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]

  • 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.
    • "Rationalism in Politics" (1947)
  • If we except religion, the greatest apparent victories of Rationalism have been in politics: it is not to be expected that whoever is prepared to carry his rationalism into the conduct of life will hesitate to carry it into the conduct of public affairs.
    • "Rationalism in Politics" (1947)
  • 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'.
    • "Rationalism in Politics" (1947)
  • 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.
    • "Rationalism in Politics" (1947)
  • 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.
    • "Rationalism in Politics" (1947)
  • 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)
  • 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)
  • 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.
    • "Political Education"

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, Spectrum: From Right to Left in the World of Ideas (2005), "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 (2005), "The Intransigent Right: Michael Oakeshott, Leo Strauss, Carl Schmitt, Friedrich von Hayek"
  • Oakeshott was the literary artist in this gallery. His writing varies considerably in quality, and can be whimsically arch at one moment and curiously crude at another, disconcertingly close to Punch or Cross-Bencher. But at its best, when it moves into high register, it can rise to a lyrical beauty. Oakeshott was a stranger to argument, which he anyway largely disavowed: his expositions have nothing of it. Nor, despite his prescriptions, do they have the least character of conversation: Oakeshott's declamations bear no relation to the tentative rhythm of a conversational style, such as one finds in Hume.
    • Perry Anderson, Spectrum: From Right to Left in the World of Ideas (2005), "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?
  • 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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