Posthumous Publication Revisited

The posthumous publication of work by Michael Oakeshott has attracted some withering criticism in recent times.

Kenneth McIntyre, in a 2005 review of What is History? and other essays, Luke O’Sullivan and Imprint Academic’s first anthology of Michael Oakesott’s writings, identified 3 questions relating to the publication of such material:

1. Since Michael Oakeshott had deemed the pieces unsuitable for publication, what justification was there for publishing them now?

2. Were the pieces noteworthy in their own right, or better understood as drafts or lesser versions of Oakeshott’s more polished essays?

3. Do the pieces alter our understanding of Oakeshott’s work as a philosopher or historian?

McIntyre’s judgement was that the earliest pieces in the volume were juvenilia, of interest only to a biographer, while the pieces dating from Oakeshott’s mature career contained almost nothing substantially different from what could be found in the work that Oakeshott published himself.

In 2006 Leslie Marsh took up McIntyre’s questions and applied them to Imprint’s subsequent volume, Oakeshott’s Lectures in the History of Political Thought, reaching an equally unfavorable verdict.

That was not, however, the end of the story.

Recently, in response to a post on the blog A Single World of Ideas, McIntyre has summed up his concerns this way:

In some ways, I am less concerned with the publication of these essays than with how they were and are being used by scholars.”

Ken McIntyre, “Posthumous Publication Redux”

But if it is the acts of the books’ readers (i.e. scholars) that are the problem, why focus on the justification for publishing, which is a different act? Is there an implicit premise here that publishers are somehow responsible for other people’s use or misuse of what they publish?

University PhD assessors may have a professional duty to reject works of insufficient originality, but are publishers in general, or academic publishers in particular, also bound by such an obligation?

Posted in Reviews of Primary Sources