The Victim of Thought: The Idealist Inheritance

The penultimate chapter to be trailed – David Boucher on Oakeshott’s idealism.

Oakeshott’s indebtedness to philosophical idealism has been touched upon by many commentators as incidental to their main concerns, and his relative silence after the Second World War compared with his defiant proclamations of loyalty before it gave rise to suspicions that he was no longer as committed to its tenets as he once was, or that if there were remnants of idealism to be detected in the later work they were almost unrecognizable. This is not a view unanimously shared. There may be many reasons why Oakeshott ceased to wear his idealist credentials on his sleeve, but the fact that he had abandoned them was not one. He seems to have had a certain sensitivity to the criticisms of him as a philosopher of the day before yesterday. On the presentation of his Festschrift, Oakeshott made light of the honor, expressing surprise given that he had read somewhere: “Oakeshott, yes, an interesting survival; out of date before he was born; you can’t take him seriously. Not the sort of thing to make one exactly glow with pride. True enough, though; and I thought that perhaps I really would be able to get over this vast expanse of sand intact leaving a foot-print” (BLPES 1/3, various speeches). After the Second World War the sorts of metaphysical and epistemological considerations that permeated Experience and its Modes were touched upon but not systematically addressed in his later writings. Some modifications in the vocabulary were necessary in order to accommodate developments in his thought and incorporate them into the larger point of view, but they were added in essays which deliberately left “much to the reader, often saying too little for fear of saying too much” (OHC vii). Commentators such as W. H. Greenleaf, Wendell John Coats, Jr. and Efraim Podoksik acknowledge the changes in vocabulary and nuance but insist upon a basic consistency in his philosophy. Podoksik, for instance, contends that Oakeshott’s philosophical framework and the nature of his engagements were “consistent throughout his writings, although he modified his views on some points.”