Michael Oakeshott on Society - Dictionary of Arguments
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Society/freedom/Oakeshott/Weinstein: Michael Oakeshott's appeal stems from his sophisticated rehabilitation of idealism combined with his willingness to take
Gaus I 422
utilitarianism and socialism as worthy philosophical opponents. As one of his sympathetic interpreters urges, Oakeshott forcefully challenges the 'commonsensical' or 'liberal utilitarian' view of freedom, which regards laws purely instrumentally.
Laws/Oakeshott: Whereas liberal utilitarians hold that law necessarily restricts freedom, Oakeshott claims that only certain types of laws do. That is, liberal utilitarians follow Berlin in thinking that how much government interferes with its citizens determines the extent of their political freedom, while Oakeshott thinks that political freedom is just as significantly a function of government's mode (Liddington, 1984(1): 308—9). 'Enterprise' government 'runs' citizens' lives, compromising their freedom, by instrumentalizing law in the name of promoting some substantive goal such as general utility, equality or distributive justice. 'Enterprise' politics is therefore naively rationalistic. By contrast, 'civil' government merely 'rules' citizens without determining their ends. Reason is incapable of delivering up new Jerusalems. And whenever we mistakenly convince ourselves otherwise, we risk creating what Karl Popper called 'closed' societies.* Rationalistic insolence is the enemy of civitas.**
Successors: Since Oakeshott, conservatism has been mostly lamentation. Shirley Letwin's (1978)(2) 'conservative individualism' is little more than simplified Oakeshott.
Kenneth Minogue's 'conservative realism' berates political theorists for 'grinding their concepts into a finer and finer powder'. Conservative realists reject 'rationalist ways of thinking' exemplified by 'Dworkinian believers in social justice'. They follow Oakeshott, condemning rationalism as the misguided belief that the 'conditions of any activity could be exhaustively formulated in precepts' (Minogue, 1996(3): 4, 160).***
* I eschew discussing Popper and Hayek because neither was arguably English or essentially a political theorist.
** See especially Oakeshott (1975)(4). Crick argues that Oakeshott's 'enterprise' association is a philosophical caricature 'made of straw' (1973(5): 130). But note that, for Oakeshott, 'civil' and 'enterprise' associations are archetypes, whereas societas and universitas are their respective
historical manifestations. For the relationship between Oakeshott's two paradigms of political association and his idealism, see Boucher and Vincent (2000(6): ch. 7).
*** Minogue concedes that his 'conservative realism' is anti-foundational and is thus 'curiously
similar' to postmodernism (in Minogue, 1996(3): 156). Also see O'Sullivan (1992)(7) for more anti-foundationalist conservatism.
1.Oakeshott, Michael (1984) On History and Other Essays. Basil Blackwell
2. Letwin, Shirley (1978) 'On conservative individualism'. In Maurice Cowling, ed., Conservative Essays. London: Cassell, 52—68.
3. Minogue, Kenneth (1996) 'Introduction' and 'Three conservative realists'. In Kenneth Minogue, ed., Conservative Realism. London: Harper Collins, 1-7, 157-71.
4. Oakeshott, Michael (1975) On Human Conduct. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
5. Crick, Bernard (1973) Political Theory and Practice. New York: Basic.
6. Boucher, David and Andrew Vincent (2000) British Idealism and Political Theory. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
7. O'Sullivan, Noel (1992) 'Conservatism: a reply to Ted Honderich'. Utilitas, 4: 133-43.
Weinstein, David 2004. „English Political Theory in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Century“. In: Gaus, Gerald F. & Kukathas, Chandran 2004. Handbook of Political Theory. SAGE Publications_____________Explanation of symbols: Roman numerals indicate the source, arabic numerals indicate the page number. The corresponding books are indicated on the right hand side. ((s)…): Comment by the sender of the contribution. Translations: Dictionary of Arguments The note [Author1]Vs[Author2] or [Author]Vs[term] is an addition from the Dictionary of Arguments. If a German edition is specified, the page numbers refer to this edition.
Gerald F. Gaus
Handbook of Political Theory London 2004