The Character of Oakeshott’s Thought

As someone once observed, Oakeshott was a philosopher down to the tips of his toes. Yet he did not consider himself a “professional” philosopher of the sort who might turn up in the philosophy departments of universities. “Thinking,” he explained, “is not a professional matter; if it were, it would be something much less important than I take it to be.”

The activities Oakeshott valued most were friendship, poetry, conversation, love, and philosophy. These, he implied, were poised somewhere between the temporal and the eternal and offered “intimations of immortality.” They provided a temporary escape from the particularly modern and pernicious tendency to put everything in the service of future satisfactions and achievements. Oakeshott thought that when human beings value all things primarily or solely for their utility or profit—at what price can I sell the beautiful orange roses in my garden?—they neglect the present and fail to appreciate the goods they already possess.

However, if the impulse toward philosophizing is potential in every human being, very few follow it through to the degree that Oakeshott did. Though he may have considered himself a “victim of thought,” as he put it in Experience and its Modes, he nevertheless systematically chronicled and documented that thought in two major books, a large number of essays, and a vast set of unpublished papers and journals.

Experience and its Modes and Idealism

Oakeshott’s public philosophical career began with a notable early work, the 1933 publication of Experience and its Modes, which owes much to the Idealist philosophy of thinkers like F.H. Bradley and Bernard Bosanquet. In Experience and its Modes Oakeshott sets out a framework for understanding the world. He assumes that mind and body are not distinct entities but unified, and that experience itself is an undifferentiated whole.

Experience may nevertheless be understood by means of the different “modes” of history, science, and practice. Each mode views the world from its own unique vantage point, and each has its own conditions. History is a construction of the past based on what the evidence obliges us to believe; science, the world of number and quantity; and practice is the moral life—desire and aversion, getting and spending, the “deadliness of doing.” Thus, for the historian, a tree marks the place where an important battle took place. For the scientist, a tree is a combination of chemicals. And for the person who is thinking practically, it offers shade from the hot sun.

Philosophy is not itself a mode, but “experience without reservation or arrest.” Yet it does not function as an arbiter or judge of the modes, as if their value could be ranked hierarchically. Instead, it seeks to understand the conditions of each mode—i.e., what is distinct about scientific or historical understanding? Most significantly, philosophy does not tell us how to live more happily or virtuously in the practical mode because it is emphatically not concerned with amending practice. Philosophy aims only at seeing experience more fully and deeply; it calls for explanation and description, not a plan of action. This grounding in modality is the origin of Oakeshott’s strict separation between “theory and practice.”

Rationalism in Politics and other essays

During the late 1940s and early 1950s Oakeshott began to publish a variety of essays, all of which dealt more or less with politics. One of his most famous essays is a long introduction to Hobbes’s Leviathan, published in the Blackwell edition he edited in 1946. Most of the other significant essays he wrote during these years were eventually gathered into a collection entitled Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays, in 1962, and reprinted with a few changes in 1991.

The title is taken from Oakeshott’s essay, “Rationalism in Politics,” and the volume’s topics range from political education to the character of moral life to “the voice of poetry” in the conversation of mankind. In “Rationalism in Politics,” which opens the collection, Oakeshott sketches out the ideal type of the “Rationalist,” whose conduct is grounded not in tradition or habit but in self-conscious reflection, relying on ideologies or abridgements to guide his moral and political activity. Rationalist conduct approximates engineering; it is the politics of the “felt need.”

This is a more polemical Oakeshott than in Experience and its Modes, and he is clearly identifying and condemning tendencies he has observed in modern politics. Here one can begin to identify a duality that will persist throughout the rest of his writing: between political arrangements that facilitate human choice and freedom, and those that aim at accomplishing some particular end or group of ends. In the former, law is understood as instrumental, a set of conditions to be observed in going about one’s business. In the latter, law is employed as the means to accomplish the chosen ends, and it must drag everyone along whether they like it or not. Oakeshott makes a related argument, and poses a similar duality, in the posthumously published The Politics of Faith and the Politics of Skepticism.

Some of his writing during these years is a not-so-complimentary reflection of the wartime mentality Oakeshott experienced as a member of the British intelligence community during World War II. The single-mindedness required for success in war, he thought, is not a good model for civil society at peace, because war necessarily requires that the totality of a community’s resources be directed toward a simple and single end: victory. But ordinary people in peacetime have multiple and diverse ends, and it is immoral to coerce them into working toward the designs of those who govern them, designs that they themselves have likely not chosen. Such coercion violates their freedom and dignity as human beings.

Similar themes appear in other essays from the book. In “The Tower of Babel,” Oakeshott describes two contrasting approaches to morality—again, shades of the duality mentioned above. The approach he favors grounds morality in “habits of affection and conduct” rather than in self-conscious moral ideals. Along the same lines, “Rational Conduct” explains how even the most ardent revolutionary reformers are not wholly self-created but instead rely on a tradition of knowledge.

Oakeshott’s Conservatism

One essay from Rationalism in Politics, entitled “On Being Conservative,” is an explication of what Oakeshott thought it meant to be conservative. This essay often appears in compilations of conservative political thought, but it is worth pointing out just how idiosyncratic Oakeshott’s ideas actually are, and how much they depart from the thought of others with whom he is often compared.

As he emphasizes repeatedly, being conservative does not require that one adopt any metaphysical, economic or political framework of ideas. In other words, Oakeshott resolutely refuses to turn conservatism into an ideology—even a “good” ideology, if there can be such a thing. Conservatism is rather, and crucially, a disposition, a way of being in the world. It is not appropriate in all circumstances, but it is desirable in many human endeavors. Wherever something is worthy of being enjoyed, or wherever a tradition of conduct or skill stands as something to be drawn upon, there it is appropriate to be conservative. And the central characteristic of this conservatism is the “propensity to use and to enjoy what is available rather than to wish for or to look for something else; to delight in what is present rather than what was or what may be.”

This disposition usually entails skepticism about change, and certainly a suspicion of change for its own sake or for a promised state of utopian bliss. But it also implies skepticism about other thinkers who attempt to ground conservatism in a supposed set of inviolable principles or general ideas: “the free play of human choice” or “private property [as a] natural right.” He thus does not assimilate perfectly into the pantheon of conservative thinkers who might otherwise be seen as his allies in defending limited government and human freedom.

On Human Conduct

Oakeshott’s career was bookended by two major philosophical works—the first, Experience and its Modes, and the second, the 1975 publication of On Human Conduct. He said in its preface that the book’s themes “have been with me nearly as long as I can remember; but I have left the task of putting my thoughts together almost too late.” Nevertheless, as Paul Franco has pointed out, the book represents his crowning achievement and indeed contains echoes of themes he had explored many times already in his shorter essays.

The book is composed of three long essays that aim at understanding the character of “civil association.” In the first essay, he sets out the moral framework for human association, distinguishing human “conduct” (action as a consequence of intelligence, emotion and will) from “behavior” (grounded in impulses and instinct). Once again, he recurs to a duality, this time between self-enactment and self-disclosure. Self-enactment is action considered from the point of view of a person’s own self-understanding; the motive or sentiment of action is primary here. In self-disclosure, by contrast, action is considered in light of what it may require or ask of others.

In the second essay, Oakeshott contrasts the two ideal types of “civil association” and “enterprise association.” In the first, humans associate in terms of a moral practice, where laws set out a structure for human interaction. The laws themselves do not advance or inhibit the particular causes of human beings or of groups but merely facilitate “civil conduct.” By contrast, “enterprise association,” which actually stands as the predominant modern conception of government, uses law to advance particular ends and causes. It offers less freedom to human beings because it necessarily imposes ends. Most modern political aims—universal healthcare, increasing the minimum wage, facilitating free trade, racial and sexual equality—are actually “enterprises” which governments have deemed desirable and use their power to pursue.

In the final section of On Human Conduct Oakeshott traces the political manifestations of these two kinds of association—universitas and societas, respectively—in Europe both in terms of history and through the thinkers who identified and promoted each kind of association.

Other Works

While Oakeshott is most famous as a philosopher of politics, he was also intensely interested in questions of religion, aesthetics, and history, and these topics too have been intensively studied in recent years. His personal notebooks reveal that he was a voracious reader of novels and poetry, and that throughout his life he was concerned with fundamental, existential questions of mortality and love.

—Essays by Elizabeth Corey.