Who did Oakeshott Influence?

According to the historian of medieval Europe, R.W. Southern:

The success of a writer must be judged not only by the continuing study of his works, but — even more emphatically — by later scholars improving or enlarging his works, and going on to follow a similar method with similar material.”
R.W. Southern, Scholastic Humanism and the Unification of Europe, Vol. II (2001), p.33

Judging by Southern’s standard, how does Michael Oakeshott measure up? Since his death in 1990 plenty of people have written about Oakeshott, but how many scholars have walked in his footsteps? How many have tried to extend and/or renovate the intellectual house that Oakeshott built?

Anthony Quinton, in his paper for the inaugural MO Assocation conference, offered what looks like a rather unpromising answer:

Oakeshott has practically no direct philosophical legacy.”
Anthony Quinton, Oakeshott’s Philosophical Legacy (PDF)

Of course, “practically no” does not mean “none”, and, as Quinton himself made clear, “direct” influence in the realm of what he called “pure philosophy” (which we might also call “Philosophy Department philosophy”) is a different thing to “indirect” influence, and different again to influence in other departments. Even so, the current state of evidence for Oakeshott’s influence appears to be sketchy, at best.

In the area of the history of political thought, Bernard Crick took it for granted that W.H. Greenleaf was an Oakeshottian. But Crick is perhaps not the most reliable of witnesses. Greenleaf’s multi-volume study of The British Political Tradition, organized around the twin tendencies of “libertarianism” and “collectivism”, and even invoking the concept of “character”, could quite plausibly owe a debt to the post-war Oakeshott. Yet Greenleaf’s copious references to Dicey, Halevy and others could just as easily mean that Greenleaf came to his Oakeshott-ish perspective via an independent path.

In the 1980s, as part of a symposium on The Liberal Tradition hosted by Australia’s Centre for Independent Studies, Ken Minogue offered a rather Oakeshott-sounding assessment of liberalism as the whole of our political tradition as seen from a particular point of view. However, in Minogue’s more sustained efforts, such as The Liberal Mind, Oakeshott’s influence is not so blatantly apparent.

In 1974 Shirley Letwin published a rather Oakeshottian article on the rule of law. But in this case the influence may have been bi-directional. Oakeshott acknowledged a debt to Letwin in his 1958 Harvard lectures, Morality and Politics in Modern Europe, and it does seem as if the decisive turning point in his intellectual career, when he laid aside his Idealist-style ruminations on philosophy and political philosophy and began to refine the story of the perpetual struggle between individualism and collectivism, coincided not just with his appointment to the LSE but with his involvement in Letwin’s circle.

Other cases of Oakeshott’s possible influence appear to be equally ambiguous. Quentin Skinner takes up the Oakeshottian terminology of “civil association” in some of his essays on Machiavelli (see Visions of Politics Vol. II: Renaissance Virtues), yet Oakeshott is rarely mentioned in the body of his work — even in his work on Hobbes. And while Oakeshott’s friend John Casey, in Pagan Virtue, explicitly cites Oakeshott as his inspiration for the phrase “the civil condition”, overall Casey displays such an eclectic range of influences that it is hard to rank Oakeshott even as the primus intra pares.

Perhaps it could be objected that the jury is still out, that influence takes years — sometimes decades — of patient historical digging to identify. Yet I suspect that, if you were to trawl the Philosophy, Politics and maybe even the Sociology departments of Western universities, it would be easy to uncover dozens of little Rawlsians bent not merely on discussing but also on advancing the theories of “reflective equilibrium”, “justice as fairness” and “public reason”. You would probably also have no difficulty uncovering a few termite mounds worth of Foucauldians energetically carrying on their master’s work. But the Oakeshottians would be few and far between.

All in all, I think that, whatever other claims Oakeshott may have on our attention, “influence” cannot be one of them.

Posted in Biographical, Oakeshott and his contemporaries
One comment on “Who did Oakeshott Influence?
  1. web master says:

    A Single World of Ideas (follow the pingback) thinks my measure of “influence”, borrowed from R.W. Southern, sets the bar too high, and points us towards Collingwood’s point that relations of influence can be relationships in which “the conclusions reached by one thinker [gave] rise to problems for the next.”

    It is a worthwhile point, covering philosophers who have exerted influence by setting an agenda (even an agenda for opponents) rather than by founding a school of admiring imitators.

    But I’m not sure that Oakeshott ranks any higher on this criterion than on Southern’s.

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