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Michael Oakeshott (1901−1990)

AQA, Edexcel, IB

Last updated 2 Jun 2020

Along with Russell Kirk and Roger Scruton, Michael Oakeshott is one of the most important conservative philosophers of the twentieth century.

In his work ‘On being conservative,’ he outlines what is means to be a true conservative. In a famous passage, he explains that the conservative disposition is “to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried … [and] the actual to the possible.” Oakeshott is also widely-known within the field of political theory for his sage observation that “in political activity men sail a boundless and bottomless sea.” In other words, it has neither a starting point nor an appointed destination. The realm of political ideas is therefore beyond our limited understanding.

Oakeshott also seeks to outline the conservative stance upon the role of the state. According to him, the state should be conceptualised as a ship that can be used to ensure social harmony. Crucially, he does not believe that the state can create a new society or a utopia based upon notions of social progress. Both notions would exist outside his conservative disposition, or more accurately the one-nation school of thought. He argued that we should merely seek to keep the ship of state afloat. Above all, we should be suspicious of would-be pilots that claim they can guide us towards a final port of destination. It is therefore advisable to adopt a sceptical position in regards to state intervention and social engineering. The watchword of a true conservative should therefore be that of pragmatism.

In his work ‘On Human Conduct,’ Oakeshott claims that there have been two major modes or understandings of social organisation. The first is called enterprise association. In this situation, the state is understood as imposing a universal purpose on its subjects (such as profit or racial domination). In contrast, civil association is primarily a legal relationship in which laws impose obligatory conditions of action. However, they do not require choosing one action rather than another. The former is based upon a fundamental faith in the ability of humans to grasp a universal good whereas the latter is based on a scepticism about the ability of humans to either ascertain or achieve this good. Despite the originality of his ideas, the appeal of Oakeshott may well have been curtailed in the manner in which he put forward his arguments. Even his most ardent defender would have to concede that Oakeshott could have offered a clearer explanation in order to extend his overall influence. From a more critical stance, Oakeshott’s mindset could easily be criticised for selling short the possibility of political progress. The familiar taunt against the conservative is those who lack ambition, and Oakeshott could certainly be cited as evidence for this.

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