Oakeshott’s World View, Part 2

Umberto Boccioni (1913), Dynamism of a Cyclist

Oakeshott’s World View, Part 2

Noel O’Sullivan (ed) The Place of Michael Oakeshott in Contemporary Western and Non-western Thought, Imprint Academic, 2017; £19.95; pbk; 197 pages, reviewed in three parts by ALLAN POND

[This collection includes some of the papers given at the 2015 conference of the Michael Oakeshott Association held at Hull University plus some papers not presented to the conference but on the same theme of the conference which also lends its title to the book.]

The individualism that Oakeshott esteems is traced by Coates, in his contribution, to a much older tradition in Western thought that comes from the Judeo-Christian tradition that stresses creativity and new beginnings which Coates contrasts with the tradition of Greek rationalism; the creative is versus the rationalist. This he believes gives a unity to Oakeshott’s oeuvre which otherwise can appear disparate and even discontinuous. The world is not pre-existent nor is its facticity unproblematic but rather is created through our engagement with it and it is this creative sense of being in the world which, from the beginning, Oakeshott insists is what makes for us a ‘world’ of experience. Everything is a contingency rather than a pattern of cause/effect, what Oakeshott calls ‘the poetic’ nature of human activity. And his political theory, the non-purposive civil association, where people are joined not in a common enterprise or because of a shared view of the world, but through an agreement to abide by a set of laws that are unspecific about substantive purpose but merely enjoin adherence to their own prescriptions – not to light fires ‘arsonically’ as he once described it, instantiates this idea of a creative as well as contingent relationship in terms of res publica.

Coates uses this classic rationalist/modern creative divide to relate Oakeshott to some other contemporary political and social theorists, notably the philosophers Taylor and MacIntyre, the economist Hayek, and (again) Strauss. With Hayek, he shares an emphasis on the importance of rules but also the nature of spontaneity and the limitations of rational knowledge. He also, though this is neglected by Coates, shares Hayek’s belief in an economy uninformed by social purpose and in the lack of content to ideas of ‘social justice’ or ‘equality’. But bracketing the fact that Hayek regarded himself as a ‘liberal’ while Oakeshott saw himself and was seen by many others, at least in the UK, as a ‘conservative’, Coates is right to see that in many respects Hayek still shared many of the ‘rationalist’ assumptions which Oakeshott discounted. Hayek generally believed in human progress, so long as we got our view of markets and human knowledge right. But Oakeshott was sceptical that an understanding of markets, or the ‘proper’ role of an economy in a free society, necessarily had any implications for human progress whatever, indeed a focus on the economy was itself a form of rationalist perversion. Hayek grounded his notions of the spontaneity of human actions on a theory of knowledge whereas Oakeshott grounded his notions of non-purposive civil order on the traditions of activity prevalent in Europe.

Left to right: Ralph Harris, Arthur Seldon and Friedrich Hayek, outside the IEA (Pinterest)

What unites Taylor and Oakeshott is their shared sense of the importance of tradition as well as the sense of the value of ‘local’ knowledge, craft skills, and a suspicion of rationalist approaches to explanations of human action. But Coates argues that Taylor still accords human reason a far greater place in his understanding of politics than would Oakeshott, and this is due to his greater debt to Hegel. Taylor stresses community and collective identity far more in his political thought than would Oakeshott – Taylor was after all a leading member of the ‘communitarian’ school that reacted critically to Rawlsian deontological liberalism.

MacIntyre represents one of the leading contemporary espousers of a ‘classical’ approach to politics. Critical of relativism, he seeks a return to Augustinian natural law theory and rejects almost wholesale the modern liberal and secular approach to politics. He sees the forsaking of a search for the good life as disastrous, making modern life rootless and listless. He has in the past called for a return to monasticism, and argues that salvation may only come after some kind of disaster. To stave that off we should stress a much more local and far less materialist way of living. The last point would no doubt appeal to Oakeshott (though he was no hair-shirt puritan) but MacIntyre’s view that politics is about identifying and then serving a single overarching purpose would obviously be anathema. And MacIntyre rejects any distinction between theory and practice. This is the modern Descartian heresy, because each person has a nature that has a purpose which has to be actualised in the lived in world. Coates is rather brief on MacIntyre’s wider philosophical formation and foundation so this is my fleshing out. What they do share, claims Coates, is an awareness of the importance of vernacular practices and the rejection of any notion of an ‘unsituated’ self a la Rawls.

Unlike Fuller, Coates sees the differences between Oakeshott and Strauss as profound. The main difference, he maintains, is their differing attitudes to modernity. This may suggest a problem though with Coates’ own attempt to shoehorn his thinkers into a rather stark bifurcation of intellectual history. The problem is that he exaggerates differences and glosses some similarities. And his distinction between classical/ rationalist and modern/creative fails to account for many thinkers, e.g. Machiavelli (though the latter is always sui generis in my opinion) who are steeped in classicism but represent politics as a creative and non-traditional, non-rationalistic, enterprise. But at least this approach shares in many respects Oakeshott’s own thinking in antinomies and is subject to the same strengths as well as weaknesses.

Neill’s essay considers whether it is best to regard Oakeshott as a liberal or a conservative and is a recapitulation of the argument in his book on Oakeshott. (Neill, 2013) This is a well tilled field. He concludes that Oakeshott is a conservative, albeit a ‘moderate’ one. In fact, it is largely non-English commentators who have tended to portray Oakeshott as liberal, his compatriots have by and large regarded him as a conservative. Note that I am using the lower case; evidence of any particular party allegiance is hard to find although his list of bêtes noires in Rationalism in Politics essay (Oakeshott, 1991, p.11) would suggest a true blue, though I suspect that his views of Thatcher were more ambivalent than her cheerleaders would have liked. Those of a conservative disposition are desperate to keep Oakeshott in our fold not least because it tends to off-set the widely held view that conservatism lacks intellectual heft.

Neill contends that his Oakeshott’s ‘ideal types’ of political association (societas, universitas) cannot exhaust the full dynamic of political history and particularly the nature of ideological disputes themselves. It is true that, at least in his later work, the period which Neill focuses on in his essay, Oakeshott rarely descends to discussing the nature of any specific political doctrine in detail but we have other work to turn to for that. But Neill is clearly onto something when he argues that the very ‘abstract’ nature of Oakeshott’s concepts of political association may need to be supplemented by other categories to catch the more diachronic as well as local aspects of political change. Whether that requires what he calls an ideological analysis (albeit a ‘non-pejorative’ one -p.97) of a theorist’s work, as opposed to a conceptual one, is another matter. He argues that employing the concepts ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’ as analytical tools help us to understand ‘a theorist’s attitude to historical change’ (p.97) but they seem scarcely less ‘abstract’ in this context than Oakeshott’s own. Neill would have been on firmer ground if he had argued that concepts such as liberal or conservative are useful for grasping not so much a theorist’s understanding of history, as of politics.

Neill’s reasons for seeing Oakeshott as a conservative are first, that he has a sceptical, even fearful, attitude to historical change, based largely on his scepticism about our capacity to understand its full ramifications which leads him to rely on Humean ‘habit’. Second, that his defence of individual freedom is not normative (a la liberal arguments, such as Mill or Rawls) but historical, since liberty is an important value that has been bequeathed to us and as such is a valuable inheritance that should not lightly be tossed aside. Third, his defence of pluralism again is not, unlike say Berlin, based on a theory of knowledge and moral incommensurability, or unlike Mill on a theory of human personality, but on our tradition of legal proscriptions and the denying ordinances enshrined in moral/legal norms. Fourth, his patriotism, though understated, serves to ground his emphasis on tradition as well as his defence of freedom (as a national trait) in a way that would not be used by a liberal. This, to me, seems largely right. Undoubtedly his caution, his scepticism, above all, his reluctance to see political argument, or indeed political activity, as being the most important thing in life, is much more redolent of a conservative sensibility than the optimism that characterises most liberal attitudes. And, as Neill reminds us, he did after all write an essay On Being Conservative.

Cheung considers the role that Oakeshott’s views on civil association have played in the developments of Chinese liberal thought in the post-war period, particularly both during the republican era as well as after the communist assumption of power and in the campaigns of the ‘May Fourth Movement’. All of these movements were generally hostile to indigenous traditions of philosophical, aesthetic and above all political thought, regarding them as feudal and intellectually backward. They wanted instead to import ‘western’ ideas of scientific reason as well as liberal democracy and combined these twin intentions into an advocacy of ‘modernization’.

In the 1940s Hayek’s work, particularly Road to Serfdom, became available in translation and influenced a number of Chinese liberals, particularly in Taiwan, to rethink some of the leading ideas which previous liberals in China had espoused, in particularly their activist ideas of state intervention in the economy in order to combat what they saw as Chinese ‘backwardness. But later on, Oakeshott’s ideas of civil association, and in particular, his laudatory comments on the value of tradition, encouraged some Chinese liberals to take a less hostile stance towards elements in traditional Chinese culture than some of their predecessors had done. This ‘conservative turn’ Cheung identifies as an important transition in Chinese liberal ideas. This has not involved a slavish copying of Oakeshottian tropes but a creative incorporation of his ideas of civil association into the more communal and ancestral attitudes of the Chinese tradition. To start with, tradition is not static or rigid but can evolve (which of course is Oakeshott’s view). And second, the tradition contains within itself seeds of freedom that can be nourished, rather than being merely bypassed through an imposition (a rational plan) of ‘alien’ forms of western democracy onto a traditional Chinese cultural template.

The intellectual iconoclasm of the May Fourth movement may, Cheung argues, have been closer to the traditional ‘holism’ of Chinese culture because of its emphasis on abstract ideas and principles rather than concrete practices, thus reflecting Oakeshott’s own views that rationalistic schemes of improvement, such as the Russian revolution, were merely modifications of prior traditions of political practice rather than radically fresh departures. In that respect, both ‘old’ and ‘new’ liberals in China still operated with a rationalistic idea of wide scale transformation rather than incremental adjustment. Nevertheless, those influenced by the ‘conservative turn’ were more alive to the possibilities of accepting large elements of an older tradition of Chinese thought and practice.

Sun Yat Sen

Cheung points out that Chinese liberals (like their western counterparts) still place freedom at the core of their ideals and seek to distinguish their view of tradition from conservative views. Conservatives wish to keep tradition for its own sake even if it is illiberal, whereas liberals are traditionalists because they seek to nurture the values of freedom that tradition enshrines. Chinese tradition undoubtedly contains, in their view, anti-liberal aspects, but all tradition is able to creatively readjust and therefore its Chinese version is not completely immune to incorporating into itself liberal notions of individual freedom and political democracy. Some liberals he cites even go back to core concepts in Confucian thought such as ren (filial duty or piety) which still has widespread hold over Chinese values, to try to ground notions of respect for individual rights. And he quotes the American sociologist Edward Shils’ view that concepts such as ren, and Confucianism more generally, contains important virtues such as ‘Moderation, serenity, tranquillity, modesty…that are required in a civil society if the individualism, ambition, and acquisitiveness in the economic sphere are to be held in check.’ (p.171)

That point has particular relevance since the capitalist road along which China is travelling is not yet delivering any loosening of the authoritarian chains that bind its people. It may well be that older spiritual and ethical credos indigenously rooted will be more effective at delivering democratic sensibilities than market economics. Cheung is brightly optimistic that Chinese liberals will be able to bring about greater democratic reform, though he probably rightly sees Hayek as having more directly practical relevance to the trials of Chinese modernizers than ‘the sceptical Oakeshott’ (p.177) But he sees both men’s ideas as being valuable especially for helping to turn Chinese liberalism into a more native doctrine than it might originally have seemed.

Mahajan, in her essay which concludes the volume, considers Oakeshott in relation to the issues which face the Indian polity and society. The purchase of Oakeshott’s thought in India faces a different problem to the one dealt with by Cheung’s discussion. India is a democracy, notwithstanding ethnic, religious and sectional conflicts combined with still massive inequalities of condition. But it is also what could be called an ‘enterprise’ state in that its constitution enshrines substantive values such as the promotion of ‘modernization’, social equality, outlawing of certain religious practices, and of the enshrining of certain group, as opposed to individual, rights. In addition, the idea of law as a set of non-substantive procedural rules was undermined by the tradition of civil disobedience pioneered by Ghandi in the campaign for Indian independence from Britain. Law was discredited because it was seen as part of the colonial oppression. All this made Oakeshott’s emphasis on non-purposive civil association entailing subscription to a set of procedural rules (‘lex’) a hard sell. The modernizing elites in India, from Nehru onwards, regarded any sort of scepticism about political change, or any seeming defence of tradition, as anathema, so accordingly Oakeshott’s arguments about the errors of rationalism and the virtues of tradition had little appeal. He was, she states, ‘out of place’.

Indeed, it could be said that the problem Oakeshott diagnoses, to wit, how to protect plurality, is precisely opposite to the problem that Indian politics has to grapple with, how to prevent plurality splitting apart the country into warring groups, sects, religions and so on. Abstract ideas of civil or non-purposive rules may seem utterly irrelevant to the issues which Indian politicians have to face. If Oakeshottian ideas are to have any influence they cannot be applied slavishly or mechanically but will have to be adjusted to local conditions, and that probably means modifying the stark distinction he draws between a civil and an enterprise state.

Mahajan believes that Oakeshott’s notions of civil and enterprise polities are ideal types – indeed Oakeshott himself described them as ‘ideal characters’- and in reality an intermixture of the two kinds is possible, indeed inevitable. Aspects of enterprise may co-exist with civil association, and substantive goals such as ‘peace’, ‘security’ or even ‘equality’ are perfectly compatible with a rule based political order. And she argues that for emerging and modernising societies, it is necessary to think beyond the binary divide between the two models of state activity present in Oakeshott’s theory and to incorporate elements of both so long as they are sensitive to the nature of Indian society and indigenous traditions.

And she points out, Indian traditions of statecraft in themselves are not bereft of the resources to construct and nurture a liberal civil order, albeit one different in many respects from liberal orders in the west. These ‘intimations’ of civil order within the Indian constitutional tradition include refusing to prescribe or endorse a singular conception of the good life and an acceptance that the society is made up of people with differing and contrasting moral, religious and social beliefs. It also enshrines agreed methods of incremental change through constitutional amendment which contains provisions for basic liberties that cannot be infringed even by a majority. And the rule of law is recognised and was never denied even by the civil disobedience movement, who always accepted that the protestor when breaking the law must face the consequences and accept punishment.

It is true that Oakeshott’s concern is with protection of individual autonomy while in Indian culture it is the protection of group and community values that are seen as central but here an over-rigid emphasis on what may mistakenly, she believes, be the implication of Oakeshott’s views, a minimal state, actually can undermine the very civil order those views are designed to promote. The strength of communal, especially religious and even more, perhaps, caste ties of loyalty can itself restrict an individual’s freedom of choice and prevent them playing a full part in the democratic process. So the state may have to adopt certain enterprise aspects in order to protect the individual from social and group pressures to conform. A minimalist state may, in these circumstances, be an inadequate guarantor of those individual freedoms that underpin a civil association.

So, if they are to be applicable to the particular circumstances that obtain in Indian society, Oakeshott’s views about civil association have to be applied creatively not rigidly. But that is surely the message enshrined in his ideas and approach to politics; that there is no ‘blue-print’ or ‘recipe’ for creating a civil association and a free polity and that political activity comes out of and has to be sensitive to local traditions and mores. As she concludes, Reading Oakeshott we can come to appreciate that the political is the domain of the contingent; hence we cannot rely merely on adherence to a set of principlesThinking about freedom requires a certain flexibility so as to accord primacy to what is necessary under the circumstances instead of emulating a pre-given model.(p.193)

O’Sullivan, in his introduction to the reader, argues that the tendency, illustrated by Mahajan’s argument (but it could apply to some of Cheung’s Chinese liberals too) for overcoming the binary divide between civil and enterprise politics, is for non-Western advocates of Oakeshott’s approach to civil association to treat it as a merely instrumental device for promoting reforms as opposed to an ethical statement about the limits of politics and the value of individuality. (pp.16-17) There is a sense that perhaps some people, this applies far more to post-Marxist pluralist theorists like Mouffe than to either of the two essayists here, do pick and mix promiscuously, trying to turn Oakeshott into some radical democrat or theorist of ‘participation’ (for which he was appropriately sceptical about, see his comments in On Human Conduct ) (see Minch, 2009) as opposed to the advocate of a cautious, incremental and highly traditional approach to politics which he undoubtedly was. But equally there is no prohibition on any thinker’s ideas being appropriated for particular purposes, though intellectual propriety might suggest a caution towards twisting them out of all shape to fit any pre-determined argument that any stray ideologist coming across them might choose to make.

Cheung and Mahajan illustrate the continuing fecundity of Oakeshott’s ideas and their ability to inspire fresh thinking and creative application in diverse ways to particular circumstances. Indeed, the essays in this book are a notable addition to the growing corpus of Oakeshott scholarship. They are mercifully free of jargon and the fashionable academic obsessions that disfigure much contemporary work in political theory. As a production sired by the Michael Oakeshott Association they could perhaps could be accused of being too laudatory; maybe we could have done with some Gamblean criticism (see Gamble, in Podosik (ed) 2012) I will therefore offer two criticisms.

First, does his argument for the non-correspondence of modes have any bearing on his defence of civil association? In other words, could we accept the idea that history, or philosophy, or political theory even, could actually help illuminate our practical schemes in the quotidian world as well as also agreeing with his idea of the importance of civil association as a desirable form of politics for us? I cannot myself see any logical connection between these two different aspects of Oakeshott’s work, though I accept that for many of his adherents the two seem absolutely fundamental as well as linked. I do understand that he wanted to protect the autonomy of intellectual pursuit from the abuse he felt it might suffer at the hands of passing hedge-priests of doctrine (usually Marxist or feminist but by no means always so) wanting to turn inquiry for its own sake into advocacy of a cause. But the austere theory of knowledge or rather experience he advances at least in his earlier work, and which, despite arguments to the contrary (eg. Gerencser, 2000) I do not think he abandoned, give too many hostages to fortune. Even the idea that law or rules do not or cannot reflect a substantive purpose may well flounder simply when we consider something as simple as laws that enjoin parents to have their children educated at school.

Second, can a democratic society dispense with ‘ideology’? Is it not the medium through which we experience the cut and thrust of political discussion? Oakeshott was always somewhat phobic about this voice in the conversation of mankind, doubting it had any right to speak at all. Can we indeed even conceive of conducting our democratic politics other than through the language of ideological dispute? I do not think so (see Pond, 2016) Ideology isn’t a snake in the grass that corrupts the pure character of democracy (though it can corrupt intellectual endeavour) and Oakeshott is right that it is an essential part of it. Through using ideological language, we show our affiliation to a view about what should be done in the political realm and limited to that usage ideological language has an honourable place in political activity. He described politics as a conversation not an argument. (Oakeshott, 1991, p.58) But it’s surely both? (did the professor never attend PMQs?) In politics we discuss, but we also harangue, heckle, debate, argue, attempt to persuade, refute, ridicule, and arouse. It is not always edifying but it is what the cut and thrust of politics, especially democratic politics, entails; and I suggest it is a partial theory of politics that neglects or deprecates that.

Allan Pond is the author of a forthcoming book on conservatism. He writes from Northumberland

References (to all 3 parts)

Guy Debord (2002) The Society of the Spectacle (New York, Zone Books; first pub 1967)
George Feaver (2010) “Being English; The Conservative Witness of Michael Oakeshott” in Corey Abel (ed) The Meanings of Michael Oakeshott’s Conservatism (Exeter, Imprint Academic)
Andrew Gamble (2012) “Oakeshott’s Ideological Politics; Conservative or Liberal?”, in Efraim Podoksik (ed) The Cambridge Companion to Oakeshott (Cambridge University Press)
Steven Gerencser (2000) The Skeptic’s (sic) Oakeshott (London, Macmillan)
Robert Grant (1990) Thinkers of Our Time: Oakeshott (London, The Claridge Press)
John Gray (1993) “An Agenda for Green Conservatism” in Gray, Beyond the New Right (London, Routledge)
Michael Minch (2009) The Democratic Theory of Michael Oakeshott  (Exeter, Imprint Academic)
Ivo Mosley (2010) “A Dark Age Devoted to Barbaric Affluence: Oakeshott’s Verdict on the Modern World” in Corey Abel (ed) The Meanings of Michael Oakeshott’s Conservatism (Exeter, Imprint Academic)
Antonio Negri & Michael Hardt (2000) Empire (Harvard University Press)
Edmund Neill (2013) Michael Oakeshott (London, Bloomsbury)
Michael Oakeshott (1975a) Hobbes on Civil Association (Oxford, Basil Blackwell)
Michael Oakeshott (1975b) On Human Conduct (Oxford, Clarendon Press)
Michael Oakeshott (1991) Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays (Indianapolis, Liberty Fund)
Michael Oakeshott (1993) Religion, Politics and the Moral Life (New Haven, Yale University Press)
Michael Oakeshott (2006) Lectures in the History of Political Thought (Exeter, Imprint Academic)
Luke O’Sullivan (ed.) (2014) Michael Oakeshott: Notebooks 1922-1986 (Exeter, Imprint Academic)
Allan Pond (2016) “An Opaque Ideology?”  Quarterly Review 19 June 2016 (online edition; available at; www.quarterly-review.org/an-opaque-ideology-2/  )
Karl Popper (1957) The Poverty of Historicism (London, Routledge & Kegan Paul)
Roger Scruton (2012) Green Philosophy; How to Think Seriously About the Planet (London, Atlantic Books)
Dana Villa (2012) “Oakeshott and the Cold War critique of political rationalism” in Efraim Podoksik (ed) The Cambridge Companion to Oakeshott (Cambridge University Press)
Jeremy Waldron (1990) “Politics without Purpose?”  Times Literary Supplement, July 6-12. pp.715-716.

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5 Responses to Oakeshott’s World View, Part 2

  1. David Ashton says:

    Don’t these charming and thoughtful views belong to “another country”?

    What role will they have in this island in 2050 even if they can be found in libraries?

    I suppose if “our” future Afro-Asian Leftist Republic has been “dovetailed” into the Chinese state economy, as proposed by its Ambassador in its subsidized “Daily Telegraph”, and “we” eventually swap places with Hong Kong in geo-strategic terms, maybe “our” Sharia colonies will be swept aside, and some of the above wisdom gradually reinstated by the new mandarins of Mandarin.

    • allan pond says:

      I don’t share your dystopian visions David albeit sometime pessimism of the intellect can be bracing. I think Oakeshott is one of the seminal political thinkers of the 20c and it is encouraging to see young scholars from other countries also beginning to take account of his ideas, which can only be a good thing. I think his charming and thoughtful views as you put them (I assume you were referencing Oakeshott’s rather than mine !) still have considerable purchase on our politics today. Actually I think his views are considerably more stringent and demanding than merely charming, though undoubtedly thoughtful. I think he represents of course a distinctly indigenous kind of conservatism that sits easily in our largely empirical and unideological approach to things which nevertheless seems to be increasingly attracting interest and commendation from thinkers from very different cultural asv well as political milieus. But thanks for your comments.

  2. Stuart Millson says:

    There is a novel, by Robert Muller entitled ‘After all, this is England’ – in which the history of England is being considered by a Chinese state official, ensconced in his office in (what was) Cambridge…

  3. David Ashton says:

    I am just looking at the demographic projections for England, much of Europe and the USA, plus the gradual TV preparation for our “diverse and inclusive” future, and measures taken educationally and legislatively to avert and suppress opposition. In some ways it has ever been thus since 1948 – I remember, when a graduate member of the originally academic Institute of Race Relations (later taken over after a brief Kerensky interlude by agitprop Marxists of “Race & Class”) during the 1960s that the uncounted number of NCWP immigrants was always below 900,000.

    The only thing necessary for the triumph of Dystopia is that good men neither see its possibility nor prepare against it.

    There were also a number of novels in that decade which followed Jack London in envisaging “whites” defending their ancestral homelands, o/p today and probably illegal; titles on request.

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