April 13, 2012

Michael Oakeshott's history of ideas

Embedded within Oakeshott's account of politics is an account of history and in particular the history of ideology. Oakeshott faces a problem with ideology, because having dismissed empirical attempts to discuss politics, he faces in the essay on political education the challenge of the thinker who suggests that ideology is the basis for our political decisions. Oakeshott wants and needs to dismiss this account of the way in which ideology is generated because if ideology can be sat outside of a political tradition, it provides a means of critique which is outside of the political languages to which Oakeshott wants to confine his political education. Essentially if Oakeshott is wrong about ideology, then one can turn away from his political education without losing anything: because national traditions are not sufficient alone to generate political ideas.

This challenge gives rise to one of Oakeshott's most interesting statements:

The pedigree of every political ideology shows it to be the creature, not of premeditation in advance of political activity, but of meditation upon a manner of politics.
This is a very radical statement. Essentially what the philosopher means is that there is no ideological position that doesn't develop out of an empirical situation. Politics proceeds before any conception of the right path within it. Oakeshott provides what he thinks of as clear historical cases of this happening:
consider Locke's Second Treatise of Civil Government, read in America and France in the eighteenth century as a statement of abstract principles to be put into practice, regarded there as a preface to political activity. But so far from being a preface, it has all the marks of a postscript and its power to guide derived from its roots in actual political experience. Here, set down in abstract terms, is a brief conspectus of the manner in which Englishmen were accustomed to go about the business of attending to their arrrangements- a brilliant abridgement of the political habits of Englishmen. 
Leave aside whether Oakeshott's history is correct, what he is arguing here is that political argument arises out of national traditions of thinking and is inspired by particular historical moments or understandings of them. Oakeshott doesn't deny that new ideas occur but he suggests that they are intimations, born from within the system of politics as it functions, hence he suggests that women's suffrage happened because there was an inconsistency in the law rather than because of an abstract right that was discovered to appertain to women.


This is a very radical and important move within Oakeshott's philosophy- he later suggests that such movements within a tradition may be unconscious, the Russian revolution was as Russian as it was Marxist (for him). This is not merely a truism in Oakeshott's mind: because its the basis for saying that if you want to understand a political movement, you must understand not the abstraction which the political actor mouthed, but the society from whence he or she sprung. If you think about that for a second it becomes a very interesting observation: take Locke: Professor Oakeshott is quite simply wrong if he thinks Locke's treatise was motivated either by what Locke believed England was like or what England was actually like in 1682. What Locke was motivated by was a desire to shape England into a different realm, but his context was as Dutch as it was English and as Protestant as it was either. Oakeshott dismisses the relevance of non-national context- and furthermore of context which is not empirical. The contrast with Neitsche for whom the empirical context is nothing, but for whom the context of abstraction is everything: so Neitsche says that the reason that there is no definition of punishment is because that concept has been described in an infinity of different ways. Oakeshott downplays the ideological and the non-empirical because what he wants is this separate language of politics that cannot be reduced to its abstraction.

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