Fifty key thinkers on history: Oakeshott/ Patrick Gardiner

To my mind, this is a rather awkward piece but nonetheless serves as a quick intro to Oakeshott on history. A really top-notch expositor on the philosophy of history expositor was the late Patrick Gardiner who I was privileged to meet — see below after Oakeshott.


‘Modality’, as Oakeshott explains on the cover of Experience and its Modes, is human experience recognised as a variety of independent, self-consistent worlds of discourse, each the invention of human intelligence, but each also to be understood as abstract and an arrest in human experience.

While this brief description captures much of Oakeshott’s view of our world, it can also be used to describe our understanding of Oakeshott. For most of his readers, Oakeshott is a conservative political thinker. To view him as such, however, is an ‘arrest’, the contemplation of his work from a very limited and ahistorical standpoint, because it ignores not only his liberal belief in the importance of the individual, of self-reliance, of property rights, of governmental power and of the rule of law, but also his many changing ideas on the nature of science, practical thought, poetry, religion, morality and history.

Michael Joseph Oakeshott was born on 11 December 1901 in Chelsford in Kent. He attended St George’s, a Quaker-sponsored coeducational school, from 1912 to 1920 and then Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, from 1920 to 1926. Oakeshott’s publications on history date from his time at St George’s, with the most notable being a defensive piece in the school magazine on the usefulness of contemporary history (‘An Experiment in the Teaching of History’, Georgian, 1919, 14: 6). This as Luke O’Sullivan notes, differs radically from his later argument that history should be studied in terms of its own past rather than our present. 1 Themes that were to run through his writings were set down in the manuscripts ‘History is a Fable’ (1923), ‘The Philosophy of History’ (1928) and ‘What Do We Look For in an Historian?’ (1928) (all in What is History? and Other Essays, 2004). History, he argued, is a kind of thinking that ‘differs fundamentally from both that of science and that of art’, and which is of interest to ‘any normal person—that is, anyone who does not prefer his dog to his fellow human beings’. Understanding the particular methods of history, however, is the province of philosophers alone, for historians are ‘too absorbed’ in their research to turn their thoughts back onto themselves. 2 In so writing, Oakeshott set down in outline the modal view of history that he was to elaborate more fully in the monograph, Experience and its Modes (1933). Experience and its Modes was written after further studies in Tubingen and Marburg, and after his return to Gonville and Caius in 1929 as a lecturer in history. The Social and Political Doctrines of Europe followed in 1939 (second edition 1941), a critical collection of texts illustrating the doctrines of representative democracy, Catholicism, communism, fascism and National Socialism. He served in the British Army in England, France and Germany from 1942 to 1945. Upon his return to Cambridge, he edited Hobbes’s Leviathan (1946) and established The Cambridge Journal (1947). Oakeshott wrote many articles and reviews for The Cambridge Journal, and some were reprinted in Rationalism in Politics and other Essays (1962), On Human Conduct (1975), On History and Other Essays (1983) and The Voice of Liberal Learning (1989). Common to a number of these essays is an attack on ‘rationalists’: people who think that they can apply intellectual blue-prints to the world of politics, solve concrete problems by the light of abstract generalisations and introduce into politics the methods of the Polytechnicien or engineer. Oakeshott was passed over for a chair in political science in Cambridge, and took up a fellowship at the newly established Nuffield College, Oxford (1950–51). He may have been passed over for the chair, it has been suggested, partly because of the enthusiasm for horse racing he made public in A New Guide to the Derby: How to Pick the Winner (with G. T. Griffith, 1947). 3

In 1951 he was awarded the chair of political science at the London School of Economics and Political Science, and he held that post until his retirement in 1967. After he retired, Oakeshott published On Human Conduct (1975), an exposition on the ideal of civil association implicit in modern European history; Hobbes on Civil Association (1975), a collection of most of his essays on Hobbes; On History and Other Essays (1983), a collection of papers on the nature of historical knowledge, political authority, civil association and the modern relevance of the Biblical story of the tower of Babel; the first paperback edition of Experience and its Modes (1983); and The Voice of Liberal Learning: Michael Oakeshott on Education (1989), an account of teaching and learning that aims to realise civil association. Since his death on 19 December 1990, a revised and expanded version of Rationalism in Politics (1991), two collections of essays (Religion, Politics and the Moral Life, 1993; Morality and Politics in Modern Europe: The Harvard Lectures, 1993) on the history of political thought since the sixteenth century, religion, theology, rationalism and civil association and a manuscript on rationalism (The Politics of Faith and the Politics of Scepticism, 1996) have been published. Significantly, too, the establishment of an Oakeshott archive at the London School of Economics has facilitated the study and publication of manuscripts, most notably in What is History? and Other Essays (2004).

For Oakeshott, as for earlier ‘idealists’ such as Kant, Hegel, T. H. Green and F. H. Bradley, the human mind creates the world it understands. That is, reality is of our own making, and nature and body have no existence apart from us. The only reality is consciousness and experience. Furthermore, all of human experience is inter-related; no thing or person is separate, unique or isolated. It is a unity, in which every element is indispensable, in which no one is more important than any other and none is immune from change and rearrangement. The unity of a world of ideas lies in its coherence not in its conformity to or agreement with any one fixed idea. It is neither ‘in’ nor ‘outside’ its constituents, but is the character of its constituents in so far as they are satisfactory in experience. (Experience and its Modes, pp. 32–3)

The unity of experience is not arrived at by abstracting from a collection of particulars a common element or factor, but rather by seeing that all of our experiences are linked. We are capable of realising what Oakeshott calls a ‘coherent’ world of experience through philosophy, but are prone to ‘arrest’. This ‘arrest’ or ‘mode of experience’ is a view of the whole of experience from a very limited standpoint. In order to free ourselves from arrest, we must expose and question the assumptions that give our experiences shape. It is philosophy, Oakeshott contends, that reveals to us how inadequate our assumptions are. In philosophy we ‘never look away from a given world to another world, but always at a given world to discover the unity it implies’ (Experience and its Modes, pp. 29–31). Later on, though, he elaborated that whereas Hegel and Collingwood posit a linked hierarchy of modes of experience, the modes of experience are categorically distinct and that none is primary, not even philosophy (On History, p. 2). 4 Although theoretically the number of potential arrests is unlimited, Oakeshott explored four in depth: historical, scientific, practical and poetic thought.

According to Oakeshott, ‘history’ as it is commonly viewed incorporates two distinct ideas. First, it can refer to the ‘notional grand total’ of all that humanity has experienced or ‘a passage of somehow related occurrences distinguished in this grand total by being specified in terms of a place and a time and a substantive identity’ (On History, p. 1). Here, ‘history’ refers to ‘what actually happened there and then’ and is made by the participants in historical occurrences irrespective of whether we know anything about them. Second, ‘history’ may refer to an historian’s inquiry into or attempt to understand historical occurrences. Historians, Oakeshott contends, are the creators rather than the discoverers of the past which they describe. They aim not to revive a dead past, for that would be a piece of ‘obscene necromancy’ (‘The Activity of Being an Historian’, Rationalism in Politics and other Essays, 1991, p. 181), but to transform historical evidence or ‘survivals’ into an account in which they understand ‘men and events more profoundly than when they were understood when they lived and happened’ (‘Mr Carr’s First Volume’, Cambridge Journal, 1950–51, 4: 350; see also On History, pp. 52–8). History is thus an activity which accounts for the nature and existence of historical survivals and the historian contributes to a coherent account of the present world. This does not mean, however, that historians are free to write what they please, because their work must accommodate historical evidence. The ‘truth’ of their accounts will depend not on their correspondence with the past as ‘it really was’ but on their coherence and comprehensiveness. Coherence, Oakeshott writes, ‘is the sole criterion [of truth]: it requires neither modification nor supplement, and is operative always and everywhere’ (Experience and its Modes, p. 37), because ‘there is no external means by which truth can be established’ (ibid., p. 34).

Thus for the historian, the past ‘is a certain way of reading the present’. In ‘The Activity of Being an Historian’ (Rationalism in Politics, pp. 151–83), Oakeshott identifies four attitudes that can be taken towards the past: contemplative, scientific, practical and historical. The first of these, the ‘contemplative’ attitude, is seen in the works of historical novelists, poets or artists. For them, the past is a ‘storehouse of mere images’ which ‘provoke neither approval nor disapproval, and to which the categories ‘‘real’’ and ‘‘fictitious’’ are alike inapplicable’ (ibid., pp. 164, 158). This attitude is not historical, Oakeshott claims, because it would be irrelevant to ask how accurate Shakespeare’s portrayal of Henry V was. Second, there is the ‘scientific’ attitude, in which we try to regard events independently of their relation to us and our interests (ibid., p. 163). The ‘scientist’ seeks to relate events through the ideas of ‘cause’ and ‘effect’, and this entails regarding the past as exemplifying general laws (ibid., p. 159). This is also not an historical attitude, Oakeshott points out, because the subject matter of history does not fall under generalisations. Historians do utilise general terms such as ‘revolution’, ‘Christian’ and ‘war’, but these terms are merely ‘conveniences’ (Experience and its Modes, pp. 119, 148). That is because there may be so little in common between any two of them that a generalisation will not be applicable. This, Oakeshott notes, accords with Huizinga’s observation that terms such as ‘Carolingian’, ‘Christian’ and ‘feudal’ are not to be used as ‘foundations upon which large structures may be built’ (‘The Activity of Being an Historian’, p. 177; see also On History, chap. 3, and Morality and Politics in Modern Europe, pp. 3–15). Historical events are not so unique that they cannot be articulated, but they are individual in a sense that would rule out covering descriptions of different historical events.

Third, there is the practical attitude, about which Oakeshott has much to say. Those who adopt this attitude to the past are concerned about the relationship between past and present:

Wherever the past is merely that which preceded the present, that from which the present has grown, wherever the sig- nificance of the past lies in the fact that it has been influential in deciding the present and future fortunes of man, wherever the present is sought in the past, and wherever the past is regarded as merely a refuge from the present—the past involved is a practical and not an historical past. (Experience and its Modes, p. 103)

This practical attitude—seen, for instance, in searching for the origins of events and value judgements, and pointing to future events—infects much of historical scholarship. For example, statements such as ‘He died too soon’, ‘It would have been better if the French Revolution had never taken place’, ‘the evolution of parliament’, ‘The loss of markets for British goods on the Continent was the most serious consequence of the Napoleonic Wars’, and ‘The next day the Liberator addressed a large meeting in Dublin’ contain contemporary values and rest on causal connections that historical evidence cannot support (‘The Activity of Being an Historian’, p. 163). Thus, as Smith has noted, for Oakeshott there is a close relationship between the practical attitude to the past and ‘ideology’ (any sort of premeditated political concept or moral abstraction). 5 Not only are notions such as ‘Marxism’, ‘Liberalism’ and ‘democracy’ ideological, but so too are ‘freedom’, ‘equality’ and ‘happiness’. An attitude to the past is also practical if the inquirer brings any moral concerns to their study. As Oakeshott writes in ‘The Activity of Being an Historian’:

The categories of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, ‘good’ and ‘bad’, justice’ and ‘injustice’ etc. relate to the organisation and understanding of the world in respect of its relationship to ourselves. (Ibid., p. 159; see also pp. 179, 181)

Practical historians merely pick out ‘emblematic actions and utterances’ from the vast storehouse that is the ‘living past’: ‘occurrences, artefacts and utterances, transformed into fables, relics rather than survivals, icons not informative pictures’ (On History, pp. 39–40).

In contrast, those who adopt an ‘historical’ attitude are interested in the past for its own sake (‘The Activity of Being an Historian’, p. 170). They must give no thought to utility, moral or value judgements, descriptions of events as accidents or interventions, or what caused or influenced what:

The world has neither love nor respect for what is dead, wishing only to recall it to life again. It deals with the past as with a man, expecting it to talk sense and have something to say apposite to its plebeian ‘causes’ and engagements. But for the ‘historian’, for whom the past is dead and irreproachable, the past is feminine. He loves it as a mistress of whom he never tires and whom he never expects to talk sense. (Ibid., pp. 181–2)

This is, for Oakeshott, the way in which the study of history should be approached. As with the philosophy in Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil, the historian pursuing the truth is like an earnest, clumsy man trying to win over a woman. The historian as necrophiliac, Gertrude Himmelfarb has argued, is one of the most bizarre suggestions of modern historiography. 6 It is an inquiry in which historical survivals are used to build up a coherent account of a past that has not survived. In a ‘coherent’ account, everything in the past is related to everything else in an ‘internal and intrinsic’ manner (Experience and its Modes, p. 141); but how specific items are to be thought of as related is never fully explained. As Dray argues, in lieu of detailed descriptions, we are supplied with analogies. 7 For instance, in On History, Oakeshott portrays the historian as the builder of a ‘dry wall’, a wall in which the stones (historical occurrences) are fitted so well together that no mortar is needed, and as the composer of a tune:

What an historian has are shapes of his own manufacture, more like ambiguous echoes which wind in and out, touch and modify one another; and what he composes is something more like a tune (which may be carried away by the wind) than a neatly fitted together, solid structure. (On History, p. 117)

Oakeshott’s view of an ‘historical’ attitude to the past is so narrow as to exclude most of what we would call historical scholarship. Indeed, by his own admission, it is an ideal, and most of his own work is overtly practical. For instance, in On Human Conduct he looks for the origins of the moral relationships that ground the civil constitution of modern European states, and in his ‘Introduction to Leviathan’ (in Rationalism in Politics) he claims that Hobbes is a brilliant contributor to the political myths of our civilisation. It seems that the historical attitude to the past is a goal to which we must aspire.

But, even if we were to aim for an ‘historical’ attitude to the past, we should remember that in the world of Experience and its Modes, history is still an ‘arrest’; it is still an ‘abstraction’, ‘backwater’ and ‘mistake’ that ‘stands in the way of a finally coherent world of ideas’ (Experience and its Modes, pp. 148–9). 8 In one of his later essays, however, Oakeshott suggests that we should foster a ‘conversation in which all universes of discourses meet’ (‘The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind’, in Rationalism in Politics, p. 491). These voices are not ‘divergences from some ideal’ as the modes of experience were from the ideal of absolute coherence; ‘they diverge only from one another’ (ibid., p. 497). His view that ‘there is only one kind of experience’ seems to be abandoned in favour of one in which ‘there is no symposiarch or arbiter’ because the voices are too different to be judged in comparison with one another. 9 This seems to be very different from his earlier view, and the relationship between the two is still the subject of debate.

When Experience and its Modes was first published in 1933 it was given a very cold reception. This was largely because Oakeshott, like Collingwood, was one of the few British philosophers who did not abandon idealism in favour of the newly emerging ‘analytic’ approach to philosophy espoused by Russell and Moore in Cambridge. The book would, however, go on to become a classic of British idealism, and Oakeshott’s ideas are now in vogue with conservative and radical thinkers alike. For example, Alan Beattie drew on Oakeshott to defend the study of history in schools for its own sake against those ‘who would use it as a vehicle of moral propaganda or who pursue the false gods of relevance by turning it into current affairs’, while Keith Jenkins used Rorty’s interpretation of Oakeshott to argue for a ‘non-foundationalist’ view of philosophy and history. 10 Such attempts to appropriate Oakeshott for a particular tradition, however, are tenuous. Beattie argues that we must protect history education from peril, but makes no mention of it being an ‘arrest’ that is to be surpassed in favour of a coherent view of experience. Rorty and Jenkins argue for surpassing foundationalism and blurring the boundaries between disciplines, but ignore Oakeshott’s claims that the ‘voices’ in the conversation of mankind are distinct and should not be muddled and that philosophy, at least in Experience and its Modes, supersedes and judges the other modes of experience.


  1. L. O’Sullivan, Oakeshott on History, Exeter: Imprint, 2003, p. 30. By 1928, Oakeshott thought that contemporary history was difficult because events needed more time to ‘mature’. See ‘The Philosophy of History’ [1928], in What is History? and Other Essays, p. 131.
  2. See ‘History is a Fable’ [1923], pp. 32, 43; ‘The Philosophy of History’ [1928], pp. 128–9, 132; ‘What Do We Look For in an Historian?’ [1928], pp. 134–5.
  3. M. Cranston, ‘In Memoriam: Michael Oakeshott 1901–1990’, Political Theory, 1991, 19(3): 323.
  4. D. Boucher, ‘The Creation of the Past: British Idealism and Michael Oakeshott’s Philosophy of History’, History and Theory, 1984, 23(1): 197.
  5. T. W. Smith, ‘Michael Oakeshott on History, Practice and Political Theory’, History of Political Thought, 1996, 17(4): 605.
  6. G. Himmelfarb, ‘Supposing History is a Woman—What Then?’, American Scholar, 1984, 53(4): 494–505.
  7. W. H. Dray, On History and Philosophers of History, London: E. J. Brill, 1989, p. 219.
  8. History can also stand as a barrier to religious experience. See ‘Religion and the World’, and ‘The Importance of the Historical Element in Christianity’, in Religion, Politics and the Moral Life, pp. 27–38, 63–73.
  9. T. Modood, ‘Oakeshott’s Conceptions of Philosophy’, History of Political Thought, 1980, 1(2): 315–22.
  10. A. Beattie, History in Peril: May Parents Preserve It, London: Centre for Policy Studies, 1987, p. 35; K. Jenkins, On ‘What is History?’ From Carr to Elton to Rorty and White, London: Routledge, 1995.

Oakeshott’s major works

Experience and its Modes, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1933, pbk edition 1986.

The Social and Political Doctrines of Contemporary Europe, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1939.

Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays, London: Macmillan, 1962, expanded edition, ed. T. Fuller, Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Press, 1991.

On Human Conduct, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975.

On History and Other Essays, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1983.

Morality and Politics in Modern Europe: The Harvard Lectures, ed. S. R. Letwin, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1993.

Religion, Politics and the Moral Life, ed. T. Fuller, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1993.

What is History? and Other Essays, ed. L. O’ Sullivan, Exeter: Imprint Academic, 2004.

See also: Collingwood, Croce, Hegel, Kant

Further resources

Boucher, D., ‘The Creation of the Past: British Idealism and Michael Oakeshott’s Philosophy of History’, History and Theory, 1984, 23(1): 193– 214.

——, ‘Human Conduct, History and Social Science in the Works of R. G. Collingwood and Michael Oakeshott’, New Literary History, 1993, 24(3): 697–717.

Collingwood, R. G., The Idea of History, revised edition, ed. W. J. Van der Dussen, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Franco, P., The Political Philosophy of Michael Oakeshott, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1990.

Grant, R., Oakeshott, London: Claridge Press, 1990.

Himmelfarb, G., ‘Supposing History is a Woman—What Then?’, American Scholar, 1984, 53(4): 494–505.

King, P. ‘Michael Oakeshott and Historical Particularism’, Politics [Australia], 1981, 16(1): 85–102.

King, P. and Parekh, B. C., Politics and Experience: Essays Presented to Professor Michael Oakeshott on the Occasion of His Retirement, London: Cambridge University Press, 1969.

O’Sullivan, L., Oakeshott on History, Exeter: Imprint Academic, 2003.

Sanderson, J. B., ‘Professor Oakeshott on History’, Journal of Philosophy, 1966, 44(2): 210–23.

Smith, T. W., ‘Michael Oakeshott on History, Practice and Political Theory’, History of Political Thought, 1996, 17(4): 591–614.

Walsh, W. H., An Introduction to the Philosophy of History, London: Hutchinson, 1951.



Below are two obituaries of Gardiner (click to enlarge). When I met Patrick in Oxford I had no idea just how ill he was. We spoke for hours sitting overlooking Christ Church Meadow: a most generous and kind man. Speaking of the philosophy of history check out his two philosophy of history books (Patrick by the way was no “one tune wonder” — he had a deep interest in Schopenhauer and Kierkegaard as well):

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