Michael Oakeshott

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Michael Oakeshott

Michael Joseph Oakeshott (11 December 190119 December 1990) was an English philosopher and political theorist who wrote about philosophy of history, philosophy of religion, aesthetics, philosophy of education, and philosophy of law.


  • To be conservative, then, is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss.
    • "On Being Conservative" (1956), published in Rationalism and Politics and other essays (1962)
  • Poetry is a sort of truancy, a dream within the dream of life, a wild flower planted among our wheat.
    • "The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind" (1959), published in Rationalism and Politics and other essays (1962)

Quotes about Oakeshott[edit]

  • Oakeshott has most frequently been taken as the wayward voice of an archetypical English conservatism: empirical, habitual, traditional, the adversary of all systematic politics, of reaction no less than reform; a thinker who preferred writing about the Derby to expounding the Constitution, and found even Burke too doctrinaire. The amiably careless, comfortable image is misleading. To set Oakeshott in his real context, a comparative angle of vision is needed. For he was, in fact, one of the quartet of outstanding European theorists of the intransigent Right whose ideas now shape – however much, or little, leading practitioners are aware of it – a large pail of the mental world of end-of-the-century Western politics. It is alongside Carl Schmitt, Leo Strauss and Friedrich von Hayek that Michael Oakeshott is most appropriately seen. The relations between these four figures await documentation from future biographers. But whatever the circumstantial contacts or conflicts – some more visible than others – the lattice of intellectual connections between them forms a striking pattern.
    • Perry Anderson, Spectrum: From Right to Left in the World of Ideas (2007), "The Intransigent Right: Michael Oakeshott, Leo Strauss, Carl Schmitt, Friedrich von Hayek" (Originally published in 1992)
  • Whereas for Strauss, modern political democracy rested on a denial of the inequality of man as a permanent gradation within nature, for Oakeshott this inequality was the outcome of a historical differentiation.
    • Perry Anderson, Spectrum: From Right to Left in the World of Ideas (2007), "The Intransigent Right: Michael Oakeshott, Leo Strauss, Carl Schmitt, Friedrich von Hayek"
  • Whereas Hayek took the market and common law as his paradigms for a political constitution, Oakeshott chose language as the enabling metaphor. The two potions have a quite distinct logic. Economic transactions satisfy human want – the market exists only as a clearing-house of utilities; legal rules too reflect social exigencies, and are regularly altered to further practical ends. From these background analogies, a plausible conception of 'the political order of a free people', in the form of the Hayekian state, could be projected, as answering to the same aims. Language, however, is not generally amenable to deliberate change, and is notoriously other than merely instrumental in function. It offers a much more radical metaphor for a state divested of active sovereignty.
    On the other hand, of course, it provides no appropriate emblem of morality either. The second half of the twentieth century has seen many attempts to use language as an all-purpose key to the understanding of human affairs – the 'linguistic turn' still retaining, even at this late date, a blowsy appeal for those who live predominantly by words. Oakeshott's version is in this sense no more, or less, simple-minded than those of Heidegger, Lévi-Strauss, Wittgenstein, Lacan, Habermas, Derrida or others. But it has its own specific syllogism. Civil association is non-instrumental; practice that is not instrumental is moral; morality is a language of conduct; so political order can be conceived as a vernacular of civil intercourse. In this chain of forced analogies, the significant elision is the second one. For there is a much more familiar and unambiguous kind of practice performed for its own sake than the moral – and it is this which actually supplies the silent support of the whole construction. The real gist of On Human Conduct is a conception of politics taken from aesthetics. … The controlling imagery is of literary taste or musical skill.
    • Perry Anderson, Spectrum: From Right to Left in the World of Ideas (2007), "The Intransigent Right: Michael Oakeshott, Leo Strauss, Carl Schmitt, Friedrich von Hayek"
  • Is there any way to read Oakeshott other than as a male mid-twentieth-century English Tory upper-class-wannabe twit talking only to other male mid-twentieth-century English Tory upper-class-wannabe twits? Telling them that they should not think about the fact that they have no good arguments for why they should keep their privileges, their power, and their wealth?

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