Kristol vs. Oakeshott

By Kerwick, Jack | Modern Age, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

Kristol vs. Oakeshott


Kerwick, Jack, Modern Age


In 1956, the English philosopher Michael Oakeshott published "On Being Conservative," (1) a statement of "the conservative disposition" as he conceived it. Although largely well received, Oakeshott's conception of conservatism was not without its critics. Among their number was the American intellectual and self-avowed "conservative" Irving Kristol, who, while admitting to "loving every line" of Oakeshott's essay, to admiring it "immensely," claimed that its "irredeemably secular" character repelled him. (2) Oakeshott's vision of conservatism, he charged, is insufficiently religious in two respects.

First, Kristol imputes to it an obsession with the present that can't but be anathema to Jewish and Christian sensibilities by reason of its concomitant neglect of the past and the future. Jews and Christians can't but find "it is impossible. . . to have the kinds of attitudes toward the past and the future that Oakeshott's conservative disposition celebrates," for their traditions "link us to the past and to the future with an intensity lacking in Oakeshott's vision." (3) Second, the centrality of place Oakeshott allegedly assigns to the present not only renders his vision unpalatable to traditional religion but violates as well the spirit of the civic religion of America. Americans, Kristol explains, have an "emphatic and explicit" commitment to their past that is "ideological" (4); theirs is an "ideological patriotism" that is rooted in the United States' identity as "a 'creedal' nation," a nation to which anyone can belong irrespective of "ethnicity, or blood ties of any kind, or lineage, or length of residence even." The uniquely "ideological" character of American patriotism and the foundational "creed" from which it springs, Kristol contends, are both "suffused with a kind of religious sensibility" that constitutes what can legitimately be called a "civic religion." (5) Although there are indeed "tensions" between "American religiosity and the more secular 'civic religion,'" "both are, in general, future-oriented and 'progressive' in their political vision." (6)

Kristol's two-pronged "religious critique" of Oakeshott's characterization of "the conservative disposition" reflects a fundamental misconception of both classical Christianity and the classical conservatism to which Oakeshott gives expression. This misconception is in turn a function of the fact that the "neoconservatism" to which Kristol subscribes is not, in fact, a form of conservatism at all.

The Eternal Present

Oakeshott insists on a distinction between, on the one hand, a "conservative disposition" per se and, on the other, such a disposition in politics. So crucial to his analysis is this distinction that, without it, Oakeshott's understanding of conservatism readily collapses into something else--another variety of conservatism, perhaps, but one of a comprehensive character that he expressly repudiates. Kristol, though, fails (at least explicitly) to address this distinction.

From the outset of his essay, Oakeshott is clear that his concern is not with "a creed or a doctrine, but a disposition." He writes: "To be conservative is to be disposed to think and behave in certain manners," and "to prefer certain kinds of conduct and certain conditions of human circumstances to others." One who is conservative is "disposed to make certain kinds of choices." (7) Oakeshott elaborates: "To be conservative. . . is to prefer the familiar to the unknown ... the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss." These "preferences" constitute "a propensity to use and enjoy what is available rather than to wish for or to look for something else," "to delight in what is present rather than what was or what may be." (8) The conservative temperament, then, is indissolubly linked to partiality in favor of the present.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

Kristol vs. Oakeshott
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?