Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 709

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.

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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 are rather extreme, and, as is true of most controversies of this kind, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. On Human Conduct is a stimulating book which is devoted to important problems of political philosophy, but at the same time there are significant weaknesses in its arguments and conclusions.

Oakeshott’s arguments are especially compelling in regard to the problem of human freedom. In this area he makes a strong case for the view that human conduct is based on “reflective consciousness” and understanding. Most critics have found that he is less successful when he develops the dichotomy between civil and enterprise associations, especially when he argues that the failure to recognize this dichotomy is the major reason for confusion in modern politics. Although such a distinction is most helpful in understanding the works of Jean Bodin and Thomas Hobbes, it is not very helpful as a frame of reference in trying to make sense of the political dialogue of the last two centuries. In practice, almost all conservatives have wanted governments to seek some “substantive objectives,” and it appears strange to suggest that laws should be formulated without any concern for their consequences in promoting human welfare. In almost ignoring the issues of social justice, human rights, and democracy, On Human Conduct appears somewhat irrelevant to the major concerns of political philosophy, especially compared with a work such as John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice (1971).

Even if one concludes that the state should seek substantive objectives, however, there remains the important problem of deciding the limitations that should be placed upon these objectives. In fact, one could argue that that is the main problem that On Human Conduct poses. It is certainly true that the functions of the state have dramatically increased in all modern societies, and Oakeshott has a point in concluding that this growth has not always been consistently positive in its results. Oakeshott does formulate some strong arguments in favor of putting limits on the role of the state. Also, he is correct in arguing that most people do not have free choice in deciding whether they wish to be under the political arrangement in which they find themselves; mandatory, heterogenous associations, by their nature, are unable to provide the solidarity and shared objectives that one commonly encounters in associations which are voluntarily formed. Interpreted from this perspective, On Human Conduct may hold the interest of many liberals and socialists, who will find some important messages in the book. Even if they disagree with many of Oakeshott’s conclusions, most readers will find that On Human Conduct will stimulate them into theorizing about the proper role of political associations.

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