Philosophy and its Moods: Oakeshott on the Practice of Philosophy

Extract from Ken McIntyre’s chapter:

Among non-academic intellectuals and political theorists, Michael Oakeshott is known primarily as a conservative political thinker who produced a series of essays in the 1950s which were critical of “rationalist” or “ideological” politics. Others who have read more deeply in Oakeshott’s corpus are aware of his contributions to the philosophy of history and of his considerable achievement as a philosopher of practical and political life. Although there has been a significant increase in the attention paid to Oakeshott’s contributions to the theoretical understanding of history and politics, Oakeshott’s understanding of the character of philosophical activity has remained relatively neglected. This neglect is unfortunate because Oakeshott was one of the few political philosophers of the 20th century who also provided a more-or-less systematic theoretical context to his political philosophy. Thus, an examination of his understanding of the character and activity of philosophizing is a necessary part of any treatment of his more generally known ideas about the logic of historical explanation, the nature of poetic experience, or the character of practical life and the place of politics within that life.

In this essay, I examine Oakeshott’s understanding of the character of philosophical activity. Oakeshott’s thoughts on the subject are scattered throughout his essays, but his most extensive and concentrated reflections on philosophy are found in three works: Experience and Its Modes, “The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind,” and the first essay of On Human Conduct. His treatment of the activity of philosophizing in these three different pieces manifests a remarkable degree of continuity in terms of the kinds of questions and concerns which animate his inquiry and in terms of the proper disposition of the philosopher. Oakeshott understands philosophical activity as informed by an unconditional commitment to the interrogation of the conditions of understanding, and thus maintains that the disposition of the philosopher is fundamentally skeptical toward the world as it normally appears. Philosophy is understood as a kind of mood which draws us away from the various practices in which we normally engage in order to question the logic of those practices. Thus, there is a distinction between the activity of philosophizing, which is expressive of a disposition toward appearances, and the particular conclusions of a philosopher, which, as such, represent a further invitation to reflect on their specific conditions and on conditionality itself. In terms of his own philosophical conclusions, Oakeshott’s work manifests a consistent commitment to conceiving various practices or modes of understanding, like history, science, and art, as quasi-sufficient, autonomous, and independent worlds logically unrelated to each other, and in viewing philosophy as a non-normative, second-order, explanatory activity in relation to the modes. However, his essays also reveal significant terminological changes related to Oakeshott’s various attempts to stress different aspects of the character of modality, and they strongly suggest substantial equivocation on Oakeshott’s part concerning the criterion of a successful or coherent set of philosophical conclusions.