Michael Joseph Oakeshott (London, 11 December 1901 – Acton (Dorset), 19 December 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 connoisseur of the works 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 a teacher of English 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 the British idealist J. M. E. McTaggart through his lectures, as well as the work of the 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 leading book of this movement.
In his lectures in the 1930s, Oakeshott showed his dismay at the drift of politics in Europe toward extremism. He therefore strongly opposed both National Socialism and Marxism. Although he himself in 1939 in his essay The Claim of Politics defended the right of the citizen to keep away from the war, he himself went into the British army. He was enlisted in military intelligence and was stationed in France and in Belgium.
In 1945 Oakeshott was demobilized and returned to Cambridge. In 1949 he left Cambridge for Nuffield College at the University of Oxford. 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 on the grounds that 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 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 December 18, 1990. During his lifetime, he did gain some notoriety and recognition, 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 from 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 a life companion again, Christel Schneider, with whom he remained 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 turn history into a natural science and to 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 standpoint 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 action 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 preserving status quo, relies on controlling inevitable change. Later he revised this position, shifting it 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, which was strongly committed 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 can best be summarized in the metaphor he used of a ship of state that “seeks neither a point of departure nor a destination to keep 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 describing the perfect society or the perfect behavior of citizens and the state. This, according to Oakeshott, is false. Even Friedrich von Hayek”s work, The Road to Serfdom (1944), despite being a critique of all rationalist schemes in politics, he saw as belonging to the same style itself.
In his essay On Being Conservative (1956), he sets forth his views on what he understands by the conservative attitude. According to Oakeshott, being conservative means “preferring the familiar to the unknown, the tried to the never tried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited 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 insights from his other work, such as his theory of action set forth in On Human Conduct (1975). Much of this work, incidentally, was already written in the same period as On Human Conduct was published. In this work he continues the neo-Kantian project, started by Wilhelm Dilthey, which searches for the conditions of possibility of historical knowledge.