British political philosopher Michael Joseph Oakeshott was born on December 11, 1901, in Chelsfield, Kent, one of three boys in the family of Frances and Joseph Oakeshott. In 1912 he was sent to St. George’s School in Harpenden, a progressive coeducational boarding school. There he met the young woman, Joyce Fricker, who would become his first wife. He went up to Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge in 1920, graduating in 1923. He became a fellow there in 1925 and began teaching history. He and Joyce married in 1927.
In 1933 Oakeshott published his first book, Experience and its Modes. This is a work of pure Idealist philosophy, which mentions political philosophy only once in its entire 368 pages. But, as commentators have explained, it serves as a “methodological prolegomenon” for all his future work. He presents the idea that experience may be understood and apprehended in a variety of “modes,” which include history, science, and practice. Later, in his 1959 essay “The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind,” he would add poetry as another distinct mode.
In 1936 Oakeshott co-authored a book with Guy Griffith, entitled A Guide to the Classics. Unlike Experience and its Modes, which is academic in the extreme, this book’s subtitle is “How to Pick the Derby Winner.” Oakeshott showed thereby that however great his intellectual gifts might be, he never took himself too seriously and could as easily write about horse racing as philosophy. He divorced his wife, Joyce, in 1938, and married second wife Katherine Alice Burton. The Social and Political Doctrines of Contemporary Europe was published in 1939.
He enlisted in the British Army in 1940 and served as part of an intelligence unit known as “Phantom,” which had among its members such notable figures as actor David Niven. Ken Minogue, Oakeshott’s longtime colleague at the London School of Economics, recalls the following vignette about this period of Oakeshott’s life:
I remember Perry Worsthorne’s story about spending a year or two with Oakeshott when he was an officer in the special intelligence unit called “Phantom” during the war, and then coming back to Cambridge, finding to his astonishment that his old military comrade was a distinguished don, turning up to lecture him on the history of political thought. English upper class conversation, of course, is slow to spill the beans. Oakeshott continued to attend reunions of Phantom for many years. It must have been an interesting lot.
Oakeshott returned to teaching at Cambridge after the war, and in 1946 edited the Blackwell edition of Hobbes’s Leviathan. He also wrote an introduction for it, which quickly became famous for its strikingly original interpretation of Hobbes. From 1947 to 1954 Oakeshott was on the editorial board of the Cambridge Journal, where he later became general editor. His most famous essay, “Rationalism in Politics” was published there in 1947.
If his earlier work had had tended toward the more purely philosophical and interpretive, in the late 1940s and early 1950s Oakeshott turned toward politics, embracing the essay form. He wrote “Political Education” (1950) upon his accession to the position of chair of political science at the London School of Economics, as the immediate successor to the prominent, left-leaning professor, Harold Laski. Oakeshott’s inaugural essay was a pointed critique of exactly the kind of ideological politics Laski embodied.
During the 1950s Oakeshott also wrote several other important essays, including “On Being Conservative” (1956), “The Tower of Babel” (1983), and “The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind” (1959). Each of these has a unique thesis, but as a group they stand as a kind of protest against the ideological corruptions of modern politics. Each is a defense of a traditional, though not Burkean, notion of how one might navigate the moral life. Despite their abbreviated form, Oakeshott’s essays are not “easy.” All are elegantly written, philosophically profound, and subject to continual misunderstanding by critics still today. A considerable group of these essays was published in book form in 1962, as Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays.
Over the next decade or so Oakeshott did not publish very much, consumed as he was by his duties at LSE. Ken Minogue observes that “he was a marvelous administrator, who ran the Government department at LSE quite brilliantly for nearly twenty years.” Having divorced his second wife, Kate, in 1955, he married a third and final time in 1965. His new wife was a young artist named Christel Schneider, who was with him until his death in 1990. In 1968 he retired from the LSE but remained involved there through most of the 1980s, influencing scores of young scholars who came to hear his lectures on the history of political thought.
In 1975 Oakeshott at last published his magnum opus, On Human Conduct. This book consists of three long, related essays on the character of the moral life, the nature of political association, and the fate of politics in modern Europe. Here he explains in detail his crucial distinction between “civil” and “enterprise” association. In that same year, Hobbes on Civil Association, a collection of essays, was also published.
His final work, a collection of essays about liberal education published in 1989, is entitled The Voice of Liberal Learning. It stands as a fitting end to a life that found its orientation in the university—first as a student, then as a teacher, but always a learner.
Oakeshott’s influence in the twenty-five years since his death has been significant. Prominent blogger Andrew Sullivan and New York Times columnist David Brooks both claim a debt to Oakeshott and mention him often in their writing. The Michael Oakeshott Association, formed in 2001, has biennial conferences.
Some of this burgeoning interest in Oakeshott results from the release of many essays that went unpublished during his lifetime, not to mention his many notebooks, both scholarly and personal. These new materials as a whole illustrate the continuity of thought from Oakeshott’s earliest youth to the end of his life: his concerns with mortality, love, the limits of worldly achievement, and his judgments about the role of politics—both limited and important—in the quest for human happiness.