Michael Oakeshott's Skepticism

Michael Oakeshott's Skepticism

Aryeh Botwinick
Copyright Date: 2011
Pages: 266
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  • Book Info
    Michael Oakeshott's Skepticism
    Book Description:

    The English philosopher Michael Oakeshott (1901-1990) is known as a conservative who rejected philosophically ambitious rationalism and the grand political ideologies of the twentieth century on the grounds that no human ideas have ultimately reliable foundations. Instead, he embraced tradition and habit as the guides to moral and political life. In this book, Aryeh Botwinick presents an original account of Oakeshott's skepticism about foundations, an account that newly reveals the unity of his thought.

    Botwinick argues that, despite Oakeshott's pragmatic conservatism, his rejection of all-embracing intellectual projects made him a friend to liberal individualism and an ally of what would become postmodern antifoundationalism. Oakeshott's skepticism even extended paradoxically to skepticism about skepticism itself and is better described as a "generalized agnosticism." Properly conceived and translated, this agnosticism ultimately evolves into mysticism, which becomes a bridge linking philosophy and religion. Botwinick explains and develops this strategy of interpretation and then shows how it illuminates and unifies the diverse strands of Oakeshott's thought in the philosophy of religion, metaphysics, epistemology, political theory, philosophy of personal identity, philosophy of law, and philosophy of history.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-3695-6
    Subjects: Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. Preface and Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xvi)
  4. 1 Introduction: Epistemological Backdrop
    (pp. 1-28)

    Michael Oakeshott’s most consistent self-description was that he was a skeptic. Skepticism represents from earliest times the counterassertiveness of human reason against the “givenness” of the world. In response to the age-old question as to why there is something rather than nothing, the skeptic has the audacity to say that there is indeed nothing (nothing irrevocably fixed) about the furniture of the human world or the equipment of the human psyche. The skeptic highlights the role of conceptualization and categorization in yielding the world that we then take for granted. How we linguistically frame a slice of experience is never...

  5. 2 Metaphysics
    (pp. 29-48)

    There is a stylistic paradox about Oakeshott that matches a key substantive paradox of his thought. Though he wrote primarily in the essay form—even his longer works often read like ensembles of self-contained essays—he addressed questions of the deepest and broadest significance. His authentic precursors and models were such epic theorists as Plato, Hobbes, and Hegel—the last two of which at least were fond of systematic treatises as the appropriate vehicles for expressing their labyrinthinely interconnected philosophical ideas. Oakeshott was as devoted to systematic exploration and explication as these illustrious predecessors, yet his literary medium of choice...

  6. 3 Philosophy of Religion and Philosophy of Science
    (pp. 49-116)

    Oakeshott’s philosophy of religion as he develops it in brief compass in his writings supports the attribution to him of the position of a generalized agnosticism. Nowhere does Oakeshott impugn the idea of a deity. His perspective on religion is experiential rather than cosmic. It evokes what Max Kaddushin has called “the normal mysticism of the Rabbis.”¹ The Rabbis translate and expand upon the precepts of the Written Law, viewed as emanating from the utterly transcendent biblical God, in such a way that the Oral Law suffuses whole sections of human life ranging from the intimately private to the ostentatiously...

  7. 4 Political Theory
    (pp. 117-131)

    As we move into a discussion of Oakeshott’s political theory, we need to realize that part of the attraction that a liberal society holds for him is that it institutionalizes better than any other form of state the mysticism of everyday life that we have been exploring. In a liberal state with its ongoing, regularized opportunities for reordering priorities and reconfiguring values, the most enduring commitments of the political society are placed on everlasting hold. Just as with “God” in negative theology and “truth” in skeptical theorizing the mystical turn of argument sustains the categories without prejudging their contents, so,...

  8. 5 Philosophy of Conversation and Philosophy of Personal Identity
    (pp. 132-193)

    Oakeshott’s philosophy of conversation, which denigrates the possibility of achieving moments of such triumphant incandescence that they bring conversation itself to a close, clearly belongs to the same family of terms as “diminished self-consciousness,” “skepticism,” and “generalized agnosticism” that I have discussed so far in this essay.¹ There is also a subterranean linkage between conversation and mysticism. For the mystic, the great achievement is to be able to say something—to say anything at all, to be able to wrest some verbal quarry from the overwhelming, ineffable silence. Conversation connotes the breakthrough into speech—mobilizing the capacity to break the...

  9. 6 Philosophy of Law and Philosophy of History
    (pp. 194-222)

    Oakeshott’s philosophies of law and history also exemplify the generalized agnosticism that is the philosophical doctrinal equivalent to the diminished self-consciousness integral to Oakeshott’s conception of a well-ordered morality and political state. Oakeshott is rigorously consistent in his application of the principle of the underdetermination of theory by fact—in the cases at hand the principle is best denoted by the formulation, “the underdetermination of meaning by text”—to the subject matter of law and history. With regard to law, Oakeshott says:

    Now, the expressions “theory,” “explanation” and “interpretation,” even when it is clear that they are to be applied...

  10. Notes
    (pp. 223-240)
  11. Index
    (pp. 241-250)