Michael Oakeshott’s Philosophy of History

Here are some extracts by the man who first set me on the road to Oakeshott some twenty years ago – Geoff Thomas. Geoff has a philosophy of history book coming out soon – and I can tell you it’s a cracker.

What Oakeshott said about history—his canonical philosophical view about the nature of historical inquiry—can be summed up in four theses: (1) the past does not exist, only the present; (2) only experience exists; (3) the historical past is an inferential construction from experience; (4) historical inquiry is autonomous, not a part of or ancillary to either science or practice.

My own view is that the interest of his views on history does not depend on the modal apparatus, and this for two reasons. In the first place, I do not think that Oakeshott offers a sufficiently detailed and sophisticated analysis of the concept of a mode to vindicate its structural role. Second, his distinctive views—that the past does not exist, that only experience exists, that the historical past is an inferential construction from present experience, that historical inquiry is impartial, neutral, and autonomous, and that causation has no part to play in historical explanation—can be set out and appraised without reference to the modes.

Finally, we must take note of the “us” in “what the evidence obliges us to believe.” Who are we? Given the widespread and intractable nature of certain historical controversies, there may on occasion be a reluctance to go beyond “what the evidence obliges me to believe.” We needn’t reduce the matter to Rorty’s “what our peers will, ceteris paribus, let us get away with saying,” but there is a sense in Oakeshott of a community of historians engaged in the project of constructing the historical past and in appraising one another’s constructions by a shared set of standards.