The Philosophy of Michael Oakeshott

The Philosophy of Michael Oakeshott

terry nardin
Copyright Date: 2001
Pages: 256
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  • Book Info
    The Philosophy of Michael Oakeshott
    Book Description:

    This is the first comprehensive study of Michael Oakeshott as a philosopher rather than a political theorist, which is how most commentators have regarded him. Indeed, the careful reading of his published and unpublished writings that Terry Nardin provides here shows that Oakeshott's concerns have been primarily philosophical, not political. These writings go far beyond politics to offer a critical philosophy of human activity and of the disciplines that interpret and explain it. Oakeshott argues that inquiry can be independent of practical concerns, even when its subject is the thought and action of human beings. Although the book considers Oakeshott's views on morality, law, and government, it is primarily concerned with his ideas about the character of knowledge, especially knowledge of intelligent human conduct, and focuses attention on the concepts of modality, contingency, and civility that are central to Oakeshott's philosophy as a whole. Nardin seeks to show how Oakeshott's critique of scientism and other forms of foundationalism supports a powerful version of the argument that history is the proper mode for understanding human choice and action. The book thus provides the fullest discussion available of Oakeshott's antifoundationalist view of epistemology, metaphysics, and the philosophy of history and the human sciences. It examines his arguments concerning the criteria of truth, the forms of knowledge, the relationship between theory and practice, the place of interpretation in the social sciences, the nature and importance of historical explanation, and the definition of philosophy itself. And it is the first study to look at Oakeshott's relationship to phenomenology, hermeneutics, and other movements in twentieth-century Continental philosophy.

    eISBN: 978-0-271-05451-3
    Subjects: Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Preface
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. Abbreviations
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-14)

    Michael Oakeshott (1901–1990) is widely recognized as one of the more important political thinkers of the past century. It is less widely recognized that he is one of the more philosophical. Oakeshott is concerned with our understanding of political activity, but he goes far beyond this concern to offer a critical philosophy of human activity generally and of the disciplines that interpret and explain it. And, against a persistent tendency in these disciplines, he defends the view that inquiry can be independent of practical concerns, even when its subject is the thoughts and actions of human beings.

    This book...

  6. chapter one Understanding
    (pp. 15-54)

    Oakeshott’s first book,Experience and Its Modes, is concerned with the central concepts and problems of epistemology, an inquiry often regarded, at least in modern times, as the core of philosophy. But epistemology is not easily distinguished from metaphysics or from other philosophical inquiries. It is sometimes said that epistemology is concerned with how knowledge (true belief) is acquired and justified, whereas metaphysics is concerned with what is real and with the basic categories of existence, but one cannot go far in investigating truth without engaging questions about reality and existence. Or it may be said that epistemology is concerned...

  7. chapter two Understanding and Doing
    (pp. 55-100)

    Action or doing constitutes a world, the world of practical activity. Oakeshott reaches two main conclusions about understanding in relation to this world. First, as a world of ideas, practical activity is itself a mode of understanding. Second, though history, science, and other modes involve practical activity (the activity of historians or scientists, for example), this does not deprive the understanding each generates of its distinct modal character. The character of authentic history is historical, not practical. The same can be said of philosophy: philosophical inquiry is a practice, but it generates ideas that are authentically philosophical. Its conclusions are...

  8. chapter three Understanding in the Human Sciences
    (pp. 101-140)

    Oakeshott’s efforts to theorize human conduct rest on the conclusion, explored in the preceding chapter, that conduct can be understood in ways that do not involve the kind of understanding required in conduct itself. Theorizing, though a practical activity, can generate knowledge that is not itself practical. Unlike those who assert the inherently practical character of knowledge, and especially knowledge of human conduct, Oakeshott thinks reflection can be detached from practical concerns and acquire a purely explanatory character, and he devotes special attention to two forms that explanatory reflection can take: scientific and historical inquiry.

    From first to last, Oakeshott’s...

  9. chapter four Historical Understanding
    (pp. 141-182)

    In ordinary usage, the word “history” stands, ambiguously, for past events and for a particular way of understanding past events. History as past events is what actually happened, the subject of historical inquiry. History as a way of understanding past events is this inquiry itself, the study or “science” of history. While history as past events is made by those who participated in the events, history as inquiry is “made” only by the historian (OH ₂). As a historian of political thought, Oakeshott has much to say about history in the first sense, but my concern in this chapter is...

  10. chapter five Understanding the Civil Condition
    (pp. 183-224)

    Many of the ideas we have been considering are brought together in Oakeshott’s efforts to answer one of the fundamental questions of political theorizing: How can human beings be related within an order that constrains their conduct while respecting their individuality? His answer is to imagine a mode of human relationship that is moral, in being premised on mutual recognition, but also legal, in that the considerations imposed on those related are compulsory. Reviving the vocabulary of an earlier time, Oakeshott identifies this mode as a relationship of “civility” (“civil association”).² But, as one might expect, these terms (and related...

  11. Conclusion
    (pp. 225-236)

    Because political philosophy is commonly thought to aim at making or grounding moral judgments about politics, and so to be a kind of practical reasoning, identifying Oakeshott as a political philosopher risks attributing to him the view that philosophy generates practical knowledge. But this view is incompatible with the proposition, which he maintains in various ways in all his works, that philosophy and practice are categorially distinct and that political discourse is raw material for, not the product of, philosophical inquiry. To call him a political philosopher is to suggest that Oakeshott should be read as a moralist, a social...

  12. Index
    (pp. 237-242)
  13. Back Matter
    (pp. 243-243)