Old Reviews of Experience and its Modes

Here are two reviews of Experience and its Modes that I’ve only recently come across. The former is exceedingly warm; the latter, not surprisingly, very dismissive since it is reviewed in North America’s premier philosophy journal. I don’t mean to imply that The Journal of Philosophy is unduly critical – merely, that philosophy journals are, and rightly so, should be critical (this said, Susan Stebbing’s review in Mind 43 (1934), pp. 403-5, is very shallow). Oakeshott’s theme is that experience requires, not just the capacity for sensory awareness stressed by Locke and Hume, but also the Sellarsian capacity to make judgments about what one is aware of. At a minimum this last condition means that, in the current argot, observation is theory-laden: reality impinges upon the mind that conceptualizes. This position is fully in tune with recent non-Cartesian philosophy of mind.

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Author: L. R. Perry

Reviewed work: Experience and Its Modes by M. J. Oakeshott

British Journal of Educational Studies, Vol. 16, No. 1 (Feb., 1968), pp. 96-97

Experience and its Modes. By M. J. Oakeshott. Pp. 358. Cambridge University Press, 1933: reprinted 1966. 55S.

It would be a pity to let pass without notice the reprint, this year, of Professor Michael Oakeshott’s book ‘Experience and Its Modes’. The original edition was very limited and has long been unobtainable. The demand for the book has grown however-a fact not without significance. ‘Experience and Its Modes’, published in 1933, offered, if not a philosophical system, at least a very complex and many-sided philosophical structure to its readers. It was a book in the idealist tradition, particularly of Bradley, to whom Oakeshott in his preface confessed his indebtedness as well as to other idealist philosophers. Running as it did against the tide of contemporary philosophical enquiry, it occasioned lukewarm notice only, for it was considered full of idealist argument long since attacked and disposed of. In fact, it was ripe for an early death as a philosophical event; and yet it failed to die, and today is very vigorous. Why? For one thing, Oakeshott offered us an account of historical knowledge so subtle and penetrating, and so alive to the many problems with which philosophy of history is fraught, that his chapter on the subject forms one of the basic and most frequently discussed statements in the literature of philosophy of history. Even Collingwood, not lavish in his praise of British philosophy, gave it considerable attention. But the book was more than a distinguished contribution to problems of philosophy of history. It contained much very acute reflection on the nature and distinctive features of the different types of knowledge; and though its shortcomings have often been attacked, there was an extraordinary wealth of ideas in the text from which attackers could begin. Oakeshott never hesitated to take up an extreme position and then defend it with great skill and resource as in his view of the nature of scientific knowledge. In one aspect, the book is a metaphysical treatise-it offers some account of the origin and morphology of knowledge and of the position of philosophical enquiry with relation to the various kinds of knowledge to be found. Not without importance is Oakeshott’s preference of the word ‘experience’-an early hint of his subsequent insistence that activity is there, is going on, and is the basic factor in the reflections upon knowledge by people who are always, one way or another, immersed in such activity. And, having thus contrived to sound a slightly pragmatist note, he thereafter instead offers a most interesting view of activity (extended in his later work) which has nothing to do with pragmatist thought. Many have been irritated with what they take to be Oakeshott’s high disdain of other relevant approaches to his subject matter. He often cites rival opinions and then demolishes them as a step to the elaboration of his own position, which is thus delineated against a fading background of departing rivals. No one, however, has a keener sense of what is relevant or is more ruthless with obstructions to the quest for philosophical truth. Oakeshott is a person to whom the solution of philosophical problems has an element of adventure and he is not afraid of giving the readers a wide vista of interconnected conclusions. Perhaps it is worth omission of detail to experience this. It leads him into strong positive assertion easy to attack, but acute enough to give its attackers a deal of trouble. Surely he has shown also that there is a place in philosophy for guarded and temperate statements of belief – a view now more kindly regarded than when he wrote. Many readers have fallen under the spell of Oakeshott’s style; so much subtle thinking is seldom expressed with such grace. It has a depth of ideas that the reader never fathoms, no matter how often he returns. Perhaps one reason for the influence of this book, and of the later writings of Oakeshott, is that the sharpness of his thought, and the sustained nature of his enquiries. bring him very close in spirit, at times, to philosophers of a very different stamp and approach. Latterly he has made important contributions to educational problems, marked always with the originality that is peculiar to him, and which is nowhere more richly found than in ‘Experience and Its Modes’. No book has had a more profound philosophical influence on the present writer than this one, and it is a pleasure to acknowledge this debt on the present re-appearance of such a remarkable work.

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Author: S. P. Lamprecht

Reviewed work(s): Experience and Its Modes by Michael Oakeshott

The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 31, No. 6 (Mar. 15, 1934), pp. 163-164

Experience and Its Modes. MICHAEL OAKESHOTT. Cambridge: The University Press. New York: The Macmillan Company. 1933. viii + 359 pp. $5.50.

The general point of view of this book and its basic concepts are those of absolute idealism. The author professes to have learned most from Hegel and F. H. Bradley; and he pays his respects to various living absolute idealists. The starting-point of the book is a conception of experience as the concrete whole that analysis may divide into experiencing and what is experienced, though experiencing and what is experienced are, taken separately, meaningless abstractions. Then follows the usual treatment of various philosophical ideas-of sensation and perception as modes of judgment, of truth as that condition of the world of experience in which the world is satisfactory to itself, of reality as what is satisfactory in experi- ence and hence a coherent and single system, of facts as the product of judgment and hence not given to but achieved in experience. All this, though written in delightful style and with both humor and earnestness, is trite. It has already, in the opinion of many philosophers, been quite sufficiently refuted. But there is much more to the book than this framework taken over from the traditions of absolute idealism. The book contains three long chapters on three important modes of experience-history, science, and practice. And whether or not the reader cares for the constant insistence that these modes are “abstractions” that must be overcome before gaining any ultimate validity, yet he will find many sagacious and penetrating comments on the ideas now current about the nature of history, science, and practice. The chapter on history is particularly good; it betrays a wide knowledge of the great writers of and about history, such as Thucydides, Bury, Stubbs, Gibbon. The chapter on science is perhaps less convincing; it reads as if it were based on a study of books about scientific method rather than a direct familiarity with scientific operations. The chapter on practice has still less of value because it returns more frequently to repetition of the customary remarks of absolute idealists. Practice, we are told, proceeds as if what is and what ought to be were two different things, and hence takes an “abstract” point of view. It is doubtless unfair, from the point of view of our author, to urge that his remarks bear more on the writing of history and the logic of scientific method than on the course of events historians discuss and the nature scientists investigate; for our author begins by denying the validity of these distinc- tions. Yet the fact remains that much in his book warrants this criticism; and this fact might mean that his denial of validity to these distinctions was not altogether sound. The final pages of the book are an interesting commentary on the chapter on practice. These pages define philosophy as “the attempt to realize the character of experience absolutely”; but they also urge that the enterprise of philosophy is incompatible with effective living. “Philosophy is not the enhancement of life, it is the denial of life.” There seem to be difficulties here. At least it is significant that the book that maintains these theses barely mentions, and then only in passing, the great metaphysician who regarded the philosophic life as the most excellent life.