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Summary Article: Oakeshott, Michael
from Encyclopedia of Modern Political Thought

Michael Oakeshott (1901–90) was one of the major political philosophers of the twentieth century. Since his death, there has been a tremendous growth of scholarly interest in and exploration of his work, which has shown him to be more complex and multifaceted than was appreciated during his lifetime. He studied history at Cambridge, where he remained a university lecturer in history until the end of the 1940s. He volunteered for World War II, where he served in British intelligence but also on the front lines. After a brief time at Oxford after the war, he became a professor of political science at the London School of Economics in 1951, which his father (who was a Fabian socialist) had helped found. He preserved his tie with the school long after his retirement in 1967 and continued until the 1980s to participate actively in the famous graduate seminar in the history of political thought that he had founded.

Oakeshott's work has been both academically and more broadly culturally appropriated under three different rubrics that do not often coexist: conservatism, postmodernism, and liberalism. He has made important and distinctive contributions to all three areas of theorizing. Oakeshott believed that all varieties of modern politics from the extreme right to the extreme left manifested a common tendency toward rationalism. According to Oakeshott, the rationalist is simultaneously committed to gnosticism (that a privileged and specially trained elite is privy to secret knowledge of the whole that forms one's field of judgment), the primacy of ideology over theory, and the need and the possibility of attaining certainty. To the collective personality of the rationalist, Oakeshott counterposes one who sees politics as “the pursuit of intimations” of the steps and missteps of the past and who undertakes piecemeal corrections and redirections of earlier initiatives. Notions such as tacit knowledge, tradition, custom, habit, and the primacy of the irrational over the rational in human nature play a much larger role in the conduct and structure of politics than the rationalist is capable of acknowledging.

Oakeshott's contribution to postmodernist theorizing consists of his steadfast adherence from his earlier to his later writings to the notion that there is no absolute distinction between a fact and a theory. A fact is merely a theory that one is not willing or able at any given moment in time to probe or interrogate any further. All of our knowledge comes freighted with presuppositions that cannot be unpacked or resolved without engendering further presuppositions. Oakeshott considered the role of philosophy to be to diagnose what he called the “conditionalities” (the particular assumptions and theoretical commitments) that colored the different regions, or what he referred to as the “modes” of experience. For Oakeshott, the chief modes of experience were practice, science, and history, and he later came to add poetry or aesthetic experience. Since philosophy cannot disclose to us anything new about the world or particular regions of experience within it, Oakeshott in his later writings drew an analogy with the activity of engaging in a conversation: In a conversation, there are no secure starting points or termination points. One can begin and leave off virtually anywhere. What is precisely underscored in conversation is the “conditionality” of all starting points and the consequent inconclusiveness of what are taken to be end points.

Oakeshott's contributions to liberal theory exemplify the same tendencies of thought that are manifested in his conservatism and postmodernism. Oakeshott favors those types of state that pattern themselves on the ideal of what he calls societas, whose mode of relationship is formal in terms of rules and is highly critical of modern states that assimilate themselves to the model of “enterprise associations” pursuing the goals of what he calls universitas, whose principle of association is a common substantive purpose. In his embrace of societas over universitas, Oakeshott advocates for a sheerly formal, instrumentalized relationship subsisting between the public and the private sphere, with the major focus of human activity centering on the private sphere. There seems to be a clear line in Oakeshott connecting his mistrust of reason expressed in his antipathy toward rationalism in politics and his epistemological critique of the possibility of certainty with his ideal-typological characterization of the liberal state as one preoccupied with the legislation and enforcement of formal rules.

See also Conservatism; Human Nature, Theories of; Liberalism; Obedience, Political; Political Philosophy and Political Thought; Postmodernism and Political Theory; Psychoanalysis and Political Thought; Twentieth-Century Political Thought

Further Readings
  • Oakeshott, Michael. (1933) 1995. Experience and its Modes. Reprint, Cambridge University Press Cambridge, UK.
  • Oakeshott, Michael. 1975. On Human Conduct. Oxford University Press Oxford, UK.
  • Oakeshott, Michael. 1991. Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays. Liberty Press Indianapolis.
  • Aryeh Botwinick
    Copyright © 2013 CQ Press

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