Oakeshott on the History of Political Thought

Martyn’s essay opens the second half of the Companion.

The fact that nonhistorical elements were interwoven into the lecture course strongly suggests that Oakeshott was doing something other than offering his students an outline history of Western political thought. And this suggestion is in part confirmed by the fact that Oakeshott’s own title for the lectures did not mention “history.” They were simply lectures on “political thought.” Their purpose, Oakeshott noted, was to offer undergraduates “a study of political thought, or aids to the study of political thought.” To be sure, he went on immediately to say that in “the main” what he proposed to offer was a “historical study” (LHPT, 31). But the appropriate context for understanding what he meant by this is his clearly articulated view, part of his philosophy of education, of what is involved in the study of politics at a university. The “problems” of the lectures as history disappear, and an immensely important set of observations for understanding Oakeshott’s conception of the history of political thinking becomes clear when they are seen, as Oakeshott intended them to be, as “aids” to the study of politics at a university. So what are the main components of this more appropriate context?

In this view, to read a philosophical inquiry as a partisan political argument is simply to misread it. For Skinner, by contrast, philosophical accounts of politics are always, in part at least, polemical interventions in practical political controversies. They are “never above the battle.” In arriving at this conclusion, Skinner often invokes Wittgenstein’s observation that “words are also deeds” and that “concepts are not timeless entities with fixed meanings, but should rather be thought of as . . . tools (Wittgenstein’s term), the understanding of which is always in part a matter of seeing who is wielding them and for what purposes.” But these are observations entirely compatible with Oakeshott’s views.

What matters for Oakeshott’s understanding of the history of political thought is what Hobbes understood those relationships to be within the context of mid-seventeenth- century intellectual controversies. Given the fact of seventeenth-century controversies about whether or not philosophical reason could have any practical applicability, it seems an unnecessarily arbitrary move to reduce from the outset the history of early modern reflection on politics to a history solely of ideology, where ideology is understood, as it usually is, as a kind of practical political thinking. As I consider in a moment, it is unclear to me whether Skinner really needs to do this, although he often enough says he does. With respect to Hobbes, as Oakeshott would have argued, the point Skinner has been making is that Hobbes’s “general system of ideas” is related to seventeenth-century practical political arguments in ways historians have hitherto tended to overlook. But he has not shown that Hobbes’s general system can be reduced to nothing but polemics.