Michael Oakeshott

Annie Lee | Apr 17, 2024

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Michael Joseph Oakeshott (London, December 11, 1901 - Acton (Dorset), December 19, 1990) was a British philosopher and political scientist who also wrote on the philosophy of history, philosophy of religion, aesthetics and philosophy of law. He is widely regarded as one of the most important conservative thinkers of the 20th century. His first work Experience and Its Modes (1933) is traditionally placed in the tradition of British idealism. In addition, he was also considered by many to be a leading expert on the work of Thomas Hobbes.

Michael Oakeshot was born into a conservative family. For example, his father, Joseph Oakeshott, was a civil servant and prominent member of the Fabian Society. He had two brothers and Frances, his mother, was a nurse. The family was friends with George Bernard Shaw. From 1912 to 1920, Oakeshott attended St George's School in Harpenden. During this period he also went to study for a time in Germany, at the universities of Marburg and Tubingen. He also worked for a short period as an English teacher at Lytham St Anne's Grammar School.

Oakeshott obtained his doctorate in history from the University of Cambridge. Here he came into contact with the work of British idealist J. M. E. McTaggart through his lectures, as well as the work of medieval historian Zachary Nugent Brooke, both of whom he deeply admired. The historian Herbert Butterfield also attended this college at the time. He himself is regularly placed in the tradition of British idealism and his work Experience and Its Modes (1933) is considered the last prominent book of this movement.

In his lectures in the 1930s, Oakeshott showed his dismay at the drift of politics in Europe toward extremism. Consequently, he strongly opposed both National Socialism and Marxism. Although he himself defended the right of the citizen to remain aloof from war as recently as 1939 in his essay The Claim of Politics, he did join the British army himself. He was enlisted in military intelligence and stationed in France and Belgium.

In 1945, Oakeshott was demobilized and returned to Cambridge. In 1949, he left Cambridge for Nuffield College at Oxford University. In 1951, he was appointed professor of political science at the London School of Economics (LSE), succeeding Harold Laski. There he strongly disapproved of the student demonstrations held around 1960, mainly because they would defeat the aims of the university. Here Oakeshott grew into a popular philosopher, known on both sides of the Atlantic, and frequently heard on the BBC. Mainly this was due to Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays, published in 1962.

He would leave the LSE in 1969. After his retirement, Oakeshott retired to the countryside and lived in a chalet in Langton Matravers, Dorset. Here he published two more new books, On Human Conduct (1975) and On History (1983), as well as a collection of previously published essays on Thomas Hobbes under the title Hobbes on Civil Assocation (1975). Oakeshott refused Margaret Thatcher's offer to be knighted by Queen Elizabeth II. He died on Dec. 18, 1990. He did receive some fame and recognition during his lifetime, but his work would not really come to attention until after his death.

He was married three times. With his first wife, Joyce Margaret Fricker, whom he married in 1927, he had a son Simon, born in 1931. In 1938 he filed for divorce with his wife only to marry Katherine Alice Burton that same year. This marriage also ended in divorce in 1951. It was not until 1965 that he found another life companion, Christel Schneider, with whom he remained together until his death.

Although Oakeshott was a historian by profession, early in his career he was nevertheless more concerned with the philosophical questions that emerged from his historical studies. His first book, Experience and its Modes, was published in 1933 and was strongly influenced by Hegel and F.H. Bradley. There are also many similarities with the work of R.G. Collingwood and Georg Simmel. The book still falls under the current of British idealism and places experience at the center of the constitution of the world around us: what really exists is experience rather than a world separate from our thinking.

In this book, Oakeshott argues that our experience is always modal: it is always guided by a particular perspective on the world, either practical or theoretical. Thus, there are different theoretical approaches to understanding the world: for example, through natural science or through history. It is therefore wrong to try to transform history into a natural science and use the same method for it.

Philosophy itself, on the other hand, was not a modal approach. In his early work, Oakeshott argues that philosophy sees the world sub specie aeternitatis, from the point of view of eternity. Philosophy is thus free of presuppositions, unlike science or history. Science saw everything from the perspective of quantity (sub specie quantitatis) and history from the in-the-past (sub specie preateritorum). In addition, there is also the practical perspective (sub specie voluntatis) which starts from the idea of a human will and human value through which practical actions in matters such as politics, economics and ethics can be understood. Every action is additionally determined by presuppositions and values, which in turn presuppose a specific context of experience. Similarly, the conservative stance, aimed at maintaining status quo, relies on containing inevitable change. He later revised this position and shifted to a more pluralistic view in which philosophy is only one of many possible positions.

Oakeshott's best-known work he wrote after World War II, a collection of articles published as Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays (1962). In this work, for example, he opposed the postwar United Kingdom's strong commitment to socialism. As a result, Oakeshott began to be known as a conservative thinker, skeptical of rationalism and ideologies in politics. His opposition to what he saw as utopian political projects is best summed up in the metaphor he used of a ship of state that "tries to keep neither a starting point nor a destination above water and stable."

Oakeshott criticized the view as if practice were always supported by theory. In fact, according to Oakeshott, it is just the opposite: theory always presupposes a practice from which it emerges. However, the rationalism dominant in political science and political philosophy seems to suggest that there is some kind of ultimate (theoretical) manual that describes the perfect society or the perfect behavior of citizens and the state. This, according to Oakeshott, is incorrect. Even Friedrich von Hayek's work, The Road to Serfdom (1944), despite being a critique of all rationalist schemes in politics, he saw itself as belonging to the same style.

In his essay On Being Conservative (1956), he sets forth his views on what he understands by the conservative attitude. According to Oakeshott, conservative means that one "prefers the familiar to the unknown, the tried to the never-tried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the bounded to the unlimited, the near to the far, the sufficient to the abundant, the suitable to the perfect, present pleasure to utopian bliss."

In his last published work, On History (1983), he returned to the idea that history is a unique and distinct way of experiencing and approaching the world, but here combines it with the insights from his other work, such as his theory of action set forth in On Human Conduct (1975). In fact, much of this work had already been written during the same period when On Human Conduct was published. In this work he continues the neo-Kantian project, started by Wilhelm Dilthey, which searches for the possibility conditions of historical knowledge.


  1. Michael Oakeshott
  2. Michael Oakeshott
  3. ^ Michael Oakeshott (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
  4. ^ Mark Garnett (ed.), Conservative Moments: Reading Conservative Texts, Bloomsbury Academic, 2018, ch. 9.
  5. ^ Fuller, T. (1991) 'The Work of Michael Oakeshott', Political Theory, Vol. 19 No. 3.
  6. ^ a b Paul Franco, Leslie Marsh, A Companion to Michael Oakeshott, pp. 16
  7. ^ "AIM25 collection description". www.aim25.ac.uk. Archived from the original on 21 March 2017.
  8. Fuller, T., 'The Work of Michael Oakeshott', Political Theory, Vol. 19 No. 3., 1991.
  9. 1 2 3 4 Michael Oakeshott // Internet Philosophy Ontology project (англ.)
  10. Fuller, T. (1991) 'The Work of Michael Oakeshott', Political Theory, Vol. 19 No. 3.
  11. See M. Oakeshott, Review of H. Levy and others, Aspects of Dialectical Materialism, in Cambridge Review, 56 (1934–5), pp. 108–9

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