Michael Oakeshott
Michael Joseph Oakeshott

(1901-12-11)11 December 1901
Died19 December 1990(1990-12-19) (aged 89)
Acton, England, United Kingdom
Alma materGonville and Caius College, Cambridge
Era20th-century philosophy
RegionWestern philosophy
Main interests
Notable ideas
Adverbial conditions

Michael Joseph Oakeshott FBA (/ˈkʃɒt/; 11 December 1901 – 19 December 1990) was an English philosopher and political theorist who wrote about philosophy of history, philosophy of religion, aesthetics, philosophy of education, and philosophy of law.[3]


Early life and education

Oakeshott was the son of Joseph Francis Oakeshott, a civil servant (divisional head in the Inland Revenue)[4] and member of the Fabian Society,[5] and Frances Maude, daughter of Thomas Hellicar, a wealthy Islington silk-merchant.[4] He was related by marriage to the women's rights activist Grace Oakeshott[6] and the economist and social reformer Gilbert Slater.[7] The life peer Matthew Oakeshott is of the same family.[8]

Michael Oakeshott attended St George's School, Harpenden, a new co-educational and 'progressive' establishment from 1912 to 1920. He enjoyed his schooldays, and the Headmaster, Cecil Grant, later became a friend.[citation needed] In 1920, Oakeshott became an undergraduate at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, where he read history. He graduated in 1923 with a first-class degree, subsequently (as is normal for Cambridge) took an unexamined MA, and was elected Fellow in 1925. While at Cambridge he admired the British idealist philosophers J. M. E. McTaggart and John Grote, and the medieval historian Zachary Nugent Brooke. He said that McTaggart's introductory lectures were the only formal philosophical training he ever received. The historian Herbert Butterfield was a contemporary, friend and fellow member of the Junior Historians society.[citation needed]


Oakeshott was dismayed by the political extremism that occurred in Europe during the 1930s, and his surviving lectures from this period reveal a dislike of Nazism and Marxism.[9]. At the suggestion of Sir Ernest Barker, who wished to see Oakeshott succeed to his own Cambridge Chair of Political Science, in 1939 he produced an anthology of The Social and Political Doctrines of Contemporary Europe.

Second World War

Although in his essay "The Claim of Politics" (1939), Oakeshott defended the right of individuals to eschew political commitment, he joined the British Army in 1941, when he could have avoided conscription on grounds of age. He volunteered for Special Operations Executive (SOE), and was interviewed by Hugh Trevor-Roper, but it was decided that he was "too unmistakably English" to conduct covert operations on the Continent.[10] He was on active service in Europe with the battlefield intelligence unit Phantom, which had connections with the Special Air Service (SAS), but, though always at the front, the unit was seldom directly involved in any actual fighting.


In 1945 Oakeshott was demobilised and returned to Cambridge. In 1949 he left Cambridge for Nuffield College, Oxford, but after only two years, in 1951, he was appointed Professor of Political Science at the London School of Economics (LSE), succeeding the leftist Harold Laski. Oakeshott was deeply unsympathetic to the student activism at LSE during the late 1960s, and highly critical of (as he saw it) the authorities' insuffiently robust response. He retired from the LSE in 1969.

In his retirement he retreated to live quietly in a country cottage in Langton Matravers in Dorset with his third wife. He was divorced twice and had numerous affairs, some of them with wives of his students and colleagues, and even with a girlfriend of his son Simon.[11] He also had a son out of wedlock, named Sebastian. Oakeshott's most famous lover was Iris Murdoch.[12]

Oakeshott lived long enough to experience increasing recognition, although he has become much more widely written about since his death. Oakeshott declined an offer to be made a Companion of Honour, for which he was proposed by Margaret Thatcher.[13]


Early works

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Oakeshott's early work, some of which has been published posthumously as What is History? and Other Essays (2004) and The Concept of a Philosophical Jurisprudence (2007), shows that he was more interested in the philosophical problems that derived from his historical studies than he was in the history, even though he was employed as a historian.

Philosophy and modes of experience

Oakeshott published his first book in 1933, Experience and its Modes, when he was thirty-one. He acknowledged the influence of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and F. H. Bradley;[14] commentators also noticed resemblances between this work and the ideas of thinkers such as R. G. Collingwood[15] and Georg Simmel.[16]

The book argued that our experience is usually modal, in the sense that we always have a governing perspective on the world, be it practical or theoretical. There are various theoretical approaches one may take to understanding the world: natural science and history, for example, are separate modes of experience. It is a mistake, he declared, to treat history as if it ought to be practised on the model of the natural sciences.

Philosophy, however, is not a mode. At this stage of his career Oakeshott saw philosophy as the world seen sub specie aeternitatis, literally "under the aspect of eternity", free from presuppositions, whereas science and history and the practical mode rely on certain assumptions. Later (there is some disagreement about exactly when) Oakeshott adopted a pluralistic view of the various modes of experience, with philosophy just one voice among others, though it retained its self-scrutinising character.

According to Oakeshott, the dominating principles of scientific and historical thought are quantity (the world sub specie quantitatis) and being in the past (the world sub specie praeteritorum) respectively. Oakeshott distinguished the academic perspective on the past from the practical, in which the past is seen in terms of its relevance to our present and future. His insistence on the autonomy of history places him close to Collingwood, who also argued for the autonomy of historical knowledge.

The practical world view (the world sub specie voluntatis) presupposes the ideas of will and value. It is only in terms of these that practical action, for example in the arenas of politics, economics, and ethics, makes sense. Because all action is conditioned by presuppositions, Oakeshott was inclined to see any attempt to change the world as reliant upon a scale of values, which themselves presuppose a context of experience. Even the conservative disposition to maintain the status quo (so long as the latter is tolerable) relies upon managing inevitable change, a point he later elaborated in his essay "On Being Conservative".

Post-war essays

During this period, Oakeshott published what became his best known work during his lifetime, the collection entitled Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays (1962). Some of the polemics against the direction that Britain was taking, in particular the acceptance of socialism, gained Oakeshott a reputation as a conservative seeking to uphold the importance of tradition, and sceptical about rationalism and fixed ideologies. Bernard Crick described him as a "lonely nihilist".[17]

Oakeshott's opposition to what he considered utopian political projects is summed up in his use of the analogy (possibly borrowed from the Marquess of Halifax, a 17th-century English author whom he admired) of a ship of state that has "neither starting-place nor appointed destination...[and where] the enterprise is to keep afloat on an even keel".[18] He was a critic of the Cambridge historian E. H. Carr, historian of Soviet Russia, claiming that Carr had an uncritical attitude to the Bolshevik regime and took some of its propaganda at face value.[19]

On Human Conduct and Oakeshott's political theory

In his essay "On Being Conservative" (1956)[20] Oakeshott explained what he regarded as the conservative disposition: "To be conservative ... is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer 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."

Oakeshott's political philosophy, as advanced in On Human Conduct (1975), is free of any form of party politics. The book's first part ("On the Theoretical Understanding of Human Conduct") develops a theory of human action as the exercise of intelligent agency in activities such as wanting and choosing, the second ("On the Civil Condition") discusses the formal conditions of association appropriate to such intelligent agents, described as "civil" or legal association, and the third ("On the Character of a Modern European State") examines how far this understanding of human association has affected politics and political ideas in post-Renaissance European history.

Oakeshott suggests that there had been two major modes or understandings of human social organization. In the first, which he calls "enterprise association" (or universitas), the state is understood as imposing some universal purpose (profit, salvation, progress, racial domination) on its subjects. (Enterprise association is perfectly appropriate to the management of enterprises; however, the state is not an enterprise.) By contrast, "civil association" (or societas) is primarily a legal relationship in which laws impose obligatory conditions of action but do not require the associates to choose one action rather than another.

The complex, often technical style of On Human Conduct found few readers, and its initial reception was mostly one of bafflement. Oakeshott, who rarely responded to critics, used an article in the journal Political Theory to reply sardonically to some of the contributions made at a symposium on the book.[21]

In his posthumously published The Politics of Faith and the Politics of Scepticism Oakeshott describes enterprise associations and civil associations in different terms. An enterprise association is based on a fundamental faith in human ability to ascertain and grasp some universal good (leading to the Politics of Faith), and civil association is based on a fundamental scepticism about human ability to either ascertain or achieve this good (leading to the Politics of Scepticism). Oakeshott considers power (especially technological power) as a necessary prerequisite for the Politics of Faith, because it allows people to believe that they can achieve something great and to implement the policies necessary to achieve their goal. The Politics of Scepticism, on the other hand, rests on the idea that government should concern itself with preventing bad things from happening, rather than enabling ambiguously good events.

Oakeshott employs the analogy of the adverb to describe the kind of restraint that law involves. Laws prescribe "adverbial conditions": they condition our actions, but they do not determine the substantive ends of our choices. For example, the law against murder is not a law against killing as such, but only a law against killing "murderously". Or, to choose a more trivial example, the law does not dictate that I have a car, but if I do, I must drive it on the same side of the road as everybody else. This contrasts with the rules of enterprise associations, in which the actions required by the management are made compulsory for all.

Philosophy of history

In the final work that Oakeshott published in his lifetime, On History (1983), he returned to the idea that history is a distinct mode of experience, but built on the theory of action developed for On Human Conduct. Much of On History had in fact been written at the same time as that book, in the early 1970s.

During the mid-1960s Oakeshott declared an admiration for Wilhelm Dilthey, one of the pioneers of hermeneutics. On History can be interpreted as an essentially neo-Kantian enterprise of working out the conditions of the possibility of historical knowledge, work that Dilthey had begun.

The first three essays set out the distinction between the present of historical experience and the present of practical experience, as well as the concepts of historical situation, historical event, and what is meant by change in history. On History includes an essay on jurisprudence ("The Rule of Law"). It also includes a retelling of The Tower of Babel in a modern setting[22] in which Oakeshott expresses disdain for human willingness to sacrifice individuality, culture, and quality of life for grand collective projects. He attributes this behaviour to fascination with novelty, persistent dissatisfaction, greed, and lack of self-reflection.[23]

Other works

Oakeshott's other works included a reader, already mentioned, on The Social and Political Doctrines of Contemporary Europe. It consisted of selected texts illustrating the main doctrines of liberalism, national socialism, fascism, communism, and Roman Catholicism (1939). He was editor of an edition of Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan (1946), for which he provided an introduction that has been recognised as a significant contribution to the literature by later scholars. Several of Oakeshott's essays on Hobbes were collected and published in 1975 as Hobbes on Civil Association.

With his Cambridge colleague Guy Griffith Oakeshott wrote A Guide to the Classics, or How to Pick The Derby Winner (1936), a guide to the principles of successful betting on horse-racing. This was his only published non-academic work.

Oakeshott was the author of well over 150 essays and reviews, most of which have now been republished.

Just before he died Oakeshott approved two edited collections of his works, The Voice of Liberal Learning (1989), a collection of his essays on education, and a second, revised and expanded edition of Rationalism in Politics (1991). Posthumous collections of his writings include Morality and Politics in Modern Europe (1993), a lecture series he gave at Harvard in 1958; Religion, Politics, and the Moral Life (1993), essays mostly from his early and middle periods; and The Politics of Faith and the Politics of Scepticism (1996), a manuscript from the 1950s contemporary with much of the material in Rationalism in Politics but written in a more considered tone.

The bulk of his papers are now in the Oakeshott Archive at the London School of Economics. Further volumes of posthumous writings are in preparation, as is a biography, and a series of monographs devoted to his work were published during the first decade of the 21st century.




  1. ^ Michael Oakeshott (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
  2. ^ Mark Garnett (ed.), Conservative Moments: Reading Conservative Texts, Bloomsbury Academic, 2018, ch. 9.
  3. ^ Fuller, T. (1991) 'The Work of Michael Oakeshott', Political Theory, Vol. 19 No. 3.
  4. ^ a b Paul Franco, Leslie Marsh, A Companion to Michael Oakeshott, pp. 16
  5. ^ http://www.aim25.ac.uk/cgi-bin/vcdf/detail?coll_id=8042&inst_id=1
  6. ^ Radical Reformers and Respectable Rebels: How the two lives of Grace Oakeshott defined an era, Jocelyn Robson, Palgrave Macmillan, 2016, p. xvii
  7. ^ Full of Hope and Fear: The Great War Letters of an Oxford Family, ed. Margaret Bonfiglioli and James Munson, Oxford University Press, 2014, pp. xxxiii-xxxiv
  8. ^ "Chris Huhne: A family affair". BBC News. 16 May 2011.
  9. ^ See M. Oakeshott, Review of H. Levy and others, Aspects of Dialectical Materialism, in Cambridge Review, 56 (1934–5), pp. 108–9
  10. ^ Gray, John. "Last of the Idealists". Literary Review. Archived from the original on 17 July 2014. Retrieved 23 July 2014.
  11. ^ Paul Franco, Leslie Marsh, A Companion to Michael Oakeshott, pp. 31
  12. ^ Paul Franco, Michael Oakeshott: An Introduction, pp. 22
  13. ^ "A Letter from Margaret Thatcher". www.michael-oakeshott-association.org. Archived from the original on 26 May 2008. Retrieved 4 December 2016.CS1 maint: bot: original URL status unknown (link)
  14. ^ Oakeshott, Experience and Its Modes, p. 6
  15. ^ Paul Franco, Michael Oakeshott: An Introduction, pp. 45–46
  16. ^ Efraim Podoksik, 'Ethics and the Conduct of Life in the old Georg Simmel and the young Michael Oakeshott', Simmel Studies 17(2), 2007, pp. 197–221
  17. ^ Bernard Crick, 'The World of Michael Oakeshott: Or the Lonely Nihilist', Encounter, 20 (June 1963), pp. 65–74
  18. ^ Oakeshott, Michael. Rationalism in Politics. London: Methuen, 1962: p. 127; [1]
  19. ^ M. Oakeshott, Review of E. H. Carr, The New Society, in Times Literary Supplement (12 October 1951)
  20. ^ Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays (London: Methuen,1962), pp. 168–96
  21. ^ M. Oakeshott, "On Misunderstanding Human Conduct: A Reply to My Critics," Political Theory, 4 (1976), pp. 353–67.
  22. ^ Reprinted as Oakeshott, Michael (1989). "The Tower of Babel". In Clarke, S.G.; Simpson, E. (eds.). Anti-Theory in Ethics and Moral Conservatism. SUNY Series in Ethical Theory. State University of New York Press. p. 185ff. ISBN 978-0-88706-912-3. Retrieved 25 May 2018.
  23. ^ Corey, E.C. (2006). Michael Oakeshott on Religion, Aesthetics, and Politics. Eric Voegelin Institute series in political philosophy. University of Missouri Press. p. 129-131. ISBN 978-0-8262-6517-3.

Further reading