Michael Oakeshott: An Introduction

By Callahan, Gene | Independent Review, Fall 2005 | Go to article overview

Michael Oakeshott: An Introduction


Callahan, Gene, Independent Review


* Michael Oakeshott: An Introduction By Paul Franco New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2004. Pp. 224. $30.00 cloth

Michael Oakeshott was one of the most elusive and intriguing intellectuals of the twentieth century. He received a doctorate in history from Cambridge University, first published extensively on religion, wrote what was possibly the last major book of the British idealist tradition in philosophy, and was considered by many to be the leading commentator of his time on Hobbes. The great British historian, philosopher, and archaeologist R. G. Collingwood referred to Oakeshott's first effort at a philosophy of history as "a brilliant and penetrating account of the aims of historical thought and the character of its object" ( The Idea, of History [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1946], p. 153). Oakeshott also wrote on aesthetics, morality, education, and even horse racing (he coauthored a book called A Guide to the Classics, a primer for picking winners at the track), and achieved his greatest fame as a political theorist. How can anyone sum up such a career in a single, brief book?

Despite such a daunting task, Paul Franco has produced an engaging account of Oakeshott's ideas that is both suitable for readers new to the British philosopher and enlightening to long-time Oakeshott aficionados. Of particular interest to the latter will be Franco's success in relating his subject's thought to that of his contemporaries, a matter to which Oakeshott himself paid little attention.

Franco's achievement is even more notable because although Oakeshott often revised his opinions, sometimes dramatically, he rarely paused to explain why he did so, seemingly concerned only with expressing his current view. Even in politics, the field in which he received his greatest recognition, he is not easy to pigeonhole. He is usually categorized as a conservative-a label he embraced at times-but many libertarians, liberals, and communitarians have drawn inspiration from his work.

Because space does not permit discussion of every aspect of Oakeshott's thought Franco considers, I touch on a few highlights, hoping to inspire my readers to discover the rest for themselves. Oakeshott's intellectual roots lie in the philosophical idealism of Hegel and his late-nineteenth-century British followers, such as T. H. Green and F. H. Bradley. Oakeshott's first book, Experience and Its Modes, is an uncompromising argument for idealism. Here Oakeshott declares that reality simply is experience, a "concrete whole which analysis divides into 'experiencing' and 'what is experienced'" (p. 40). As Franco summarizes Oakeshott's metaphysics, "The objects of experience are not independent of our experiencing of them but are constituted by mind or thought" (p. 40). However, that does not mean that Oakeshott believed "that the subject of experience is the sole reality and the cause of what is experienced" (p. 40). Like Hegel and the British idealists preceding him, he was an "objective idealist," insisting that the ideas composing experience are real ideas, not merely subjective fancies-for example, the experience of falling off of a high cliff will lead consistently to the experience of having a smashed-up body, however much the subject of the experience tries to believe otherwise. It is the inescapable regularity with which certain experiences follow upon others that makes the world of experience a reality to which humans must adjust their thinking, rather than a dream or a fiction.

Franco makes a convincing case that Experience and Its Modes features a motif that sounds throughout Oakeshott's subsequent work: experience is composed of distinct modes, or what Oakeshott would later call "platforms of understanding." In this early work, he holds that with the single exception of philosophy, all human attempts to understand experience represent "modal arrests" in which the full, concrete reality of "experience without reservation or presupposition" is set aside in favor of a partial and abstract understanding (p. …

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