20th Century Philosophy

Michael Oakeshott (1901 - 1990)

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The Skeptic's Oakeshott
The Politics of Faith and the Politics of Scepticism (Selected Writings of Michael Oakeshott)The Politics of Faith and the Politics of Scepticism (Selected Writings of Michael Oakeshott) by Michael Oakeshott, Timothy Fuller (Editor) 

One of Michael Oakeshott's essays is entitled "The role of poetry in the conversation of mankind". This posthumously published book is about the role of conversation in politics. Or rather, about politics understood not as a crude exercise of power or an instrumentally rationalistic pursuit of pre-given interests, but as a conversation between two extremes or "ideal types", i.e. "the politics of faith" and "the politics of skepticism". On the one hand, these two extremes are the only thing that can be KNOWN about European politics with certainty that can aspire for the title of Science. The rest is left to judgment. But this knowledge, in turn, is of a particular kind, since extremes never (or rarely) reveal themselves in their pure form and can be again only "imagined". "Imagined" for Oakeshott means "experienced", not in a way empiricists fancy we experience the world "out there", but reconstructed from the only raw material that is available in the world of ideas - language. While trying to grasp its ambiguity (that comes along with the ambivalence of political action and human conduct in general), Oakeshott not only helps to understand the complex phenomenon of European politics but makes his reader to live through, as it were, revolutionary thrusts of "the politics of faith" and maddening indecisiveness of "the politics of skepticism"; thus making a point not for a fixed "golden mean" between the two, but the "mean in action", historically and culturally specific condition that can be achieved only through moderation based in turn on a willingness to lay down any claims for the possession of ultimate truth and therefore ultimate knowledge with regards to the goal towards which a society should be oriented. -- Anonymous Review

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Work and Play

Michael Oakeshott, from First Things


Without pretending to be scientific about it, the world may be imagined to be a vast collection of existences-things and substances of various compositions and kinds-each of which is what it is, and moves, changes, grows, or decays as it does by reason of its relation to other things: things existing in various ways by, and in some cases, at the expense of, or on, other things. This image is sometimes called the Economy of Nature, and it is sometimes said to have a "balance" or equilibrium of needs and satisfactions...


On Human Conduct (Excerpt)

Michael Oakeshott


. . . A character in which this disposition is strong may exhibit it in a masterful egoism almost as careless of the concerns of some others as it is of their opinions, in a disdain for consequences or recognition, in a compelling versatility of response, or in a gracious or impatient intrusion into the affairs of the less well endowed. But, of course, since what we are considering is intelligent conduct, there is nothing whatever to identify this disposition with self-gratification. Such a character may display it habitually or only on important occasions, but he will always be a somewhat finicky chooser insisting upon doing things his own way. In his capacity for taking the initiative whilst others are laboriously marshalling their resources or seeking supporters, and in his ability to take responsibility upon himself and "to go about his business as if he had not a friend in the world" (as Halifax portrays him), he may be recognized as a useful character to have about the place. Possessing more than others he can afford to lose more without becoming destitute. He is more likely to perish in some quixotic adventure than to die in bed; but, either way, he will have a death of his own as he has a life of his own...


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