Michael Oakeshott – Primer

The Brits have a tradition of politicians, usually conservative, also being intellectuals. In The New Statesman, Jesse Norman, “the MP for Hereford and South Herefordshire”, has written an excellent piece on conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott:

… Oakeshott suggests: “In political activity . . . 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.” A modest and fastidious aspiration it is, and quite out of keeping with the postwar drive for jobs, homes and prosperity. And yet that modesty and fastidiousness feel strangely liberating today, now that we have seen the rationalistic excesses of totalitarian societies; as politicians are forced to acknowledge both their own limitations in power and those of the state; and while western societies wrestle with the social effects of our highly materialistic and narrowly economic cultures.

As political reflection, this vision owes more to Edmund Burke than Oakeshott was perhaps prepared to acknowledge. But Oakeshott was undoubtedly a more purely philosophical thinker, who joined a Humean scepticism with a desire to interrogate the deepest aspects of human activity and experience in the tradition of Spinoza and Hegel. His eye is always a conditionalising one: for him philosophy has no absolutes, except that all human experience is corban to its presuppositions. Only through an awareness of this can philosophy “stand on its own feet”. It follows that the modern yearning for objectivity, for a suppositionless authority underwriting human action through claims of science or religion or national identity, is as intellectually spurious as it is disastrous in practice.

The very idea of rationalism is thus one expression of a much deeper analysis by Oakeshott of human experience as divided into different “modes”, or organising conceptual frameworks, through which we encounter the world; it is what occurs when the quantitative categories of science are confused with the very different categories to be found within history and practice…

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