Introduction to A Companion to Michael Oakeshott

Given the recent kerfuffle related to John Kekes’ hatched job review and of Eric Schliesser’s witty observation thereon, it’a an opportune time to repost our intro. Bob Grant will chime in later but for the moment he makes the following points:

Of course my chapter is not about MO’s work (except indirectly), which is why it is segregated from the others. (I have written extensively elsewhere about his work, as JK knows.) And I explicitly say the ch. is about MO’s love life, not his sex life; also, that MO himself claimed this was the most important thing in his life. So a biographer cannot ignore it. And again, JK must know that MO made little or no effort to keep it secret; indeed, as Anne Bohm (his loyal lieutenant for two decades +) told me, he never tried to hide it, and was proud of it. The only witness who ever told me otherwise was John Charvet, and I have explained why he might have formed a different impression. At all events, if MO did want to be discreet, he was remarkably unsuccessful, since everybody on earth knew what he was up to . . . , hence all the rumours. I have reported none that were plainly ‘malicious’, and 95% of what I say is independently attested and documented (by me, and in the chapter). They might have been disreputable (which would be MO’s fault), but that is not the same as malicious (which wouldn’t).

From our intro:

The account of Oakeshott’s life just given of course comprises only his public or official life. What about his private, intimate life? This brings us to the first essay in this volume, Robert Grant’s “The Pursuit of Intimacy, or Rationalism in Love.” As the title suggests, this essay is concerned with Oakeshott’s love life, which he considered to be not merely peripheral but in many ways the main business of his life. It is, of course, well known that Oakeshott loved women: not only did he marry three times, but he enjoyed many, many affairs throughout his life. But Grant—who is currently working on a full-length biography of Oakeshott—takes us far beyond these well-known facts. Drawing on not only the letters and notebooks in the public archive at the LSE but also private diaries and letters as well as extensive personal interviews with Oakeshott’s friends, family, and lovers, Grant shows just how central erotic love was to Oakeshott’s life and how obsessively, irrationally, selfishly, and often destructively he pursued it. This Dionysiac aspect of Oakeshott’s private life stands in stark contrast to the polished, Apollonian character of his writings and philosophy in general, and it will no doubt shock those who are familiar only with the latter. Nevertheless, it is no part of Grant’s purpose to reduce Oakeshott’s philosophy to his private life or, Nietzsche-like, to see it as a mere rationalization of his personality. Instead, he sees a more complicated dynamic at work: Oakeshott’s anti-utopian politics serve as both a counterweight and a Hobbesian foundation for his erotic utopia.

As is evident from the preceding summaries, the contributors to this volume, while they all agree that Oakeshott is a philosopher eminently worth studying, have widely different views about the meaning and significance of his philosophy. Such disagreement is healthy and a sign of the vitality of a thinker. It also complicates the labels—for example, “conservative” and “idealist” (to name but two)—that have sometimes prevented Oakeshott’s philosophy from gaining a wider hearing. As mentioned at the outset, this volume is not meant to bring the debate about Oakeshott’s philosophy to an end—his thought is too rich and multifaceted for that. Rather, the hope is that this volume can serve as a platform from which the next generation of scholars and philosophers can carry the debate forward. Oakeshott, the great philosopher of open-ended conversation, would have it no other way.