Oakeshott, Libertarianism and Judaism

Here’s a nice rendering by Mary Campbell of a photo of Oakeshott given to me by his son Simon (the photo was taken at Caius circa 1933). Speaking of Oakeshott, the following must rate as the most bizarre invocation of Oakeshott I’ve come across (Jewish Political Studies Review 19:1-2, Spring 2007).

Michael Oakeshott (1901-1990) was a leading British social and political theorist, often credited as a father of libertarian thought.

Even on the most generous of interpretations “father of libertarian thought” is so off-beam. We know Oakeshott took issue with libertarianism in no uncertain terms. Who conceives of Oakeshott in these terms? I’d like to know. And again:

As to openings, Oakeshott, unlike many other philosophical defenders of the free society, has a generous appreciation for the category of tradition. Although his political thought is often associated-no doubt simplistically-with libertarianism, he afforded traditional ways of life considerable scope in the conduct of a humane society.

A traditionalist (assuming Oakeshott to be one) cannot accept the spontaneous unforseen consequences of an absolutely free-market. It would be corrosive of tradition!! This is not to say that the free-market doesn’t have an important role to play  for Oakeshott – or that tradition itself is not a spontaneous phenomenon – but to so brazenly claim that Oakeshott is associated with libertarianism is absurd. I know of no theorist who makes that claim.

Although somewhat overshadowed in life by his more famous contemporaries Isaiah Berlin, Friedrich Hayek, and Karl Popper, Oakeshott, not least on account of his profound and astonishingly elegant prose, bids fair to displace them in death.

That’s quite an optimistic claim – at best Oakeshott might take his place next to these titans – but displace them? This is hagiography.


Oakeshott’s thought, however, has hardly been taken up by Jewish philosophers. Although political theorists who are Jews, such as Josiah Lee Auspitz or Efraim Podoksik of the Hebrew University, have worked on Oakeshott, there have been no diligent attempts to mine Oakeshott for the purposes of Jewish thought. Nor have Jewish thinkers engaged him in philosophical conversation. This is regrettable, for Oakeshott offers a number of promising openings and provocations for contemporary Jewish thought.

Though a significant chunk of those who have written on Oakeshott are Jewish, this fact has no salience at all. Can only “Jewish” scholars plausibly claim expertise in Jewish philosophy? Ridiculous.