Michael Oakeshott’s Philosophy of History

Apart from his contributions to political philosophy, Oakeshott is perhaps best known for his contributions to the philosophy of history. Over the course of fifty years, from the important chapter on historical experience in Experience and Its Modes to the three essays on history in On History, Oakeshott applied himself to investigating the nature and presuppositions of historical knowledge. In “Michael Oakeshott’s Philosophy of History,” Geoffrey Thomas analyzes and assesses Oakeshott’s achievement in this regard. He reduces Oakeshott’s constructivist philosophy of history to four fundamental theses: first, that the past does not exist, only the present exists; second, that only experience exists; third, that the historical past is an inferential construction from experience; and fourth, that historical inquiry is autonomous and not ancillary to science or practice. He then subjects each of these theses to rigorous analysis and finds them all wanting in one respect or another. The first two theses raise large questions about the nature of time and consciousness that Thomas believes Oakeshott’s idealist epistemology in Experience and Its Modes is unable to handle satisfactorily. With respect to the third thesis, he questions Oakeshott’s coherence theory of truth and reconstructs the criterion of historical explanation in terms of what he calls “inference to the best explanation.” Finally, in regard to the fourth thesis, he finds Oakeshott’s attempt to exclude practical and scientific categories from historical explanation highly problematic.

Screen Shot 2019-03-18 at 10.38.50 AMScreen Shot 2019-03-18 at 10.39.11 AM