Oakeshott, Michael (1901–1990)

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Michael Oakeshott, a wide-ranging thinker mostly known for his work in social and political philosophy, was born in Chelsfield, Kent, on December 11, 1901. Oakeshott read history at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, and graduated in 1923. He returned as a fellow in 1925. In 1940 he enlisted in the British Army and served with "Phantom," an intelligence unit that worked on artillery spotting. In 1949 he went to Oxford as a fellow of Nuffield College and in 1951 he was appointed to the chair of political science at the London School of Economics. He retired in 1969, but continued to be active from his retirement home in Acton, Dorset, where he died on December 18, 1990.

Experience and Its Modes

Experience and Its Modes (1933) was Oakeshott's first major work. In the book Oakeshott creates some of the major distinctions that mark his social/political philosophy. The most important concerns experience itself. Influenced by the holism of Plato and Hegel (especially the Phenomenology of Spirit ) and the idealism of Francis Bradley (Appearance and Reality ), Oakeshott posits that "experience is a single whole, within which modifications may be distinguished, but which admits of no final or absolute division; and that experience everywhere, not merely is inseparable from thought, but is itself a form of thought" (1933, p. 10). Within the unity of experience people attempt to make sense of it via interpretative devices such as "history research," "scientific experimentation," and "practical reasoning." But all of these paths will ultimately fail. This is demonstrated by a relentless skepticism. The futile interpretative modes rely upon a false understanding of the primacy of Enlightenment-style rationalism. Instead, the agent finds herself in the midst of her own reflections and poetic imaginings. This agent-centered construction creates a tension in a world of other minds. The result is a necessary travail to reconcile one's own experience with that of others. This process is necessary to make social existence coherent.

Along with this amalgam of skeptical idealism Oakeshott posits freedom:

The starting place of doing is a state of reflective consciousness, namely, the agent's own understanding of his situation, what it means to him. And, of course, it is no less his situation even though it may be a concern with what he understands to be the situation of another or of others. And it is in this respect of this starting-place in an understood contingent situation that the agent in conduct may be said to be "free." (1975, p. 37)

Freedom is thus one of the properties of consciousness that allows the interpretative awareness of consciousness to develop.

Because freedom is a precondition of people's experience of the world, it is vain for totalitarian dictators to endeavor to suppress it. To do so would mean that the dictator tries to suppress an aspect of human nature that underlies the possibility of human experience. It just can't happen. Freedom will exhibit itself in one form or another. This is not a teleological expression of human nature but rather an indication that people will interpret and respond to what life presents them. This is a concrete and practical vision. Though some may be drawn to the modes to make sense of it all (a vain endeavor), the primary imperative (á la Berkeley) is first to accommodate the primary data of experience as it presents itself: "And no matter how far we go with it, we shall not easily forget the sweet delight which lies in the empty kisses of abstraction" (1933, p. 356).

Rationalism in Politics

The essays in Rationalism in Politics (1991) form the core of Oakeshott's social/political thought. In the title essay Oakeshott extends some of the concepts of his earlier work to critique Enlightenment rationalism as a device that is serviceable for guiding social and political thinking. He proclaims this Hobbesian skepticism of rationalism as a useful tool for politics in language that is reminiscent of Aristotle (EN I.1).

Every science, every art, every practical activity requiring skill of any sort, indeed every human activity whatsoever, involves knowledge. And universally, this knowledge is of two sorts. The first sort of knowledge I will call technical knowledge or knowledge of technique. The second sort of knowledge I will call practical, because it exists only in use, is not reflective and (unlike technique) cannot be formulated into rules. (1991, p. 12)

This essay then goes on to evaluate these two aspects of reason with a critique of traditional accounts that aspire to make rationalism a transcendent tool. Instead, Oakeshott insists, reason is merely the handmaiden of free holistic experience.

In "The Tower of Babel" Oakeshott sets out a Hegelian understanding of the existing community and its proper influence on the individual. Two sorts of morality are posited: The first represents the existing moral community (akin to the German Sittlichkeit ). The second is a philosophical critique that may alter the first. Alan Donagan contends that Oakeshott (like Hegel) misses the force of deontological commands by favoring the Sittlichkeit over Moralität. By being biased toward experience, as such, Donagan believes that fundamental principles that supercede morality are not given their due. The mere existence of the second (philosophical) form of morality is not adequate. This much resembles the Kant-Hegel debate on the proper place of experience in evaluating the moral community. Oakeshott's position of affirming the existing moral community puts him into the camp of political conservatism. How much one is to make of this is still a subject of critical debate.

"The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind" is another key essay in the collection that proclaims an aesthetics that is disinterested. It is not for the sake of instruction nor is it a conscious imitation of nature. "The poet does not recognize and record natural or conventional correspondencies or use them to 'explore reality'; he does not invoke equivalencies, he makes images" (1991, p. 528). In this way, the work of art is for the sake of the pleasurable contemplation of images. In some ways Oakeshott's aesthetic stance is reminiscent of Schiller and some readings of Kant. It is consistent with the holism standpoint that was established in Experience and its Modes.


Michael Oakeshott may be best known as a conservative political writer in the tradition of Hobbes. However, as the comments above suggest, he is more than that. He grounds his thinking in a comprehensive epistemological theory that also supports other explorations (such as aesthetics, history, and education). To evaluate his work, it is important to view Oakeshott within this larger context.

See also Aristotle; Berkeley, George; Bradley, Francis Herbert; Enlightenment; Epistemology, History of; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Hobbes, Thomas; Idealism; Kant, Immanuel; Plato; Rationalism; Social and Political Philosophy.


major works by oakeshott

Experience and Its Modes. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1933. Reprinted in 1966; paperback edition 1986.

The Social and Political Doctrines of Contemporary Europe. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1939.

Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays. London: Methuen, 1962. Revised by Timothy Fuller. Indianapolis: Liberty Press, 1991.

On Human Conduct. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975. Paper ed., Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990.

On History and Other Essays. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1983.

The Voice of Liberal Learning: Michael Oakeshott on Education, edited by Timothy Fuller. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989.

"Introduction" to Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1946. Included in Rationalism in Politics, 1991.

A complete bibliography to 1968 is available in Politics and Experience: Essays Presented to Professor Michael Oakeshott on the Occasion of his Retirement, edited by Preston King and B. C. Parekh. (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1968). An online bibliography is available from the Michael Oakeshott Association (available from www.michael-oakeshott-association.org).

works about oakeshott

Auspitz, Josiah Lee. "Individuality, Civility, and Theory: The Philosophical Imagination of Michael Oakeshott." Political Theory 4 (3) (1976): 261294.

Donagan, Alan. The Theory of Morality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977.

Flathman, Richard E. The Practice of Political Authority. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.

Franco, Paul. The Political Philosophy of Michael Oakeshott. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1990.

Fuller, Timothy. "Authority and the Individual in Civil Association: Oakeshott, Flathman and Yves Simon." In NOMOS 29: Authority Revisited, edited by Roland Pennock and John Chapman, 131151. New York: New York University Press, 1987.

Grant, Robert. Oakeshott. London: Claridge Press, 1990.

King, Preston, and B. C. Parekh, eds. Politics and Experience: Essays Presented to Professor Michael Oakeshott on the Occasion of His Retirement. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1968.

Letwin, Shirley Robin. "Morality and the Law." Ratio Juris 2 (1) (March 1989): 5565.

Minogue, Kenneth Minogue. "Michael Oakeshott." In Contemporary Political Philosophers, edited by Zbigniew Pelczynski and John Gray, 120146. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1984.

Nardin, Terry. The Philosophy of Michael Oakeshott. University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 2001.

Podoksik, Efriam. "The Voice of Poetry in the Thought of Michael Oakeshott." Journal of the History of Ideas 63 (4) (2002): 717733.

Wells, Harwell. "The Philosophical Michael Oakeshott." Journal of the History of Ideas 55 (1) (1994): 129145.

Worthington, Glen. "Michael Oakeshott and the City of God." Political Theory 28 (3) (2000): 377398.

Michael Boylan (2005)

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Oakeshott, Michael (1901–1990)

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