A Commemoration of the Centenary of Oakeshott’s Birth (2001)

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I still have a few copies of a booklet I put together (with very high production values) but more importantly containing some beautifully written, affectionate and insightful essays. Copies are available to anyone who is interested, the only provisor being that you cover the cost of the postage. If you are interested, drop me a line.


Excerpt: Convenor’s Message

I wish to extend the warmest of welcomes to you all, especially to those who have travelled long distances to be here this week. This monograph has been put together as a memento of this, the inaugural conference of the Michael Oakeshott Association, commemorating the centenary of Oakeshott’s birth.

Rather than distributing clutches of perfunctorily photocopied ephemera, we hope this more durable, albeit modest publication, will in years to come conjure up fond memories of both an intellectually stimulating and a socially congenial event. It also serves, in some small way, to acknowledge those who over the past two years have lent their names and, at the outset, offered their support to the then vague idea of an Oakeshott inspired forum. There also all those who on hearing of this inchoate idea contacted me, exuding such enthusiasm that it created the impetus for something more determinate. Amongst them are several who have given generously of their time and, in some cases, financial assistance.

Speaking of financial assistance, we have the distinction of being the beneficiary of assistance from both sides of the Atlantic. We are most grateful to C Boyden Gray and other members of the Gray family (Burton Jr., Hunter and Jane), The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, The British Academy, The Mind Association, Thoemmes Press, Imprint Academic, The British Society for the History of Philosophy, and Mark North: their generosity has allowed us to put on this conference.

We also wish to acknowledge the broader membership whose support is manifested by the fact of their membership.

Finally, we are grateful for the support and interest of the Oakeshott family: we trust that their privacy has not been gratuitously impinged upon and would ask all to abide by the need to preserve their privacy.

That we are here today at all is of endless astonishment to me; no-one could have anticipated the level of interest that had been lying dormant, and in a very Oakeshottian way, this interest just emerged, fortuitously falling in my lap. Conscious of the responsibility I had to the Oakeshott name, to the legacy, to those who early on offered their unconditional support in my efforts, and the expectations of many others, I trust that thus far, this ‘stewardship’ meets with their approval.

Hilary Putnam has said recently that he thinks the philosopher should to some extent disclose himself as a human being. He paraphrases James’ reference to Walt Whitman in lecture one of Pragmatism: ‘who touches this book touches a man’. This notion, the inextricable weave of the man and his work, so clearly exemplified in Oakeshott, calls for some exploration. This ‘tension’ comes through in Robert Orr’s quoting Oakeshott at his retirement dinner as his having “tried to be a philosopher, but happiness kept breaking through.”

I hope that the contributions here will go some way to articulate the appeal of Oakeshott for those unfamiliar with his work. Our speakers are eminently well qualified for this task:

Kenneth Minogue, our first President, was for so long a colleague and bore witness to the fact that ‘Oakeshott was a philosopher down to the tips of his toes’ and that ‘being a philosopher seems to me to have infused his whole character’, a notion that is entirely in tune with the premise behind this conference and the theme of this booklet;

Timothy Fuller, our first Vice-President, describes being captivated literally within the first line of reading Oakeshott’s introduction to Hobbes’ Leviathan. It was several years later that he first met Oakeshott and then Shirley Letwin. And as we all know, both Tim and Shirley have been instrumental in bringing Oakeshott’s already published work to a wider audience and have edited much of Oakeshott’s posthumous work;

Though Oakeshott did not act as supervisor to Noël O’Sullivan, Noël went on to make a distinguished career in academia embodying many of Oakeshott’s virtues – a highly cultivated philosophical mind, never jaded and always very generous with his time.

Anthony Quinton is ‘a philosopher’s philosopher’. Tony was part of the Oxford philosophical discussion group founded by AJ Ayer and whose members included PF Strawson, David Pears, Michael Dummett, BF McGuiness, Patrick Gardiner, David Wiggins, John Mackie, Philippa Foot, Paul Grice, GJ Warnock and HLA Hart. Unusually eclectic, Tony retained an interest in the unfashionable Idealists, long before their ‘rehabilitation’;

John Jascoll’s affectionate recollection is a perfect illustration of the value of Oakeshott’s non-instrumental conception of liberal education – his gentle parody of Oakeshott’s precision is reminiscent of JL Austin’s acute sensitivity to nuances of meaning;

Last, but by no means least, Josiah Lee Auspitz. Lee has played a crucial part in this project and one cannot overestimate his contribution. His wise counsel has been the guiding hand behind the Association from the outset.

These names each in their own way are testament to the central value Oakeshott attached to friendship, a value indeed fully consonant with Burton C. Gray’s sentiments expressed in the opening piece. I would go so far as to say that for Oakeshott, friendship was the ‘purest’ form of human association, intrinsic value untainted by any instrumental consideration.

In what follows I offer a critical sketch of how I view Oakeshott’s relationship to political philosophy and philosophy in general and tell of how I came to discover Oakeshott.

I never knew or met Oakeshott; I never even sat in on one of his seminars or lectures. I had not even heard of him until a year or so after his death. Some I suspect would consider these grounds enough to disqualify my participation in such a unique event. If I go some way to meeting this objection, then that is only incidental – this is not intended as an apologia. For like it or not, those who never met Oakeshott now form the greater part of the constituency represented here this week, and indeed, inevitably, the ever increasing percentage of the Association’s membership. And this should be viewed as a very healthy sign – rather than running the risk of Oakeshott’s thought ossifying within the drawing rooms of the cognoscenti, Oakeshott’s thought should be open to the fine-grained interest of the scholar, the expositor, the suggestive interpreter, the merely derivative, the reflective critic, the educated reader, and dare I say it, even open to the vulgarian. This openness would be in keeping with his rejection of the role of ‘preacher’, Oakeshott’s prototype Rationalist, his life-long bête noire, disseminating his ‘gospel’ through disciples. One can only but hope that Oakeshott will not become the focal point of a cult following, similar to that which befell Wittgenstein. And if I’m admonished that this somewhat caustic view is out of place in the genteel world of Oakeshottian civility, then one should be reminded that Oakeshott was himself not above such mischievousness in his talks and polemical writing. A profound admiration tempered by a highly critical eye are not incompatible virtues, in fact they demand it.

That this conference’s theme is ‘Michael Oakeshott – philosopher’ might be perceived by most of you as a natural appellative. This view, however, has not been met with universal acceptance, least of all in professional philosophical circles: the ultimate worth of Oakeshott’s thought is still sub judice. Of course, Oakeshott has received recognition from many within political philosophy – but as I have argued from the outset of this project, if Oakeshott has any worth it is as philosopher, and not merely as political philosopher, as footnote to Idealism or some other Procrustean category that typically attaches itself to his work. As Steven Gerencser has recently pointed out, Oakeshott writing in 1935 against a backdrop of a revival of interest in Hobbes, took the view that in approaching Hobbes as political philosopher, one necessarily recognises Hobbes first and foremost as a philosopher, rather than as political philosopher. This analysis is equally applicable to Oakeshott himself. The problem has been exacerbated in that all too often Oakeshott seems to have been caught in the cross-fire between his most vociferous (and downright ignorant) critics who set up Oakeshott as straw-man, a political bogey-man; and some of his defenders, insufficiently grounded in matters of epistemology, metaphysics and logic (and by implication the philosophy of language and the philosophy of mind), to mount an effective counter-attack. And then there are those who just consider Oakeshott a philosophical dilettante, an outsider not worthy of serious attention. These factors have perpetuated an unduly negative climate for Oakeshott.

I would never have discovered Oakeshott were it left to the political philosophy syllabus of the University of London philosophy study guide, the London colleges comprising one of the largest philosophical communities. This glaring hiatus was mirrored in political theory courses in sociology departments. This cannot but skew the study of political philosophy when such a distinctive colour is omitted from the philosophical palette. Again, I would not have discovered Oakeshott as philosopher of history on a philosophy of social science course, even at one of the epicentres of philosophy of social science, the LSE. (It is gratifying that the BBC recording played here today is of Oakeshott on the philosophy of history, probably the aspect of philosophy closest to his heart.) And of course, in disciplines where an off-the-peg philosophical theory masks the absence of philosophical culture, Oakeshott’s thought would fail miserably at papering over this fissure.

If Oakeshott is a conservative, he is in so highly qualified a sense, that most who go by that name would not recognise or even approve of. It is patently wrong to assimilate Oakeshott to libertarianism and the laissez-faire philosophy of Hayek and Friedman (in the US known as neo-liberals or neo-conservatives) – an unchecked free-market would be too corrosive, indeed incompatible with, Oakeshott’s conception of tradition. The social situatedness of the Oakeshottian moral agent implies a rejection of abstract foundationalist ‘rights talk’ and the making a fetish of self-interested market rationality. Oakeshott as an indivisible complex seems to disconcert and frustrate many (especially the de rigueur ‘left of centre’ positioning of professional academia) – the lesson to be learnt by both ‘left’ and ‘right’ is the futility of looking for necessary and sufficient conditions to characterise an ideology.

Resistance to looking at Oakeshott afresh from the central branches of philosophy, discloses a provincialism on the part of some in political philosophy, and myopia from many in ‘analytical’ circles. If Oakeshott is to be taken seriously as a philosopher it is no longer adequate to roll out perfunctory and inevitably shallow ascriptions of idealism, relativism and anti-naturalism. If Oakeshott is to be domesticated by mainstream philosophy I suggest it be from the side entrance that is the philosophy of social science for it is under this branch of philosophy that Oakeshott, the philosopher of practice par excellence, is most easily located – this despite Oakeshott’s well known view of the complex ‘social science’ as an ignoratio elenchi (a consequence of his hermetically sealed modal realms.) Further, the philosophy of history is now typically studied under the rubric of philosophy of social science. The late Patrick Gardiner, who in the wake of Collingwood made philosophy of history respectable in Oxford, lamented the fact that Oakeshott’s philosophy of history, Oakeshott at his tautest, was overlooked by the editors of the recent voluminous reader emanating from MIT Press.

Oakeshott needs the hand of the rational reconstructionist to excavate the methodological and ontological (individualism and holism) issues that he addresses and map them onto contemporary philosophy of social science. Oakeshott’s key notion of practice or tradition, in other words his socio-political epistemology, often referred to as tacit knowledge (ubiquitous, almost imperceptible, and practically indispensable) is often referred to, but is rarely treated with the subtlety and depth that this complex topic demands. Cognitive scientists have begun to take an interest in the knowing-that/knowing-how distinction, an interest in the delicate interplay between the internal and environmentally embodied, the declarative and the procedural being the clinical counterpart in studies of cognition and the brain. This welcome development puts pressure on the uncritical invocation of Rylean behaviourism and Wittgensteinian notions of rule-governed activity, acculturated activity or ‘forms of life’.

No-one seems to be in any doubt that Oakeshott is an Idealist. While his idealism is certainly not a species of Berkeleian phenomenalism (‘esse est percipi’), mistakenly taken by Moore as the ‘essence’ of Idealism, it is not immediately obvious, to me at least, what species of Idealism it is. Despite the acknowledged provenance to Hegel and Bradley the early idealism of Experience and its Modes is an attenuated and hardly a fully blown Hegelian version. Oakeshott’s later work in On Human Conduct has something of the Kantian critique of the notion of adaequatio intellectus et rei about it. Perhaps Oakeshott’s ‘moderate’ idealism could be located on the anti-realist continuum: leaving aside issues of (Dummett’s) semantics it might be interesting to look at McTaggart’s unreality of the past refracted through Dummett onto Oakeshott. Insofar as Oakeshott’s coherence theory of truth is concerned, it is never spelt out by commentators whether Oakeshott is offering a criterion of truth or a theory of what truth consists in.

Though happy with the company of Wittgenstein, Quine, Strawson, Dummett, Putnam and Kripke, the philosophical experience was for me was still unsatisfactory. I was thoroughly turned off by a voluminous secondary literature increasingly sterile in its technocratic style, seemingly generated merely by the demands of academic industriousness – Oakeshott anticipating this in 1933 writes:

. . . the character of philosophy forbids us to console ourselves with the notion that, if we fail to achieve a coherent view of the whole field, we can at least do honest work in the cultivation of one of its corners. Philosophy has no such corners . . .

On the other hand, if ‘doing real philosophy’, looking at the ‘big picture’ meant reading the turgid likes of Hegel and Heidegger, that too repulsed me – the irony is not lost on me that Oakeshott found these thinkers congenial.

Enter Oakeshott. Little did I know that the spirit of Oakeshott was before me in the guise of my tutor Geoffrey Thomas, long before I’d even heard Oakeshott’s name. Geoffrey, himself a student of Oakeshott, is that now rare breed of academic who unconditionally engages with his students, always accessible, not self-absorbed, never just going through the motions. Over the years his familiar refrain was ‘never mind whether or not you agree or disagree with a given writer’ (they might be religious thinkers or from the world of literature, indeed there were no parameters), ‘what matters is the quality of their mind’. With hindsight, Geoffrey was surreptitiously inducting me into the ‘conversation of mankind’, bringing to life Oakeshott’s idea of a university. Conscious of my aversion to the sterility of much of so-called ‘analytical’ philosophy, and the obscurity and bombast of the alternative, over the years he regularly and without any fanfare pushed books across his desk saying that I might one day care to take a look at them, never quite sure what I’d make of them given my then prejudices. The writers I recall most readily were Richard Bentley, Coleridge, Feuerbach, Newman, Unamuno, Pater, William James, Whitehead, JA Smith, Housman, Collingwood, Raymond Aron, Eli Kedourie; there were many others besides. It was after two years that Geoffrey deemed it appropriate to give me a copy of Rationalism in politics. My first reading left me indifferent. This wasn’t the hard-headed style of philosophy I knew we both admired. And why would Geoffrey as an avowed Millian liberal suggest I read a book which has as one its essays ‘On being conservative’?

Not one to concede failure, he presented me with a book with the marvellously obscure title Experience and its Modes. I had only a misty notion of what non-empiricist ‘experience’ might here refer to, but I certainly knew all about modality – it was about logical necessity, wasn’t it? I began to read the book somewhat worried and uncomfortable about the, to my mind, obscure idealist terminology – bad memories of reading Bradley and Bosanquet. I persevered. By the time the chapter on historical experience was underway I was feverishly engrossed – not only had I begun to discern the faint outlines of the world of Michael Oakeshott, but my world of thought began to take on definition and articulation.

Here was a thinker who avoided the alienating poles of the sterile and the turgid and whose thought resonated with my deepest intuitions. There was an unfeigned liberality tempered by an austere precision keeping conceptual promiscuity at bay. And as we all know, conveyed in a manner of such exquisite elegance: phrases such as ‘Experience and its Modes has the sonority of a Bach fugue’, and ‘Oakeshott’s syntax is positively Tacitean in its poetry and complexity’ have been offered by correspondents who have recently read the book. Fifty years on, while Oakeshott’s writing was certainly highly distinguished, the precocious sparkle that was the preserve of the younger man was obscured by Oakeshott’s over qualificatory style. That said, his thoughts on religion in On Human Conduct, do approximate the stylistic heights of his early to mid periods culminating in Rationalism in politics. Some feel that with a career extending some fifty years, Oakeshott’s work inexorably deepened, the inference drawn that Experience and its Modes is an inferior work compared with his later works. I do not think the logic of this view is sound.

If the first Comte lecture was delivered, in Oakeshott’s mischievous view, by the Paganini of ideas, then in keeping with this musical analogy, Oakeshott would perhaps not object to being viewed as the Furtwängler of ideas, never mere technical virtuosity but rather an intuitive and rich imagination, the counterpoint, the principle of parsimony. This week we are celebrating and paying homage to a mind of extraordinary quality. One need only glance at the diversity of topics and disciplinary backgrounds of the conference speakers to see that this rich vein of thought is being mined for material beyond the limits of political philosophy – and I thank all the speakers for so readily going along with this idea.

If the pursuit of excellence is generated by the embracing of both the familiarity and contingency of our existence, this is a sufficient condition to be classed an Oakeshottian. I commend to the conference – Michael Oakeshott, philosopher.