Michael Oakeshott (3680 words)

  • Peter Christopher Grosvenor (Pacific Lutheran University )
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Michael Joseph Oakeshott (1901-90) was one of the most distinguished British philosophers of the twentieth century. He was the leading exponent of philosophical idealism, specializing in political philosophy and in the history of political thought. Despite his life-long detachment from practical politics, his work has exercised an important influence on modern conservative thinking.

The turning point in Oakeshott’s academic career came in 1951, when he was appointed as chair of the Government Department at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), succeeding the socialist political theorist Harold Laski. His political philosophy was deeply indebted to Hegel, but Thomas Hobbes emerged as a special concentration.

Oakeshott’s writings are often judged to be difficult on account of his discursive literary style, his enduring resistance to over-simplification, his preference for metaphor over contemporary or even historical examples, and his abstention from translating his ideas into political advocacy. But those qualities may also be identified by his devotees as the principal virtues of his work, accommodating as they do the nuance, subtlety, irony, and practical disengagement that are integral to Oakeshott’s thinking.

As a philosophical idealist, Oakeshott wrote against the grain of twentieth-century British epistemology, which was dominated by empiricism – the contention that sense perception is the only true source of knowledge. Metaphysics – philosophy that looks for totalizing accounts of reality – is dismissed by empiricists as nonsensical. It was in this hostile intellectual context that Oakeshott published Experience and its Modes (1933), the last major philosophical work written in the British idealist tradition – idealist epistemology contending that all knowledge is intellectual, necessarily consisting of meanings and interpretations beyond which there is no objective reality.

In Experience and its Modes, Oakeshott defends philosophical inquiry against the growing demands that it align itself with the methodologies of science, and that it devote itself to the solution of practical problems. The account of philosophy it offers is more modest than its rivals in denying the capacity of philosophy to issue practical prescriptions, yet at the same time considerably more ambitious in assigning it the role of pursuing a completely coherent account of all experience.

Oakeshott maintains that we encounter and interpret the world through distinct modes of experience, or what he would later call “conditional platforms of understanding” (On Human Conduct (hereafter OHM), 2-3). Oakeshott is clear that the modes are not separate from experience as a whole; rather they are experience as a whole viewed from a self-limiting standpoint. This is to say that each mode is internally coherent but also that each stands in the way of total intellectual coherence. Though the number of experiential modes is in principle limitless, Oakeshott initially distinguished between history, science, and practice. In a later essay, “The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind” (1959), he added art and aesthetics.

The historical mode of experience is “the real world as a whole comprehended under the category of the past” (Experience and its Modes (hereafter EM), 124). Scientific experience is “a world conceived under the category of quantity”, i.e., an investigation of reality that encompasses only its measurable aspects and excludes all else (EM 171). The world of practice is “the tireless pursuit of a more satisfying way of life” (EM 320). It is the mode with which we are necessarily preoccupied, and its chief considerations are pragmatism and utility. Finally, the aesthetic mode, for Oakeshott, means “contemplating and delighting” in visual or imaginary images (“The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind” (hereafter “VP”), in Rationalism in Politics (hereafter RP), 23-24).

This modal subdivision of experience sets two major intellectual traps. Firstly, a mode of experience may be confused with experience as a whole, with other modes being discounted to one extent or another. And, secondly, the modes may intrude upon each other, resulting in what Oakeshott terms ignoratio elenchi, or what more recent academic discourse might call category errors. The result of such errors is to “turn what is valuable into something worthless by dragging it into the wrong market” (EM 311) Attempts by thinkers such as Marx, Spengler, Toynbee, or Bury to write “scientific history” would be a case in point: science and history are distinct modes of experience whose foundational premises cannot inform one another.

Oakeshott, then, establishes the various modes as necessarily distinct, discreet, and partial versions of experience. The quest for non-modal experience is the concern of philosophy, which is transcendent of the modes. Philosophy, as Oakeshott conceives of it, is self-justifying pure inquiry that is free of the arbitrary presuppositions that give the modes their merely internal coherence. It is nothing less than the pursuit of a fully coherent world of experience from which nothing is excluded.

Though the Oakeshott of the 1930s saw philosophy as in this way transcendent of the modes, and even antagonistic towards them as barriers to the sought-after unity, by the 1950s this Hegelian monism had given way to a more pluralist reconceptualization of the modes as “voices” in a “conversation”. Here, philosophy is recast as “the impulse to study the quality and style of each voice, and to reflect upon the relationship of one voice to another” (VP 200) It reflects upon the nature of the conversation but, as previously, it cannot itself become a part of it.

This epistemological readjustment notwithstanding, Oakeshott consistently cautioned against philosophy’s capture by the built-in assumptions of modal inquiry. He argued that it is especially imperative that philosophy resist the ever-present temptations to intrude itself into the world of practice. Oakeshott insisted that “philosophy is without any direct bearing on the practical conduct of life” (EM 1). To call upon philosophy to resolve practical problems is to misunderstand the nature of both philosophy and practice: philosophy is the ongoing quest for coherence, whereas practice entails the improvised and time-limited response to circumstantial contingency. Therefore, practical problem-solving is no more the business of philosophers than intellectual consistency is the business of practitioners. Contrary to Plato, philosophers can only become kings at the expense of their status as philosophers.

On the basis of his unequivocal separation of philosophy from practice, Oakeshott developed a trenchant critique of the rationalism that he saw as the dominant feature of modern European politics. This critique is presented concisely in the essay “Rationalism in Politics” (1947), written against the background of transformative socialist planning initiatives in Britain.

By rationalism, Oakeshott meant the propensity to justify political practice by reference to a consistent and clearly articulated doctrine – or ideology – in which identifiable first principles inform and mandate progressive change. Despite its philosophical appearance, rationalism properly belongs to the practical mode, and its great practitioners include Godwin, Owen, Bentham, and Marx. The chief characteristics of rationalist politics are a confidence in a universal human reason, a belief in the possibilities of social engineering, and the profession of utopian goals.

For Oakeshott, rationalism as an approach to politics was irredeemably flawed on account of three intrinsic errors. Firstly, it fails to recognise the dialectical interrelationship between theory and practice, attempting instead to subordinate the latter to the former. Secondly, it entails a universalist standardization that comes into conflict with the diversity of lived experience. A precondition for any rationalist political schema, Oakeshott maintains, is the disregard of non-rational and parochial sources of authority such as prejudice, tradition, and habit – all of which are understood only as impediments to rational change. As a result, the rationalist is always deracinated – likened by Oakeshott to someone whose only language is Esperanto. And, thirdly, when the homogeneity of reason is contradicted by the heterogeneity of lived experience, rationalism becomes coercive in its efforts to achieve the desired uniformity.

In the essay “The Tower of Babel” (1948), Oakeshott attacked rationalism’s claims to be the suitable basis of morality. Morality, for Oakeshott, emerges from the conversations and disagreements within real communities over time. To hold that morality begins as abstract thought which is then implemented in practice is comparable to saying that a poet’s thoughts occur first in prose and are then expressed poetically (“The Tower of Babel” in RP, 73). Oakeshott regretted that European morality had become abstract. Although the rate and extent of morality’s abstraction had accelerated since the Renaissance, Oakeshott thought that the process could be traced back to the first four centuries of Christian history, over which time Christianity ceased to be the customary behaviour of actual Christian communities and became instead an ideology with abstract and universalist ethical claims.

Oakeshott’s lament for the usurpation of morality-as-lived-habit by morality-as-reason reveals the nature of his sympathies for political conservatism. In the essay “On Being Conservative” (1956), Oakeshott attempted to articulate a conservatism that was an expressly non-ideological corrective to the errors of rationalist politics. In his rendition, conservatism is not restricted to the postulates with which it is readily associated, not least by conservatives themselves. Some conservatives posit that an aversion to change is an aspect of human nature; others rest their conservatism on Original Sin; others, still, on an organic conception of society. Or, in the specifically English context, Royalism and Anglicanism may be given pride of place.

Oakeshott acknowledges the importance of these considerations to those who self-identify as conservatives. But his objective in this essay is to articulate a conservatism that is not dependent upon any of them, as either facts or assumptions. The conservatism he presents is a temperament—a disposition to value and enjoy the present and what it offers, rather than to strive for an ideal future, or return to a romanticized past:

To be conservative, then, is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss. Familiar relationships and loyalties will be preferred to the allure of more profitable attachments; to acquire and to enlarge will be less important than to keep, to cultivate and to enjoy; the grief of loss will be more acute than the excitement of novelty or promise. It is to be equal to one’s own fortune, to live at the level of one’s own means, to be content with the want of greater perfection which belongs alike to oneself and one’s circumstances. (“On Being Conservative”, in RP 169)

This conservatism does not derive from a conception of human nature or of the nature of society. It does not presuppose the truth or falsity of any religious belief. And it is not intrinsically invested in any specific institutions or set of institutions. But if conservatism is an appreciation of what is, then it requires an appropriate mode of response to the change that is an unavoidable feature of life. For Oakeshott, it is precisely when we are confronted with change that we are, or should be, disposed to be conservative. This is because innovation is hazardous—always producing more changes than intended, with unforeseen consequences, some of which may entail negative consequences outweighing the benefits of the intended change.

Reflecting on these hazards, Oakeshott draws three conclusions. Firstly, the risk that negatives may exceed positives places the burden of proof on the advocates for change. Secondly, change is less likely to prove harmful if it is an outgrowth of existing conditions, rather than an external imposition. And, thirdly, change should confine itself as far as possible to the rectification of a specific problem, rather than aim at the fundamental transformation of conditions as a whole.

Oakeshott’s anti-rationalism, and his articulation of the conservative disposition, informed the New Right, or Thatcherite, attack on the economic and social planning of Britain’s post-war consensus politics. But it should be noted that Thatcherism was itself deeply indebted to the rationalist economic and political theories of classical liberalism, as represented in Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom (1944) and The Constitution of Liberty (1960). As Oakeshott noted, “a plan to resist all planning may be better than its opposite, but it belongs to the same style of politics” (“Rationalism in Politics” in RP, 21).

Oakeshott did not seek political influence. He consistently maintained that philosophy could be of no practical import and, in any case, he was very sceptical about the efficacy of political action – a scepticism he advanced in “Political Education” (1951), his inaugural lecture at the LSE. In that lecture, Oakeshott defined politics as “the activity of attending to the general arrangements of a collection of people who, in respect of their common recognition of a manner of attending to its arrangements, compose a single community” (“Political Education” (hereafter “PE”) in Fuller, 47). The choice of the term “attending to” rather than, say, “making” is significant because, in Oakeshott’s terms, there are no clean sheets or fresh starts in politics.

Oakeshott then considers the basis upon which arrangements should be attended to. Neither the practice of politics, nor its academic study, can be confined to an empirical concentration upon actions taken towards the satisfaction of wants. This is because wants themselves only make sense in a cultural context. For the same reason, neither the practice nor the study of politics should be approached ideologically: ideologies are always abstractions from, and simplifications of, the broader culture, and they function as the rationalization of goals already set. Instead, it is the study of tradition that is the most fruitful path to political understanding, both in practice and theory. “To suppose a collection of people without recognized traditions of behaviour, or one which enjoyed arrangements which intimated no direction for change”, Oakeshott writes, “is to suppose a people incapable of politics” (PE 147).

But, as Oakeshott readily acknowledges, a tradition is a “tricky thing to get to know” (PE 151). But while tradition is elusive, it is by no means unintelligible. Its study is viable because, as Oakeshott expresses it, “all its parts do not change at the same time”, and “the changes it undergoes are potential within it” (ibid.) Successful political changes, he argues, are always those intimated by tradition. He contends, for example, that the enfranchisement of women in Britain did not arise from natural rights theory, which had been around for centuries previous. Instead, women acquired the right to vote because social and economic changes in their status had already rendered their non-enfranchisement incoherent within British society as a whole: female suffrage was intimated by tradition.

If the intimations of tradition are accepted as the limits of successful political innovation, politics ceases to be an arena in which purposeful action can reasonably be expected to affect change deemed desirable on the basis of ideals or first principles. Viewed from this perspective, politicians are not architects but stewards. Oakeshott himself preferred a nautical metaphor:

In political activity, then, men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting-place nor appointed destination. The enterprise is to keep afloat on an even keel; the sea is both friend and enemy; and the seamanship consists in using the resources of a traditional manner of behaviour in order to make a friend of every hostile occasion. (PE 149-50)

Oakeshott accepts that this assessment may depress those who are invested in the transformative power of politics, though he maintains that such depression arises from the dashing of hopes that were in any case false.

Oakeshott’s ideas on the limited potential of politics were elaborated upon by the theory of the state he set out in On Human Conduct (1975). In this work, Oakeshott distinguished between “enterprise association” and “civil association” as rival models of the state, and it is probably this distinction – rather than his specific writings on conservatism – that has formed the basis of his influence on conservative politics in modern Britain.

The defining feature of an enterprise association is that it is purposive. Its members are brought into association with one another expressly for the pursuit of goals held in common. In such an association, the goals of individual members are subordinated to the shared and unifying goal. The basis of civil association, by contrast, is not the possession of common goals but a subscription to common moral practices expressed in law, the function of which is to establish the ways in which the members of the association may legitimately determine and pursue their own goals, either individually or in association with others. However, this is not to be confused with the classical liberal position, according to which the individual is distinct from society and enters into society in order to pursue goals through relationships which are always essentially contractual. For Oakeshott, this conception of the individual is an abstraction; in reality, individuals are always culturally embedded, and the goals they pursue reflect that embeddedness.

The state-as-enterprise-association has a sovereign purpose greater than a simple aggregate of particular purposes – something in the nature of the general will as described by Rousseau. In fact, associations formed for the pursuit of particular purposes would be incompatible with a state constituted on this basis. Politics in the state-as-enterprise-association is devoted to the pursuit of an ideal, and the state becomes a custodian of the individual, who consequently lives in a condition of “warm, compensated servility” (OHC 317). But the state-as-civil-association has no sovereign goal, and it is a custodian not of the individual but of respublica [sic] – the authoritative terms on which individuals associate. Politics in this kind of state are confined to deliberations over the desirability or otherwise of changes in respublica (OHC 168).

While he saw civil association as the appropriate form of the state, Oakeshott was equally clear that neither the civil association nor the enterprise association model manifested itself in pure form, and he presented the tension between them as fundamental to any understanding of the development of modern European political history. In fact, this tension took precedence over, and permeated, that between the right and the left (for an analysis of British politics from this perspective, see Greenleaf).

In addition to his political theory, Oakeshott also developed a philosophy of education through occasional lectures and essays later compiled in The Voice of Liberal Learning (1989). For Oakeshott, what is liberal about liberal learning is its emancipation from what he once termed the danse macabre of want satisfaction in the practical world (“Education: The Engagement and its Frustration”, in VLL 93). In fact, in “The Idea of a University” (1950), Oakeshott identified the “most characteristic gift” of a university education as the respite it offered from the demands of practical life (“The Idea of a University”, in VLL, 101). However, he also perceived that the university was sacrificing its traditional role as a sequestered place of cooperative learning, increasingly devoting its energies and resources instead to vocational training and to engagement with world problems.

Oakeshott’s educational philosophy also engaged with the methodological debates within intellectual inquiry, especially as they pertained to the status of the social sciences. He recognized the importance to liberal education of Geisteswissenschaften, or human sciences, by which he meant human conduct within intelligible cultures and traditions, subject to disciplined and ordered study. However, he was a profound sceptic in relation to the social sciences. Firstly, the term “social” reflected the post-Durkheimian assumption that the specifically social dimension can be abstracted from the organic cultural whole and treated as a discrete level of analysis. And, secondly, “science” had come increasingly to connote not disciplined and ordered study but the quantitative methodology of the natural sciences – a confusion in the modes of experience.

These methodological criticisms can be seen most clearly, perhaps, in his treatment of economics – arguably the most developed of the social sciences because it studies the human activities that are most amenable to quantification. But in Oakeshott’s estimation, economics made abstract and reductionist assumptions about “rational economic man” that failed to capture the full complexity of human conduct (OHC 45). Similarly, he regretted that psychology had reclassified itself as a natural rather than a human science, and he held that sociology and anthropology were best approached as essentially historical fields of inquiry (“A Place of Learning”, in VLL 36).

He wrote in the same terms about the study of politics. For Oakeshott, students of politics have no alternative but to treat institutions, ideologies, events, personalities, and the whole panoply of the political world, as aspects of the historical circumstances, cultural contexts, and traditions of which they are a part, and from which they cannot be abstracted. Conceived of in this way, politics is a not a discipline but a subject, appropriately investigated through the disciplinary methodologies of historical studies, reflected upon philosophically. Consequently, “political science” – a disciplinarily autonomous and quantitative approach to the study of politics – is a misnomer resting on a category error.

The growing interest in Michael Oakeshott expresses itself in new editions of his writings and in a proliferation of secondary works. Despite Oakeshott’s careful distancing of philosophy from practice, his ideas have exercised an important influence on conservative political thought in modern Britain, in both its libertarian New Right and its post-Thatcherite Red Tory incarnations. But there is also evidence that his ideas are attracting interest from a widening spectrum of thinkers. For example, the “Blue Labour” school of British socialism invokes Oakeshott in its criticisms of marketization, deregulation, and globalization. Similarly, communitarian political theorists have drawn upon Oakeshott’s emphasis on traditional ways of living in order to defend multiculturalism (see Blond; Glasman at al; Parekh). However, in the philosophy of education, Oakeshott’s traditionalism has visibly lost ground as educational institutions emphasize the practical and vocational, and as the social sciences base themselves increasingly upon quantitative methods.

Works cited

Blond, P. Red Tory. London: Faber & Faber, 2010.
Glasman, M., J. Rutherford, M. Stears & S. White, eds. The Labour Tradition and the Politics of Paradox. E-book: http://www.soundings.org.uk/
Greenleaf, W.H. The British Political Tradition. Vol.1. The Rise of Collectivism, London: Methuen, 1983.
Oakeshott,Michael. On Human Conduct. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975.
---. Experience and its Modes. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
---. Rationalism in Politics and other essays. London: Methuen, 1981.
---. “Political Education.” Ed. T. Fuller. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989.
Parekh, B. Re-thinking Multiculturalism. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2000.

Grosvenor, Peter Christopher. "Michael Oakeshott". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 30 December 2011
[https://www.litencyc.com/php/speople.php?rec=true&UID=12314, accessed 18 October 2017.]

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