Michael Oakeshott and the Postulates of Individuality

A newly published paper by Andrew Norris in Political Theory

Michael Oakeshott’s political philosophy is the most sophisticated and compelling liberal alternative to the progressive, state-centered liberalism of John Rawls and Jürgen Habermas. Oakeshott’s version of liberalism as the civil association of individuals underwrites more ideological positions (usually characterized as libertarian or conservative) that play a decisive role in contemporary American, British, and Australian politics; and his views regarding individuality are widely shared by many who are inspired by less rigorous thinkers such as Ayn Rand (e.g., Alan Greenspan and Paul Ryan). Though Oakeshott’s work aims to be non-ideological and analytic rather than normative, in its own style it presents the best case for the currently popular view that individual liberty flourishes only when the domestic activity of the state is radically curtailed and it refrains from the pursuit of a supposed common good, such as the institutionalization of universal health care. On this view, as deplorable as the current state of many inner-city and rural public schools may be, it would be a violation of the “morality of individualism” for the state to attempt to significantly improve them if this involved significant taxation as opposed to privatization and marketization; for extensive tax-funded state projects require the coerced appropriation of private property for ends not directly chosen by individual tax payers. In so far as Oakeshott gives the best account of such an argument and its grounds and implications, the careful study and evaluation of his views presents an opportunity to reflect upon the character and promise of our current political life.

Because of the difficulty of Oakeshott’s work, much of the scholarly commentary upon it has been expository; that that is not has tended to be either laudatory or partisanly critical of Oakeshott’s failure to pursue ideas that he rejects as pernicious or meaningless (e.g., popular sovereignty, republicanism, egalitarianism). In this essay, I attempt an immanent critique of Oakeshott’s understanding of the proper relation between the individual and the state, one that demonstrates that Oakeshott’s categorical position on the limits of state power is inconsistent with his other philosophical commitments. I develop the argument in five stages. I begin by summarizing Oakeshott’s views on individuality and civil association, indicating their importance and where I will question them. I then explicate Oakeshott’s conception of philosophy as the open-ended investigation of the postulates or conditions of phenomena. Turning to Oakeshott’s account of modernity, I consider his account of the emergence and moral status of modern individuality in both its proper and improper forms. I argue that though Oakeshott does not acknowledge it, his philosophical methodology commits him to the investigation of the postulates of both modes of individuality; that an extensive education is a central postulate of individuality; and that Oakeshott’s own writings on education confirm this. I conclude by suggesting that there is a strong case that the required education can only be guaranteed by a more robust state than that favored by Oakeshott, and that we cannot dismiss this possibility on principle, as he suggests. This is not an attempt to directly derive public policy from Oakeshott’s philosophy, but to clarify the postulates and implications of what he calls the “morality of individuality.”