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Michael Oakeshott’s Philosophy of History

Here are some extracts by the man who first set me on the road to Oakeshott some twenty years ago – Geoff Thomas. Geoff has a philosophy of history book coming out soon – and I can tell you it’s a cracker.

What Oakeshott said about history—his canonical philosophical view about the nature of historical inquiry—can be summed up in four theses: (1) the past does not exist, only the present; (2) only experience exists; (3) the historical past is an inferential construction from experience; (4) historical inquiry is autonomous, not a part of or ancillary to either science or practice.

My own view is that the interest of his views on history does not depend on the modal apparatus, and this for two reasons. In the first place, I do not think that Oakeshott offers a sufficiently detailed and sophisticated analysis of the concept of a mode to vindicate its structural role. Second, his distinctive views—that the past does not exist, that only experience exists, that the historical past is an inferential construction from present experience, that historical inquiry is impartial, neutral, and autonomous, and that causation has no part to play in historical explanation—can be set out and appraised without reference to the modes.

Finally, we must take note of the “us” in “what the evidence obliges us to believe.” Who are we? Given the widespread and intractable nature of certain historical controversies, there may on occasion be a reluctance to go beyond “what the evidence obliges me to believe.” We needn’t reduce the matter to Rorty’s “what our peers will, ceteris paribus, let us get away with saying,” but there is a sense in Oakeshott of a community of historians engaged in the project of constructing the historical past and in appraising one another’s constructions by a shared set of standards.

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Michael Oakeshott’s Philosophy of History

In the countdown to October 19th here is the intro to Geoff Thomas’ chapter:

Omnis determinatio est negatio, says Spinoza: to specify the nature of anything is also illuminatingly to say what it is not. This remark, whatever its general force, applies exactly to Michael Oakeshott’s philosophy of history. Oakeshott is a polemicist, a prince of skeptics, throughout his writings on the nature of history. To be sure his position can be characterized positively: he is a constructionist. He holds that the historical past is an inferential construction from present experience. So, clearly enough, here’s the first negative: Oakeshott rejects any idea of the reality of the past. The past does not exist; if it did, the historian would not need to construct it inferentially or in any other way. It would just be there, open to investigation.

The non-reality of the past is a major negative theme. Another of Oakeshott’s principal themes, that of the autonomy of history, also carries heavy negative implications. Oakeshott has a strong sense of the autonomy of history. Historical inquiry has its own internal impetus. It defines its own problems, poses its own questions, and has sole authority in regard to its methods. Its practitioners also decide who is a good or competent historian. Oakeshott’s insistence on autonomy is not accompanied by very much if anything of a methodology of history as a specific craft of inquiry. But it does carry some punchy negatives. One of these is a rejection of scientific categories from historical explanation. More precisely, Oakeshott will have nothing to do with causal explanation in history. The notion of cause is a mistaken intrusion — an outside interference — from the scientific realm. Nor is science the only source of irrelevant categories. The realm of practice sends its saboteurs into historical inquiry, and the price of history is eternal vigilance against them. Practice obtrudes its unwelcome attentions in three ways: one, by seeking to use history as a repository of practical wisdom, as a guide through analogies and parallels to the current world; two, by moral judgment on historical phenomena; and three, by false teleology, projecting ends, goals, processes as inherent in the course of historical events. It is hardly too much to say that Oakeshott’s positive theory of history is a coda to the rehearsal of these errors: the errors of assuming the reality of the past, of applying the category of causation to historical inquiry, and of allowing the intrusion of practical considerations into the work of the historian. In his own terms Oakeshott is concerned with “the philosophy of history” in the sense of an inquiry “about the nature of historical truth and the validity of historical knowledge” (WIH 203). He is not occupied with the methodology of historical research (e.g., how to decide whether there are too many or two few word-dividers on a putative Ugarit tablet) or with speculative delineations of great historical patterns such as we find in St. Augustine’s de Civitate Dei, in Hegel’s Lectures on the Philosophy of History or in Spengler’s The Decline of the West.

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Discount on Oakeshott Companion

In anticipation of the publication date (October) Penn State University Press are offering a 20% discount off the cover price of A Companion to Michael Oakeshott – download form here.