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Disposition Not Ideology: Michael Oakeshott’s Unheeded Conservatism

Disposition Not Ideology: Michael Oakeshott’s Unheeded Conservatism

The British political philosopher Michael Oakeshott (1901-1990) was one of the more sophisticated conservative thinkers of the twentieth century.[1] However, while he was once a fairly well-known and reasonably widely-read figure in America, since the 1980s his profile this side of the Atlantic has continually waned. Today one is more likely to hear Friedrich von Hayek, Russell Kirk, or Ronald Reagan invoked than Oakeshott. Indeed, over the past few generations, American conservatives have become increasingly deaf to Oakeshott’s characterization of conservatism as a disposition that informs and inflects thought and action, rather than an ideology or a policy agenda. Exploring this notion and the foundation upon which Oakeshott built it tells us something interesting and consequential about the state of conservatism in America. In particular, it illuminates how American conservatism has come often to partake of the ideological style it had once purported to oppose. Whether or not one believes that Oakeshott’s ideas ought to be more prominent in American conservative thought and practice—and my aim here is not to offer a resolute argument either way—serious consideration of his thought poses fundamental questions of identity, character, and purpose for contemporary conservatives.

The Ailment of Modern Thought

Oakeshott’s account of politics and the conservative aspect of mind he believed was most appropriate for it rests upon a critique of what he believed to be a dominant and disturbing characteristic of modern thought, which he termed “rationalism.” By this he meant an abiding faith in the authority of reason over experience (which has a long pre-modern pedigree, tracing at least as far back in the Western canon as Plato) coupled with a distinctly modern elevation of technical knowledge over practical knowledge.

The latter is roughly what Oakeshott’s contemporary Gilbert Ryle referred to as “knowing how,” a form of knowledge and understanding that inheres in a concrete form of activity, such as playing a game, fixing a machine, or painting a portrait. It signifies an ability or aptitude connected to, and learned through the practice of, specific forms of conduct. The former is roughly what Ryle referred to as “knowing that,” knowledge reducible to true propositions about the world, such as the proposition that it is raining outside or that twice two is four.[2] Such knowledge typically transcends the boundaries of specific activities in which it may be employed. For instance, the proposition ‘it is raining’ is equally true whether one is playing a game outside or painting a portrait inside, and mathematical principles are supposed to be equally true in all contexts.[3] Technical knowledge thus commonly purports to be universally valid, whereas practical knowledge can claim only limited and contextual authority. These distinct modes of knowing are ordinarily and unproblematically united in our daily undertakings, and we often move fluidly between them without noticing.

While genuine and valuable, Oakeshott regarded technical knowledge as a shadow of practical knowledge, a pale reflection or selective distillation of something prior as well as more vibrant and robust. He offered the example of a cookbook to illustrate this.[4] In a cookbook one finds rules and procedures for making certain dishes, and if one follows the recipes, one will likely have prepared acceptable instances of a particular cuisine. Yet the cookbook is an abbreviation of a culinary culture, a crib-sheet for someone who lacks adequate practical knowledge. Someone who knows how to cook a particular dish does not need a cookbook—only novices and outsiders do. In the same spirit, and sounding like the American legal realist Karl Llewellyn, Oakeshott suggested that freedom and rights consist not in the truth of abstract propositions but in actual practices and procedures available to individuals in the context of particular political cultures. (RP, 54) The point is that bodies of technical knowledge (and their various artifacts, like cookbooks and declarations of rights) are created by refining something complex, interpretive, lived, flexible, and often implicit, into a simplified, static, rigid and explicit method or doctrine.[5] The rationalist is the person who takes this distillation as the real, essential fact of the matter, and who regards ground-level practical knowledge as its partial and imperfect approximation.

Oakeshott offered the early modern figures of Francis Bacon and René Descartes as exemplars of the rationalist turn of mind (to which one could perhaps add Jeremy Bentham and Auguste Comte).  Such luminaries, he suggested, bequeathed to us the enduring modern belief in the “sovereignty of technique,” the idea that the right method or set of axioms shall furnish us with “a key to open all doors, a ‘master science.’” (RP, 20) The ascendancy of this mindset began in the modern sciences, and their soon to be dethroned queen, philosophy, but within only a century or two it had made inroads in nearly all domains of thought and practice. By the early twentieth century it had arguably come to dominate in the social sciences, and had established significant footholds in the humanities (including religion and the arts). In the domain of politics and political thought, the rationalist is the person who “cannot imagine […] politics which do not consist in solving problems” through the application of techniques or adherence to doctrines. (RP, 10)

Writing in the aftermath of the Second World War, Oakeshott was responding both to radical political ideologies of the Left and the Right, such as Fascism, Nazism, and Stalinism, and to the milder liberal ideologies that guided the British Labour Party and the New Deal in America. His aim was not to dispute the amazing achievements of the modern natural and human sciences, or even of the modern state, but to offer a dose of scepticism regarding the notion that the methods and technical faith of these endeavors ought ultimately to govern all human endeavors.[6] He believed this corrective was especially needful (because rationalism was especially out of place) in the domain of politics.

The Pursuit of Intimations

Against rationalism in politics Oakeshott offered an alternative vision owing much to the English common law tradition, rather than to modern science and the philosophy of the Enlightenment. In the essay “Political Education” he described politics as “the activity of attending to the general arrangements of a set of people whom chance or choice have brought together.” (RP, 44) This is an essentially conservative characterization of politics as an activity not of fabricating or conjuring ex nihilo, but of maintaining or cultivating what we are already to some degree accustomed to doing and enjoying. So understood, politics is a “necessary but second rate affair.”[7] It is necessary because our common arrangements at times need deliberate tending, but it is second rate because, like Hegel said of philosophical understanding, politics arrive on the scene after most of its subject matter has already been constituted or taken place. Political institutions and officials govern a society they did not create, and without which they would not exist. Oakeshott was better aware than most of the complicated avenues of mutual influence between social conditions and politics, yet his point was that we can imagine society abstracted from politics, but not politics abstracted from society.

The political rationalist—Left, Right, or Center—approaches politics as the activity of molding society, crafting its order and institutions through the application of techniques dictated by a true view of the world and the laws according to which it necessarily operates. Oakeshott describes his alternative conception of politics—carefully tending to the common arrangements of society—as “the pursuit of intimations.” (RP, 56-69) Rather than fabrication of social order, such politics consist in an endless series of small adjustments in response to the various contingencies of life. This process is not driven by an explicit ideology or program, but informed by norms and principles that are often implicitly woven into the history and existing affairs of a society. In tending to the arrangements of a pluralistic collection of individuals, political officials and institutions are tasked with tentatively exploring and articulating what is already intimated in shared ways of life. Thus, Oakeshott commends a politics guided more by practical knowledge than by technical knowledge.

According to this conception, politics is not the search for perfection, but an “art of knowing where to go next” in a world without ultimate destination or safe harbor, keeping an imperfect society on a tolerably even keel in a world of unconquerable contingency. (RP, 406) Political activity ought to be cautiously averse to change, yet perennially open to its circumstantial prudence. Oakeshott thus far embraces Edmund Burke’s dictum that a society unable or unwilling to change lacks “the means of its conservation” without contemplating the rationalist notion that any and all change is justified if it leads to the proper goal.[8] Steeled against the enchantments of radical transformation, as well as the comforting illusion of permanence, politics would be restless yet tentative engagements to balance continuity with change and to reconcile the values and collected inheritance of the past with the needs and interests of the present and future.

Dispositional Conservatism

Averse to the simple appeal of isms, Oakeshott wrote of a conservative mindset and style of politics rather than of conservatism. Characterizing this mindset in his 1956 essay “On Being Conservative” he wrote:

“To be conservative is to be disposed to think and behave in certain manners; it is to prefer certain kinds of conduct and certain conditions of human circumstances to others; it is to be disposed to make certain kinds of choices […] The general characteristics of this disposition are not difficult to discern, although they have often been mistaken. They centre upon a propensity to use and to enjoy what is available rather than to wish for or to look for something else; to delight in what is present rather than what was or what may be […] To be conservative, then, 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 convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss.” (RP, 407-8)

For Oakeshott, being conservative meant to be possessed of a certain disposition of thought and action, a temperament that conditions choice and conduct. However, he believed this habit of mind was often mistaken and distorted. The conservative has often been mistaken for the person committed to tradition at all costs, or who lives pining (whether bitterly or hopefully) for a departed golden age. He found still more disturbing the conflation of a conservative disposition with a particular doctrine, ideology, or practical program—the subtle translation of a conservative habit of mind into conservatism.

The disposition that Oakeshott describes and praises is conservative in the mode of Hobbes, Hume, and Montaigne, not Hayek, Reagan, or Thatcher. The distinction hinges upon the myopic rationalism that inheres in most modern political, economic, and social doctrines. Modern religious traditionalism, economic libertarianism, liberal egalitarianism, revolutionary socialism, and ethnic nationalism are ideologies in this sense. Genuinely holding any of these views often entails affirming a stock of abstract, unquestionable normative ideals and policies instrumental to their realization. Each bears the impress of rationalism insofar as each seeks to tame the contingencies of life by way of a technique or method. The economic libertarian bows before the sovereignty of the market and economic ‘laws,’ the religious traditionalist before sacred texts and a static image of human relations, and the revolutionary socialist before the dialectic of history and inexorable logic of capital. Yet a conservative disposition is not an ideology, and if being conservative in the Oakeshottian sense entails any intellectual commitment it is to a non-dogmatic scepticism that eschews the formulaic, reductive tendencies and false necessities of all modern ideologies.[9]

What clearly troubled Oakeshott was that many modern conservatives were drinking the rationalist punch, raising the banner of conservatism as a new political ideology fit to meet ideologies such as liberalism and socialism on their own terrain. Swimming against the current, he maintained that while there is a conservative disposition or outlook, a conservative style of politics, and perhaps circumstantially conservative principles and policies, there is no such thing as a conservative doctrine or agenda (in the way that liberalism, communism, nationalism, and religious traditionalism have, or are, doctrines and agendas). Too many conservatives, he thought, were forgetting these fine distinctions and becoming distorted reflections of what they opposed.

At home and especially abroad, Oakeshott’s conservative vision was out of step with post-War events, as conservatism was being espoused as a partisan identity, political creed, and even as a comprehensive social and moral doctrine. His explicit reception in the United States was, by and large, warm, though certainly not without its tensions. If this reception could be summarized in a single episode, it might be when Irving Kristol expressed great admiration for “On Being Conservative” and its author, yet denied the essay publication in the Anglo-American conservative magazine Encounter on account of its avowedly secular description of conservatism.[10] This proved to be emblematic of Oakeshott’s fate in America—he was frequently met with a mix of intellectual respect and practical suspicion or rejection because he lacked the ideological content and commitments that post-war American conservatives increasingly desired in order to counter liberalism at home as well as communism (and newer isms) abroad. Just as American conservatives were crafting and mobilizing a new political ideology, replete with its stock of certitudes economic, sociological, historical and even religious certitudes, Oakeshott wrote that “[t]here is indeed no inconstancy in being conservative in politics and ‘radical’ in everything else.”[11]

One ought, perhaps, to take this claim with a suitable pinch of salt. Oakeshott, who displayed a conservative disposition in most things, never quite exemplified this unlikely character himself. Yet the thrust of the claim—that conservatism is not a creed, doctrine, or ideology—ran precisely counter to the self-identification of mainstream American conservatives throughout the second half of the twentieth century. It is no doubt partly for this reason that the thinker who wrote of being conservative and politics as the pursuit of intimations in the 1940s and 1950s was rehabilitated by some in the 1980s and 1990s as a sceptical, humanistic liberal who favored individuality and the rule of law rather than religion, market capitalism, or bellicose patriotism.[12] As American conservatives (and neo-conservatives) like Russell Kirk, Irving Kristol, Barry Goldwater, and Ronald Reagan traded the sceptical conservative disposition for the self-assured ideology of conservatism, Oakeshott arguably remained true to his original views, for which he has never been entirely forgiven. Accordingly, as Kenneth MacIntyre has claimed, despite the occasional favorable invocations of select of Oakeshott’s ideas, “there is little dispute that his influence on American conservatism has been negligible.”[13] Granting that this is so—and there is scant evidence to the contrary—the interesting question becomes why this is so and what it indicates about conservatism in America.

The Path Not Taken

One need not, of course, be conservative in any sense to appreciate the distinctiveness of the portion of Oakeshott’s political thought that I have been sketching (which is by no means the majority of his contribution). The works I have been discussing read, if only in hindsight, as a minority report on post-War conservatism in Western industrial democracies. It would be to Oakeshott’s still greater dismay to find that nearly anywhere on the ordinary Left-Right spectrum, politics today has become predominately ‘rationalistic’ in his usage of the term. Modern politics, in most places in the world, take the character of devising and implementing comprehensive plans for governing, steering, and shaping society (from controlling crime and determining what counts as a useful education to stimulating economic growth and sustaining national identity). Perhaps this has always been the bread and butter of politics, at least in the modern West; perhaps Oakeshott’s notion of politics without agenda is largely fanciful. Yet the dogmatic, technocratic turn that is apparent in nearly all contemporary states and political ideologies signifies a loss from his perspective. What at its best is an art of coping with contingency has been subtly recast as the execution of doctrinally-mandated programs “which a slide-rule could, in principle, perform.”[14]

Granted, Oakeshott could be wrong about the ills of rationalism in politics, or anywhere else. If asked who they would trust to solve a problem, few people in the world today would likely reply ‘anyone but an expert.’ There is substantial elite and popular support for technical solutions to our most pressing problems, from climate change and food insecurity to systemic racism and rising rates of obesity. (Though there is substantial argument about who are the suitable experts and what they could achieve were we to follow their guidance.) It is indeed possible that some of the issues confronting the world today are simply too big and too pressing to be left, more or less, to doing what already comes naturally to us and, thus, what has led us to our present situation. One could make a plausible case, for instance, that under today’s realities of environmental degradation and resource depletion, pursuing the intimations of Lockean notions of individual property rights[15] and the original meaning[16] of a Constitution written before the invention of the steam engine are simply untenable. Maybe we live in an era that demands taking bold risks and adopting systematic plans to address what truly matters. Rationalism could be a bad thing all in all, yet even a broken clock tells the right time twice a day. Calculation with a slide-rule may still be better than guessing, or than doing nothing out of a cultivated hesitation.

Yet Oakeshott provides the conceptual vocabulary with which to trace the slide of American conservatism into the style of thought and political action that it still purports to oppose. Consider, for instance, one of the core issues espoused by nearly all contemporary American conservatives: leaving most details of social planning to free markets. From deregulation of industry and commerce to school vouchers and free trade agreements, believing in the wisdom and efficiency of the market has become an essential criterion for seriously calling oneself conservative.[17] Were he alive today, Oakeshott might well share these views on specific policies—yet, if he were consistent with his own writings, he would refuse to espouse the deeper faith that has come to unite them.

American conservatives today more frequently look to Milton Friedman or to Hayek than to Oakeshott, and the reason seems clear enough: the former offer plans, whereas the latter offers only a disposition. The former mark out the destination we should seek, the latter tells us how we might go about making the next step. Admittedly, American conservatives often frame their embrace of the market in what sound like Oakeshottian terms. They often appeal to an Anglo-American tradition of property rights and limited government, perhaps enshrined in the Constitution, but undoubtedly entrenched in American political culture. That is, leaving things to the market could be construed as the pursuit of the intimations of the American political and legal culture. Oakeshott, however, saw matters differently. Writing of the critique of central planning that Hayek offered in The Road to Serfdom, he suggested that “[a] plan to resist all planning may be better than its opposite, but it belongs to the same style of politics. And only in a society already deeply affected with Rationalism will the conversion of […] traditional resources […] into a self-conscious ideology be considered a strengthening of those resources.” (RP, 26-7) Stated somewhat differently, he believed that conservatives throughout the Western world were adopting the tools of rationalism in the service of historically (if unwittingly) anti-rationalist ends. Rather than justifying a policy of leaving most social planning to the uncoordinated (but by no means unregulated) decisions of individuals on the grounds of a sceptical distrust of too much power in anyone’s hands (RP, 388) (which would include the hands of private economic enterprises and actors), conservatives have increasingly come to justify it on the grounds of effectively indisputable principles (e.g., individual and corporate economic rights) and the allegedly demonstrable superiority of the free market. Thus, what might be provisionally justified by a sceptical reluctance is more often conclusively justified by a sometimes epistemic and sometimes moral faith. Some might claim that the manner in which one supports a policy is irrelevant so long as one believes it is the correct policy, but Oakeshott was not of that persuasion. Like Montaigne before him, he was distrustful of his own side in the debate as well.[18]

The root of Oakeshott’s kind of dispositional conservatism is a sober distrust for and dislike of self-assured plans or visions for transforming the world, whatever their intellectual or practical pedigree. Anthony Quinton counted this kind of conservatism as an instance of “the politics of imperfection,” characterized not by impotence or complacency, but by modesty and thoughtful hesitation.[19] Such a conservative may be hopeful for better days, but she does not succumb to the seduction of an ideal future purged of the ills of today. Mainstream contemporary American conservatism is neither modest nor hesitant in this way. Ready evidence for this claim is found in the profusion of conservative think tanks and policy institutes. Irrespective of the truth or utility of the positions they take, institutions like the American Enterprise Institute, the Federalist Society, the Heritage Foundation, and Focus on the Family exist to devise and proffer plans for better government and a better society, plans in service of which they are prepared to make most any change necessary to whatever portion of our existing arrangements they happen not to like.[20] If, as Oakeshott suggested, being conservative means presumptively preferring what currently exists to either a resurrected past or a transformed future, then these institutions frequently partake more of the rationalistic than the conservative disposition.

Historically, the emergence of ideological conservatism in the United States appears as a tale of reactive adaptation. Both the Cold War confrontation between Soviet communism and Western capitalism and liberal democracy, and the domestic gains of progressivism and liberalism throughout the same period, placed American conservatives in an intellectual as well as practical bind. Their preferred social order threatened with instant annihilation from without and slowly eroding from within, many took to matching ideological onslaughts with ideological counter-attacks. Apparently concluding that the way to defeat an ideology is with a better ideology, they translated dispositions into policies and policies into agendas—such as deregulation, democracy promotion, and traditionalism to counter progressivism, communism, and social liberalism. An Oakeshottian conservative could assent to some version of most of these policies in favorable contexts, but would not, I suggest, embrace them as they were in fact offered and unified under the heading of ideological conservatism. That turn is where American conservatives, knowingly or not, have tended to leave Oakeshott behind.

 Whither American Conservatives?

The first incarnation of this essay was an invited commentary on Oakeshott’s legacy for American conservatism, in the immediate aftermath of the 2016 election. While I would note that I believe my initial characterization has held up over the past two years, I am not interested in assembling an updated list examples and alleged empirical validations. Rather, I would conclude with some general remarks about Oakeshott’s distinctive, if uncomfortable, insights for American conservative political thought and practice today.

As Oakeshott was keen to insist, the dispositional conservatism that he celebrated is a temperament of thought and feeling, not a set of axioms from which assuredly to set off or of conclusions at which inevitably to arrive.  If it were to be abbreviated to a single word—an imperfect though illustrative exercise—it would be perhaps, rather than always or never.  Self-consciously relative to actual contingent goings on, this temperament seeks answers to what is right before one’s nose neither in the timeless designs of the heavens nor in patterns of life long lost to the past; not because it asserts there are no such designs or patterns, but because it is never absolutely certain of what produced, sustains, or justifies what is it sees as valuable here and now. As it is set against the background of an actual world of problems and institutions, a dispositional conservative could equally espouse the causes of so-called ‘conservative’ or ‘liberal’ policies.  In a country with a long, if contested, tradition of a welfare state, a dispositional conservative might support (at least some of) its programs—not because they mirror timeless ideals of justice, or because they are necessary steps towards the best of all societies, but because, warts and all, they may be part of our tolerably decent mode of human association, a valuable and fragile one at that. If you want to repair a ship already at sea, there are some timbers, however rotten they may seem, that circumstantially simply must be left in place. It is easy to lose sight of this characteristic of Oaskeshott’s thought because of the times in which he wrote, and thus to turn him into an ideological conservative (though only a watery one) because he wrote in an age so profoundly shaped by the clash of ideologies.

Beyond his dispositional conservatism, Oakeshott is likely best known in political theory circles for his distinction between two ideals of a modern state, between which actual states sway back and forth over time.[21] Under the name “civil association”, he depicted a mode of association between self-enacting individual agents in which the role of government is to create and enforce non-instrumental rules upon the choices and actions of these individuals. The rules are non-instrumental in that they regulate how individuals choose and (inter)act, but not what individuals choose and do—the actions and rules of government advance no purposes of their own and do not impose purposes upon individuals. The other ideal, which he called “enterprise association,” is a mode of association in which individuals are joined in a common endeavor, seeking some common end such as spiritual salvation in the instance of a religious congregation or productivity and profit in the instance of a business firm. The rules of such an association are managerial decisions instrumental to the achievement of the purposes for which the association exists, and as such the rules steer or dictate the actions of the individual associates. When a state approximates this mode of association, the charge of government is to direct society towards a particular end or mold social conditions according to a plan or model the achievement of which is deemed worthy of pursuit.

It is fairly safe to say that while civil association is not exactly or only a conservative ideal (various kinds of liberals, libertarians, and communitarians have found such an ideal satisfying), it is a far more natural home for an Oakeshottian, dispositional conservative than enterprise association would be. Despite the often dramatic differences between the Democratic and Republican parties in terms of the economic policies they advocate, and the role of the state with regard to individual and social welfare that they espouse, the two begin from a common premise that has become virtually unavoidable in American politics. Both articulate visions of the United States as a collective economic enterprise—as being, rather than merely having, an economy—in relation to which the role of government is to wisely apply true technical knowledge of how modern economies function, to step back or step in as the health of the collective oikos requires. That one party favors axiomatic claims about property and economic liberty, and direction of the economy primarily self-interested market participants, while the other favors axiomatic claims about social justice and equality, and a substantial role for government in the direction of the economy, both are essentially managerial visions. To the extent that the former lines up more squarely with the longest historical view of this country might make it the circumstantially conservative approach, but it is nonetheless ideologically conservative, partaking of precisely the sort of rationalism-against-rationalism that Oakeshott found unsatisfying in the ideas of Hayek.

If one understands ‘conservative’ to denote a disposition to enjoy and maintain one’s current inheritance, perhaps trying to remedy some of its perceived flaws but not seeking to abandon it because it is imperfect, then no policy agenda or ideological creed is guaranteed to be conservative at any given point in time. It is a matter of circumstance, which is to say its content is contingent. This would mean, ironically, that a self-identified conservative party may, in its doctrines and positions, fail to actually be conservative and a party that disavows the conservative label may be the more conservative option under present circumstances.[22]

A deliberately provocative thought experiment would be to ask how the general Republican and Democratic positions on entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare (excluding the Affordable Care Act from the latter) might look from a dispositional conservative perspective.[23] These programs, which are respectively 84 and 54 years old this year, were created as tax-funded programs managed by government in virtually all of their details. In their very design they signify the notion that certain elements of well-being shall be treated as a common, public obligation not to be left to the vicissitudes of the market. The now well-entrenched positions of the two major parties on these entitlement programs are at odds over this notion. The Democrats have for decades proposed to protect Social Security and Medicare by keeping them public and tax-funded, whereas the Republicans have for decades proposed to trim and potentially privatize these programs, making them akin to private savings accounts with minimal public investment and limited government backing. If these programs, as they exist, are construed as ‘what Americans currently enjoy’ and part of their shared social fabric, then the claims by Republicans to be the conservative option may ring somewhat hollow. Just as it would have generally been conservative to oppose the creation of these programs 50 or 80 years ago, today, two or more generations later, a conservative disposition might urge defense of them in their original public character. The common Republican position, which aims either to turn back the clock on the welfare state, may illustrate a reverence for the past and the principles that guided it, but that alone does not make it conservative here and now.

This is not, to be clear, to suggest that Democrats are in fact the Oakeshottian conservatives in any but a superficial sense invoked here for provocation and illustration. It is, however, to take seriously one of Oakeshott’s most enduring insights, and, in America, one of the most overlooked: that being conservative makes no slogans and devises no utopias, whether it be of a public commitment to the general welfare of society or to the genius of the market to procure the same. In a political moment that has led many self-professed conservatives to experience crises of political identity, perhaps it is worth a look back at Michael Oakeshott.

It is, of course, possible that Oakeshott’s ideas lead to dead-ends. Perhaps there is simply no such thing as a modern state that is not one or another sort of collective enterprise, and thus no such thing as a government that is not in some sense the managing board of a grand corporation—the differences being simply how the enterprise is managed and to the pursuit of which end. It is also possible that the conservative disposition he praises is, at best, an arrest in political activity, something one can espouse only now and then, and only when one stands at a distance from actual political choice, action, and responsibility. Perhaps all modern politics are, in some sense, necessarily ideological, and the difference becomes which ideology is better or truer. Oakeshott insisted upon different conclusions, but he may well have been wrong, as so many political thinkers have been, and his personal beliefs may have diverged from the lessons he tried publicly to impart. Yet even if we judge him incorrect or hypocritical on such counts, he still bequeaths a problem to modern conservatism, if primarily one of self-understanding and fidelity to its own principles.

The pursuit of an admittedly imperfect political and social order whose foundations are nonetheless axiomatic, unquestionable truths (e.g., a certain schedule of economic rights) is as much a utopian project as any liberal or radical vision of the best of all possible worlds. (For if we place equal emphasis on ‘possible’ as well as ‘best,’ then modern political ideologies differ mostly over which utopia they dream of crafting.) Utopianism, as I believe Oakeshott understood, is as much a matter of the character of one’s guiding principles and how they are pursued as it a matter of the condition they aim to create.  On his rendering of the myth of the Tower of Babel, the lesson was not that we should never build towers, but that the myopia and mania that certitude ineluctably inspires may be problematic in service of even the most salutary ends.[24]  The dispositional conservative, if such a creature really exists, is hesitant towards his or her own premises and conclusions, not merely those of his or her opponents. I will be the first to insist that this is a difficult attitude to maintain, but I will grant Oakeshott his belief that it is not impossible. Over time, as society changes and the vicissitudes of politics work away at institutional arrangements and political factions, dispositional conservatives might be called conservative by some, liberal by others, pragmatic, sceptical, and many other things besides. Above all, they will likely be seen as inconsistent, uninspiring, and at home in no institutionalized party, because, again, ideologies yield slogans, platforms, and talking points, whereas dispositions yield nothing so determinate or perhaps so satisfying.

A final possibility, that Oakeshott never to my knowledge openly contemplated, but that both the contours of his thought and the tenor of contemporary politics around the world often suggest, is that ideologies will always be the animating forces in modern politics. Indeed, it is hard to see how anything else could be—hopes and fears, senses of entitlement and grievance, tend to get people on their feet, while a calm disposition to make the best of what already exists does not. In such a world, dispositional conservatism would perhaps at best be an inertial influence, prolonging current trajectories of political thought and action, and impeding the novelties thereof that ideologies, in their forward- or backward-looking dissatisfaction with the present, are wont to pursue. But its aim would not be to arrest all change, let alone to simply turn back the clock as if only our politics had changed over the centuries and not the society in which they have been carried out. Rather than a platform, it would offer lessons in political thought and history, in which even our finest ideas and institutions, past and present, appear in an imperfect, yet on balance preferable, light. Again, I would not go so far as to insist that this possibility is the truth of the matter, either about modern politics or about Oakeshott’s understanding of it. Yet it places in sharp relief the relationship of his political thought, and what it commends, to what is commonly gathered under the heading of conservatism in the West today.



[1] This claim is, however, contested by those who prefer to classify Oakeshott as a sceptical liberal or a non-dogmatic libertarian. While I do not mean to suggest that it is necessarily more accurate to regard Oakeshott as a conservative, or that he is only of interest to self-identified conservatives, this remains the most common characterization amongst his readers and commentators.

[2] Gilbert Ryle, “Knowing How and Knowing That,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 46 (1945-1946): 1-16. See also Leslie Marsh, “Ryle and Oakeshott on the ‘Knowing-How/Knowing-That’ Distinction,” in The Meanings of Michael Oakeshott’s Conservatism, ed. Corey Abel (Exeter: Imprint Academic, 2010), 143-60.

[3] Though the meaning or significance of such a proposition would vary from one situation to another.

[4] Michael Oakeshott, Rationalism in politics and other essays, rev. ed. (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1991), 52.  All citations from essays in this volume hereafter cited parenthetically as RP.

[5] Another possibility, of course, is that such artifacts are aspirational projections rather than selective distillations—not abbreviations of an existing practice, but attempts to shape or even to constitute new practices or institutions (a distinction that is especially relevant to rationalism in modern politics). Indeed, one of the weaknesses of Oakeshott’s perspective is that it scarcely recognizes the deliberate invention of a practice. Even if one wished to criticize such invention, one must nonetheless offer a theory that is equipped to make sense of it.

[6] E.g., his earlier insistence upon science (the world viewed in terms of what can be quantified, measured, and calculated) as one incomplete view of the whole of human experience.

[7] Michael Oakeshott, “Contemporary British Politics,” Cambridge Journal 1 (1947-1948): 474-90; 486.

[8] Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, ed. J.G.A. Pocock (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1987), 19.

[9] See also Michael Oakeshott, The Politics of Faith and the Politics of Scepticism, ed. Timothy Fuller (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996).

[10] Although Oakeshott wrote a good deal about religion early in his career, and never altogether lost his interest, his political thought from “On Being Conservative” to more comprehensive works like On Human Conduct never gave religion a necessary place (though neither did he ever denigrate or repudiate the role of religion in politics and culture).  This deliberate avoidance helps, perhaps, to explain why Oakeshott was more inclined to cite Hobbes or Hume than Hooker or Burke.

[11] Michael Oakeshott, The Vocabulary of a Modern European State, ed. Luke O’Sullivan (Exeter: Imprint Academic, 2008), 83.

[12] See, for instance, Richard Flathman, Towards a Liberalism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989) and Paul Franco, The Political Philosophy of Michael Oakeshott (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990). I also count myself as inclined towards this approach, see Luke Philip Plotica, Michael Oakeshott and the Conversation of Modern Political Thought (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2015).

[13] Kenneth MacIntyre, “One Hand Clapping: The Reception of Oakeshott’s Work by American
Conservatives,” in The Meanings of Michael Oakeshott’s Conservatism, ed. Corey Abel. Exeter:
Imprint Academic, 2010): 255-67; 256.

[14] Isaiah Berlin, Four Essays on Liberty (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969), 171. Though I take this phrase from Oakeshott’s contemporary Isaiah Berlin, it captures the narrowly instrumental spirit of rationalism that both, in their own ways, rejected.

[15] Specifically as set forth by John Locke in Chapter V of The Second Treatise of Government (ed. C.B. MacPherson [Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1980]), Chapter V and reiterated more recently, for instance, in Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia (New York: Basic Books, 1975).

[16] For more on this distinction, and on originalism as a form of rationalism, see Luke Philip Plotica, “Rationalism in Law: Constitutional Originalism and the ‘Sovereignty of Technique,’” Collingwood and British Idealism Studies 22 (2) (2016): 319-349 and Luke Philip Plotica, “A Different Legal Conservatism,” Contemporary Pragmatism 15 (4) (Fall 2018): 515-524.

[17] As recent economic and trade policy debates in the United States illustrate, this once secure orthodoxy has been at times successfully challenged from within self-described conservative ranks.

[18] Michel de Montaigne, The Complete Essays, trans. M.A. Screech (New York: Penguin Books, 2003), 1144.

[19] Antony Quinton, The Politics of Imperfection: The religious and secular traditions of conservative thought in England from Hooker to Oakeshott (London: Faber & Faber, 1978).

[20] It is worth expressly noting that ‘our current arrangements’ means all of them, the good and the bad, not only those one happens to like. In other words, a consistently conservative disposition is as likely to accept long-standing institutions and policies favored by one’s opponent’s as those favored by oneself, and it is this, if nothing else, that makes most such think tanks and policy institutes rationalistic and ideological from an Oakeshottian perspective.

[21] Michael Oakeshott, On Human Conduct (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975).

[22] Consider the Thatcher government’s fiscal centralization during the 1980s, in no small part to deprive Labour Party strongholds of the ability to set and fund their own agendas. As such localism was a centuries long tradition in the UK, its near abolition and replacement with top-down technocracy is difficult to square with anything but an ideological conservatism.

[23] One could enlist further examples of the party’s respective mainline positions on public primary and secondary education as well as the powers of Congress under the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution (Article I, Section 8, Clause 3).

[24] Michael Oakeshott, On History and other essays (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1999), 179-210.

Luke Philip PloticaLuke Philip Plotica

Luke Philip Plotica

Luke Philip Plotica is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Virginia Tech, where he researches and teaches in the areas of political theory and public law. In addition to work on Michael Oakeshott and modern legal and political conservatism, he has published work on American political thought, including the book, Nineteenth-Century Individualism and the Market Economy: Individualist Themes in Emerson, Thoreau, and Sumner (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017).

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