On Human Conduct Critical Context - Essay

Michael Oakeshott

Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

In most ways On Human Conduct represents a continuation of the arguments which Oakeshott makes in his previous works. He maintains that philosophy does not have any obvious lessons, and, as in his first book, Experience and Its Modes (1933), he argues that human life is primarily a matter of ideas and consciousness. He continues, moreover, to express animosity toward political power and to support laissez-faire policies. In On Human Conduct, however, Oakeshott makes two major modifications to the positions taken in his Rationalism in Politics (1962). First, he has ceased to emphasize the value of tradition; more than in the earlier works he recognizes that there has been a plurality of influential traditions with an impact on the modern world, meaning that one must choose among traditions. Second, Oakeshott no longer advances a strong argument against “rationalism,” a term he had used to refer to deductions from abstract principles without concern for practical experience and tradition. Rather than attacking this kind of rationalism, in fact, he makes use of such an approach, more than he makes use of the consequences of experience, in developing his dichotomy between civil and enterprise associations.

For a work that is not supposed to have any practical application, On Human Conduct has generated significant controversy. In a symposium about the book, for example, Joseph Aupitz makes a positive evaluation, calling the book “a remarkably careful, compelling, and coherent body of work.” In the same symposium, in contrast, Hana Pitkin concludes that the book is “rigidly dogmatic, assertive, and idiosyncratic almost to the point of being crotchety.” Both of these views...

(The entire section is 709 words.)