Michael Oakeshott Biography


Article abstract: Oakeshott was a philosopher of skeptical and conservative disposition, a student of the history of political thought, especially known for his work on Thomas Hobbes and on the idea of history. He expounded a distinctive theory of the rule of law, of civil government, and of the concept of authority.

Early Life

Michael Joseph Oakeshott was educated at St. George’s School, Harpenden, a coeducational school preferred by his parents to the typical schooling for bright English boys of his day. He loved the school and especially the headmaster, the Reverend Cecil Grant, with whom he maintained a close friendship until Grant’s death in the 1960’s. He entered Gonville and Caius College at Cambridge in 1920 as a history scholar. However, he was also intensely interested in philosophy, theology, the history of Christianity, and ultimately the history of political thought, the subject on which he later lectured regularly in Cambridge. He enjoyed friendships at Cambridge that reflected the influence of modernism in religious studies, and he wrote a number of compelling essays on how to think about religion in his early career. Some of these may now be found in Religion, Politics, and the Moral Life.

Oakeshott was taken by the idealist tradition in philosophy. His first major published statement within this tradition is Experience and Its Modes. In this work, he acknowledged as particularly important to his thought Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and F. H. Bradley. His numerous essays on history and the work of the historian, a subject of great interest to him throughout his career, show the influence of Bradley’s work on this topic. The importance of Hegel must be traced more indirectly, for Oakeshott typically did not expound the work of those who interested him; rather, he adapted their thought to his own, recasting it in his own idiom. However, the notebooks he kept, beginning in his undergraduate days at Cambridge, show that he did detailed exegeses of major works of Plato, Aristotle, and Baruch Spinoza.

In the 1920’s, Oakeshott spent some time in Germany at Marburg and Tübingen. He was interested in the work of the German theologians of the time, but it is not clear to what extent, if any, Martin Heidegger was of significance to him. In later writing, in his rare references to Heidegger, Oakeshott explicitly rejects what he understood to be Heidegger’s view that the practical life is the basis of all the forms of knowing, and he had no sympathy for the quest for “authenticity.” In fact, Oakeshott seems to have taken much more from the English essayists, especially David Hume and John Stuart Mill, and from French writers Michel Eyquem de Montaigne and Blaise Pascal in particular, whose style of writing he far preferred. Oakeshott thought of himself as an essayist, not a writer of books.

Life’s Work

Oakeshott started his lifelong fellowship in Caius College in 1925. He began research and teaching, eventually becoming a university lecturer in history in 1933. It was during the 1930’s that Oakeshott initiated his celebrated lectures in the history of political thought. His interests cut across historiography, philosophy, and political thought. The major work he produced at this time, Experience and Its Modes, contains an essay on history that R. G. Collingwood later was to praise as the high-water mark of English thought on history. There followed essays on legal philosophy and the book The Social and Political Doctrines of Contemporary Europe, which surveyed the current doctrines in Europe, providing readings with his commentary. In 1936, he published with his colleague Guy Griffiths A Guide to the...

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Coats, Wendel John, Jr. 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.

Coats, Wendell John, Jr. Oakeshott and His Contemporaries: Montaigne, St. Augustine, Hegel, et al. Selinsgrove, Pa.: Susquehanna University Press, 2000. Coats is an Oakeshott specialist and a student of modern political philosophy.

Covell, Charles. The Redefinition of Conservatism: Politics and Doctrine. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986. Devotes one chapter to Oakeshott and another to his most prominent disciples, Maurice Cowling and Shirley Letwin.

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 Jean-Paul Sartre 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. Franco covers virtually all of Oakeshott’s major writing and places Oakeshott in the context of modern liberal thought.

Himmelfarb, Gertrude. “Does History Talk Sense?” In The New History and the Old. Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1987. Himmelfarb, a distinguished historian, assesses Oakeshott’s distinctive view of history in this chapter.

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 a 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.