Form and Content

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...

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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...

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Underlying Assumptions

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

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...

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The Modern State

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.


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....

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