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.


Rationalism in Politics and other essays (1962)[edit]

Rationalism in Politics (1947)[edit]

Originally published in The Cambridge Journal, 1947; Text online

  • By one road or another, by conviction, by its supposed inevitability, by its alleged success, or even quite unreflectively, almost all politics today have become Rationalist or near-Rationalist.
  • The general character and disposition of the Rationalist are, I think, not difficult to identify. At bottom he stands (he always stands) for independence of mind on all occasions, for thought free from obligation to any authority save the authority of 'reason'. His circumstances in the modern world have made him contentious: he is the enemy of authority, of prejudice, of the merely traditional, customary or habitual. His mental attitude is at once sceptical and optimistic: sceptical, because there is no opinion, no habit, no belief, nothing so firmly rooted or so widely held that he hesitates to question it and to judge it by what he calls his 'reason'; optimistic, because the Rationalist never doubts the power of his 'reason' (when properly applied) to determine the worth of a thing, the truth of an opinion or the propriety of an action.
  • The conduct of affairs, for the Rationalist, is a matter of solving problems, and in this no man can hope to be successful whose reason has become inflexible by surrender to habit or is clouded by the fumes of tradition. In this activity the character which the Rationalist claims for himself is the character of the engineer, whose mind (it is supposed) is controlled throughout by the appropriate technique and whose first step is to dismiss from his attention everything not directly related to his specific intentions. This assimilation of politics to engineering is, indeed, what may be called the myth of rationalist politics. And it is, of course, a recurring theme in the literature of Rationalism. The politics it inspires may be called the politics of the felt need; for the Rationalist, politics are always charged with the feeling of the moment. He waits upon circumstance to provide him with his problems, but rejects its aid in their solution. That anything should be allowed to stand between a society and the satisfaction of the felt needs of each moment in its history must appear to the Rationalist a piece of mysticism and nonsense. And his politics are, in fact, the rational solution of those practical conundrums which the recognition of the sovereignty of the felt need perpetually creates in the life of a society. Thus, political life is resolved into a succession of crises, each to be surmounted by the application of 'reason'.
  • Technical knowledge can be learned from a book; it can be learned in a correspondence course. Moreover, much of it can be learned by heart, repeated by rote, and applied mechanically: the logic of the syllogism is a technique of this kind. […] On the other hand, practical knowledge can neither be taught nor learned, but only imparted and acquired. […] Now, as I understand it, Rationalism is the assertion that what I have called practical knowledge is not knowledge at all, the assertion that, properly speaking, there is no knowledge which is not technical knowledge. The Rationalist holds that the only element of knowledge involved in any human activity is technical knowledge, and that what I have called practical knowledge is really only a sort of nescience which would be negligible if it were not positively mischievous. The sovereignty of 'reason', for the Rationalist, means the sovereignty of technique.
  • By a pardonable abridgment of history, the Rationalist character may be seen springing from the exaggeration of Bacon's hopes and the neglect of the scepticism of Descartes; modern Rationalism is what commonplace minds made out of the inspiration of men of discrimination and genius.
  • Rationalist politics, I have said, are the politics of the felt need, the felt need not qualified by a genuine, concrete knowledge of the permanent interests and direction of movement of a society, but interpreted by 'reason' and satisfied according to the technique of an ideology: they are the politics of the book. And this also is characteristic of almost all contemporary politics: not to have a book is to be without the one thing necessary, and not to observe meticulously what is written in the book is to be a disreputable politician. Indeed, so necessary is it to have a book, that those who have hitherto thought it possible to get on without one, have had, rather late in the day, to set about composing one for their own use. This is a symptom of the triumph of technique which we have seen to be the root of modem Rationalism; for what the book contains is only what it is possible to put into a book - rules of a technique.
  • Rationalism in politics, as I have interpreted it, involves an identifiable error, a misconception with regard to the nature of human knowledge, which amounts to a corruption of the mind. And consequently it is without the power to correct its own short-comings; it has no homeopathic quality; you cannot escape its errors by becoming more sincerely or more profoundly rationalistic.
  • From the earliest days of his emergence, the Rationalist has taken an ominous interest in education. He has a respect for 'brains', a great belief in training them, and is determined that cleverness shall be encouraged and shall receive its reward of power. But what is this education in which the Rationalist believes? It is certainly not an initiation into the moral and intellectual habits and achievements of his society, an entry into the partnership between present and past, a sharing of concrete knowledge; for the Rationalist, all this would be an education in nescience, both valueless and mischievous. It is a training in technique, a training, that is, in the half of knowledge which can be learnt from books when they are used as cribs. And the Rationalist's affected interest in education escapes the suspicion of being a mere subterfuge for imposing himself more firmly on society, only because it is clear that he is as deluded as his pupils. He sincerely believes that a training in technical knowledge is the only education worth while, because he is moved by the faith that there is no knowledge, in the proper sense, except technical knowledge. He believes that a training in 'public administration' is the surest defence against the flattery of a demagogue and the lies of a dictator.
  • The predicament of our time is that the Rationalists have been at work so long on their project of drawing off the liquid in which our moral ideals were suspended (and pouring it away as worthless) that we are left only with the dry and gritty residue which chokes us as we try to take it down. First, we do our best to destroy parental authority (because of its alleged abuse), then we sentimentally deplore the scarcity of 'good homes', and we end by creating substitutes which complete the work of destruction. And it is for this reason that, among much else that is corrupt and unhealthy, we have the spectacle of a set of sanctimonious, rationalist politicians, preaching an ideology of unselfishness and social service to a population in which they and their predecessors have done their best to destroy the only living root of moral behaviour; and opposed by another set of politicians dabbling with the project of converting us from Rationalism under the inspiration of a fresh rationalization of our political tradition.

On Being Conservative (1956)[edit]

  • 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.

The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind (1959)[edit]

  • Poetry is a sort of truancy, a dream within the dream of life, a wild flower planted among our wheat.

Political Education[edit]

  • In political activity, then, men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting-place nor appointed destination. The enterprise is to keep afloat on an even keel; the sea is both friend and enemy; and the seamanship consists in using the resources of a traditional manner of behaviour in order to make a friend of every hostile occasion.

On Human Conduct (1975)[edit]

Main article: On Human Conduct

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, "The Intransigent Right: Michael Oakeshott, Leo Strauss, Carl Schmitt, Friedrich von Hayek" (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. In the Middle Ages, a new character emerged on the scene, as Burckhardt had shown, the uomo sigulare who was an autonomous moral individual freed from the shackles of community, capable of choosing his own way of life. The spread of this kind of individuality, the pre-eminent event of European history, gradually gave rise to institutions expressing its freedom. These achieved their climax with the parliamentary government that emerged in England in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. But the salutary dissolution of traditional communities had also released a dangerous multitude of opposite bent.
    • Perry Anderson, "The Intransigent Right: Michael Oakeshott, Leo Strauss, Carl Schmitt, Friedrich von Hayek" (1992)
  • Strauss's ideal remained what Oakeshott abjured: the deliberate forethought for a well-governed city that had been the aim of the line from Socrates to Cicero which he described and admired as 'classical political rationalism', and reproached Burke – whatever his other merits – for abandoning. Behind the opposite prescriptions lay contrasted intellectual starting-points: normative origins located alternatively in the late medieval and the ancient worlds. This was a sharp division. Oakeshott could dismiss the polis as irrelevant to modern government: Strauss take the pogrom as an epitome of the Middle Ages. But beyond this basic difference of historical horizon, there was a contemporary reason for the divergence of emphases at this fork. The peculiar vehemence of Oakeshott's refusal of any idea of 'political engineering', no matter how piecemeal, as a malignant dream that could only be coercive and abortive, came from the ordeal of Labour rule and (talk of) Labour planning.
    • Perry Anderson, "The Intransigent Right: Michael Oakeshott, Leo Strauss, Carl Schmitt, Friedrich von Hayek" (1992)
  • Whatever shape his ideas would have taken, the book on Blake makes one thing probable. They would have been uncovenanted. He was not in a mood to settle. A Life of Dissent is the affecting film Tariq Ali made of Edward and Dorothy Thompson earlier this year, recently re-shown. While it was being shot, there was talk of mutual acquaintances. ‘What’s Perry up to these days?’, he enquired. Tariq mentioned something I’d written on conservatism. ‘Yes, I know,’ Edward replied. ‘Oakeshott was a scoundrel. Tell him to stiffen his tone.’
  • Oakeshott calls himself a conservative but it is not easy to determine what kind of conservative he is. We look in vain in Oakeshott’s political writings for a specific political doctrine, and there is nothing there that would help us to decide which side to come down on on any particular political issue. Oakeshott believes that there is such a thing as political philosophy which has got nothing to do with the world of political practice beyond saying that it has nothing to do with the world of political practice. Philosophy and the world are worlds apart.
    • J. S. McClelland, A History of Western Political Thought (1996), Ch. 31 : Conservatism: Maurras and Oakeshott

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