Michael Oakeshott

Meet Michael Oakeshott, the man who refused to be put in a box. His ideology wasn't defined by any party lines or strict dogmas - in fact, he believed that true conservatism was about preserving the essence of society, disregarding affiliation to any ideology. Through his insightful books and political theory, Oakeshott challenged conventional wisdom and left his mark on history. Ready to learn more? Let's dive into the fascinating biography of this unconventional thinker.

Michael Oakeshott Michael Oakeshott

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Contents
Table of contents

    Michael Oakeshott Biography

    The philosopher and political theorist Michael Joseph Oakeshott was born in 1901 in Chelsfield, Kent, England. His father, Joseph, was a member of the Fabian Society, a group which worked towards a peaceful transition into socialism in the UK. In 1923, Oakeshott began his studies at Cambridge University before becoming a fellow of Caius College in 1925.

    Throughout the 1930s, Oakeshott focused his attention on critiquing the direction European philosophy was taking. Works such as Experience and its Modes (1933) established him as a philosophical idealist, who rejected the validity of political philosophy. Oakeshott did so on the grounds that political philosophers could not establish true philosophical enquiries, as they were limited to an attempt at explaining the physical world.

    Philosophical idealism is a school of philosophy which states that ideas are the foundation of reality.

    In 1939, however, Oakeshott published The Social and Political Doctrines of Contemporary Europe. As we will discuss later, this work proved to be his first and only explicit analysis of contemporary political events.

    Michael Oakeshott, Photo of the Cambridge College, studysmarterFig. 1 - St John's College, Cambridge University, Wikimedia Commons

    From 1940 until 1945, Oakeshott served in the British army during the Second World War. Following this, he returned to Cambridge and briefly taught at Nuffield College, Oxford. He was appointed Professor of Political Science at the London School of Economics (LSE) in 1951, where he remained until his retirement in 1969.

    Continuing his active publishing life throughout the 1970s and 80s, Oakeshott established a body of work which secured his legacy as one of the great twentieth-century conservative philosophers. This was achieved through his various philosophical critiques of liberalism, socialism, and generally any dogmatic ideologies. His magnum opus, entitled On Human Conduct, was published in 1975.

    On the 19th of December 1990, Michael Oakeshott passed away aged 89.

    Michael Oakeshott Ideology

    So, what aspects of Oakeshott's ideology can be incorporated into the conservative tradition in order to display him as one of its key thinkers? Let's take a look at some of the key tenets of conservatism to gain an understanding of Oakeshott's ideology.

    Human Nature

    For conservatives, humans are necessarily limited in their capacity to acquire knowledge. Human nature is therefore defined by an inability to understand the complex reality of the world, and so conservatives advocate for a social system that accounts for this. This is the basis for the idea of Paternalism.

    Check out our explanation on Paternalism for more detail!

    Oakeshott is in favour of this understanding, and one of the major goals of his philosophical exploration is to prove its validity. In one essay included in Rationalism in Politics (1962), Oakeshott famously made the claim that

    In political activity... men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting place nor appointed destination.3

    This claim that the sphere of politics is 'boundless and bottomless' has been incredibly influential on conservative ideology. As an analogy, it summarises the conservative notion that humans are incapable of understanding, let alone managing, political events.

    Pragmatism

    For Oakeshott, conservatism was not to be viewed as a comprehensive ideology but rather a disposition that individuals should utilise when navigating the world.

    Essentially, for Oakeshott, conservatism was a tool that could be used in the face of obstacles we have to confront. Through encouraging moderation and stability, the conservative ideology is equipped to guide individuals through the complex, 'boundless and bottomless' world in which we live, as

    to be conservative... is to prefer the familiar to the unknown... the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded...convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss.3

    It is this commitment to the 'actual', 'limited', and 'convenient' which is conservatism's strongest characteristic, according to Oakeshott.

    Michael Oakeshott. Photo Portrait of Micheal Oakeshott in black and white, studysmarterFig. 2 - Portrait of Michael Oakeshott, Wikimedia Commons

    Michael Oakeshott Political Theory

    As we have already established, Oakeshott explicitly rejected the validity of political philosophy. However, this does not mean that his writing avoids political theory in general. So next we will look at Michael Oakeshott's political theory, especially his ideas about knowledge, anti-rationalism, and civil association.

    Michael Oakeshott and Knowledge

    One of the key ideas Oakeshott addresses in his political theory is that of knowledge, particularly how human beings acquire and use it to address obstacles they encounter. The clearest example of this comes in his 1933 work, Experience and its Modes.

    For Oakeshott, experience was the integral quality which shaped things in our world. By this, he meant that experience is the fundamental foundation of reality. He constructs this view from the argument that experience is a state which is constantly responsive to the random changes in the physical world. To compartmentalise this explanation of experience, Oakeshott uses the argument that experience exists in different modes.

    In philosophy, a mode is defined as the quality a thing can possess or the form it can take. In other words, a mode is the way in which something exists.

    Oakeshott uses the example of two contrasting modes: the historical mode, defined by its attempt to shape experience to meet certain criteria, and the scientific mode, which aims to explain recurring events through common regularities within them.

    This understanding of modes is integral to Oakeshott's political theory, as it demonstrates his lack of faith in the possibility of building a coherent political discourse. Modes demonstrate the subjectivity of experience and the lack of a coherent narrative throughout history. This idea informs Oakeshott's theoretical approach to understanding politics.

    Michael Oakeshott and Anti-Rationalism

    Oakeshott argued that there was no opportunity for an objective approach to political issues. He was, therefore, staunchly opposed to the image of rationally constructed, value-based states that emerged out of the European Enlightenment era in favour of pragmatism.

    Oakeshott distinguishes between two types of knowledge: technical and traditional. The former is grounded in the idea that the best outcomes are achieved through attempting to predict outcomes using abstract thinking, whereas the latter is grounded in learned experience through repetition and inherited knowledge.

    For Oakeshott, traditional knowledge is the best option for effective decision-making. He argues that the technical approach breeds a situation, or political discourse, in which participants believe they have unlocked universal truths through rational deduction. They believe they have found practical solutions to abstract issues. In reality, Oakeshott argues, these so-called deductions can only come from one source: experience.

    Michael Oakeshott and Civil Association

    For Oakeshott, the rationalist principles inspired by the Enlightenment era led to the development of a state governed by 'enterprise association'. By this, Oakeshott meant that achieving abstract ideals such as equality and freedom was, in reality, impossible. States founded on these ideas, for Oakeshott, were destined to enter a situation in which true individualism could never flourish. Instead, he argued that they were replaced by abstract and unattainable images of perfection.

    In place of the 'enterprise association' encouraged by rationalists, Oakeshott advocated for what he called 'civil associations'. In states based on this idea, individuals are protected by law but left to pursue their own free will outside of this framework. There is no commitment to abstract ideals but rather a recognition that each individual must experience the world for themselves, drawing their own conclusions and developing their own understanding.

    Michael Oakeshott Books

    Let's finish with two famous Michale Okaeshott books in which he expresses his ideas; The Voice of Liberal Learning and On Human Conduct.

    The Voice of Liberal Learning (1975)

    In this collection of essays, Oakeshott reflects on education as a means for preserving society and traditions. Working in education for the vast majority of his adult life, it is no surprise that Oakeshott analysed this subject extensively. However, his conclusions in this area can also teach us a lot about his conservative ideology.

    In one essay, Oakeshott describes education as:

    a transaction between the generations in which the newcomers to the scene are initiated into the world which they are to inhabit.4

    This idea of 'inheriting' ideas throughout generations is crucial to the conservative ideology. Here Oakeshott is alluding to the idea of the 'democracy of the dead', a conservative theory that states that the traditions of previous generations must be respected and maintained. It is through the 'transaction' of education, then, that this can be achieved. It is the maintenance of these traditions, for Oakeshott, which makes human beings what they are.

    If we think back to Oakeshott's essential argument that experience and practical knowledge are the guiding principles for a meaningful existence, then we can see how his view on education fits into this. Here he is appealing to the idea that education should not simply prepare us for a career but rather allow us to mould our understandings of ourselves and, in turn, the world. Ultimately,

    none of us is born human; each is what he learns to become.4

    On Human Conduct (1975)

    In this work, written in the seven years following his retirement from lecturing, Oakeshott aims to develop a thorough justification for the rule of law in society. To do so, he grapples with the idea of civil association, which we have discussed above.

    Oakeshott takes the striving towards abstract ideals as a society - those developed on 'enterprise association' - will willingly sacrifice the true equality of citizens to achieve their aims. In On Human Conduct, therefore, Oakeshott rejects the existence of both universal morals and natural laws.

    Life and knowledge, he argues, are both subjective experiences. There can be no unifying ideal, no matter how just it may seem, that can bring all individuals together to strive for a common goal. Instead, it is the practice of 'civility' - the following of law and order to preserve individual interests - which will sustain society. This is Oakeshott's essential argument throughout this work.

    Michael Oakeshott - Key takeaways

    • A philosopher and political theorist, Michael Oakeshott was born in 1901, in Chelsfield, Kent, England.
    • Although rejecting the philosophical validity of political ideologies, Oakeshott was incredibly influential within the conservative ideological tradition.
    • Two key tenets of his philosophy are a negative understanding of human nature and a pragmatic approach.
    • Oakeshott's political theory was concerned with human knowledge, anti-rationalism, and civil association.
    • In the Voice of Liberal Learning, he attempts to dissect the place and value of education in liberal societies.
    • In On Human Conduct, he conducts a thorough analysis of the rule of law and the structure of society.

    References

    1. Fig 2: Portrait of Michael Oakeshott (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Michael_Oakeshott.jpg) by calliopejen1 (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Calliopejen1) licensed by Commons (https://www.flickr.com/commons)
    2. Fig 1: Cambridge College (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:St_John%27s_College,_Cambridge_20160828-1.jpg) by suicasmo (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Suicasmo) licensed by Commons Attribution Share-Alike 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en)
    3. Michael Oakeshott, Rationalism in Politics, 1962.
    4. Michael Oakeshott, The Voice of Liberal Learning, 1975.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Michael Oakeshott

    Who is Michael Oakeshott? 

    Michael Joseph Oakeshott was an influential philosopher and political theorist who is important in conservative ideology. 

    Was Michael Oakeshott a liberal?

    Oakeshott is conventionally characterised as a conservative, although he himself did not subscribe to any ideology.

    What is rationalism according to Michael Oakeshott? 

    Rationalism, for Oakeshott, was a form of political thinking which failed to understand the subjective, knowledge-based nature of reality.

    What is Oakeshott's political theory? 

    Oakeshott's key contribution to political theory was the notion of civil association.

    Was Michael Oakeshott a One Nation conservative?

    Oakeshott himself would not make this claim, as he did not subscribe to any contemporary political movements. Though some of his ideas are heavily associated with On-Nation Consevrtaism such as Paternalism. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What was Oakeshott’s greatest body of work?

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    Who among these philosophers is not one of the major influences on Oakeshott’s philosophy?

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