I first encountered Michael Oakeshott as a sophomore in college when, whether providentially or accidentally, I picked his edition of Hobbes’s Leviathan off the shelf in my college’s library. I had barely begun to study Hobbes, and I knew nothing about Oakeshott. I sat down to read the Introduction and, reading it straight through, found it to be such an exciting intellectual experience that it was a spur to my embryonic commitment to the study of political philosophy. This was 1958. Oakeshott was, apart from this edition of Hobbes, little known in the United States. I continued to pursue political philosophy with this experience in the back of my mind. Then, in 1962, as I was beginning my graduate work, Oakeshott’s Rationalism in Politics appeared. This collection of essays, which he had written for various occasions from the end of World War II to 1960, was the beginning of his wider notice in America. Initially, however, the reception was mixed.

Neoconservatives like Irving Kristol were cool to Oakeshott’s conservative disposition, arguing that it was too European, not American, and did not lend itself to movement politics; it was the conservatism of the skeptic whose devotion to the philosophic analysis of politics prevented wholehearted immersion in the political debates of the moment. Oakeshott called politics a “necessary evil,” something we could not do without, but which was easy to overrate. He had actually argued that poets, artists, and philosophers might have a duty to stay out of politics. Russell Kirk conservatives took exception to Oakeshott’s apparent lack of religiosity; he had been brought up an Anglican, but he ceased early on to be a practicing Christian. The Straussian reviewers welcomed his conservative disposition, but they denied he was a political philosopher, as they understood political philosophy. They thought he was Burkean (not Strauss’s preferred view), or historicist in the Hegelian vein, and thus not pursuing insight into the eternal things. Beyond this, the academic establishment was still barely challenged in its devotion to progressivism and the liberal welfare state. Conservative thought of any sort was marginal among the fashionable intelligentsia.

Oakeshott’s understanding of philosophy is that it seeks to understand the whole of experience through assessment of the limitations of the various modes into which we divide and interpret our experience. For him, the task of the philosopher is not to intervene in the political life—to become an adjunct of a political party or movement—but to describe the activities of the practical mode of life, and its limitations. In his remarkable early work Experience and its Modes (1933), he had described the philosopher as a “victim of thought” who gives up the green for the gray. Later on, he described himself as a “skeptic who would do better if he knew how.” Philosophy, contra Marx, seeks to understand the world, not to change it. This does not mean Oakeshott had no political predilections; he did, but they were not the primary point of his life and work.

The reception of his work began to change especially with the publication in 1975 of On Human Conduct, his magnum opus, and then other works, such as his essays on liberal learning, a collection of his essays on Hobbes, essays on the historian’s study of the past, on the rule of law, and so on. Also, the revival of conservatism as a viable intellectual voice in American politics—which had been spurred in the 1950s by William F. Buckley (who greatly admired Oakeshott), and which reached a peak in the Reagan years—meant that Oakeshott began to be looked at with more interest. Since then, academic interest in Oakeshott’s work, quite apart from partisan issues, has flourished. Many dissertations are now written on his work. There is debate about whether he is “conservative” or a “classical liberal.” There have even been attempts to adapt Oakeshott to post-modernism (for instance by Richard Rorty). There is now a Michael Oakeshott Association and even something of an Oakeshott industry. This collection of Oakeshott’s notes reveal, however, that achieving worldly recognition was, if present, nevertheless a subdominant motive.1 It is uncertain how Oakeshott might have responded to the attention his work now receives.

After his death in 1990, a great deal of material came to light, including unpublished manuscripts, such as The Politics of Faith and the Politics of Scepticism (published posthumously in 1996), and a collection of remarkable notebooks which he had begun in the early 1920s, extending into the 1980s. My own initial encounter with the notebooks occurred when Shirley Letwin (his literary executor until she died) and I retrieved the papers in his cottage in Dorset in May 1991, which I described briefly in my introduction to The Politics of Faith and the Politics of Scepticism.

Luke O’Sullivan, professor at the University of Singapore, has distinguished himself as an editor of much of Oakeshott’s unpublished or long out of print work. All students of Oakeshott’s work owe him a debt of gratitude for making this material accessible so that they do not have to go to the archives at the London School of Economics. O’Sullivan has selected forty of the notebooks which illustrate or add to the philosophic and political ideas expressed in Oakeshott’s published works. How, exactly, do these works shed light on his philosophy?

The reader will encounter several hundred pages of thoughts, reflections, aphorisms in the style of the French moralists, careful notes, quotations, and reflections on major thinkers such as Plato, Aristotle, and Spinoza, trial opening sentences for essays he might write, and even self-examination of his personal life and loves. This is, of course, not a systematic work, but it reflects Oakeshott’s attitude to writing in general. One of Oakeshott’s intellectual heroes was Montaigne, whom he admired for writing in a manner which revealed a character, rather than a rigid, systematic exposition and argument. As Ralph Waldo Emerson, who also admired Montaigne, put it: Montaigne’s essays are conversations transferred to written pages. When Oakeshott published the essays in Rationalism in Politics, he was quite clear that those essays expressed not a settled argument but a disposition to see the world in a certain way, and an invitation to readers to respond in terms of their own considered views. I remember he remarked once that, in conversation, one makes clear the reasons why one sees things as one does, and conversational partners respond why they see things in the way they do. Conversation is not, he thought, about winning a debate or besting someone in argument—it is rather mutual self-disclosure in order to understand better what one already understands in part, while accepting that such exchange can be enjoyed for itself, and need not point to some extrinsic purpose. Refutations and victories are not the goal of conversation.

One finds in these notebooks extensions of Oakeshott’s self-disclosure, as elements of his conversation with himself which, I think, will live on into the future. I don’t suppose Oakeshott ever intended these to become public. Neither did he dictate, however, that they not become public. In his will, he directed Shirley Letwin to do with his papers “what she thought best.” Most of us who knew Oakeshott agreed that this was permission to do what, over the last twenty plus years, has been done. What, then, do we learn about Oakeshott’s character from these notebooks?

For one thing, Oakeshott was a voracious reader of a very wide range of poetry, novels, history, and philosophy, all of which influenced his thinking but was rarely explicit in his published writings. He thought that footnotes were tedious, and he was sparing in his use of them. He wanted responses to what he himself was offering, not a dissection of his thinking in terms of sources. It remains for conscientious editors, like O’Sullivan, to hunt down his references for the sake of the rest of us.

The notebooks reveal a romantic streak in his disposition, which illuminates a dimension of his well-known critique of modern rationalism. But his philosophical reflections are not romantic in character. O’Sullivan very reasonably characterizes the tension: “Perhaps the lesson of the notebooks as a whole is that Oakeshott was really the last great representative, not only of British Idealism, but also of English Romanticism; and that he continued to cleave to the latter long after he had abandoned the former.” Here O’Sullivan alludes to a debate among Oakeshottians as to whether, in the middle of his journey, Oakeshott shifted emphasis towards a more poetic voice than appears in Experience and its Modes (1933). The issue is complicated by the appearance of On Human Conduct (1975). Rationalism in Politics (1962) is situated between these two more systematic works. Oakeshott liked to refer to On Human Conduct as three essays. It is true that the book is divided into three parts, but they go together in a carefully considered manner which offers a unified argument and which is more systematic than Oakeshott seemed prepared to admit.

Oakeshott saw that the rationalist preoccupation with method in the modern social sciences, inspired by Bacon, Descartes, and the nineteenth-century positivists, had increasingly both displaced and altered the study of history and philosophy by narrowing the concept of reason’s function, reducing conduct to behavior, denying human agency, and seeking to explain away the mystery of life. His commitment to the conversational mode—which challenges the scientific treatise—meant that there was a personal element in what he wrote.

At the same time, he was intent upon describing in detachment what there is to be seen in examining any identifiable mode of human experience, bringing out the assumptions which underlie and distinguish any particular angle of understanding on human experience as a whole. His aim was to describe how experience is characterized within differing perspectives on human experience. His goal was not to say how scientists, historians, or politicians “ought” to look at the world, but, rather, how they do look at and explain the world, whatever they may sometimes claim to be doing. For example, politicians may claim they are moving us to a final destination when, in fact, they are unavoidably pursuing the intimations of their current situation as they feel their way forward into an inevitably cloudy future. His approach required a detachment in observation, which is in tension with the search for the poetic elements in the interstices of daily life.

Particularly interesting is O’Sullivan’s account of Oakeshott’s religious ideas which he expressed in these notebooks more openly than in his published writings. Oakeshott’s intent was to live as fully in the present as possible. This meant overcoming anxious preoccupation with, and guilt about, the past, and, equally, resisting fear of the future, in particular preoccupation with mortality. What remained of Christianity for him was the cultivation of a way of being in the world that was not worldly. He was fond of Montaigne’s essay “To Philosophize Is To Learn How To Die,” which expresses the hope of leaving this world as effortlessly as one entered it. While Oakeshott endorsed the “political economy of freedom” as necessary to individuality—believing that property rights might be more important for protecting individuality than freedom of speech (since most, he thought, have little to say)—he was always skeptical of getting and spending, of the materialization of the spiritual life. In that respect, he felt kinship for Pascal and St. Augustine.

Pascal and St. Augustine he thought the most imaginative of Christians because they made powerful, dramatic stories out of the basic elements of Christianity on the basis of which one might forge a sense of how to live that was not reduced to mere rules and regulations or arguments over doctrines. He transposed Augustine’s doctrine of the “two cities” into the concept of different dimensions of human understanding within the undivided whole of human experience. In this he rejected the idea of “salvation” in another world because it distracts our attention from the world we actually have, transitory though our place in it is, where we might actually enjoy release from the anxiety always to be somewhere else: “It is the crime of our civilization. Instead of the sweetness of the present day, the light of today, we love what is gone or is to come. We despise all that is not productive, contributory: we do not understand what is simply for itself.” And, “If we could be convinced that we are, literally, ‘full of immortality,’ all would be well & death conquered. But instead, most convince themselves that immortality is ‘to come,’ & a few die with no sense of immortality at all.”

Folk practices of religion appealed to him for their unselfconscious adherence to traditions of religious expression woven into the daily lives of ordinary humanity (“the wisp of wheat on a wayside Calvary”). This he contrasted to the abstractions of modern moral idealism incessantly pricking us to transform the world through various schemes for a new, improved Tower of Babel, or the “religion of humanity.” He thought that many contemporary expressions of faith are actually faithless:

What we must get away from is the notion that the religious man as such demands a proof of the existence of God. Nothing has less meaning than this for him. . . . What he demands is that he should know the object of his religious belief to be real, & “real” does not mean “objective.” Often he, & others, use the word “objective” when they mean real; but we ought not to follow them in this mistake. And if “objective” means “independent of the religious consciousness,” then it has no meaning and no reality whatever. (italics in original)

For Oakeshott—and not for him alone in our age—it was his hope that the poetic experience might compensate for the long withdrawal of traditional faith and for technology’s and politics’ inability to provide an alternative faith that never is, but always “to become”; perhaps in poetry a hint of the transcendent might still be encountered. In the Notebooks he remarks: “To be a wanderer, that is, one with no destination or only interim destinations, is to make a world utterly different from the world of those who have a home & live in it or those who go somewhere for an ulterior purpose; this is the world of poetry.”

1 Notebooks, 1922–86, by Michael Oakeshott, edited by Luke O’Sullivan; Imprint Academic, 596 pages, £50.


This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 33 Number 3, on page 15
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