Michael Oakeshott was a twentieth century English academic who taught the history of political thought and made substantial original contributions to political theory and the philosophy of history. During the Cold War he was viewed primarily as a major conservative thinker, but in his last years and after his death he came increasingly to be considered as an important liberal theorist. His sustained defence of non-utilitarian liberal education and his metaphor of “the conversation of mankind” garnered interest from across the political spectrum.
Childhood and School Years
Michael Oakeshott was born on 11 December 1901, the second of three sons of Joseph, a Civil Servant, and Frances, a former nurse. Joseph was a member of the socialist Fabian Society, however, Michael remembered his father’s interests as being more literary than political. Frances took a “lifelong interest in charitable works”. In Robert Grant’s memorable phrase, the family belonged to England’s “unaffluent but educated and public spirited middle class” (see this site’s extracts from Grant’s book Oakeshott).
Oakeshott’s parents sent him to St. George’s School, Harpenden, a progressive co-educational school run by Rev. Cecil Grant, a classicist and theologian apparently more given to sermons on the German Idealist philosophers Kant and Hegel than on traditional Church of England doctrines.
Cambridge Years (Student 1920-23, teacher 1925-40 and 1945-49)
Oakeshott became a student at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, in 1920, taking the Political Science option of the History Tripos. He also attended the Introduction to Philosophy lectures given by the Idealist J. M. E. McTaggart. After graduation Oakeshott spent some time pursuing theology at Marburg and Tubingen and did a short stint as a Grammar School English Master. In 1925 he was elected to a fellowship at Caius. In 1927 he married Joyce Fricker (the first of three marriages). In 1931 his son, Simon, was born, and Oakeshott was appointed as a Lecturer in History. He would continue teaching at Cambridge, aside from a period of war service, until 1949.
In the 1920s Oakeshott’s publications were predominantly reviews of books about theological and philosophical issues. In writings that went unpublished at the time he explored the philosophy of history and of poetry. Towards the end of the decade he also began to publish reviews and articles to do with the history of political thought.
Experience and its Modes, Oakeshott’s first full-length book, was published early in 1933. Exploring the conceptual presuppositions of history, science and practical experience, the book scarcely mentioned politics. Strongly Idealist in tone, it explicitly acknowledged a debt to Hegel and the nineteenth century British Idealist F. H. Bradley. It may have been influenced too (consciously or not) by contemporary Idealists such as R. G. Collingwood (who reviewed the book and greatly praised the chapter on history).
As the 1930s wore on, political thought became increasingly prominent in Oakeshott’s output, although not his sole preoccupation. He wrote multiple reviews of Leo Strauss’s work on Hobbes, but also found time to co-author a book on horse racing (1936’s A Guide to the Classics, or, How to Pick the Derby Winner) and to review Collingwood’s Principles of Art. Idealism remained one of his interests, too; in 1938 he published a two-part article, “The Concept of a Philosophical Jurisprudence”, in which he attempted to develop a theory of law cast in the terms of Idealist philosophy.
In 1939, apparently at the urging of Sir Ernest Barker, who had become something of a mentor, Oakeshott published a textbook to accompany a course on The Social and Political Doctrines of Contemporary Europe. The book was an anthology of extracts covering Representative Democracy, Communism, Fascism, Nazism and Catholic political thought.
World War II Service (1940-45)
During the Second World War, Oakeshott served in France and Belgium with the British Army’s “Phantom” reconnaissance unit. He published only a couple of new book reviews during these War years, although his pre-war textbook, The Social and Political Doctrines of Contemporary Europe, went through a couple of new editions, the second including extra prefaces by another writer.
Post-WWII Career (1945-68)
After the Second World War Oakeshott returned to Cambridge, but only for a few years. He made some attempts to explore “political philosophy” in the same Idealist terms that he had applied to “jurisprudence” before the War, but he did not publish the results. He edited, and wrote a notable Introduction for, a new edition of Hobbes’ Leviathan (1946). He also started to write for, and for a period edited, a magazine, The Cambridge Journal, in which, between 1947 and 1951, he published a number of erudite polemics against what he saw as the overly rationalistic ideas dominating British politics at the time.
Oakeshott left Cambridge in 1949 for Nuffield College, Oxford. Then in 1951 he became Professor of Government at the London School of Economics. His inaugural lecture at the LSE, “Political Education”, marked the apogee of his campaign against rationalism in politics. Calling himself a sceptic, and skewering the feasibility of conducting politics according to abstract principles, he declared:
In political activity, then, men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage…The enterprise is to keep afloat on an even keel…and the seamanship consists in using the resources of a traditional manner of behaviour in order to make a friend of every hostile occasion.
The appointment of such an apparently “conservative” thinker to the Chair previously occupied by the socialists Harold Laski and Graham Wallas, in an institution founded by the Fabians, was controversial, sparking comment from the USA to India. Undaunted, however, Oakeshott went on to administer the Department of Government effectively until his retirement in 1968. He also gave annual lectures on the history of political thought that were popular with generations of students.
By this time Oakeshott had become, in his private life, a confirmed libertine. One of his LSE colleagues would later recall Oakeshott as being “rather passive socially”, relying on the circle provided by his friends, the American expatriates Shirley and William Letwin. However, this may have merely reflected an ability of Oakeshott’s to compartmentalize his life, for he pursued innumerable affairs, including with the wives of friends, colleagues and students. Oakeshott’s bohemian mores extended also to a taste for nude bathing, which earned him a fine and some unwanted publicity when he did it on the wrong beach in 1955.
During his time at the LSE Oakeshott continued to publish a handful of reviews each year, as well as occasional articles. It was apparently in the year after the bathing incident, 1956, that Oakeshott composed what would become another of his most famous essays, “On Being Conservative”, in which he described conservatism as a disposition (rather than as a set of abstract beliefs) and declared his intent to show that:
it is not at all inconsistent to be conservative in respect of government and radical in respect of almost every other activity
Oakeshott’s second major book, the essay collection Rationalism in Politics, was published in 1962. It reprinted a selection of the articles from his politically engaged 1947-51 phase, including “Political Education”, as well as a group of less overtly polemical essays written from 1955 onwards. Among the latter were “On Being Conservative”, “The Activity of Being an Historian” and “The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind”.
Retirement in Dorset (1968-90)
Following his retirement from the LSE in 1968, Oakeshott lived in the village of Acton, near Langton Matravers, Dorset, in England’s south, with his third wife Christel Schneider, an abstract artist. For several years he remained involved with the LSE as an Emeritus Professor and was an influential figure in a graduate program, the Seminar on the History of Political Thought. While some of his friends, including Kenneth Minogue and Shirley Letwin, became unabashed enthusiasts for Margaret Thatcher, Oakeshott himself remained more aloof from practical affairs. He was offered an honour by the Thatcher government, but declined it. He died on 18 December 1990.
During these years Oakeshott published two wholly new books, On Human Conduct (1975) and On History (1983). Both of these books were written in a dense technical style dramatically different from his earlier essays. He also published a collection of previously published essays, Hobbes on Civil Association (1975). This included a revised version of his Introduction to Hobbes’ Leviathan, drawing a connection between his post-war ideas and the theories of On Human Conduct.
In the last years of Oakeshott’s life, two further volumes of his previously published work were compiled by the American academic Timothy Fuller: The Voice of Liberal Learning (1989), a collection of essays related to education; plus a second, revised and expanded edition of Rationalism in Politics (1991).
Posthumous Interest and Publications
The first book-length study of Oakeshott’s thought, W. H. Greenleaf’s Oakeshott’s Philosophical Politics, was published in 1966. For many years it remained the most thorough examination of Oakeshott’s views. However, as the intellectual climate changed in the 1980s interest slowly began to build in the non-conservative dimensions of Oakeshott’s thought. The left-wing American neo-pragmatist Richard Rorty took up and helped to popularize Oakeshott’s idea of a civilization as a “conversation” between different modes of thought. John Gray concluded that in the theory of civil association in On Human Conduct Oakeshott had reduced the concept of the liberal state to its very essence, freeing it from centuries of accumulated and unnecessary intellectual baggage.
A trickle of new scholarly books about Oakeshott appeared in the 1990s, followed by a steady stream in the 2000s. Some of this research threw new light on the obvious topics, such as Oakeshott’s political philosophy. Other works branched out to explore many different dimensions of Oakeshott’s thought, including his ideas of social science, education, religion and aesthetics, his relationship to the Enlightenment and his modernism.
The recent appreciation of the breadth of Oakeshott’s thought has advanced in lockstep with a series of posthumous publications, as well as a growing number of translations of Oakeshott’s work into languages other than English.
In the 2000s the UK publishing house Imprint Academic began to release a series of Oakeshott’s “selected works”, including both previously published and unpublished material. Edited principally by Luke O’Sullivan, the series became increasingly comprehensive as time went on, taking in everything from the famous Lectures in the History of Political Thought to Oakeshott’s private notebooks and correspondence.
In 2012 Oakeshott studies reached a new milestone – the publication within a few months of not one but two Companion volumes, one from Cambridge (edited by Efraim Podoksik), the other from Penn State (edited by Paul Franco and Leslie Marsh).
The continuing stream of fresh insights thrown off by his work over several decades attests to the fecundity of Oakeshott’s thought for researchers of multiple disciplines around the world.
A number of sample primary sources can be downloaded in PDF format from other pages in this site as well as several other places on the web (see our round-up of Oakeshott samples).
Obituaries, memoirs and tributes to Oakeshott can be found under the category “Secondary Source Articles > Biographical”