Oakeshott’s World View

Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, frontispiece

Oakeshott’s World View

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 two 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.]

Part One

The past twenty years has seen an upsurge in scholarly interest in Oakeshott’s work much of it inspired by the Oakeshott Association and its dissemination by the publishers of this book. The editor in his introduction notes that Oakeshott himself, if still with us, might be surprised by this upsurge in the influence of his writings since while alive he was relatively unknown outside a highly specialist audience of academic philosophers and (some) historians. Indeed the very year he died (1990) a fellow philosopher reviewing one of the first full length studies of Oakeshott’s political theory to have appeared, Paul Franco’s The Political Philosophy of Michael Oakeshott in the TLS, opined It is surprising that the work of Michael Oakeshott is not more widely read these days, since much of what he wrote in the 1940s and 50s is curiously in keeping with the spirit of our times” (Waldron, 1990)

And, as the author of a slimmer introduction to his thought published the same year as Franco’s book noted, he (Oakeshott) has not become a global guru.” (Grant, 1990, p.9)  But if not exactly elevated to guru status, Oakeshott, as this book demonstrates, has certainly become of great interest to thinkers well beyond the world of Anglophone scholarship. This might seem somewhat surprising in itself since Oakeshott is often seen as quintessentially ‘English’ in his formation and affiliations. (See Feaver, in Abel (ed) 2010). Although he spent much of his youth studying in Germany, served in the forces in France during WW2, and was widely read in both European and Eastern philosophy and literature, he is often seen as representing that reserved and understated mien of the English gentleman, at home both at college high table and at the race course. Yet a number of younger scholars in both China and India (essays from both countries are included in this book) are increasingly taking an interest in Oakeshott’s ideas of civil association and seeing them as applicable to the issues facing them in their own countries. This casts some doubt on the argument that Oakeshott is too parochially ‘English’ to have much relevance for the wider world of political thought. (See Villa, in Podoksik (ed) 2012). And as previous publications resulting from the MO Association’s conferences have shown, Oakeshott has struck a chord among scholars in eastern Europe and Africa, as well of course in North America, who we can thank in large part for the revival of interest in his writings.

The first two essays (by Den Uyl and Riendeau) consider the role of myth and legend in Oakeshott’s thought. Oakeshott enjoyed telling stories. Indeed, his account of the rise of modern politics is cast as a story of the emergence of individuality out of older communal commitments. But more specifically he often used particular ‘myths’ to illustrate broader themes, most notably of course the story of the ‘Tower of Babel’ that he used twice to draw somewhat different reflections on each occasion on our modern condition. Den Uyl argues that the reason why Hobbes’ Leviathan had such an appeal for Oakeshott, who described it as the greatest, perhaps the sole, masterpiece of political philosophy written in the English language”, (Oakeshott, 1975a, p.3) was because it recasts the greatest myth in European culture, the fall of man. But whereas in the Bible redemption comes through Christ’s sacrifice for us on the cross, in Leviathan it comes through the possibility of agreement with our fellows, through the creation of a civil order. Instead of a ‘fall’ Hobbes posits a ‘rise’, an escape from a state of nature that is ‘nasty, brutish, and short’ into a state of political order. In a state of nature we are constantly striving to assert ourselves against others. So we agree, argues Hobbes, to create a way of mitigating this problem of a struggle of all against all that leads only unto death, by drawing up a ‘contract’ to govern our desires through laws, by creating a polity, a sovereign authority that we all agree to obey. Leviathan tells the ‘story’ of how and why the political was created. It is politics’ foundation myth.

Den Uyl claims that the myth of Leviathan serves an additional purpose which made it particularly appealing to Oakeshott. It stresses the artifice of politics, the fact that politics is not ‘natural’ to human beings, pace Aristotle. We are not naturally political animals at all. This creates a necessary distinction between authority, the ‘artificial person’ that is the sovereign, and mere power which each of us as individuals already posses in the state of nature but agree to give up when we enter civil order. The alternative approach to politics is to see it as always being about power – who gets what, when and how and who decides. For Den Uyl, the representative figure for the ‘decisionist’ view is Spinoza who believes, unlike Hobbes, that “the individual’s right of nature does not cease in the political order.” (p.24) So the distinction, drawn in Leviathan, grounds the notion of politics as a rule governed order that requires obligation rather than mere obedience. Therefore myth, in the sense that Den Uyl takes Oakeshott to mean it, serves to domesticate or humanise the political order; as he puts it, Without myth and its attendant benefits, politics would become precisely the pure exercise of power.”  (p.39)

Riendeau considers the role of origin legends in helping to ground and replenish political society and uses this discussion to consider a possible addition to the distinction that Oakeshott makes between the historical and the practical past, where the historical past is the past understood for its own sake and the practical past is the use of history to illustrate the present. She describes political legends as poetic constructions that help society’s members make sense of political developments and vicissitudes. They are legends of origin or foundation which give people a sense of their own identity and which can be called on in times of crisis or conflict or indeed at moments of celebration. For the English, it might be Magna Carta; for the French, 1789; or for the world communist movement, 1917. She argues that these ‘legendary pasts’ are not an illegitimate use of history in the Oakeshottian sense, in the way that an ideological account of a past event is, but an acceptable use of history that allows people to come to terms with each other and live together.

Indeed, these ‘legendary pasts’ are indispensable for a political society. And what distinguishes this kind of use of the past from a merely practical idiom that seeks to draw lessons for the present or even the future is that it is much more akin to a poetic performance than a call to action. The rules of association (‘lex’) that every political society needs may in themselves be too thin to ‘[ensure] solidarity amongst strangers’ (p.44) so they need to be underpinned with what she describes in a footnote as ‘constructed foundations’, i.e. with legends. If true, that raises the question of whether there can be such a clear divide between a ‘historical’ past and a ‘practical’ past as Oakeshott claims, and whether Riendeau’s idea of a ‘legendary past’ softens this divide or merely confuses it. Which itself then trenches on the wider issue of Oakeshott’s whole theory of modes of experience. In my view, she makes her case well though whether Oakeshott himself would accept the amendment she introduces to his original dichotomy is another matter. She thinks that he would argue that the historical past is almost inevitably intertwined with the practical past and that Oakeshott would not regard this as an illegitimate fusion so long as it helps to ‘stabilize the practical present.’ (p.54)

Nardin’s essay considers Oakeshott as a moral theorist which is qualitatively distinct from being a moral guide or teacher. The moral theorist doesn’t preach but rather identifies the content that makes it a sermon rather than say a story or a set of directions. In other words, the moral theorist considers the logical structure, or in Oakeshott’s chosen terminology, ‘the postulates’ that distinguish a moral performance from other kinds of performance. As a young man, Oakeshott wrote a number of essays on moral conduct and in particular Christian morality (Oakeshott, 1993) but Nardin largely focuses his discussion on Oakeshott’s later writings, in particular On Human Conduct, as well as his extensive notebooks archived at the LSE from which excerpts have more recently been published. (O’Sullivan, 2014)

What defines a moral action is its non-instrumental nature. To be engaged in making a moral judgement is to be concerned with the intrinsic quality of an action rather than its consequences or results. The appropriate moral response to a performance is either approval or disapproval rather than desire or aversion ( p. 61) which would be a more appropriate aesthetic or practical response. Nardin argues that Oakeshott is not making any claim for the superiority of moral conduct or judgement over other kinds, such as practical, prudential, or aesthetic; to do so would make him a moralist rather than a moral theorist; he is merely staking out the distinctive territory of the moral as separate from the practical or the prudential, rather in the same way as he distinguished between different ‘modes’ of experience in his earliest foray into philosophy.

But it seems to me that this exercise inevitably also involves some judgements about the content as much as the form of moral statements. Bracketing the argument that moral judgment is non-consequential, and I can think of a number of possible objections that could be made to this view, Oakeshott himself, as Nardin recognises, argues that morality cannot merely be a matter of personal preference or individual judgement in the way that talking of someone possessing a ‘personal morality’ might imply since moral standards emerge from shared practices within a community. This is not a claim of course that there is a single, hegemonic morality in any community. It is rather than making moral claims involves an iterative adjustment to the moral claims of other actors. If indeed Oakeshott does believe, as Nardin claims, that when we are acting morally ‘our conduct is freed from the compromises needed in dealing with others’ (p.61) then I think he is plain wrong but in fact some of the examples Nardin quotes from Oakeshott’s own notebook jottings appear to run counter to this claim.

Clearly there is a link between Oakeshott’s idea of the non-prudential nature of moral conduct and his notion of non-purposive civil association. Neither moral or political conduct should regard people as merely means to some greater end, simply as materials to be used. As Nardin puts it “(N)on-instrumentality goes to the heart not only of morality but also of the rule of law.” (p.64). But there is also a close affinity between moral and religious conduct and both seem, for Oakeshott, to have much in common with an aesthetic sensibility. This is clearly present in Oakeshott’s essay, written in his late twenties, Religion and the World. In that essay Oakeshott argues that Christianity is not a renunciation of the world but rather a particular way of living in it, and that way is a spontaneous and uncalculating openness to life and to experience. Morality is above all sincerity of action and feeling, the kind of stance that to the young comes naturally but which tends to be rubbed smooth by the cares of the quotidian world where ‘getting on’ becomes the central aim. Oakeshott describes this as ‘candour’ and as memento vivere (Oakeshott 1993, p.35, 37) Knowing about the world can obscure feeling for it, “just as it is easier to know all about a picture than to achieve a sensibility for it.” (Oakeshott 1993, p.34)

Moral conduct is not about being free of compromise or cast adrift and unanchored in a tradition of moral discourse but of being unconcerned with reputation or one’s future ‘prospects’. It is about devoting one’s life to, even losing it, in the pursuit of a cause (Oakeshott 1993, p.37). This raises an interesting question of what relationship might exist between a moral and an ideological sensibility and their respective languages. Though ideology was generally seen by Oakeshott as a disruptive influence, it seems to reflect a similar sensibility to his notion of moral practice in that it acts according to a commitment not to immediate satisfactions or hopes of personal advancement but to bring about a state of affairs that is ‘right’ or ‘good’. Oakeshott as a young man was a socialist, not from any concern with economic equality, nor even from a sense of ‘justice’ but because it was exciting, like being in love. Shelley felt the same way about the French Revolution, that very heaven it was to be alive. Then along came Burke to indicate the deleterious consequences of that excitement and ardour.

Nardin also considers Oakeshott as a practical moralist, who made particular pronouncements about ideas or thinkers, rather than specifying the postulates of moral judgement. Though accepting that some of these were trite, he calls them ‘conventional’, others definitely parti pris. Although Oakeshott once dismissed talk of democracy as mere clap-trap, he defends Oakeshott against both hypocrisy, of smuggling in personal political predilections in the guise of philosophical discussion, and of frivolity, aestheticism and romanticism, charges frequently levelled by his critics. Clearly, Oakeshott values individuality over conformity just as he chooses civil over enterprise conceptions of politics but that is not merely a personal preference but as Nardin points out, a statement based on a moral tradition. And he is surely right to conclude that for Oakeshott the point of morality….is to make room for conversation by silencing boors, to enable individuality by resisting domination, and to make coexistence possible by resisting enslavement and extermination.” (p.71)

The essays by Fuller, Boucher, O’Sullivan, and Coats, all discuss Oakeshott in relation to other major philosophical or political thinkers; namely, Strauss, Schmitt, Gadamer, Collingwood, Hayek, Koselleck, MacIntyre and Taylor. In doing so, they all reflect on the nature of political theory. Is it a study of transcendental truths, a Platonic symposium where the great minds of politics converse with each other across time? Or is it the awareness of change and discontinuity in the historical record? Other times, other theories; evidently what concerns Aristotle doesn’t concern Machiavelli and what offends Rousseau doesn’t offend Rawls. Or is political theory a practical engagement in live controversies, not a disembodied conversation but an intervention into current politics. So Plato in The Republic was arguing against the plebs taking control in Athens; Hobbes’ Leviathan was an intervention into English Civil War debates; while Rawls in his Theory of Justice was advocating the establishment of a moderate welfare state in the USA. These different approaches can be described respectively as perennialism, historicism, and critical theory (or ‘ideology critique’) and all have adherents and practitioners today contributing to the political thought conversation.

Leo Strauss is the major exponent of perennialism and is discussed by Fuller and O’Sullivan. On the one hand it is obvious that Strauss represents one pole of the argument, that political philosophy establishes timeless or universal truths that contemporary society has either forgotten or abandoned, whereas Oakeshott adopts an historical awareness of the changes in political thought and of the significant discontinuity between ‘classical’ and medieval political thought (Oakeshott, 2006). But it is not that simple. Fuller argues that both Strauss and Oakeshott share a pessimism about modern political thought and practice and indeed that Oakeshott, like Strauss, rejected historicism, whereas Collingwood, who he also discusses, embraced it wholesale. Fuller argues that Oakeshott, like Strauss, saw that the danger of adopting a historical approach was of introducing relativism of judgement and of allowing its acids to corrode both moral and intellectual autonomy in a way that did not at all concern Collingwood, who believed that historical thinking emancipated us from past error. The hermeneutical philosophy of Gadamer straddles these two positions somewhat, sharing Strauss’ concern that truth should not be dissolved in a scientific positivism and rejecting the idea that there is unambiguous intellectual progress, but also accepting that there cannot be some sort of pristine universal truth for all time, rather the value of ‘great’ works have to be re-established in and for our own particular and local contexts if what they seek to teach is to have purchase.

O’Sullivan, on the other hand, sees a much clearer divide between Strauss and Oakeshott. Strauss’ ‘perfectionism’, the view that the job of the political thinker is to identify and then advocate the summum bonum, is not shared by Oakeshott, neither is his pessimism about modern relativism. Their respective readings of Hobbes illustrate this gulf. For Strauss, Hobbes represents the acme of relativism, denying natural law and reducing politics to the decisions of the whim of the sovereign backed up by force, whereas Oakeshott reads Hobbes as establishing the conditions for legitimate authority as opposed to mere power. Indeed, O’Sullivan argues that in this one respect, the power theorist Schmitt is similar to Strauss in that both share a hostility to the loss of the political in modernity. Fuller is more pro-Strauss than O’Sullivan and sees him being closer to Oakeshott both in their sensibility to the classical understanding of politics and also in their shared hostility to the idea of progress, either intellectual or social.

I wonder though if Fuller doesn’t elide the two senses of ‘historicism’, the Collingwoodian and the Popperian. Clearly Collingwood and I would argue that Oakeshott saw historical awareness and nuance and being necessary for understanding political as well as other forms of intellectual endeavour but neither would have assented to the proposition that there were ‘laws’ in history that determined human action or that history followed a determinate direction in the way that Popper defines ‘historicism’ (Popper, 1957). And although Collingwood believed that historical knowledge advanced and scientific knowledge increased our understanding of the world of nature, he clearly rejected any idea that thought or indeed social life necessarily or inevitably got better. ‘Progress’ was not something that inhered in the historical record, it was imputed to it. “Whether you think the course of events is an upward or a downward course depends not on it but on you.” (Collingwood, quoted by Fuller on p.80. Collingwood’s emphasis).

Boucher considers Oakeshott in relation to the legal/political theorist Carl Schmitt and to the leading advocate of the Begriffsgeschichte (critical conceptual history school), Reinhart Koselleck. What unites them is the desire to preserve the autonomy of the political. Much modern thought sees political life as an epiphenomenon, something better understood in terms of economics, or theology, or systems theory, or management theory, or genes. This retreat from the political, or what Boucher calls ‘the depoliticization of politics’, has been largely brought about by liberal rationalism and the idea that technique can replace wisdom and instrumental reason replace ideals. Rationalism and rationalists are the enemies of the political because they seek to replace the conditionality of choice with the certainty either of scientific knowledge, technical utopianism, or piecemeal social engineering, whether of left or right. For all three thinkers, Boucher argues, politics has become distorted and derailed by utopian or technicist ideologies, notably communism and liberalism, that exaggerate human reasoning powers, provide false hopes of social redemption, and through offering unrealisable promises of transcendence, merely lead to disappointed expectations and violent backlashes and revolutionary upheavals.

But all three differ substantially of course over the remedy, indeed sometimes over the diagnosis. Schmitt saw politics as being a choice between friend and enemy. The state was about drawing this line and a notion of a law limited state was in fact anti-political since it constrained the state. He saw power as being the essence of political order, power which created authority as opposed to flowing from it. Liberalism merely confused the distinction between friends and enemies by seeking to limit the power of the state through a rule of law. The state must be able to crush its enemies, internally and externally, and therefore it could not recognise any independent locus of authority or power beyond itself.

Koselleck (a pupil of Schmitt) doesn’t go so far but sees the threat to politics as coming from the idea of liberal perfectionism, the idea that politics is about the embedding of a set of untouchable and inviolable human rights. On the contrary, he argues, conflict is endemic to politics and nothing can be ‘beyond’ it. There are no ‘universal’ truths nor rights, merely conflicts over definitions and resources and no sharp divide between ideology and intellectual endeavour.

What all three share is a hostility to liberal enlightenment and the idea that there can be perfect solutions to inevitable political and social difference. But they clearly differ substantially over the relationship between authority and power and the place of the rule of law in politics. Oakeshott has a more ‘balanced’ view than either of the other two. He accepts that there is a conflict between different views, values and desires which cannot either be lexically ordered or rationally adjudicated between. But while there is no single ‘end’, there is a process through which such inevitable conflict can be domesticated, which is a set of non-purposive rules that regulate cives behaviour but do not determine their particular or several ends. Government has to be obeyed, otherwise the strongest, most vicious, or unscrupulous win, but it does so not through imposing a single idea of what is in the interest of all, but through enabling people to subscribe to a set of rules that enable all to meet their varying and conflicting purposes in life. It is in subscription to those rules that legitimacy (authority) resides.

They also differ over the value of the individual. For both Schmitt and Koselleck, it is liberal individualism that has corroded the sense of the political and both tend to see politics as being about the clash between differing communal values and attitudes, whether based on nationality, race, or class. Whereas for Oakeshott it is individualism which has flowered through a limited politics of means not ends. And just as Strauss and Oakeshott reveal their differing points of view through their contrasting readings of Hobbes, a similar process is at work here, in that Schmitt and Koselleck both believe that Hobbes unleashed a negative form of individualism onto the world, whereas for Oakeshott that is precisely his virtue. “Both Schmitt and Koselleck attributed the demise of politics to the waning of mass man and the impetus to individualism that the tiny fracture in Hobbes’ political theory made possible. For Oakeshott it is not individualism that has subverted and depoliticized (sic) politics, but the rise of mass man…(p.118)

Michael Oakeshott

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

References (to both part one & part two):

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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