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 on the philosophies of history, religion, aesthetics, education, and law.



Experience and Its Modes (1933)

  • Whatever is satisfactory in experience is true, and it is true because it is satisfactory.
    • Chap. 2 : Experience and Its Modes
  • Experience to be experience must be reality; truth to be true must be true of reality. Experience, truth and reality are inseparable.
    • Chap. 2 : Experience and Its Modes

Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays (1962)


"Rationalism in Politics" (1947)

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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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)

  • 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)

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

"Political Education" (1951)

  • 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)

  • A philosophical essay leaves much to the reader, often saying too little for fear of saying too much; its attention is concentrated, but it does not stay to cross all the ts of the argument; its mood is cautious without being defensive; it is personal but never merely 'subjective'; it does not dissemble the conditionality of the conclusions it throws up and although it may enlighten it does not instruct. It is, in short, a well-considered intellectual adventure recollected in tranquility.
    • Preface
  • Understanding is not such that we either enjoy it or lack it altogether. To be human and to be aware is to encounter only what is in some manner understood. Thus, it may be said that understanding is an unsought condition; we inexorably inhabit a world of intelligibles.
    • I. On the Theoretical Understanding of Human Conduct

Quotes about Oakeshott

  • 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)
  • For if their association was void of purpose, why should individual agents ever accept a public authority at all? In Oakeshott's construction, government without goal yields what looks very much like an état gratuit. His famous image of politics – a vessel endlessly ploughing the sea, without port or destination – is all too apt. For why then should any passengers want to board the ship in the first place?
    Oakeshott attempted to answer the question with another analogy, formally more developed, actually yet more extravagant, in On Human Conduct. Subscription to civil association was entirely non-instrumental. But a non-instrumental practice – acts performed for their own sake, not for ulterior ends – was the definition of moral conduct. It might seem from this as if Oakeshott, having dismissed any prudential case for the civil condition, was going to give his will-less state an ethical foundation. But this would be an illusion. For what Oakeshott proceeds to identify as a morality is a 'colloquial idiom' of conduct, spoken with varying degrees of skill and verbal style by different speakers. Civil association, in other words, is actually modelled on language rather than dictated by virtue.
    • 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.’
  • Michael Oakeshott, all things considered, is probably the greatest living philosopher. He is certainly the greatest in the Anglo-Saxon tradition since Burke, or even (the geometrically-minded might claim) since Hobbes. Oakeshott has a foot in both the aforementioned camps. He is a notable Hobbesian, yet his formal "myth" or theoretical system is perhaps best understood as (what he may even have meant it to be) a disposable scaffolding behind which its outward antithesis, a solid Burkean pragmatism, has steadily been taking a shape fit for intellectual habitation. Oakeshott, indeed, has often been likened to Burke (to whom, however, I can recall only two passing references in his works). His practical relevance, accordingly, is considerable. But above all he has created a complete world of imagination, a poetic vision of great scope, depth, and power. It contains, I believe, major, and perplexing, inconsistencies. But he is, nevertheless, a matchlessly civilised mind, to whom one constantly returns for stimulus and invigoration.
    • R. A. D. Grant, 'Michael Oakeshott', The Salisbury Review, Vol. 1, No. 3 (April 1983), quoted in Roger Scruton (ed.), Conservative Thinkers (1988), pp. 275-276
  • Oakeshott was not without illusions of his own. He was able to disparage ideology because he believed tradition contained all that was needed for politics; he could not conceive of a situation in which a traditional way of doing politics was no longer possible. Yet that has been the situation in which the Conservative Party has found itself over the past generation.
  • [H]e was perhaps the most important conservative thinker since Burke.
    • Daniel Johnson, 'Philosopher of consolation', The Times (1 April 1993), p. 35
  • 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
  • He was undoubtedly the most intellectual conservative philosopher who has ever existed, and much the most philosophical exponent of conservatism since Burke.
    • Kenneth Minogue, 'Academics remember Oakeshott', The Times (22 December 1990), p. 3
  • Oakeshott's Burkean emphasis on continuity set him at some distance from Margaret Thatcher... Yet there was a convergence between them. Oakeshott insisted that the proper role of the state is not to protect the interests of individuals as such but to ensure that they, and the social groups in which they naturally and freely associate, can pursue their own purposes with a minimum of frustration. In this sense, both favoured a strong state, but one with limited agenda... Mrs Thatcher might seem closer to Hayek than to Oakeshott, who was less concerned than either with market economics and the pursuit of wealth. But where Hayek, in the spirit of classical liberalism, criticised central planning and the omnicompetent state on a global scale, Mrs Thatcher and Oakeshott had more a confined and local scope. The rights and interests that concerned them are the rights enjoyed and the interests pursued by the British people, as a result of along and unique historical process. Oakeshott's contribution to the conservative revival was thus to make its liberalism truly "conservative", to imply a planing of the rough edges from Thatcherism's radical agenda. Rarely are philosophers also architects of politics, but Oakeshott can safely claim his place in postwar political history.
    • 'Pragmatic Thatcherite', The Times (22 December 1990), p. 9
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