Jesse Norman on Liberal Education/ Orsi on Oakeshott and International Relations

Listen to Jesse Norman’s Oakeshott talk.

Also an article recently published by Davide Orsi.


Michael Oakeshott’s thought has been considered from a great variety of perspectives and has been interpreted in many, often divergent, ways. For example, scholars have placed his works in the context of the history of philosophy and they have highlighted their relationship with British and German idealism (Boucher, 2012; Nardin, 2001; Podoksik, 2010). His critique of rationalism, central planning and political dogmatism, as well as the contraposition between civil association and enterprise association, has been considered as a contribution to contemporary liberalism (Franco, 1990, 2004; Galston, 2012; Gamble, 2012; Giorgini, 1999; Gray, 1989: 199–216, 1993: 40–46; Haddock, 2005), conservatism (Abel, 2010; Devigne, 2012) and republicanism (Boucher, 2005; Callahan, 2013; Coats, 1992). However, it often goes unnoticed that his work has occasionally influenced international political theory. In particular, the dichotomy between civil association and enterprise association, developed in On Human Conduct (Oakeshott, 1975: 111–122), has been employed by Terry Nardin (1983) and Robert Jackson (2000) to revitalise the English School’s notion of international society, and, more recently, Nicholas Rengger (2013) has used it to interpret the evolution of the just war tradition (see also Astrov, 2005; Bain, 2003, 2007; Frost, 2002).

This article will elaborate on these works and will show the relevance of Oakeshott’s political philosophy for the contemporary constructivist debate in International Relations. First, I will argue that Oakeshott’s perspective stresses that political institutions are based on norms and relationships which result from human understanding. To this end, I focus on the distinction between civil association and enterprise association, with particular regard to the concept of authority, also in light of Oakeshott’s indebtedness to Hobbes. Second, I will contend that in On Human Conduct it is possible to find some considerations about world politics that are consistent with his broader political philosophy. Third, I will discuss Terry Nardin’s theory of ‘practical international society’ (1983, but also 1998, 2008), and the criticism of it made by Christian Reus-Smit (1999). With this discussion as a back- ground, I will contend that the theory of civil association may represent the ground for a constructivist understanding of international society: a relationship between states based on understood and socially constructed moral values. Finally, I contend that these shared moral values are substantiated in the norms of customary international law. As such, Oakeshott’s political and legal philosophy illuminates the possibility of an international legal order without a central legislative office or power. This is of particular importance, not just because of the Hobbesian influence on Oakeshott, but also because it sheds light on the historical nature of the criteria of conduct and on the obligations that states acquire, in their relations with other states and their populations.