Oakeshott on the Character of Religious Experience: Need There be a Conflict Between Science and Religion?

Here is the intro from Tim Fuller’s essay from Zygon.

Michael Oakeshott rarely acknowledged specific intellectual debts. In Experience and Its Modes (1933), however, he cited as major influences on his thinking G. W. F. Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit (1807) and F. H. Bradley’s Appearance and Reality (1893). Oakeshott was invoking the tradition of Hegelian/British idealism, knowing that he was swimming against the tide of philosophic fashion. What did he get from this philosophic tradition? Human experience is our world: “Experiencing and what is experienced are, taken separately, meaningless abstractions. . . . The character of what is experienced is, in the strictest sense, correlative to the manner in which it is experienced. These two abstractions stand to one another in the most complete interdependence; they compose a single whole” (Oakeshott 1933, 9). For Oakeshott “there is nothing whatever which is not experience,” and “there can be no experience which does not involve thought or judgment” (1933, 251).

A number of things follow, for Oakeshott. He sought to understand arguments by uncovering the assumptions or postulates on the basis of which each party to an argument seeks a coherent understanding of experience, thereby clarifying how each makes sense of its experience. He pursued not refutation or advocacy but rather descriptions that show the assumptions at work to support conclusions reached on each side; he preferred to turn debate toward conversation and to treat arguments as conversational gambits. Talk is interminable so long as there are human beings. The aim of the philosophic inquirer is to understand better the voices offering accounts of what is already given in experience. The philosopher does not resolve disputes but gives an account of why they are the way they are, and also why from the perspective of each participant the alternatives may seem mistaken or irrelevant. He did not think that victories inevitably deepen insight or that defeats reveal lack of insight. The philosophic quest is for experience as a whole “unmodified.” “Thinking,” he said, “is not a professional matter. . . . It is something we may engage in without putting ourselves in competition; it is something independent of the futile effort to convince or persuade” (1933, 7).

Oakeshott was of a stoic disposition, disinclined to engage in quixotic ventures to change the world or set it right, whatever that might mean. He once remarked to me that Don Quixote was the prototype of the modern rationalist, that Cervantes’ great work was both the anticipation and the critique of modern rationalism. Oakeshott did not always attain detachment, but his disposition was to do so. He saluted Montaigne, who had seen that reasoning is the faculty that makes us human but also produces the ordeal of consciousness that makes us problematic for ourselves. We self-conscious beings impose snares and traps on ourselves and then have to figure out how to deal with them. We continually interpret—well or ill—the world. Our reason leads into difficulties and then to contrivances to escape them. There is no reliable definition of progress. Thus Oakeshott identified himself as a skeptic: one who would “do better if he only knew how” ([1951] 1991, 44).

He recognized as unending the task of comprehending the whole of experience. Given that, grasping the order of reality would ever elude us. We usually settle for abridgements—interpretations of experience through which visions of order from various perspectives may be attained. Some of these interpretations (arrests in thought) get sufficiently elaborated—even equipped with a method of inquiry that may be taught and learned—to turn into modes of experience. A mode is a powerful human invention (although its emergence may take a long time) for making sense of the world to its adherents, binding together individuals in associations that explore the world from their chosen modal perspectives. Each of these modes makes sense in its own terms but can at most achieve the appearance of universality by marginalizing experiences that threaten the coherence (and thus the satisfaction) of the understanding its adherents have come to defend. The coherence of each is abstract—that is, abstracted from the whole it seeks to understand. Imperial tendencies lurk among the adherents of each of these modes, tempting claims of methodological competence to assess critically the alternative modes and experience as a whole; each mode will tend to explain all of experience in terms of its own assumptions.

In Experience and Its Modes (1933) Oakeshott discussed the “historical,” “scientific,” and “practical” modes of experience. He thought they currently “represent the main arrests or modifications in experience,” coexisting as abstractions from the whole of experience, attempting, each in its own way, to abate the mystery of human self-understanding (p. 84). The historical mode knows experience as past experience; the scientific mode knows it as stable, quantitative relationships; the practical mode lives by the tension between what is and what ought to be.

As long as a mode remains content within itself it remains coherent to itself. When it steps out into other realms it begins to confront its own abstractness:

It belongs to the nature of an abstract world of experience to be self-contained, sovereign and to lie beyond the interference of any other world of experience, so long as it confines itself within the limits which constitute its character. Of course, if it oversteps itself, an abstract world of experience immediately becomes vulnerable, and of course, in the end, it must overstep itself, demand to be judged as embodying a complete assertion of reality: but so long as it remains faithful to its own explicit character, even the concrete totality of experience itself cannot compete with it on its own ground. History, Science, and Practice, as such, and each within its own world, are beyond the relevant interference of philosophic thought. (p. 332)

In short, as long as a mode enters no dialectical engagement with other modes, or with a philosophic inquirer, it is protected from subversion by excluding what it wants to consider extraneous.