Why read Oakeshott?

Some years ago I commissioned Noël O’Sullivan to contribute to the program for inaugural conference of Michael Oakeshott Association in 2001 which was held at the LSE. This is his beautifully crafted essay and is a companion piece to Ken Minogue’s portrait.


When Leslie Marsh asked me to talk about the apparently simple subject, ‘Why the academic or educated reader reads Oakeshott’, I hesitated because there are obviously so many possible answers that anything I might say would inevitably seem arbitrary. In the end, I simply accepted this and decided to go ahead with a purely personal response to the question. So if you can’t line up what I find in Oakeshott with what you find there, don’t worry about it.

My starting point is the assumption that the most common reason for reading Oakeshott probably relates to his critique of twentieth century ideological politics developed in the book Rationalism in Politics. If we look beyond what Oakeshott has to say about rationalism and tradition in that book to his work as a whole, however, I suggest that there are four reasons for reading him which are likely to remain of increasing relevance. I will try to present them in a way that constantly connects with Anthony Quinton’s reflections on Oakeshott’s philosophical heritage and Kenneth Minogue’s more personal reflections on the man himself.

1. The first reason for reading Oakeshott is that he was almost unique in achieving a fundamentally affirmative outlook in an age whose leading intellectuals have been best known for such concepts as nothingness, absurdity, angst, despair and nihilism. There is, as I shall note at the end, an important qualification to be made about this optimism so far as Oakeshott’s view of contemporary politics is concerned, especially in his late work; but for the present I want to concentrate on the overall mood which inspired his general view of life, and in particular that boundless intellectual curiosity upon which Robert Grant, for example, has commented.

If we ask what the secret of this affirmative achievement was, I think the answer is that Oakeshott’s positive mood has three components, each of which is clearly discernible in his writings

• The first component is a certain kind of modesty, the philosophical foundations for which were laid early, in Experience and its Modes, in a rejection of absolutes of every kind and a stress upon the inescapable conditionality of experience, which is what Oakeshott had in mind when he spoke of the ‘modality’ of experience.

The main qualification to be made about Oakeshott’s philosophical modesty is that in this early work, he still believed that philosophy itself could escape from the conditionality of modal experience and offer an absolute vantage point. In his later work, however, Oakeshott abandoned this position and restricted the philosophical achievement to what may be called ‘the questioning of the question’, whatever that question may be. On this later view, in other words, philosophy never moves towards an absolute vantage point of any kind but merely turns back on the question asked, to expose the assumption about the thinker and his or her topic which have caused puzzlement. There is a resemblance here, needless to say, to Wittgenstein’s view of the task of philosophy as letting the fly out of the fly-bottle. There is also a similarity to Heidegger’s view that philosophical questions are always questions about a pre-reflective experience whose nature can be clarified, but which can never be transcended in the course of that clarification.

Perhaps Oakeshott’s refusal to assign a privileged status to philosophy is best reflected in his view that the decision whether to pursue it or not is, in the end, entirely a matter of mood: a decision, that is, which should never be made under the impression that philosophy could enable one to say the last word on the nature of reality.

• The second component is a sense of piety, in the pagan sense of that term in which what it refers to is a respect for all those aspects of the human condition which are not of man’s making or choosing. Oakeshott’s favourite story, and the one to which he returned in his last published work, was the story of ‘The Tower of Babel’, which is first and foremost a story of impiety. More generally, it was a dislike of impiety which inspired Oakeshott’s sustained attack on rationalism, the rationalist being impious in his desire to live in an entirely self-created world – a world ‘abridged’, as Oakeshott put it, from the complex flow of events which actually nurtures him.

There is, however, at least one major problem created by Oakeshott’s sense of piety. This is that it is in practice increasingly difficult to distinguish what is simply ‘given’ in human existence from what is made by us. Recognition of this would not, however, have altered Oakeshott’s fundamental distaste for the self-created world to which western modernity aspires, a distaste ultimately rooted in his temperamental sympathy for the life of the bee rather than that of the spider. Whereas the bee gathers the pollen from which its honey comes from flowers whose existence is quite independent of it, the spider lives in a self-created world, in the form of a web spun from its own innards. Oakeshott did not, of course, think that it made sense to regard spiders as impious for making their webs, but he did feel that the spider’s mentality would inevitably be incompatible with the preservation of freedom through a constitutional way of doing politics, if it was applied to the sphere of government. Whether he was right in this respect is of course a matter for debate which, in the nature of things, can never be finally resolved.

• The third component is one which links Oakeshott with Nietzsche, and is his conviction that the final perspective open to us is provided, not by reason, but by laughter. It is only laughter, not philosophy, which can protect us against egotism and self-importance, two of the most corrupting aspects of human nature. Oakeshott’s laughter is, however, laughter of a particular kind: it is the laughter incorporated above all in the modern western tradition in which Oakeshott felt most at home, although his relation to it has been generally neglected. This is the picaresque tradition. Oakeshott was particularly fond of one of the best known sayings from that tradition, viz. ‘Le plus l’homme se perfectionne, le plus il se dégrade’ (Marivaux). And he was also fond of one of the best known characters in that tradition, which is that of Don Quixote, whose life is a story of constant disasters, after each of which Don Quixote simply picked himself up, dusted himself down, and set off again to follow his fancy.

It is not generally known that his personal hero was Nelson (Oakeshott tried to enlist in the navy when he was eleven, but was turned down on grounds of colour blindness). What Oakeshott particularly liked about Nelson was the picaresque side of Nelson’s own life – he liked in particular to quote a saying of Nelson’s, to the effect that he was completely at home when at sea, and completely at sea when on land.

2. The second reason for reading Oakeshott is that he not only achieved an affirmative view of life: he also insisted that such a view is inseparable from an ideal of civilized living.

But what does civilized living require, according to Oakeshott? He believed that it involves three closely related things which are not now very well appreciated or understood:

• (a) education: in an age when most of the talk about the self is in terms of autonomy or self-expression, Oakeshott held (like the ancient Greeks, and like Hume and Burke in the modern period), that the civilized self is essentially an educated self. The education in question is not a matter of training; it is, rather, a matter of critical induction into the on-going tradition of self-interpretation which constitutes a society’s culture.

(b) civilization involves, secondly, limits – or, more precisely, it involves non-instrumental moral limits. So far as the modern European world is concerned, these limits are incorporated above all in the ideal of civil association, in one’s identity as a citizen.

What is particularly relevant in this connection is that the limits relevant to the politics of civil association are essentially the product of compromise – compromise, that is, between claims which may all be perfectly rational and valid. The politics of civil association, that is, cannot be properly understood as the pursuit of some one right answer, which is then imposed on the governed by rulers who claim to possess a truth which their subjects are too intellectually benighted to be able to grasp.

(c) civilization involves, thirdly, play, a topic whose importance in Oakeshott’s writings has largely been ignored. If play seems at first a trivial subject, it may help to recall that Oakeshott was sympathetic to a book by the Dutch historian Huizinga in which Huizinga argued that the past periods of civility in western Europe were only possible because of the existence of an outlook which refused to treat everything in instrumental or manipulative terms. More specifically, Huizinga had argued in Homo Ludens that the ancient Greek world, for example, had possessed the Olympic Games, and that the medieval world had possessed the ideal of chivalry, an ideal which had been passed down to the nineteenth century in the ethical code of the gentleman (to which Oakeshott himself subscribed). From this standpoint, Huizinga maintained, the unique feature of the modern industrial civilization in the west is the triumph of a mentality which only understands the question, What is it for? Such an outlook, in a word, is wholly instrumental. I will not stop here to do more than point rapidly to the interesting link between Oakeshott and Heidegger (and indeed the Frankfurt School of Marxist theory) on this issue: Heidegger too, it will be recalled, was convinced that western modernity is wholly dominated by a technological perspective.

Against this background, it is easy to understand why Oakeshott wrote, in an early essay on play, that ‘The complete character of a human being does not come into view unless we add Homo Ludens, man the player, to Homo Sapiens (intelligent man), Homo Faber, man the maker of things, and Homo Laborans, man the worker’. (p.6 of manuscript essay). Oakeshott added that it is not Homo Sapiens, Homo Faber and Homo Laborans, but Homo Ludens, man engaged in the activities of play, who is the civilized man. (Ibid., p. 9)

More generally, Oakeshott believed that the liberal element in modern culture could only be valued by those who refuse to succumb to the modern tendency to place work above all other activity and continue to place play at the heart of civilized existence. Above all, he believed, the liberal concept of education, which atttaches intrinsic value to the activity of understanding (whether in the form of philosopy, science or history) and to art and poetry, is now under constant threat because it presupposes a civilization based upon the value of play. Although our universities continue to offer a liberal syllabus, this has no secure position in an age dominated by the culture of work, in relation to which the liberal ideal inevitably looks parastic and inconsequential. Although the liberal educational ideal may survive, what it offers is now often valued only for what it contributes to public entertainment, or to personal recreation and relaxation: to things, that is, which work is assumed to require if it is to be efficiently pursued after a short break from it. (Ibid. p.9)

It is not only liberal education, however, which Oakeshott believes to be threatened by the work ethic. He also believed that morality and civil association can only survive in a culture in which play occupies a central position, since the non-instrumental outlook which both presuppose cannot otherwise exist.

When Oakeshott’s emphasis upon the role of play in civlized life is remembered, it is easy to understand the despair of western modernity which characterizes his late essay on ‘The Tower of Babel’. As that essay indicates, he came to believe that everything he valued in education, social life and the politics of civil association was unlikely to endure for much longer in an age so completely devoid of the sense of play.

3. The third reason for reading Oakeshott appears at first sight to be narrowly philosophical. It concerns, above all, his love of intellectual precision, to such an extent that when reading a late work like On Human Conduct, it is obvious that every word has been weighed many times.

This love of precision might easily have made Oakeshott a philosophical pedant, but it didn’t, mainly because his view of philosophy was inseparable from a theme which intimately connected his conception of philosophy to something which has generally been excluded from philosophical concern in modern western intellectual life. This is the role of imagination in disclosing the full texture and complexity of human experience. For Oakeshott, it is only imagination which saves us from remaining blind to many aspects of the world in which we live.

So far as these aspects of the world are concerned, the one whose structure Oakeshott believed he had done most to clarify was the historical one. His work on this structure was, indeed, what he considered to be the most original part of his philosophy. Although a few fellow philosophers – R. G. Collingwood being perhaps the most notable among them – have appreciated the importance of Oakeshott’s work in this area, his exposition of the distinctive logic of historical inquiry has generally received less scholarly attention than practically every other aspect of his writings.

I will not try to summarize Oakeshott’s view of historical inquiry here. My concern is only to suggest that while that work is often regarded as a relatively restricted and very complicated attempt to rescue the study of man and society from the confusion which Oakeshott believed had been caused by positivism on the one hand, and ideology on the other, the deeper and more enduring significance of what he has to say about historical understanding lies elsewhere. It lies, to be precise, in the claim that human identity is always an historical identity, and that the nature of this historical identity can only be explored by historians who are capable of the kind of imaginative insight which enabled Burckhardt, for example, to recognize the common theme of individualism running through the politics, art, religion, economics and philosophy of the event which he termed ‘the Renaissance’. The historical event known as the Renaissance, in other words, does not merely describe a fact which we inevitably come upon in the course of late medieval and early modern European history. It is, on the contrary, a dimension of European history which can only be identified through the constructive work of imaginative insight.

In this respect, Oakeshott is at one with the American philosopher, Richard Rorty, in breaking down the rigid line of separation that has long been drawn between the world of fiction, on the one hand, and the world of social studies, on the other. In the world of fiction, imagination is accepted as perfectly legitimate, but with results that are regarded as purely subjective; while in the world of social studies, it is assumed that we eliminate imagination and instead adopt an empirical methodology which is supposed to guarantee objective explanation. For Oakeshott, however, the main difference is not that imagination is vital in the case of fiction, but merely distorts in the case of social studies; on his view, imagination is crucial in both cases, but is subject to different constraints. In the case of fiction, the inner logic of a character or the likely consequences of a situation can be developed solely in the light of what seems plausible to the author. In historical explanation, however, the play of the author’s imagination is tied to making intelligible the interplay between purely contingent events over which the author himself has no control, but must explore entirely in the light of the historical evidence he can produce in support of the linkages he seeks to establish.

As I have said, the detail of Oakeshott’s view of historical explanation is not what concerns me here: what is of interest is rather the central position occupied by imagination in his philosophy in general, and in his understanding of historical explanation in particular.

4. The fourth reason for reading Oakeshott links his philosophy to his personal life in a way which helps to explain the admiration he evoked from those who came to know him well. The link is provided, I think, by an ideal of liberation which has some similarities to that found in certain continental thinkers. Liberation as Oakeshott understood it was inseparable, for example, from an aristocratic individualism which connects him in particular to Ortega y Gasset, whose little book on The Revolt of the Masses he greatly admired. More generally, his ideal of liberation is quite close to Heidegger’s existentialist concept of maturity as a commitment to ‘Being in the world’ to the extent that (as was noted above) Oakeshott, like Heidegger, systematically rejects the pursuit of absolutes of any kind.

What matters at present, however, is that Oakeshott refused to define liberation in negative terms. He refused, that is, to equate it, like Isaiah Berlin has done, with doing whatever one wishes to do in a condition that is free from the fear of physical coercion. For Oakeshott, the liberation worth striving for is at once civil, since it always acknowledges mutually accepted rules of civility, and educated, since it also always consists of striving to acquire a distinctive voice of one’s own not by rejecting the cultural tradition from which one comes but by critical self-immersion in it.

This ideal of liberation, needless to say, bears little relation to the modern romantic one, which takes the self-expression of a given or natural self as the focal point. It requires, on the contrary, an endless, highly exacting and – Oakeshott would insist – more or less imaginative and adventurous process of refashioning the given self through education, in the broadest sense of that term. When this ideal of liberation is borne in mind it is possible to understand the note of profound disillusion with contemporary western life already noticed in Oakeshott’s later work. Oakeshott’s disillusion arose, as has been seen, because the decline of any place for play in contemporary culture inevitably broke the link he himself wished to maintain between liberation and civilized living.

Oakeshott also had a somewhat different way of expressing the reason for his disillusion with the contemporary world which it will be useful to mention. What has happened, he believed, is that modern mass democracies have forgotten that civilized life requires us to combine two different identities. One identity is the natural one which we all possess in so far as we are beings moved by our needs, wants and desires. From the standpoint of this natural identity, everything in the universe is always in danger of being treated from a purely utilitarian or instrumental point of view.

The other identity we possess, potentially at least, is a moral one. This moral identity relates, not to the natural order of desire, but to the limits or, as Oakeshott called them, the ‘compunctions’ which we impose on the ways in which we satisfy those desires. What has happened, on Oakeshott’s view, is that we have increasingly tended to forget this second identity and to think only of the first identity: we have become, that is, creatures mainly of desire, and our culture has become, accordingly, a culture of gratification, in which the sovereignty of desire is largely unchallenged. Liberation, in a word, has now become almost exclusively associated with wanting and having.

Although Oakeshott is generally thought of as a sceptic, the depth of his late disillusion is in fact a testimony to the intensity of the idealism which had previously inspired his political thought. It is, I suggest, the combination of liberation with civility and idealism that characterized both his philosophy and his life, and it is this combination that will, I think, continue to communicate itself to his future readers. But if that is so, then perhaps the principal task now facing those who sympathize with Oakeshott’s ideal of liberation is to find ways of sharing it without, however, following in the path which led Oakeshott himself to such deep disillusion. How that is to be done is not altogether clear to me, but unless it is done, there is a certain irony in the fate likely to befall them. That fate is to end, as Oakeshott did in his essay on ‘The Tower of Babel’, with an indictment of contemporary western life so sweeping and unrelentingly bleak that it threatens at times to end in the kind of extreme left-wing alienation found in Frankfurt School Marxists such as Herbert Marcuse.