Review of Oakeshott’s The Concept of a Philosophical Jurisprudence

Here’s a very brief review published in Political Studies Review.

Michael Oakeshott: The Concept of a Philosophical Jurisprudence by Luke O’Sullivan ( ed. ). Exeter: Imprint Academic, 2008. 384 pp., £30.00, ISBN 978 1845 400309

In this book, Luke O’Sullivan presents us with Oakeshott the philosopher and Oakeshott the political commentator. The philosophical Oakeshott is younger and committed to comprehending the ‘whole character’ of the subjects he examines. The political Oakeshott is older and less ambitious. Moreover, a note of world-weariness runs through his work. For he finds himself surveying developments that he considers unattractive.

We meet Oakeshott the philosopher in the essay from which O’Sullivan’s collection derives its title. In ‘The Concept of a Philosophical Jurisprudence’ (1938), Oakeshott bemoans ‘the chaos of modern jurisprudence’. He identifies the chaos to which he points as the upshot of ‘a number of different, mutually exclusive and unrelated types of theory’. This leads him to argue for a ‘philosophical jurisprudence’. He explains that such a jurisprudence is not ‘merely one among a number of unrelated explanations of law’. Rather it is an account of law that, in embracing a ‘hierarchy of explanations’ (e.g., analytical, historical, sociological), yields an authoritative account of law’s nature.

Oakeshott’s account of ‘philosophical jurisprudence’ contrasts sharply with a meditation on a prominent feature of the British cultural scene written eleven years later. In ‘The BBC’, the analysis is the work of Oakeshott the political commentator. He is critical of the ‘enterprise of evangelization’ in which he finds the BBC (at that time a monopoly) engaging. On Oakeshott’s account, the BBC exhibits a ‘schoolmasterish disposition towards its patrons’ which finds expression in ‘a severe and self-determined policy of social uplift’. He also notes that those to whom the BBC broadcasts are ‘never at a loss for an escape from [their] own thoughts’. These points lead Oakeshott to conclude that the power wielded by the BBC makes it ‘dangerous’.1

While politics came to occupy a place of prominence in Oakeshott’s mind as he grew older, his commitment to analytic precision remained a feature of his thinking. We see it in, for example, ‘Contemporary British Politics’ (1948). He is critical of the crudely majoritarian approach to democratic politics advocated by John Parker (a Labour supporter). However, he also finds fault with the alternative proposed by Quintin Hogg (a Conservative MP). For Hogg identifies ‘natural law’ as a basis on which to secure the interests of individuals. But Oakeshott dismisses Hogg’s argument on the ground that it fails to exhibit the clear-mindedness of others (e.g., Burke and Hegel) who have staked out similar positions.

O’Sullivan’s collection merits close attention, for it records the process of development that saw Oakeshott the philosopher become Oakeshott the political commentator.

Note 1
Recent analyses of the BBC by Michael Buerk and Peter Sissons exhibit family resemblances to that offered by Oakeshott (except that now a less nuanced vocabulary, e.g., ‘political correctness’, is doing the critical work). See M. Buerk, ‘Blowing the BBC’s Gaff’, Standpoint (April 2011).