Key Theories of Michael Oakeshott

michaeloakeshott-s-h.jpgBritish philosopher and political theorist. Michael Oakeshott (1901-1990) read for a history degree at Cambridge, but while doing so took courses in philosophy and political theory. In the 1920s he visited Germany, where he attended lectures in theology at Marburg and Tubingen. He lectured in modern history at Cambridge. In 1933 he published Experience and its Modes. This work, now regarded as a classic, was not well received (it took more than thirty years for the first edition to sell out). In the 1930s Oakeshott began to conduct research in political philosophy, concentrating on the writings of Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679). He was to become a renowned Hobbes scholar, and edited a highly regarded edition of Hobbes’s Leviathan. After having served in the Second World War as the commander of a squadron of the intelligence gathering GHQ Liaison Regiment, Oakeshott resumed his academic career. In 1949 he was appointed Professor of Political Science at the London School of Economics. In 1962 he published a collection entitled Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays. Oakeshott retired in 1968. In 1975 he published On Human Conduct. Other works published by him include On History and Other Essays (1983) and The Voice of Liberal Learning (1989).

Of Oakeshott’s works Experience and its Modes and On Human Conduct are probably the most important. Both are characterised by a critical attitude toward realist and rationalist philosophies, especially of the kind espoused by thinkers such as Plato and Descartes. Such a form of rationalism asserts the existence of a dichotomy between empirical experience and reality and claims, in turn, that reason is the privileged means of access to this reality. Against this view, Oakeshott’s works endorse a version of philosophical Idealism (derived in part from the works of Hegel). According to this approach, experience and reality are one and the same thing; hence, there is no ultimate reality waiting for humans to discover it ‘behind’ the realm of experience. In Experience and its Modes Oakeshott (1933) argues that experience is the fundamental basis of reality. Experience is, in turn, characterised as constituting a unity in a constant state of flux. Equally, such reality can be comprehended by thought. Experience is disclosed, however, not as a totality but in the form of more or less stable parts or ‘modes’. Although there are, Oakeshott argues, many possible modes of experience, Experience and its Modes concentrates upon just three. These are history, science and practice. These modes comprehend experience in distinct ways: in terms of the past (history), in terms of calculable relationships (science) and in terms of values and wants (practice). Nothing in experience, Oakeshott argues, can be grasped independently of a mode of experience. Equally, all concepts are specific to the mode in which they occur and are heterogeneous with regard to any mode (i.e. an idea has a meaning within one mode of experience that cannot be translated into another). Thus, there is a difference between a scientist referring to a chemical element called ‘gold’ and someone engaged in a practical form of activity talking of ‘gold’. In each case, what is being referred to is not something that has a ‘substance’ that remains the same irrespective of context (mode), but two distinct ‘things’. This is because all modes of experience are incommensurable with regard to one another. Since nothing in one mode can be translated into another, it follows that no knowledge claim (to give one example) can ever be said to be true of all modes. Equally, therefore, there is no superior tribunal to which one could appeal with regard to the aim of judging any mode of experience to be ‘false’ or ‘true’.

Experience, Oakeshott contends, is a whole and there is only one concrete reality, but no single mode of experience has privileged access to that reality. Even philosophy, so beloved of the Western tradition, cannot claim that it has a greater ultimate purchase on reality than any other mode of understanding the world. Nevertheless, Oakeshott does give philosophy a special role in his thought. The role of philosophy is to expose the partial nature of all modes of experience. All modes of experience are abstractions and therefore lack concreteness, yet at the same time there is no thought that is not constituted within a mode of experience. Hence, Oakeshott argues, all we can ever do is acknowledge the relative and partial nature of our knowledge. Such acknowledgement is antithetical to every mode of experience since all modes have a tendency to present their partial view of reality as if it were the whole. Thus, the scientist no less than the practical person likes to believe that they have a privileged mode of access to reality as a whole. This is another way of saying that we all have a tendency to interpret experience in terms of our own needs and dispositions. Given Oakeshott’s claim that all modes of experience are heterogeneous and bound by their own rules of validity, it follows that no mode ought to make claims that cannot be validated by way of reference to its own nature. For example, neither a scientist nor an historian is entitled to think they have the authority to pronounce on a political or ethical issue in his or her capacity as an expert in their particular field. Quite simply, neither have any special authority with regard to such issues in virtue of their status as historian or scientist.

The limits of modes of experience are shown, Oakeshott argues, by way of the fact that almost everyone is familiar with more than one. Thus, the scientist or the academic historian alike are also practical people who have everyday concerns. The logic of Oakeshott’s position is further developed in his later writings. If there is an important development in his later thought it is to be found in the rejection of the Hegelian sense Oakeshott gives to the term ‘experience’. In his later writings the term ceases to signify a totality. In turn, the task of philosophy is modified: philosophy’s role is to note the limitations of other forms of discourse (modes) not by way of reference to an ultimate but ultimately unconceptualisable whole, but with regard to one another. With this move away from the notion of totality Oakeshott’s later work embraces an increasingly pluralistic viewpoint (see his essay, ‘The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind‘; in Oakeshott 1991).

On Human Conduct represents Oakeshott’s major attempt to present his theory of civil association. The work begins by arguing that any understanding of the nature of human conduct must be prefaced by an account of the nature of understanding. Understanding is an ‘unsought condition’ of human beings in so far as it is not something that we can choose to have or not have. We are just the kind of beings who have understanding. There are many levels or ‘plateaux’ of understanding. None is ultimately superior to any other but, Oakeshott argues, humans are characterised by a desire for greater understanding of their world. The notion of modes of experience in Oakeshott’s earlier work is now replaced by an account that envisages the world in terms of events or ‘goings-on’. Every act of understanding is regarded as an ‘achievement’. But such achievements are not to be comprehended in terms of a progression towards the comprehension of an ultimate reality. Rather, every achievement of understanding is itself an invitation to further ‘adventures’ in understanding. Oakeshott argues that human conduct must be theorised in a manner appropriate to it. We ought not to think that behaviourist account of human relations is adequate for an account of the nature of civil association, for this would be to treat human activities as if they were processes. Human activity, Oakeshott argues, is to be understood not as a kind of process but as involving ‘procedures’, i.e. actions that are an exhibition of understanding and intelligence. Human conduct is therefore comprehensible only in terms of its being a form of activity undertaken by agents. The activities that humans perform include both practical actions and spoken ones. In turn, Oakeshott argues that every human performance is a ‘self-disclosure’ and humans discover their identity through performances. Thus, there is no universal model of human nature with regard to which all humans are defined. The self, in turn, is always embedded in a context and culture and hence has a history. However, there is no essential ‘human nature’ waiting to be discovered outside the historical and cultural conditions that constitute civil life. Equally, the history of human beings is neither an evolutionary nor goal-oriented process. To put it another way, according to Oakeshott there is no ultimate purpose to either history or culture since these are the spheres within which agents realise both their identities and pursue purposes. All human conduct consists of performances and all performances occur within the context of practices, which are ‘by-products’ of performances. An agent’s relationship with others, Oakeshott contends, not determined by things like ties of blood, social systems or class divisions, but by way of practices. Practices are learned ways of doing things: they include things like customs, rules, and manners (e.g. to do something politely, scientifically, legally, etc.). Practices prescribe the conditions necessary for encounters with others, but they do not determine the choices that an agent may make when engaged in action. Oakeshott sees all human conduct as being composed of sets of various and, depending upon context, varying practices. Above all, a practice is a language of self-disclosure. Thus, agents realise who they are by doing things in specified ways. Practices are based in understanding. For example, one can have a ‘neighbourly’ relationship with someone. This implies a practice (being neighbourly) in respect of an understanding (‘You,X, are my neighbour’). Primarily practices are linguistic: they are composed of a vocabulary and syntax that is continuously modified by use. All practices, in other words, are fluid.

From the notion of practice Oakeshott derives what he refers to as ‘moral conduct’. Moral conduct concerns practices that are not concerned in any way with the successful outcomes of actions. Rather, they are those practices that are linked to principles of conduct. Crucially, all human conduct is moral, for Oakeshott, in so far as all forms of agency imply the acknowledgement of a moral practice. Morals are signs of human achievement, but they are not fixed. In common with all practices moral practices have developed and continue to develop. Every moral language/practice is learned, and they are signified by terms like ‘right’, ‘wrong’, ‘proper’, ‘improper’, ‘obligation’, etc. None pertains to a single meaning but is rather understood by way of specific contexts. Moral conduct is thus an ‘idiom’, i.e. a genre of speech wherein agents converse with, and thereby acknowledge, one another.

Oakeshott is not interested in offering a definition of human nature, since he regards any attempt at providing one as an essentially problematic undertaking. The term ‘human being’, he says, is simply ‘indefinite’. But it does serve as a precondition of what he refers to as the ‘civil relationship’. Quite simply, we have an ambiguous understanding of what it is that makes a human being a person. But this understanding is nevertheless presupposed in all consideration of social and cultural life. Again, what can be said of the civil relationship is that it implies an understanding of beings able to make choices that are expressions of intelligence. Within the realm of the ‘civil relationship’ Oakeshott identifies two key forms of human association. These are ‘enterprise association’ and ‘civil association’. Enterprise association is a mode of civil relationship in which agents relate to one another as ‘bargainers’ or ‘‘cives‘. Gives are both seekers and providers of satisfactions. As such they may enter into a common pursuit, they can be allies linked together by dint of a common faith, or have some substantive goal in common. Enterprise association is thus a chosen form of relationship and any instance of this kind of relationship can be dissolved as easily as it is formed (e.g. if agents obtain their common goal then the reason for their mode of association vanishes). Relatively permanent forms of enterprise association will develop rules, the authority of which will depend upon their being fitted to realising the common purpose. Likewise, rules that do not serve the common purpose will not be adopted (a publicans’ association, Oakeshott notes, is hardly likely to adopt a rule banning all of its members from contact with alcohol). Significantly, no set of rules is exclusively appropriate to any one purpose or form of enterprise association. Likewise, the particular decisions made within such a mode of association are only contingently connected to its purposes: an orchestra is a mode of enterprise association that has the common purpose of making music, but which music the orchestra plays on any given day is a contingent matter.

Oakeshott, however, is more interested in ‘civil association’. This is because it is wrong to conclude that enterprise association is the sole mode of civil relationship. Human association does not occur merely in terms of a common purpose, but also in terms of a set of common practices. Gives are related not merely in terms of common goals but by the fact that they observe common ways of doing things. Such practices are not understood in terms of purposes but as sets of conditions that have no purpose extrinsic to them. Civil association, Oakeshott contends, is just such a practice. It is a mode of the enactment of human beings, and what is enacted and endlessly re-enacted is a language of civil understanding composed simply of rules. Speaking this language allows cives to consider themselves as moral agents, since the rules that constitute this understanding cannot be reduced to any particular agent’s purposes or desires. Such rules are not themselves moral utterances, but form the basis of the possibility of engaging in moral talk. To live in the civil condition, then, is to live in accordance with the existence of rules that apply to all agents equally. Oakeshott refers to these rules as constituting ‘lex’ or ‘law’. Lex is produced by association according to rules, and these rules themselves constitute a system. Such rules ‘create’ the civic subject or self, and also make possible the adjudication between contending interests. Taken together, rules, cives, lex and other postulates of the civil condition make up ‘respublica, i.e. the realm of’public concern’ or civic life. Respublica is thus a ‘manifold’ of rules that are subscribed to by agents as a precondition of their pursuing substantive goals. One cannot approve or disaprove of such rules, but they can be held to be ‘good’ or ‘bad’, ‘fair’ or ‘unfair’, etc. The acknowledgement of the authority of these rules, Oakeshott argues, constitutes the authority of respublica. Hence, authority and obligation in equal measure constitute the civil condition.

Source: Cultural Theory The Key Thinkers by Andrew Edgar and Peter Sedgwick, Routledge

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