Oakeshott as Conservative

Robert Devigne’s intro to his chapter.

The identification of Michael Oakeshott with conservatism is fraught with debate. To be sure, some analysts consider Oakeshott to be the modern incarnation of Burke. Moreover, during the closing decades of the twentieth century, conservative thinkers in the United Kingdom made the greatest claims to Oakeshott. Yet different features of Oakeshott’s thought have made it possible for him to be read as a liberal, a pragmatist, a historicist, an existentialist, a postmodernist, and a conservative. What, then, is conservative in Oakeshott’s political philosophy?

Conservative political thought, as most fully expressed by Burke’s response to the French Revolution, developed throughout the West in opposition to Enlightenment beliefs that societies could be guided along a secular, egalitarian, and self-governing path. Burke’s thought was characterized by a respect for history as the source of progress, a rejection of the view that individuals and their rights existed prior to institutions, an extolling of the virtue of prudence when introducing political reform, an appreciation for habits and traditional modes of conduct, an opposition to institutions based on rational models of behavior, and distrust for Enlightenment political philosophy in particular and philosophy more generally.2 Because Burke and others argued that history, not philosophy, is the source of a nation’s most important institutions and values, the conservative outlook, unlike its liberal counterpart, did not constitute a set of substantive ideas or an “ought” concerning the best form of government or best form of society. It defined only a framework for a variety of the defenses being raised throughout Europe against an ascendant liberal outlook.

How does Oakeshott line up in relation to Burke? Does Oakeshott’s thought, like Burke and traditional conservatism more generally, assume that individuals belong to some continuing and preexisting social order, and does this understanding influence his positions when determining better or worse political associations? We examine Oakeshott’s middle and late works, written from the late 1940s to the early 1980s, to identify significant points of continuity and difference with Burke in the middle period. On the one hand, Oakeshott and Burke develop similar assessments of the value of traditions, the dissolving effect of rationalism on those practices, and the importance of a prescriptive approach to political reform. On the other hand, unlike Burke, Oakeshott places high value on philosophy itself and the role it plays in identifying better or worse political practices. And contra Burke, Oakeshott identifies a problematic English history not necessarily leading to the political good.

Turning to the late works, we discover that the differences between each thinker become more pronounced, as Oakeshott moves in a more liberal direction, focusing on the role that law plays in preventing conflict among individuals and groups pursuing variegated ends. We also see Oakeshott explicitly distancing himself from Burke’s thought. Despite these differences, however, a new line can be drawn between a current of Oakeshott’s and Burke’s thinking during this time as well, as Oakeshott develops a more traditional European conservative position: respect for modern European history, whereby the “is” is not quite the “ought” but is certainly close to it.

Finally, in conclusion, I contrast Oakeshott’s thinking with the other seminal conservative thinker of the second half of the twentieth century, Leo Strauss. Here I explain how Strauss’s different assessments of modernity, Burke, and history clarify the distinct character of their respective conservatisms and illuminate why Strauss has become associated with a more proactive neoconservatism, while Oakeshott is often linked to a more traditional, historicist conservatism.