Michael Oakeshott on the History of Political Thought

What did Oakeshott mean by the “history of political thought”? This is the question Martyn Thompson addresses in his essay “Michael Oakeshott on the History of Political Thought.” He highlights two features of Oakeshott’s conception: first, that the historical past is a construction of the historian, and therefore the meaning of any given historical text will depend on the specific question a historian is seeking to answer; and second, that political thinking takes place on different levels, some more practical, some more theoretical, and the historian should never confuse these levels. Taken together, these two features point to a multidimensional conception of the history of political thought that contrasts sharply with Quentin Skinner’s attempt to reduce it to a history of ideologies. Thompson draws out this contrast by considering Oakeshott’s and Skinner’s respective interpretations of Hobbes’s Leviathan.

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