the publication of a series of monographs devoted to his work.

Secondary Sources

New works on Oakeshott include Paul Franco's Michael Oakeshott: An Introduction (Yale, 2004) * ( and The Intellectual Legacy of Michael Oakeshott (Imprint, 2005) * (, edited by Timothy Fuller.


The popular blogger and journalist Andrew Sullivan wrote his Ph.D. dissertation at Harvard on Oakeshott.

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