A Companion to Michael Oakeshott (Again)

We know it’s been a long time in coming but we have some blindingly superb essays comprising this volume. In lieu of conventional abstracts here is an extract from Paul and my introductory essay. For a full table of contents and a dedicated website see here.


Editorial Extract

The first two essays deal with Oakeshott’s theory of knowledge or experience in general. In “The Victim of Thought: the Idealist Inheritance,” David Boucher examines the relationship of this theory of knowledge or experience to philosophical — and especially British — idealism. He makes two fundamental points about this relationship. First, he argues that, though idealism was on the wane in Britain the 1920s and ‘30s, Oakeshott’s brand of idealism was hardly as unfashionable as many suppose. Second, he rejects the contention that Oakeshott jettisoned or severely attenuated his idealist commitments over the course of his career, arguing instead that Oakeshott’s philosophical outlook exhibits remarkable consistency over the course of fifty years. In particular, he claims that Oakeshott never abandoned his early commitment to absolute idealism or monism and that the introduction of the analogy of conversation in “The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind” did not alter his view of philosophy. Boucher rounds off his analysis by teasing out what he takes to be the distinctive features of Oakeshott’s idealism.

In “Philosophy and Its Moods: Oakeshott on the Practice of Philosophy,” Kenneth McIntyre continues the discussion of Oakeshott’s conception of philosophy begun by Boucher but takes a somewhat different view. Though he admits that Oakeshott’s conception of philosophy as a fundamentally skeptical activity devoted to relentless interrogation of the conditions of human understanding remains unchanged throughout his career, he also maintains that there is a subtle shift in Oakeshott’s conception of philosophy away from the emphasis on criticizing modal abstraction in Experience and Its Modes to a more pluralistic defense of the autonomy and validity of the modes of experience in “The Voice of Poetry” and On Human Conduct. In addition, he contends that the later Oakeshott abandons the notion of philosophy as unconditional, presuppositionless knowledge and conceives of it instead as a conditional practice that, like any other practice, rests on traditional or tacit knowledge. In this regard, he suggests that Oakeshott’s later conception of philosophy has much in common with the outlook of ordinary language philosophers like Austin, Ryle, and the post-TractatusWittgenstein.

Apart from his contributions to political philosophy, Oakeshott is perhaps best known for his contributions to the philosophy of history. Over the course of fifty years, from the important chapter on historical experience in Experience and Its Modes to the three essays on history inOn History, Oakeshott applied himself to investigating the nature and presuppositions of historical knowledge. Geoffrey Thomas analyzes and assesses Oakeshott’s achievement in this regard. He reduces Oakeshott’s constructivist philosophy of history to four fundamental theses: first, that the past does not exist, only the present exists; second, that only experience exists; third, that the historical past is an inferential construction from experience; and fourth, that historical inquiry is autonomous and not ancillary to science or practice. He then subjects each of these theses to rigorous analysis and finds them all wanting in one respect or another. The first two theses raise large questions about the nature of time and consciousness that Thomas believes Oakeshott’s idealist epistemology in Experience and Its Modes is unable to handle satisfactorily. With respect to the third thesis, he questions Oakeshott’s coherence theory of truth and reconstructs the criterion of historical explanation in terms of what he calls “inference to the best explanation.” Finally, in regard to the fourth thesis, he finds Oakeshott’s attempt to exclude practical and scientific categories from historical explanation highly problematic.

The next set of essays take up Oakeshott’s conception of practical life and the attempts to overcome the permanent dissatisfaction he associates with it in poetry and religion. In “Radical Temporality and the Modern Moral Imagination,” Timothy Fuller, the dean of American Oakeshottian studies, powerfully evokes Oakeshott’s conception of the endlessness of practical life, which ceaselessly attempts to reconcile “what is” with “what ought to be.” This constitutes the “radical temporality” referred to in the title of his essay, and Fuller goes on to elaborate the various ways in which the modern moral imagination has responded to it. The modern moral imagination, as it expresses itself in Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Smith, and Kant, is marked by a faith in human self-perfection, a faith in humanity’s ability to escape the radical temporality of the human condition. Fuller argues that Oakeshott offers two alternatives to this modern politics of faith: first, a politics of skepticism that does not envisage the evanescence of human imperfection; and second, the voice of poetry, which, without denying the radical temporality of the human condition, offers a temporary release from it in contemplative delight.

The theme of the unremitting nature of practical life also appears in Elizabeth Corey’s essay “The Religious Sensibility of Michael Oakeshott.” Drawing on Oakeshott’s two essays on the Tower of Babel to flesh out his critique of the perfectionism and obsession with achievement that vitiate modern life, Corey shows how Oakeshott conceived of religion as a corrective to these spiritual maladies. She does not conceal that Oakeshott’s conception of religion, which stresses living in the present, unburdened by anxiety for worldly success or achievement, is not exactly orthodox; nevertheless, she insists that Oakeshott’s work is full of authentic religious insight. Corey is particularly attracted to Oakeshott’s assimilation of the religious disposition to the poetic disposition. Both dispositions eschew the frenetic quest for worldly achievement and opt instead for delight in the present, and both offer a temporary respite from the tyranny of practice.

Corey’s discussion of the poetic character of religious experience leads nicely into Corey Abel’s essay “Whatever It Turns Out to Be: Oakeshott on Aesthetic Experience.” Focusing his analysis on the lengthy “Voice of Poetry” essay, Abel provides a robust defense of Oakeshott’s nonrepresentational and nonpractical conception of art. Critics who suggest that Oakeshott goes too far in severing art from truth and morality fail to grasp that Oakeshott’s fundamental philosophical concern is to identify the differentia of aesthetic experience vis-à-vis other forms of experience. One of the most important differentiating features of aesthetic experience, according to Oakeshott as Abel interprets him, is its timelessness, its denial of historicity; here Oakeshott parts ways with the historicism of thinkers like Gadamer and Ricoeur. Another important differentiating feature of aesthetic experience is its playful character versus the unavoidably work-like character of practical experience.

Paul Franco’s essay on Oakeshott’s philosophy of education fittingly concludes Part One of this volume, for it is in connection with the theme of university education that Oakeshott first introduces the image of conversation. Franco acknowledges the enormous appeal of Oakeshott’s ideal of the university as a conversation between the various modes of understanding that make up our civilization, a conversation that is pursued for its own sake and not in the service of practical life or some social purpose. Nevertheless, he questions whether Oakeshott’s philosophy of education adequately addresses the problem of specialization and cultural fragmentation that exercised earlier theorists of education from Newman and Nietzsche to Arnold and Leavis. Franco contends that Oakeshott’s attempt to hive off education from any sort of moral or practical or societal effect ultimately leads to a formalism that deprives the university of its necessary role as a unifying cultural power.

As was pointed out above, the essays in Part Two of this volume concern themselves with Oakeshott’s political philosophy. The first two essays are specifically concerned with Oakeshott’s reflections on the history of political thought. What did Oakeshott mean by the “history of political thought”? This is the question Martyn Thompson addresses in his essay. He highlights two features of Oakeshott’s conception: first, that the historical past is a construction of the historian, and therefore the meaning of any given historical text will depend on the specific question an historian is seeking to answer; and second, that political thinking takes place on different levels, some more practical, some more theoretical, and the historian should never confuse these levels. Taken together, these two features point to a conception of the history of political thought that is multi-dimensional and that contrasts sharply with Quentin Skinner’s attempt to reduce it to a history of ideologies. Thompson draws out this contrast by considering Oakeshott’s and Skinner’s respective interpretations of Hobbes’s Leviathan.

Oakeshott’s interpretation of Hobbes is the central subject of Noel Malcolm’s essay. Malcolm notices that there seems to be a discrepancy between Oakeshott’s hostility to rationalism, on the one hand, and his admiration for Hobbes, an archetypal rationalist if ever there was one, on the other. In the first instance, Oakeshott seems to overcome this self-contradiction only by misunderstanding Hobbes and overlooking the deeply rationalist strains in his thought — for example, his antipathy to prejudice and tradition, his faith in scientific method, and his preoccupation with certainty. But Malcolm does not leave it at that. He argues that Oakeshott ultimately admired Hobbes because he saw him as an exponent of a noninstrumental conception of the state. This noninstrumentalist or nonteleological interpretation of Hobbes raises questions of it own, and Malcolm takes us through the rich debate over it in the 1930s — between Collingwood, Schmitt, Strauss, and others. In the end, though, he finds the interpretation problematic, given that Hobbes seems to see everything as instrumental to civil peace or individual self-preservation. Once again, Hobbes appears to be more of a rationalist than Oakeshott’s interpretation suggests.

Oakeshott’s critique of rationalism is taken up in greater depth in Kenneth Minogue’s essay “The Fate of Rationalism in Oakeshott’s Thought.” Minogue, Oakeshott’s longtime colleague at the LSE, focuses his analysis on the posthumously published manuscript The Politics of Faith and the Politics of Scepticism, which is believed to have been written somewhere around 1952. This manuscript is of particular interest because in it Oakeshott attempts to go beyond the simple condemnation of rationalism found in his earlier essays and to understand the phenomenon in a more philosophical and dispassionate manner. This leads him to interpret European politics as a salutary balance between the rationalistic politics of faith and the politics of skepticism. Minogue questions, however, whether Oakeshott succeeds in salvaging a place for faith and rationalism in our politics. In the first place, the politics of faith and the politics of skepticism are no longer in balance; the former has carried the day, and the latter is all but lost. Second, in seeking to domesticate the politics of faith as the balancer of the politics of skepticism, Oakeshott attributes to the latter problems it does not necessarily possess. Minogue concludes that it is not altogether surprising that Oakeshott chose not to publish this work.

The theme of rationalism provides Leslie Marsh with the opportunity to compare Oakeshott with another important critic of rationalism, Friedrich Hayek. Invoking Oakeshott’s famous dismissal of Hayek in “Rationalism in Politics,” Marsh makes the case that Oakeshott got Hayek plain wrong. If one understands both men to be centrally concerned with the anti-Cartesian project of socializing the mind, then a more fertile vista opens up for comparing them. Marsh approaches the topic from the perspective of the philosophy of mind and locates both Oakeshott and Hayek within the non-Cartesian wing of contemporary cognitive science known as “situated cognition.” Marsh concludes his essay by showing that the commonality between Oakeshott and Hayek with respect to the theory of mind extends to their political philosophies as well, a fact that is often obscured by labeling the former thinker conservative and the latter liberal.

The topic of Oakeshott’s conservatism is a contentious one, as Robert Devigne shows in his essay “Oakeshott as Conservative.” Using Burke as a touchstone, Devigne demonstrates that Oakeshott’s conservatism is complex and shifts over time. In his essays from the late 1940s and early 1950s, Oakeshott displays a Burkean antipathy toward rationalism and appreciation for tradition, though he also dissents from Burke on the value of philosophy and the rationality of history. Beginning in the mid-1950s, however, Oakeshott’s differences with Burke become more pronounced, as he moves in a more liberal and legalistic direction. Despite this, Oakeshott’s justification of the “salutary stalemate” between societas anduniversitas in the European political tradition seems to bring him closer to Burke’s identification of the “is” and the “ought.” Devigne concludes his essay by contrasting Oakeshott with the other seminal conservative thinker of the second half of the twentieth century, Leo Strauss, bringing out their very different assessments of modernity, Burke, and history.

The final two essays in the volume deal with Oakeshott’s most mature statements of his political philosophy in On Human Conduct and “The Rule of Law.” Noël O’Sullivan offers a magisterial account of Oakeshott’s ideal of civil association, showing that it is addressed above all to the moral problem of reconciling authority with freedom in the highly pluralistic circumstances of modern Europe. Hobbes made significant progress in this normative endeavor to find a shared sense of public order, according to Oakeshott, but even he failed to provide a completely moral conception of civil association. O’Sullivan identifies several confusions about civil association in contemporary political thought: the belief that it is a mechanism for promoting spiritual renewal (Havel); the identification of it with the minimal state (Nozick) with capitalism (Friedman and Hayek) with democracy, liberalism, or the impossible ideal of neutrality. But he also considers some well-founded criticisms of Oakeshott’s model of civil association, chief amongst which is the charge that it is too narrowly procedural or legalistic to have any motivating power for citizens. He concludes by examining Oakeshott’s pessimism about the prospects of civil association in modern mass democracies, and in this regard he paints a very different picture of Oakeshott’s later attitude toward history from the optimistic Burkean one found in Devigne’s essay.

Going all the way back to his early essay “The Concept of a Philosophical Jurisprudence,” Oakeshott always saw an intimate connection between political philosophy and the philosophy of law. Steven Gerencser subjects Oakeshott’s philosophy of law to careful analysis in his essay. He argues that there is a fundamental tension between the traditionalist conception of law that is implicit in Oakeshott’s anti-rationalist writings and the formalistic conception of law found in his later writings, especially “The Rule of Law.” In the former, laws possess authority insofar as they reflect the customary beliefs and sentiments of a people; in the latter, they possess authority only insofar as they are the product of a formal legislative procedure. Can these opposing views be reconciled? Gerencser suggests that they can and looks to Hegel and the positivist jurist Georg Jellinek as possible models for such a reconciliation.