Michael Oakeshott

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Michael Oakeshott
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Michael Joseph Oakeshott

(1901-12-11)11 December 1901
Died19 December 1990(1990-12-19) (aged 89)
Acton, England
Alma mater Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge
Era 20th-century philosophy
Region Western philosophy
Main interests
Notable ideas
Adverbial conditions

Michael Joseph Oakeshott FBA ( /ˈkʃɒt/ ; 11 December 1901 – 19 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. [2]

Fellow of the British Academy award granted by the British Academy to leading academics for their distinction in the humanities and social sciences

Fellowship of the British Academy (FBA) is an award granted by the British Academy to leading academics for their distinction in the humanities and social sciences. There are three kinds of fellowship:

  1. Fellows, for scholars resident in the United Kingdom
  2. Corresponding Fellows, for scholars not resident in the UK
  3. Honorary Fellows, an honorary academic title
Philosopher person with an extensive knowledge of philosophy

A philosopher is someone who practices philosophy. The term "philosopher" comes from the Ancient Greek, φιλόσοφος (philosophos), meaning "lover of wisdom". The coining of the term has been attributed to the Greek thinker Pythagoras.

Philosophy of history is the philosophical study of history and the past. The term was coined by Voltaire.



Early life

Oakeshott was the son of Frances Maude (Hellicar) and Joseph Francis Oakeshott, a civil servant and a member of the Fabian Society. [3] George Bernard Shaw was a friend. Michael Oakeshott attended St George's School, Harpenden, from 1912 to 1920. He enjoyed his schooldays, and the Headmaster, Cecil Grant, later became a friend. [ citation needed ]

Fabian Society British socialist organisation whose purpose is to advance the principles of democratic socialism via gradualist and reformist effort in democracies

The Fabian Society is a British socialist organisation whose purpose is to advance the principles of democratic socialism via gradualist and reformist effort in democracies, rather than by revolutionary overthrow.

George Bernard Shaw Irish playwright, critic and polemicist, influential in Western theatre

George Bernard Shaw, known at his insistence simply as Bernard Shaw, was an Irish playwright, critic, polemicist and political activist. His influence on Western theatre, culture and politics extended from the 1880s to his death and beyond. He wrote more than sixty plays, including major works such as Man and Superman (1902), Pygmalion (1912) and Saint Joan (1923). With a range incorporating both contemporary satire and historical allegory, Shaw became the leading dramatist of his generation, and in 1925 was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.

St Georges School, Harpenden day and boarding school in Hertfordshire, England

St George's School, Harpenden is a day and boarding school in Harpenden, Hertfordshire, England, educating students of both sexes between the ages of eleven and eighteen, with an emphasis on its Christian ethos. It was founded in 1907 as one of Britain's first mixed-sex boarding schools. The school has International School status.

In 1920, Oakeshott became an undergraduate at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, where he read history. He obtained an MA and subsequently became a Fellow. While he was at Cambridge he admired the British idealist philosophers J. M. E. McTaggart and John Grote, and the medieval historian Zachary Nugent Brooke. The historian Herbert Butterfield was a contemporary and fellow member of the Junior Historians society.[ citation needed ]

Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge college of the University of Cambridge

Gonville & Caius College is a constituent college of the University of Cambridge in Cambridge, England. The college is the fourth-oldest college at the University of Cambridge and one of the wealthiest. The college has been attended by many students who have gone on to significant accomplishment, including fourteen Nobel Prize winners, the second-most of any Oxbridge college.

J. M. E. McTaggart British philosopher

John McTaggart Ellis McTaggart, FBA, was an idealist metaphysician. For most of his life McTaggart was a fellow and lecturer in philosophy at Trinity College, Cambridge. He was an exponent of the philosophy of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and among the most notable of the British idealists. McTaggart is known for "The Unreality of Time" (1908), in which he argues that time is unreal. The work has been widely discussed through the 20th Century and into the 21st.

John Grote was an English moral philosopher and Anglican clergyman.


Oakeshott was dismayed by the political extremism that occurred in Europe during the 1930s, and his surviving lectures from this period reveal a dislike of National Socialism and Marxism. [4]

National Socialism, more commonly known as Nazism, is the ideology and practices associated with the Nazi Party—officially the National Socialist German Workers' Party —in Nazi Germany, and of other far-right groups with similar aims.

Marxism economic and sociopolitical worldview based on the works of Karl Marx

Marxism is a theory and method of working-class self-emancipation. As a theory, it relies on a method of socioeconomic analysis that views class relations and social conflict using a materialist interpretation of historical development and takes a dialectical view of social transformation. It originates from the works of 19th-century German philosophers Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.

Second World War

Although Oakeshott, in his essay "The Claim of Politics" (1939), defended the right of individuals not to become directly involved, in 1941 he joined the British Army. He reportedly wished to join the Special Operations Executive (SOE), but the military decided that his appearance was "too unmistakably English" for him to conduct covert operations on the Continent. [5] He was on active service in Europe with the intelligence unit Phantom, which had connections with the Special Air Service (SAS), but he was never in the front line.

British Army land warfare branch of the British Armed Forces of the United Kingdom

The British Army is the principal land warfare force of the United Kingdom, a part of British Armed Forces. As of 2018, the British Army comprises just over 81,500 trained regular (full-time) personnel and just over 27,000 trained reserve (part-time) personnel.

The Special Operations Executive (SOE) was a British World War II organisation. It was officially formed on 22 July 1940 under Minister of Economic Warfare Hugh Dalton, from the amalgamation of three existing secret organisations. Its purpose was to conduct espionage, sabotage and reconnaissance in occupied Europe against the Axis powers, and to aid local resistance movements.

GHQ Liaison Regiment was a special reconnaissance unit first formed in 1939 during the early stages of World War II. The regiment's headquarters were at The Richmond Hill Hotel in Richmond, Surrey ; its base was at Pembroke Lodge, a Georgian house in Richmond Park, London.


In 1945 Oakeshott was demobilised and returned to Cambridge. In 1947 he left Cambridge for Nuffield College, Oxford, but after only a year there he secured an appointment as Professor of Political Science at the London School of Economics (LSE), succeeding the leftist Harold Laski. He was deeply unsympathetic to the student activism at LSE during the late 1960s, on the grounds that it disrupted the work of the university. Oakeshott retired from the LSE in 1969.

Nuffield College, Oxford college of the University of Oxford

Nuffield College is one of the constituent colleges of the University of Oxford in England. It is a graduate college and specialises in the social sciences, particularly economics, politics and sociology. Nuffield is one of Oxford's newest colleges, having been founded in 1937, as well as one of the smallest, with around 75 postgraduate students and 60 academic fellows. It was also the first Oxford college to accept both men and women, having been coeducational since its foundation.

London School of Economics public research university in London, United Kingdom

The London School of Economics is a public research university located in London, England, and a constituent college of the federal University of London. Founded in 1895 by Fabian Society members Sidney Webb, Beatrice Webb, Graham Wallas, and George Bernard Shaw for the betterment of society, LSE joined the University of London in 1900 and established its first degree courses under the auspices of the University in 1901. The LSE started awarding its own degrees in 2008, prior to which it awarded degrees of the University of London.

Harold Laski British academic

Harold Joseph Laski was an English political theorist and economist. He was active in politics and served as the chairman of the British Labour Party during 1945–1946, and was a professor at the London School of Economics from 1926 to 1950. He first promoted pluralism, emphasising the importance of local voluntary communities such as trade unions. After 1930 he shifted to a Marxist emphasis on class conflict and the need for a workers' revolution, which he hinted might be violent. Laski's position angered Labour leaders who promised a nonviolent democratic transformation. Laski's position on democracy came under further attack from Winston Churchill in the 1945 general election and the Labour party had to disavow Laski, its chairman.

In his retirement he retreated to live quietly in a country cottage in Langton Matravers in Dorset with his third wife. He was divorced twice and had numerous affairs, some of them with wives of his students and colleagues, and even with a girlfriend of his son Simon. [6] He also had a son born out of wedlock, named Sebastian. Oakeshott's most famous lover was Iris Murdoch. [7]

Oakeshott lived long enough to experience increasing recognition, although he has become much more widely written about since his death. Oakeshott declined an offer to be made a Companion of Honour, for which he was proposed by Margaret Thatcher. [8]


Early works

Oakeshott's early work, some of which has been published posthumously as What is History? and Other Essays (2004) and The Concept of a Philosophical Jurisprudence (2007), shows that he was more interested in the philosophical problems that derived from his historical studies than he was in the history, even though he was employed as a historian.

Philosophy and modes of experience

Oakeshott published his first book, Experience and its Modes, in 1933. He noted that the book owed much to Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and F. H. Bradley; [9] commentators also noticed resemblances between this work and the ideas of thinkers such as R. G. Collingwood [10] and Georg Simmel. [11]

The book argued that our experience is usually modal, in the sense that we always have a governing perspective on the world, be it practical or theoretical. There are various theoretical approaches one may take to understanding the world: natural science and history, for example, are separate modes of experience. It is a mistake, he declared, to treat history as if it ought to be practised on the model of the natural sciences.

Philosophy, however, is not a modal interest. At this stage of his career Oakeshott saw philosophy as the world seen sub specie aeternitatis, literally "under the aspect of eternity", free from presuppositions, whereas science and history and the practical mode rely on certain assumptions. Later (there is some disagreement about exactly when) Oakeshott adopted a pluralistic view of the various modes of experience, with philosophy just one voice among others, though it retained its self-scrutinising character.

According to Oakeshott, the dominating principles of scientific and historical thought are quantity (the world sub specie quantitatis) and being in the past (the world sub specie praeteritorum) respectively. Oakeshott distinguished the academic perspective on the past from the practical, in which the past is seen in terms of its relevance to our present and future. His insistence on the autonomy of history places him close to Collingwood, who also argued for the autonomy of historical knowledge.

The practical world view (the world sub specie voluntatis) presupposes the ideas of will and of value in terms of which practical action in the arenas of politics, economics, and ethics makes sense. Because all action is conditioned by presuppositions, Oakeshott was inclined to see any attempt to change the world as reliant upon a scale of values, which themselves presuppose a context of experience. Even the conservative disposition to maintain the status quo relies upon managing inevitable change, a point he later elaborated in his essay "On Being Conservative".

Post-war essays

During this period Oakeshott published what became his best known work during his lifetime, the collection entitled Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays (1962). Some of the polemics against the direction that Britain was taking, in particular the acceptance of socialism, gained Oakeshott a reputation as a conservative seeking to uphold the importance of tradition, and sceptical about rationalism and fixed ideologies. Bernard Crick described him as a "lonely nihilist". [12]

Oakeshott's opposition to what he considered utopian political projects is summed by his use of the analogy (possibly borrowed from the Marquess of Halifax, a 17th-century English author whom he admired) of a ship of state that has "neither starting-place nor appointed destination...[and where] the enterprise is to keep afloat on an even keel". [13] He was a critic of the Cambridge historian E. H. Carr, historian of Soviet Russia, claiming that Carr had an uncritical attitude to the Bolshevik regime and took some of its propaganda at face value. [14]

On Human Conduct and Oakeshott's political theory

In his essay "On Being Conservative" (1956) [15] Oakeshott explained what he regarded as the conservative disposition: "To be conservative ... 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."

Oakeshott's political philosophy, as advanced in On Human Conduct (1975), is free of any form of party politics. The book's first part ("On the Theoretical Understanding of Human Conduct") develops a theory of human action as the exercise of intelligent agency in activities such as wanting and choosing, the second ("On the Civil Condition") discusses the formal conditions of association appropriate to such intelligent agents, described as "civil" or legal association, and the third ("On the Character of a Modern European State") examines how far this understanding of human association has affected politics and political ideas in post-Renaissance European history.

Oakeshott suggests that there had been two major modes or understandings of human social organization. In the first, which he calls "enterprise association" (or universitas), the state is understood as imposing some universal purpose (profit, salvation, progress, racial domination) on its subjects. By contrast, "civil association" (or societas) is primarily a legal relationship in which laws impose obligatory conditions of action but do not require choosing one action rather than another.

The complex, often technical style of On Human Conduct found few readers, and its initial reception was mostly one of bafflement. Oakeshott, who rarely responded to critics, used an article in the journal Political Theory to reply sardonically to some of the contributions made at a symposium on the book. [16]

In his posthumously published The Politics of Faith and the Politics of Scepticism Oakeshott describes enterprise associations and civil associations in different terms. An enterprise association is based on a fundamental faith in human ability to ascertain and grasp some universal "good" (leading to the Politics of Faith), and civil association is based on a fundamental scepticism about human ability to either ascertain or achieve this good (leading to the Politics of Scepticism). Oakeshott considers power (especially technological power) as a necessary prerequisite for the Politics of Faith, because it allows people to believe that they can achieve something great and to implement the policies necessary to achieve their goal. The Politics of Scepticism, on the other hand, rests on the idea that government should concern itself with preventing bad things from happening, rather than enabling ambiguously good events.

Oakeshott employs the analogy of the adverb to describe the kind of restraint that law involves. Laws prescribe "adverbial conditions": they condition our actions, but they do not determine the substantive ends of our choices. For example, the law against murder is not a law against killing as such, but only a law against killing "murderously". Or, to choose a more trivial example, the law does not dictate that I have a car, but if I do, I must drive it on the same side of the road as everybody else. This contrasts with the rules of enterprise associations, in which the actions required by the government are made compulsory for all.

Philosophy of history

In the final work that Oakeshott published in his lifetime, On History (1983), he returned to the idea that history is a distinct mode of experience, but built on the theory of action developed for On Human Conduct. Much of On History had in fact been written at the same time, in the early 1970s.

During the mid-1960s Oakeshott declared an admiration for Wilhelm Dilthey, one of the pioneers of hermeneutics. On History can be interpreted as an essentially neo-Kantian enterprise of working out the conditions of the possibility of historical knowledge, work that Dilthey had begun.

The first three essays set out the distinction between the present of historical experience and the present of practical experience, as well as the concepts of historical situation, historical event, and what is meant by change in history. On History includes an essay on jurisprudence (2The Rule of Law2). It also includes a retelling of The Tower of Babel in a modern setting [17] in which Oakeshott expresses disdain for human willingness to sacrifice individuality, culture, and quality of life for grand collective projects. He attributes this behaviour to fascination with novelty, persistent dissatisfaction, greed, and lack of self-reflection. [18]

Other works

Oakeshott's other works included a reader on The Social and Political Doctrines of Contemporary Europe consisting of selected texts illustrating the main doctrines of liberalism, national socialism, fascism, communism, and Roman Catholicism (1939). He was editor of an edition of Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan (1946), for which he provided an introduction that has been recognised as a significant contribution to the literature by later scholars such as Quentin Skinner. Several of Oakeshott's essays on Hobbes were collected and published in 1975 as Hobbes on Civil Association.

With his Cambridge colleague Guy Griffith Oakeshott wrote A Guide to the Classics, or How to Pick The Derby Winner (1936), a guide to the principles of successful betting on horse-racing. This was his only non-academic work.

Okeshott was the author of well over 150 essays and reviews, most of which have yet to be republished.

Just before he died Oakeshott approved two edited collections of his works, The Voice of Liberal Learning (1989), a collection of his essays on education, and a second, revised and expanded edition of Rationalism in Politics (1991). Posthumous collections of his writings include Morality and Politics in Modern Europe (1993), a lecture series he gave at Harvard in 1958; Religion, Politics, and the Moral Life (1993), essays mostly from his early and middle periods; and The Politics of Faith and the Politics of Scepticism (1996), a manuscript from the 1950s contemporary with much of the material in Rationalism in Politics but written in a more considered tone.

The bulk of his papers are now in the Oakeshott Archive at the London School of Economics. Further volumes of posthumous writings are in preparation, as is a biography, and a series of monographs devoted to his work were published during the first decade of the 21st century.



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  1. 1 2 3 Michael Oakeshott (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
  2. Fuller, T. (1991) 'The Work of Michael Oakeshott', Political Theory, Vol. 19 No. 3.
  3. http://www.aim25.ac.uk/cgi-bin/vcdf/detail?coll_id=8042&inst_id=1
  4. See M. Oakeshott, Review of H. Levy and others, Aspects of Dialectical Materialism, in Cambridge Review, 56 (1934–5), pp. 108–9
  5. Gray, John. "Last of the Idealists". Literary Review. Archived from the original on 17 July 2014. Retrieved 23 July 2014.
  6. Paul Franco, Leslie Marsh, A Companion to Michael Oakeshott, pp. 31
  7. Paul Franco, Michael Oakeshott: An Introduction, pp. 22
  8. "A Letter from Margaret Thatcher". www.michael-oakeshott-association.org. Archived from the original on 26 May 2008. Retrieved 4 December 2016.CS1 maint: BOT: original-url status unknown (link)
  9. Oakeshott, Experience and Its Modes, p. 6
  10. Paul Franco, Michael Oakeshott: An Introduction, pp. 45–46
  11. Efraim Podoksik, ‘Ethics and the Conduct of Life in the old Georg Simmel and the young Michael Oakeshott’, Simmel Studies 17(2), 2007, pp. 197–221
  12. Bernard Crick, ‘The World of Michael Oakeshott: Or the Lonely Nihilist’, Encounter, 20 (June 1963), pp. 65–74
  13. Oakeshott, Michael. Rationalism in Politics. London: Methuen, 1962: p. 127;
  14. M. Oakeshott, Review of E. H. Carr, The New Society, in Times Literary Supplement (12 October 1951)
  15. Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays (London: Methuen,1962), pp. 168–96
  16. M. Oakeshott, "On Misunderstanding Human Conduct: A Reply to My Critics," Political Theory, 4 (1976), pp. 353–67.
  17. Reprinted as Oakeshott, Michael (1989). "The Tower of Babel". In Clarke, S.G.; Simpson, E. (eds.). Anti-Theory in Ethics and Moral Conservatism. SUNY Series in Ethical Theory. State University of New York Press. p. 185ff. ISBN   978-0-88706-912-3 . Retrieved 25 May 2018.
  18. Corey, E.C. (2006). Michael Oakeshott on Religion, Aesthetics, and Politics. Eric Voegelin Institute series in political philosophy. University of Missouri Press. p. 129-131. ISBN   978-0-8262-6517-3.

Further reading