Experience and Its Modes, 1933
The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind, 1959
Rationalism in Politics, and Other Essays, 1962, expanded 1991
Hobbes on Civil Association, 1975
On Human Conduct, 1975
On History, and Other Essays, 1983
The Voice of Liberal Learning: Michael Oakeshott on Education, 1989 (Timothy Fuller, editor)
Morality and Politics in Modern Europe: The Harvard Lectures, 1993 (Shirley Robin Letwin, editor)
Religion, Politics, and the Moral Life, 1993 (Fuller, editor)
The Politics of Faith and the Politics of Scepticism, 1996 (Fuller, editor)
The Social and Political Doctrines of Contemporary Europe, 1939
Leviathan, 1946 (of Thomas Hobbes)
Michael Joseph Oakeshott was a distinguished philosopher and historian who made influential contributions to the philosophical analysis of the study of history and politics in the English-speaking world. He was born in Kent, England, on December 11, 1901, and was educated at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge. In 1925, he became a fellow there, followed in 1929 by a post as a university lecturer, which he retained until 1949, when he became a fellow of Nuffield College. In 1950, he accepted the chair in political science at the London School of Economics, which he held until his retirement in 1969. Oakeshott’s seminars drew students from many countries who eagerly spread his ideas and contributed greatly to his international reputation as a political philosopher, historian, and masterful teacher.
Oakeshott’s first book, Experience and Its Modes, was his attempt to see clearly and grasp a single idea: the notion of philosophy as the study of experience without reservations, in all of its modes of thought and practices, unhindered and undistracted by what is subsidiary, partial, or abstract. He believed that philosophical enterprise is designed to clarify thought. Confusion of thought arises when argument or inference passes from one mode of experience to another, as from poetry to history, or from what is abstract to what is concrete. In particular he denied that science is the only method of attaining objective truth. The rest of Oakeshott’s intellectual career was marked by the pursuit of clarity in a variety of modes of understanding, such as practical politics, history, science, poetry, and education.
In the years before World War II, Oakeshott compiled a textbook, The Social and Political Doctrines of Contemporary Europe, on the various ideologies then competing for dominance in Europe: fascism, Marxism, socialism, Catholicism, Nazism, and liberal democracy. His method was to provide students with translations of primary sources that would illuminate the views of each ideology on the most important political issues. The book was very successful and was published in several editions in both Great Britain and the United States.
During World War II, Oakeshott served in the British army. Afterward, in 1946, he renewed his scholarly career with a new edition of Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan (1651). Oakeshott’s introduction was a major challenge to the traditional scholarly understanding of Hobbes’s political theories and continues to be a center of controversy. In 1947, he founded the Cambridge Journal as an outlet for English conservative thought.
Oakeshott had been preoccupied throughout the postwar years with problems in political science, historical methodology, and education. Four collections of his essays on these topics were published. In Rationalism in Politics, and Other Essays, published in 1962, Oakeshott rejected the notion that politics is a rational science in which social engineering can achieve planned ends; to Oakeshott, politics is an ecological study of a tradition of behavior, a practical art, based on experience. The totalitarian ideologies of the twentieth century all assumed that an individual or party could grasp the whole of the experience of a human community and shape it to its rational designs. Oakeshott believed that rationalistic politics is incompatible with concrete social reality and personal freedom and that all ideologies are disastrous to the liberty and prosperity of the body politic.
In On Human Conduct, published in 1975, Oakeshott examined the forms of moral and political life that prevail in modern European society. He held that morality has no single form or final end outside itself, nor do the political forms or civil associations which govern relations among citizens. The function of law should not be to impose any transcendent moral code or implement a rational political ideology. Law should merely be a means for facilitating individuals in the pursuit of their own ends. Oakeshott’s preference for a laissez-faire political society led him to a severe criticism of the modern political ideologues–left and right–who use the instrumentality of a moral code or political power to achieve their chosen goals. He preferred a return to a tradition of limited, noninterventionist government tolerant of individuality in morals and of freedom in social and economic activities, with the widest possible diffusion of power within society.
In his collection On History, and Other Essays, Oakeshott tries to find the specific elements that clarify history as a distinct mode of understanding. He finds four such elements: the idea of the past, the idea of an event, the idea that a significant relationship exists between events, and the idea of change over time.
In The Voice of Liberal Learning, Oakeshott tries to clarify what is meant by teaching, learning, education, and the idea of a university. He argues that no one is born fully human; each person is what he or she learns to become. Each person is his or her own self-enacted history, and the expression “human nature” stands for a common destiny–to become by learning. The task of the teacher is to initiate pupils into the world of human achievements, feelings, emotions, ideas, and beliefs and to teach pupils to appropriate these in the task of self-realization. Oakeshott was a severe critic of the notion that universities are places where mere research is done or training is given to qualify pupils to earn a living or gain a professional license. A university should be a unique interval in life when persons can explore mysteries without the need for finding solutions; it is a place for conversation, a unique kind of activity, in which voices practiced in a variety of modes of understanding–science, history, poetry, education–can exchange ideas and information free of any other purposeful ends.
Several volumes of Oakeshott’s work appeared after his death in 1990. Morality and Politics in Modern Europe stems from eight lectures that Oakeshott delivered at Harvard University in 1958 on two conflicting moralities regarding the nature of government. The morality of individuality says that government frames and enforces rules of law, thus allowing individuals to pursue their own projects. The morality of collectivism claims that government manages a unified enterprise which provides for the community, a whole pursuing a single project. Oakeshott argues that both moralities helped shape liberal democracies in modern Europe.
The ten essays in the 1993 collection Religion, Politics, and the Moral Life were written between 1925 and 1955. They address such topics as the place of religion in Western history and society, the differences between morality and religion, and the concept of a “social” being.
In The Politics of Faith and the Politics of Scepticism, published in 1996, Oakeshott argues that modern politics emerged out of a debate about what is the proper function of government. According to him, two different approaches have been championed: one founded on the belief in the ability of humans to control social and political life, the other arguing that governments cannot produce perfection and that concentrations of power should be avoided. Oakeshott examines the drawbacks of both positions and shows the value of a middle ground between them.
Oakeshott contributed significantly to the revival of conservative thought in the English-speaking world, with ideas that do not reject modernity or seek the revival of a bygone age. While discarding the older theory of natural rights, he accepted the Thomistic view that politics is a practical science with the state limited to the task of keeping the peace and freeing the citizens to make what they will of their lives.