A review of Michael Oakeshott: An Introduction, by Paul Franco

For nearly six decades Michael Oakeshott taught political philosophy at the London School of Economics and at Cambridge University. He was born in 1901 and died in 1990, living through the most important events of the 20th century: the two world wars, the defeat of fascism, the rise and fall of Communism, the decline of Britain as an imperial power, and the ascent of the United States as a superpower.

Inside the British academy during this time, especially during the decades surrounding World War II, the most notable thinkers—Harold Laski, Isaiah Berlin, Karl Popper, and Michael Oakeshott himself, to name just a few—disputed the relation between philosophy and politics, the nature of liberty, the advantages and disadvantages of tradition, the meaning of history, the tension between a planned society and freedom, the possibility of a middle or third way between a liberal order and Communism, and the role of authority in a free society. Paul Franco's book engages all of these vital questions.

This is Franco's second book on Oakeshott. In 1990, he published The Political Philosophy of Michael Oakeshott, a splendid study that quickly became the standard academic guide. The new book, designed to make Oakeshott's thinking accessible to individuals who do not specialize in political philosophy, benefits from posthumously published lectures and essays by Oakeshott, which illuminate his works as well as analyze topics not hitherto addressed. This also is a more mature book on Oakeshott. For while he remains sympathetic to Oakeshott's goals, Franco points to tensions and movement in the Englishman's thinking that did not figure in the earlier study. 

A professor of government at Bowdoin College, Franco begins by examining Oakeshott's early and middle works, written from the 1920s through the 1950s, explaining in depth Oakeshott's well-known claim that philosophy is incapable of contributing to the practice of politics, a position often ridiculed by critics on both the Left and the Right.

Deeply influenced by Hegel, F. H. Bradley, and other thinkers of the idealist tradition, Oakeshott asserted that human judgments require the subordination of reality to ideas. Philosophy, in his view, analyzes the different types of understandings that serve to organize behavior and create a coherent reality: scientists assume a body of knowledge when conducting experiments; historians assume a different body of knowledge when explaining an event; and practitioners assume yet another when engaging in practical activities. 

Each activity has its own characteristic customs, traditions, rules, or maxims, which integrate the individual into society by establishing standards of good and bad conduct. An individual's will, explained Oakeshott, whether expressed in a scientific experiment or a historical study, gardening or shopping, acts in the contexts of the beliefs and patterns that structure his mind. 

Oakeshott rejected the notion that philosophy is a privileged form of knowledge that dictates to inferior kinds. A civilized society is a kind of conversation among a variety of human activities, each speaking its own language. Within this conversation, the philosopher studies the understandings that animate the different languages or types of human conduct. In addition to investigating the assumptions of these various practices, philosophy also turns inward and critically assesses the premises it adopts in studying others: it is boundless theorizing, the relentless critique of assumptions. Oakeshott argued that the philosopher attempts to comprehend an absolutely coherent and complete world of experience, a world in which the real, whether profound or profane, is rational.

Hence Oakeshott's position that a philosophy of politics can identify—but not create—the assumptions upon which political activities are based. Strictly speaking, a philosophy of politics is irrelevant to political practice. Indeed, the failure to respect disparate types of traditions and social maxims is the great temptation in modern politics, according to Oakeshott. Political philosophers and practitioners—most notably those who are attracted to scientific outlooks—fail to recognize that the distinct practices of production, education, art, health, and so forth are driven by patterns that are radically alien to each other and to the presuppositions of science. Consequently, when the state attempts to direct different types of human conduct toward rationalist political goals, the practices lose their coherence and efficacy, and society its freedom.

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Apropos of the later works, Franco identifies a subtle shift in Oakeshott's critique of modern politics: his new focus turned to moral conflict, not epistemological confusion, as the great problem. Beginning with essays in the late 1950s and culminating in the magisterial On Human Conduct, published in 1975, Oakeshott explained that the primary impetus to modern Western political thought was the breakdown of late medieval communal organizations, which produced a political division between moralities of individualism and anti-individualism. 

In Oakeshott's view, the underlying context of modern Western political thought is these two contending moralities. From the morality of individualism springs the politics of what he calls societas, which seeks to specify and limit the functions of government out of fear that a large concentration of power threatens human freedom and dignity. Oakeshott identified Montesquieu, Hobbes, Jean Bodin, Spinoza, and Hegel as the most accomplished architects of this school of thought. (He includes the American Founders as well.) 

From the morality of anti-individualism, by contrast, issues the politics of universitas, an attempt to use state power and technology to alleviate humanity's weaknesses and fears, as well as to organize society as a common enterprise. The founder of this outlook was Francis Bacon, who envisioned the state as a corporate enterprise for the exploitation of the earth; it was further developed by Henri de Saint-Simon, Charles Fourier, Robert Owen, Karl Marx, and Sidney and Beatrice Webb. These two competing schools of societas and universitas have fostered an ambiguous Western political tradition, breeding confusion over the meaning of democracy, liberty, law, and the common language of politics. 

To be sure, Oakeshott's loyalty in regard to this division is clear. Franco explains cogently how the late Oakeshott devoted an enormous amount of energy to identifying an ideal picture of "civil association," in which morality and laws specify a framework within which individuals and associations interact, but do not specify substantive goals and actions. Thissocietas is an association in which members are joined not in the pursuit of common goals but in the common recognition of (non-instrumental) rules of conduct. Nonetheless, Franco observes that Oakeshott stuck to his position that the philosopher must remain separate from political practice. He did not urge the philosopher to contribute to a political outlook that would resolve the equivocal character of Western political thinking. 

Indeed, far from arguing for the victory of societas over universitas, Oakeshott claimed that each contending view is incomplete. For example, the politics of societas calls for establishing formal rules and habits to ensure authority and freedom, yet this outlook may contribute to political problems because it responds too slowly to changing circumstances and emergencies. Here the politics of universitas or what he terms "enterprise association" provides a needed corrective insofar as it tends to bring energy and enthusiasm to government. Oakeshott did not go so far as to suggest that either viewpoint is endemic to human nature, but he implied that there is a pendulum effect in modern politics because the weakness of each tends to create movement back to the other. On all of this, Franco is a deft commentator. 

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Oakeshott proposed that the 20th century had been dominated by the politics of universitas. He refuted the view—prevalent during much of the century—that this development was inevitable and he looked forward to the politics ofsocietas regaining ground in the future. Still, he never established the proper relation between these different modes of association within a political regime. As Franco puts it, "In the end, [Oakeshott] does not give us much guidance on the practical and contingent question of what the appropriate mixture of civil association and enterprise association, societasand universitas, should be in the modern state." 

Franco's identification of the shifts in emphasis in Oakeshott's later thinking raises the questions: Could the late Oakeshott be concerned with stimulating and preserving, and not solely understanding, the outlooks that animate human conduct? Did he think that the philosopher contributes to the practices of a society in the long run, suggesting that his argument for a separation of philosophy and politics was meant only in the narrower, everyday sense? 

Oakeshott provided a hint of an answer to these questions, notes Franco, in an essay published posthumously, "The Claims of Politics," in which Oakeshott argued that direct political involvement yields only superficial influence. Thus the artist, poet, and philosopher should refrain from politics and remain true to their calling. "Societies," Oakeshott summarized, "are led from behind, and for those capable of leadership to give themselves up to political activity is to break away from their genius." The task of these thinkers is "to create and recreate the values of society…to mitigate a little their society's ignorance of itself." Political philosophy, in the late Oakeshott's view, plays a unique role: it reflects on, evaluates, and helps shape the moral outlooks of modernity.

As attractive as he shows Oakeshott's political philosophy to be, Franco reveals that it is not without its problems. To state one as succinctly as possible: Oakeshott ignored the difficulty—identified by Tocqueville and other commentators on liberalism–that societies organized around the goals of civil peace and free human conduct tend toward listlessness and need to be complemented by practices and beliefs that support high ambitions, the pursuit of distinctiveness, and the self-respect that engenders human excellence. Franco is unable to explain why Oakeshott never addressed this topic, and notes that many conservative thinkers in America influenced by Leo Strauss criticize Oakeshott for this lacuna.

Different aspects of Oakeshott's political philosophy have made it possible for him to be read as a liberal, pragmatist, historicist, existentialist, or postmodernist. Michael Oakeshott: An Introduction will not make it easy to fit his thinking into a neat political category, but this book will enable us to appreciate his stimulating complexity.