Michael Joseph Oakeshott was a distinguished philosopher and historian who made influential contributions to the philosophical analysis of the study of history and politics in the English-speaking world. He was born in Kent, England, on December 11, 1901, and was educated at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge. In 1925, he became a fellow there, followed in 1929 by a post as a university lecturer, which he retained until 1949, when he became a fellow of Nuffield College. In 1950, he accepted the chair in political science at the London School of Economics, which he held until his retirement in 1969. Oakeshott’s seminars drew students from many countries who eagerly spread his ideas and contributed greatly to his international reputation as a political philosopher, historian, and masterful teacher.
Oakeshott’s first book, Experience and Its Modes, was his attempt to see clearly and grasp a single idea: the notion of philosophy as the study of experience without reservations, in all of its modes of thought and practices, unhindered and undistracted by what is subsidiary, partial, or abstract. He believed that philosophical enterprise is designed to clarify thought. Confusion of thought arises when argument or inference passes from one mode of experience to another, as from poetry to history, or from what is abstract to what is concrete. In particular he denied that science is the only method of attaining objective truth. The rest of Oakeshott’s intellectual career was marked by the pursuit of clarity in a variety of modes of understanding, such as practical politics, history, science, poetry, and education.
In the years before World War II, Oakeshott compiled a textbook, The Social and Political Doctrines of Contemporary Europe, on the various ideologies then competing for dominance in Europe: fascism, Marxism, socialism, Catholicism, Nazism, and liberal democracy. His method was to provide students with translations of primary sources that would illuminate the views of each ideology on the most important political issues. The book was very successful and was published in several editions in both Great Britain and the United States.
During World War II, Oakeshott served in the British army. Afterward, in 1946, he renewed his scholarly career with a new edition of Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan (1651). Oakeshott’s introduction was a major challenge to the traditional scholarly understanding of Hobbes’s political theories and continues to be a center of controversy. In 1947, he founded the Cambridge Journal as an outlet for English conservative thought.
Oakeshott had been preoccupied throughout the postwar years with problems in political science, historical methodology, and education. Four collections of his essays on these topics were published. In Rationalism in Politics, and Other Essays, published in 1962, Oakeshott rejected the notion that politics is a rational science in which...
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