Michael Oakeshott

Michael Oakeshott
Michael Joseph Oakeshott
Full name Michael Joseph Oakeshott
Born December 11, 1901(1901-12-11)
Chelsfield, London, England
Died December 19, 1990(1990-12-19) (aged 89)
Era 20th-century philosophy
Region Western Philosophy
School Conservatism, Liberalism, British Idealism
Main interests History of philosophy, Intellectual history, History of political thought, Philosophy of religion, Philosophy of history, Political philosophy

Michael Joseph Oakeshott (December 11, 1901 – December 19, 1990) was an English philosopher and political theorist who wrote about philosophy of history, philosophy of religion, aesthetics, and philosophy of law. He is widely regarded as one of the most important conservative thinkers of the 20th century,[1] although he has sometimes been characterized as a liberal thinker.[2]



Early life

His father, Joseph Oakeshott, was a civil servant and a leading member of the Fabian Society. George Bernard Shaw was a friend. Michael Oakeshott attended St. George's School, Harpenden from 1912 to 1920. He enjoyed his schooldays, and the Headmaster Cecil Grant later became a friend.[citation needed]

In 1920 he went to Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge to read history, obtaining his MA, and subsequently became a Fellow. While at Cambridge, he admired the British Idealist philosopher, J. M. E. McTaggart, and the medieval historian Zachary Nugent Brooke. The historian Herbert Butterfield was a contemporary and fellow member of the Junior Historians society.[citation needed]


Oakeshott was dismayed by the descent into political extremism that took place in Europe in the 1930s, and his surviving lectures from this period reveal a dislike of National Socialism and Marxism.[3]

The Second World War

Although his 1939 essay 'The Claim of Politics' defended the right of individuals not to become directly involved, in 1941, Oakeshott joined the British Army in its fight against Nazi Germany. He was on active service in Europe with the intelligence unit Phantom, which had SAS connections, though he was never in the front line.

After the War

In 1945, Oakeshott was demobilized and returned to Cambridge for two years. In 1947, he left Cambridge for Nuffield College, Oxford. After only a year, he secured an appointment as Professor of Political Science at the London School of Economics (LSE), succeeding Harold Laski. He was deeply unsympathetic to the student action at LSE that occurred in the late 1960s, on the grounds that it disrupted the aims of the university. Oakeshott retired from LSE in 1969.

Oakeshott refused an offer of Knighthood from Queen Elizabeth II, for which he was proposed by Margaret Thatcher.[4]


Early works

Oakeshott's early work, some of which has been published posthumously as What is History? And Other Essays (2004) and The Concept of a Philosophical Jurisprudence (2007), shows that he was more interested in the philosophical problems that arose from his historical studies than he was in the history, even though he was employed as a historian.

Philosophy and Modes of Experience

Oakeshott published his first book - Experience and its Modes in 1933. He noted that the book owed much to Hegel and Bradley;[5] commentators also noticed resemblances between this work and the ideas of thinkers such as Collingwood[6] and Simmel.[7]

The book argued that our experience is usually modal, in the sense that we always have a governing perspective on the world, be it practical or theoretical. There are various theoretical approaches you can take to understanding the world — natural science and history for example are separate modes of experience. It was a mistake, he declared, to treat history as if it ought to be practised on the model of the natural sciences.

Philosophy, however, is not a modal interest. At this stage of his career, he saw philosophy as the world seen sub specie aeternitatis, literally, 'under the aspect of eternity', free from presuppositions, whereas science and history and the practical mode relied on certain assumptions. Later (there is some disagreement about exactly when), Oakeshott adopted a pluralistic view of the various modes of experience, with philosophy just one 'voice' amongst others, though it retained its self-scrutinizing character.

The dominating principles of scientific and historical thought were quantity (the world sub specie quantitatis) and being in the past (the world sub specie praeteritorum), respectively. Oakeshott distinguished the academic perspective on the past from the practical, in which the past is seen in terms of its relevance to our present and future. His insistence on the autonomy of history places him close to R. G. Collingwood, who also argued for the autonomy of historical knowledge.

The practical world-view (the world sub specie voluntatis) presupposed the ideas of will and of value in terms of which practical action in the arenas of politics, economics, and ethics made sense. Because all action is conditioned by presuppositions, Oakeshott was inclined to see any attempt to change the world as reliant upon a scale of values which themselves presuppose a context of experience. Even the conservative disposition to maintain the status quo relies upon managing inevitable change, he would later elaborate in his essay 'On Being Conservative'.

Post-war essays

During this period Oakeshott published what became his best known work during his lifetime, the collection entitled Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays (1962). Some of the polemics against the direction post-World War II Britain was taking, in particular the acceptance of socialism, gained Oakeshott a reputation as a conservative, seeking to uphold the importance of tradition, and sceptical about rationalism and fixed ideologies. Bernard Crick described him as a 'lonely nihilist'.[8]

Oakeshott's opposition to what he saw as Utopian political projects is summed up in his use of the image (possibly borrowed from the Marquess of Halifax, a 17th-century English author whom he admired) of a ship of state which has "neither starting-place nor appointed destination...[and where] the enterprise is to keep afloat on an even keel".[9] He was a critic of the Cambridge historian E. H. Carr, historian of Soviet Russia, claiming that Carr had an uncritical attitude towards the Bolshevik regime, taking some of its propaganda at face value.[10]

Towards On Human Conduct

In his essay On Being Conservative (1956),[11] he explained what he regarded as the conservative disposition. According to Oakeshott, “To be conservative, then, is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss.”

Oakeshott's political philosophy, as advanced in On Human Conduct (1975), is removed from party politics of any persuasion. It was divided into three parts. The first part develops a theory of human action as the exercise of intelligent agency in activities such as wanting and choosing, the second discusses the formal conditions of association appropriate to such intelligent agents, described as 'civil' or legal association, and the third examines how far this understanding of human association has affected politics and political ideas in post-Renaissance European history.

Oakeshott suggested that there had been two major schools of political thought. In the first, which he called 'enterprise' association, the state was understood as imposing some universal purpose (profit, salvation, progress, racial domination) on its subjects in which they were forced to participate. 'Civil' association however was primarily a legal relationship, in which laws imposed obligatory conditions of action but did not require choosing one action rather than another.

In his posthumously published, The Politics of Faith and the Politics of Scepticism, Oakeshott describes the 'enterprise' and the 'civil' association in different terms. An 'enterprise' association is seen as based in a fundamental faith in the ability of the human to ascertain and grasp some universal "good" (i.e. the Politics of Faith), and the 'civil' association is seen as based in a fundamental scepticism about the human ability to either ascertain or achieve this universal "good" (i.e. the Politics of Scepticism). Oakeshott saw power (especially technological power) as a necessary prerequisite for the Politics of Faith, because a) it allowed people to believe that they could achieve something great (e.g. something universally good), and b) it allowed them to implement the policies necessary to achieve this goal. The Politics of Scepticism, on the other hand, rests on the idea that government should concern itself with preventing bad things from happening rather than enabling ambiguously good events.

Oakeshott used the analogy of the adverb to describe the kind of restraint law involves. For example, the law against murder is not a law against killing as such, but only a law against killing 'murderously'. Or, a more trivial example, the law does not dictate that I have a car, but if I do, I have to drive it on the same side of the road as everybody else. This contrasted with the rules of enterprise association in which those actions required by the directing purpose were made compulsory for all.

The complex and often technical style of On Human Conduct found few readers. Its initial reception was mostly one of bafflement, and Oakeshott, who rarely replied to his critics, was sarcastic about some of the contributions made in a symposium on the book published in the journal Political Theory in 1976.[12]

Philosophy of history

The final work Oakeshott published in his own lifetime, On History (1983) returned to the idea that history is a distinct mode of experience, but built on the theory of action developed for On Human Conduct. Much of On History had in fact been written at the same time, in the early 1970s.

In the mid-1960s, Oakeshott declared an admiration for Wilhelm Dilthey, one of the pioneers of hermeneutics. On History can be interpreted as an essentially neo-Kantian enterprise of working out the conditions of the possibility of historical knowledge, work that Dilthey had begun.

The first three essays set out the distinction between the present of historical experience and the present of practical experience, as well as the concepts of historical situation, historical event, and what is meant by change in history. On History includes an essay on jurisprudence ('The Rule of Law') and a pessimistic re-telling in the modern setting of the story of 'The Tower of Babel', in which modern Western societies fall victim to their own materialism and greed. It is no surprise[citation needed], given this dislike of much contemporary society, that in his retirement Oakeshott retreated to live quietly in a country cottage in Langton Matravers in Dorset. He lived long enough to see growing recognition, although he has become far more widely written about since his death.

Other works

Oakeshott's other works included a reader on The Social and Political Doctrines of Contemporary Europe consisting of selected texts illustrating the main doctrines of liberalism, national socialism, fascism, communism, and Roman Catholicism (1939). He was editor of an edition of Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan (1946), for which he provided an introduction recognized as a significant contribution to the literature by later scholars such as Quentin Skinner. Several of his essays on Hobbes were published in 1975 as Hobbes on Civil Association. He wrote, with his Cambridge colleague Guy Griffith, A Guide to the Classics, or How to Pick The Derby Winner (1936), a guide to the principles of successful betting on horse-racing; this was his only non-academic work. He was the author of well over 150 essays and reviews, most of which have yet to be republished.

Just before he died, Oakeshott gave his blessing to two edited collections of his works, The Voice of Liberal Learning (1989), a collection of his essays on education, and a second, revised and expanded edition of Rationalism in Politics itself (1991). Posthumous collections of his writings include Morality and Politics in Modern Europe (1993), a lecture series he gave at Harvard in 1958, Religion, Politics, and the Moral Life (1993), essays mostly from his early and middle periods, The Politics of Faith and the Politics of Scepticism (1996), a manuscript from the 1950s contemporary with much of the material in Rationalism in Politics but written in a more considered tone.

The bulk of his papers are now in the Oakeshott archive at the London School of Economics. Further volumes of posthumous writings are in preparation, as is a biography, and the first decade of the 21st century has seen the publication of a series of monographs devoted to his work.

Books by Oakeshott

  • 1933. Experience and Its Modes. Cambridge University Press
  • 1962. Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays. Methuen (Expanded edition - 1991, by Liberty Fund)
  • 1975. On Human Conduct. Clarendon Press
  • 1975. Hobbes on Civil Association. Basil Blackwell
  • 1983. On History and Other Essays. Basil Blackwell
  • 1989. The Voice of Liberal Learning. Yale University Press


  • 1993. Morality and Politics in Modern Europe. Yale University Press
  • 1993. Religion, Politics, and the Moral Life. Yale University Press
  • 1996. The Politics of Faith and the Politics of Skepticism. Yale University Press
  • 2004. What Is History? And Other Essays. Imprint Academic
  • 2006. Lectures in the History of Political Thought. Imprint Academic
  • 2007. The Concept of a Philosophical Jurisprudence. Imprint Academic

Secondary sources

Recent works on Oakeshott include:


  1. ^ Fuller, T. (1991) 'The Work of Michael Oakeshott', Political Theory, Vol. 19 No. 3.
  2. ^ Coats, W.J. Jr. (1985) 'Michael Oakeshott as Liberal Theorist', Canadian Journal of Political Science, Vol. 18, pp. 773-87.
  3. ^ See M. Oakeshott, Review of H. Levy and others, Aspects of Dialectical Materialism, in Cambridge Review, 56 (1934-5), pp. 108-9
  4. ^ [1]
  5. ^ Oakeshott, Experience and Its Modes, p. 6
  6. ^ Paul Franco, Michael Oakeshott: An Introduction, pp. 45-46
  7. ^ Efraim Podoksik, ‘Ethics and the Conduct of Life in the old Georg Simmel and the young Michael Oakeshott’, Simmel Studies 17(2), 2007, pp. 197-221
  8. ^ Bernard Crick, ‘The World of Michael Oakeshott: Or the Lonely Nihilist’, Encounter, 20 (June 1963), pp. 65-74
  9. ^ Oakeshott, Michael. Rationalism in Politics. London: Methuen, 1962: p. 127; [2]
  10. ^ M. Oakeshott, Review of E. H. Carr, The New Society, in Times Literary Supplement (12 October 1951)
  11. ^ Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays (London: Methuen,1962), pp. 168-196
  12. ^ M. Oakeshott, ‘On Misunderstanding Human Conduct: A Reply to My Critics’, Political Theory, 4 (1976), pp. 353-67.

External links

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