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Michael Oakeshott, a distinguished British philosopher who is usually referred to as a conservative, wrote On Human Conduct in order to summarize a half century of theorizing about government and political activity. Interested in “an engagement in understanding,” Oakeshott attempts to construct a general theory of political life, and he insists that he is not attempting to advance a particular ideology or political agenda. Oakeshott’s values, however, have a great impact upon the conclusions of the book. With his strong commitment to individual freedom, he expresses a distrust of all forms of political power, and to the extent possible he wants the individual to be able to choose his or her own substantive purposes without government intrusion. Readers who are committed to socialism, modern liberalism, and the welfare state will disagree with many of Oakeshott’s assumptions and generalizations.

On Human Conduct is composed of three related essays. The first essay is devoted to “the theoretical understanding of human conduct,” with an emphasis on the perennial question of human freedom versus determinism. The second essay attempts to clarify the nature of “the civil condition” by examining the differences between “civil associations,” which mandate laws for public order, and “enterprise associations,” which are joined by voluntary consent. The third essay, “Character of a Modern European State,” summarizes the historical evolution of how national states have developed out of heterogenous traditions, with an analysis of what major political philosophers have written about this development. In the third essay, Oakeshott argues that in the earlier stages European states could be generally classified as civil associations, but that gradually they have increasingly acquired characteristics of enterprise associations—a development that he deplores.

In order to understand Oakeshott’s rather difficult book, the reader should give special attention to this dichotomy between the civil association (which he also calls societas) and the enterprise association (universitas). The former is a public institution which citizens are required to join on the basis of living within a political order, with the individual having no real choice in the matter. According to Oakeshott, the relationship within a societas is moral in nature, requiring strict rules and mandatory enforcement. In contrast, the universitas is voluntary, with members having the option of withdrawing from the association, and the relationship is founded upon a shared goal of attempting to satisfy some kind of substantive desire. Oakeshott admits that these two kinds of associations are of an “ideal character” and that they are “abstracted from the contingencies and ambiguities of actual goings-on in the world.” Although based on historical experience to some extent, the dichotomy actually appears to represent Oakeshott’s own conception of how the public and the private spheres are and should be divided from each other.

Oakeshott takes the position that his work in philosophy does not have any practical purpose as its goal and that he is attempting an understanding of the totality of experience for its own sake. He is not at all consistent, however, in his claims to be a detached observer. In avoiding the controversies about justice and equality, for example, he is implicitly suggesting that these are not appropriate values to promote in civil associations. In spite of his claims that he is not trying to defend a particular ideology or practical program, his description of the civil association is manifestly related to a laissez-faire view of politics. Far from a detached observer, he makes it clear that a state should follow the model of the civil association rather than the enterprise association, writing that “no European alive to his inheritance of moral understanding has ever found it possible to deny the superior desirability of civil association without a profound feeling of guilt.”


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Michael Oakeshott thought of himself as an essayist, not a writer of books. Save for Experience and Its Modes (1933), his publications reflected this. Readers of On Human Conduct noted, however, that there is a systematic quality to that work that is somewhat at odds with Oakeshott’s division of the book into what he thought of as three essays. This work appears in some respects to return to the form of Experience and Its Modes.

For many students of Oakeshott’s work, Rationalism in Politics, and Other Essays (1962) is his most important and revealing achievement. It is the most reminiscent of Michel Eyquem de Montaigne. In this work, Oakeshott collected a number of essays in more or less chronological fashion with no introduction to guide the reader as to his intentions, claiming not to be arguing with others but rather to be disclosing his considered opinions, and asking that they be taken as invitations to a conversation. Taken together, these essays show Oakeshott at his most skeptical. They are conservative in the peculiar sense Oakeshott gave to the idea of being conservative: He rejects nostalgia and programmatic conservatism (for him an oxymoron), and he does not call for a social foundation in religion. What he does do is disclose his distrust of rationalism and ideology, his skepticism about the dominance over modern thinking of abstract ethical principles and technological preoccupations with progress in the Baconian sense, and his distaste for the increasing vocationalism and professionalism of the universities.

What he argues for is no program but rather the enjoyment of one’s present possibilities. He encourages looking for meaning elsewhere than in politics—which he called a “necessary evil”—and especially in pursuing the poetic intimations of life. Conversationality and poetry are the antidotes for the urge to politicize and systematize everything. However, with On Human Conduct, it becomes clear that Oakeshott, while not repudiating at all what he said in Rationalism in Politics, and Other Essays, was not satisfied that he had said all he meant to say. On Human Conduct is the most constructive work of political theory Oakeshott produced. There is no doubt he intended this to be the lens through which his readers should understand what he had previously said. His portrait at Caius College shows him seated at a table with a copy of On Human Conduct before him. In the preface, Oakeshott describes the book as “a well-considered intellectual adventure recollected in tranquillity,” and he means to give a final, well-structured account of politics philosophically and historically understood.

Underlying Assumptions

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The book contains three essays arranged in a manner recalling the structure of Thomas Hobbes’s De Cive (1642, rev. ed. 1647; Philosophical Rudiments Concerning Government and Society, 1651) and Leviathan (1651). The first essay, “On the Theoretical Understanding of Human Conduct,” sets out the assumptions underlying a theory of human conduct as opposed to a scientific or sociological explanation of human “behavior,” reminiscent in form of Hobbes’s account “of man” and of “the natural condition of mankind” in book 1 of Leviathan.

The assumptions are that human beings are free agents, capable of conditional transactions (transactions carried on according to certain background constraints such as learned practices and procedures) among themselves in the pursuit of satisfying their wants through deliberation, persuasion, and argument. These individuals conduct themselves not according to “human nature” or a form of “social being” but as reflective intelligences responding to their circumstances as they understand, or misunderstand, them. Oakeshott dismisses the idea that as humans we have a nature that is somehow independent of what we understand ourselves to be. We are “in ourselves what we are for ourselves.” Every account of “human nature” involves deliberation and choice as to how we think about ourselves, and thus every doctrine of human nature discloses a chosen self-understanding about which argument is always possible. We are associated as individuals among individuals, but there is no “society” that is an independent reality comprising us. Oakeshott demonstrates that we are radically individual and free in that we are beings who must interminably reflect, interpret, and choose one course of action as opposed to another in the context of others doing the same.

The Civil Association

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In the second essay, “On the Civil Condition,” Oakeshott explains what he understands to be the appropriate civil condition for beings of the sort examined in the first essay. His argument is that there is a set of arrangements particularly suited to free, individual agents who must live and act in regard to each other. In such a civil association, we are related to each other in terms of moral conditions that constrain our instrumental relationships, requiring civil law, the adjudication of disputes, a certain kind of authority, and obligation. “The conditions of civil association are moral conditions in not being instrumental to the satisfaction of substantive wants.” Procedure takes precedence over outcomes in our interactions. The characteristic virtue is “civility,” and this is understood to be an alternative to “rivalry” on the one hand or “tender concern” on the other.

Civil association requires establishing a proper distance among ourselves, neither too distant nor too close. There is no objective measure for striking this balance. It is to be understood as the implicit ideal of the inhabitants of the modern state (as opposed to those of the ancient city). The balance struck must always be struck again and adjusted as we respond to altered circumstances. In attending to the rules and procedures, someone must exercise authority. However, the exercise of authority is not the exercise of superior insight; it is, rather, the making of determinations to go one way rather than another by those whom we have acknowledged to be entrusted with this responsibility. The pronouncements of those in authority are to be followed because they proceed from those we have acknowledged to exercise authority, not because we are happy or unhappy with the implications for our substantive wants.

The civil association in and of itself has no special purpose or direction, no final end. Its purpose is to keep our ship afloat on a boundless and bottomless sea. Special purposes, directions, or ends are for individuals and their like-minded associates to pursue for themselves. A set of people associated amid the vast variety of their wants, interests, and aspirations as a civil association do not need to agree on their final ends. Insofar as existence in the civil order is coercive and unavoidable, it is of the highest importance to maintain the priority of procedural agreement over any suppositious agreement on ends, goals, or final purposes for the entire association. The law gives us “adverbial conditions” to which we subscribe. In other words, we must choose how to conduct ourselves for ourselves, but we do so in consideration of the agreed-upon background conditions that qualify how we choose what we shall do or not do. For instance, we shall not light fires “arsonically.” Law does not strictly speaking tell us what to do, but it tells us what to take into account in doing what we do. Law and authority are thus complementary to our free agency, not a contradiction to it.

The Modern State

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In the third essay, “On the Character of a Modern European State,” Oakeshott gives us his account of the emergence from the medieval orders, over the past five centuries, of the modern European state, the place where the understanding of individual agency and civil association has reached its highest pitch as the animating spirit of the modern age. At the same time, Oakeshott detects an alternative understanding, also emergent after the medieval period, that contradicts the idea of civil association as he has set it out. The first he calls societas and the alternative he calls universitas. The latter involves association in terms of substantive satisfactions or outcomes, and would have us associated as contributors to an enterprise in which all the participants have roles to play in a division of labor pointing to a common final end. Here it is the role one plays rather than one’s free agency to be “for oneself” that takes precedence. Corresponding to these alternatives, we find a difference between those who respond to their individual freedom as a welcome opportunity, and those who respond to it as somehow a mistake from which they wish to rescue themselves in some collective identity or by fulfilling the quest for community. The ambiguity of the modern achievement appears in full force here. The fact that neither of these enjoys universal assent is salient.

These alternative ideals emergent in modern history constitute a dialectical tension that explains the characteristic terrain of modern political controversy. One cannot finally slay the other. Rather, the assertion of the one produces a heightened response from the other. The state as a formal apparatus cannot settle this conflict because it cannot treat these as alternative purposes or goals that it might adopt. The state must deal with the complexities arising from the conceptual and historical disputes that are the legacy of modern European history and the complex characters of modern human beings who have become used to understanding themselves in these terms. Oakeshott’s conclusion is that of the historian and philosopher seeking to understand rather than to rule. He has sought to clarify for us what he finds to have been going on, but he does not offer to transport us to a simpler existence.


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Additional Reading

Coats, W. J. The Activity of Politics and Related Essays. Selinsgrove, Pa.: Susquehanna University Press, 1989. Coats is a Michael Oakeshott specialist and a student of modern political philosophy. In this volume, he provides several acute essays on Oakeshott’s understanding of politics.

Farr, Anthony. Sartre’s Radicalism and Oakeshott’s Conservatism: The Duplicity of Freedom. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998. Farr examines the opposing political philosophies of Sarte and Oakeshott. A section is devoted to the metaphysics influence on Oakeshott.

Franco, Paul. The Political Philosophy of Michael Oakeshott. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1990. Provides the best exposition of Oakeshott’s work as it was known up to the time of his death. He covers virtually all Oakeshott’s major writing and places Oakeshott in the context of modern liberal thought.

Letwin, Shirley Robin. “On Conservative Individualism.” In Conservative Essays, edited by Maurice Cowling. London: Cassell, 1978. Letwin was among the most powerful interpreters of Oakeshott’s thought.

Norman, Jesse, ed. The Achievement of Michael Oakeshott. London: Duckworth, 1993. A collection of memorials on Oakeshott’s life and work by people who knew him well and who cover a wide range of his ideas. Contains the most comprehensive bibliography of works by and about Oakeshott, compiled by John Liddington.

Political Science Reviewer 21 (1992). This special edition of the journal, edited by Timothy Fuller, is devoted to Oakeshott and contains essays by a number of students of his work.


Critical Essays