Reply to Kekes by Bob Grant
Dear MOA fellow-members,
Regarding John Kekes’s comments in Notre Dame Philosophy Reviews (no. 2013.02.03) on my contribution to Paul and Leslie’s recent Companion to Michael Oakeshott, he is not obliged to like what I write, but he is obliged, as a reviewer, to describe it correctly. In the ordinary way I would not reply to an unfavourable review – one should take one’s medicine with as good a grace as one can simulate – but this one so grossly misrepresents what I actually said, that I think the purely factual record should be put straight.
Here is what Prof. Kekes wrote: ‘Robert Grant’s contribution … has no place in this volume. It is about Oakeshott’s sex life. There is no discussion in it of Oakeshott’s work. It consists in peddling often malicious hearsay from largely uncheckable sources. Oakeshott was very careful to separate his private life from his work. This should be respected, but Grant tramples on it. The editors have made a serious misjudgment in including this essay.’
This much, but this only, is true: my chapter is not primarily about Oakeshott’s published work (about which, as Prof. Kekes knows, I have written extensively elsewhere). But that is just why the editors have segregated it from the others, which are. And I say explicitly, in my very first paragraph, that the ensuing chapter is mainly, and precisely, about Oakeshott’s love life, not his sex life; that those two things, though connected, are not identical; also, that Oakeshott claimed that to him love, together with its pursuit, was of central, all-trumping importance.
With long interruptions, I have been working on Oakeshott’s biography for some years, and for this purpose have been given privileged access to family papers and the like. Prof. Kekes knows this. He ought also to understand, therefore, that no biographer qua biographer, especially given what Oakeshott himself says about its significance for him, could possibly ignore Oakeshott’s love life. Further, this would be so even if that side of things did not bear on the work, as I believe (and argue) that it does. Oakeshott’s love life is widely documented in his many notebooks (most of which are in the public domain, the rest being due to enter it shortly). It actually amounted to a self-conscious erotic project that, though distinct from and largely antithetical to his public philosophy, yet also ran parallel to it. In effect, Oakeshott devised and acted out a philosophy of romantic love, so far as reality allowed. One of my claims is that, paradoxically, it resembled the abstract utopian ‘rationalism’ which he so powerfully criticized in politics. He even says, in one of the already accessible notebooks, that for him love is a ‘cause’ which has supplanted his youthful belief in socialism, because, though similarly redemptive, it is ‘so much fuller and more satisfying’. QED.
Oakeshott may have been ‘careful to separate his private life from his work’, whatever that means, but, in the words (to me) of the late Dr Anne Bohm, his loyal and valued lieutenant at LSE for more than twenty years, ‘he never tried to hide it’, and was even ‘proud’ of having ‘seduced all his students’ wives’. The only witness who ever told me otherwise is Prof. John Charvet, a latter-day appointment of Oakeshott’s at LSE, and I explain in the chapter how and why he could quite honestly have registered the contrary impression that Oakeshott’s affairs were discreet. (Chiefly, I suggest, because by then they most likely were, what with Oakeshott approaching retirement and having recently embarked upon his third and final marriage. I deal with the first two marriages in some detail.) In general, however, had Oakeshott really wanted to keep his private life private, he could hardly have shown himself less competent at doing so. His Army nickname was ‘Dipstick’.
The widespread stories about his philandering, therefore, which persist to this day, were far from baseless, even when untrue, as doubtless many were. Many are disreputable (which is Oakeshott’s own fault), and many admiring; but I have yet to come across any that are clearly and actively malicious, as Prof. Kekes claims, even though numerous people with scores to settle – betrayed husbands and deserted wives and mistresses, say – would have had an interest in starting them. I have indeed mentioned some rumours – and even if false, they would still (to a biographer) be a material fact about Oakeshott’s life, and thus deserving of mention – but that is not at all the same thing as ‘peddling’ or endorsing them. In fact, I have mentioned none either that have not been independently attested, or, in three instances, that I have not actually myself dispelled, twice by interrogating a principal surviving party, and in the third by invoking the relevant correspondence, which had been placed in the public domain by another, deceased, protagonist herself.
As for uncheckability, who is to verify, and how, not only the first-hand testimonies, as made to me, of Oakeshott’s acquaintances (many now dead), and my own accuracy and honesty in recording them, but also other anecdotes retailed to such people and thence repeated to me at second hand? Are all such things, which I have made as little uncheckable as possible, automatically to be discounted as hearsay? In the end, in Oakeshott’s own words, historical truth is only ‘what the evidence obliges us to believe’, and what counts as evidence, especially when solely verbal, rests largely upon trust (the reader’s in me, mine in my informants, theirs in theirs, and so on). And this will sometimes be the case even where the evidence is documented, archived and referenced, as the great bulk of mine is. (Written untruths are no less false for being in black and white.) Cast-iron certainty, except about the driest matters of fact, is rarely to be had, and the best we can hope for, in legal phrase, is to establish things ‘beyond reasonable doubt’.
I am disappointed, and also astonished, at Prof. Kekes’s response to my contribution. He has invited me, in the past, to an excellent (and lavish) conference in Hungary, and knows that I think well of his work, which we discussed with perfect amiability in our last exchange in 2007, having both contributed to the same Philosophy supplement. In the present case I can only imagine that his objections are a matter of principle, not of substance, and have been triggered, knee-jerk fashion, largely by certain negative stimulus-words such as ‘sex life’ (which, as I have said both above and in situ, is not what my chapter is about). I can see nothing to suggest that he has read my chapter with even minimal attention. The same applies still more to his response to Leslie Marsh’s contribution, which he peremptorily dismisses for its alleged invocation of ‘cognitive science’. If he had read Leslie’s chapter, he would have seen straight away that its approach is the exact opposite of reductionism, scientism, neuro-philosophy and the like, things which, like Leslie’s subjects Oakeshott and Hayek, Prof. Kekes quite rightly distrusts.
I am pleased, however, that he finds most of the contributions worth commending. I shall bask in the glory of their proximity to mine.
Warmest regards to you all,
PS. I sent the substance of the above to the editors of NDPR. They declined to publish it, out of policy, on the quite reasonable grounds that ‘allowing replies would give our publication a quite different character and that, in this electronic age, there are ample alternative venues for discussion’. They encouraged me to post elsewhere, as I now do.