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« Seattle's Silliest Architecture | Main | The Other Michael B. »

January 18, 2006

Oakeshott Get-Together

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

In early blogging days, I raved on a regular basis about the work of the British philosopher Michael Oakeshott. Although unknown to most Americans, Oakeshott (who died at the age of 89 in 1990) is a giant, at least in some very small circles. Along with David Hume, Stephen Toulmin, Michael Polanyi, and Denis Dutton, he's also one of the few philosophers whose work has meant anything to me personally -- for what that's worth, of course.

I find his blend of conservatism and radicalism, of aestheticism and practicality very congenial. (Great Oakeshott quote, though I don't remember from where: "I'm a conservative in politics because I'm a radical in everything else.") I also find the way he presents his views -- and the way he explores life as he finds it -- mind-opening and helpful. Delightful, too: he's a heckuva writer, if in a mandarin, Henry Jamesian way.

A few quotes for your delectation:

I regard as an enemy that modified form of Utopianism which picks at one problem of society at a given moment and is prepared to upset the whole of the society in order to get that one problem solved ...

I should say that no problem in politics is ever solved permanently, and that no problem in politics should be allowed to get out of proportion and to exclude the real business of politics, which is to keep the society as a whole, in all its arrangements, coherent and stable as well as progressive ...

The moral life of a man does not consist entirely in performing a number of reasonable actions, it consists in living according to certain habits of behaviour, which may be analysed into separate actions but which do not appear as separate actions except on a few occasions ...

In a conversation the participants are not engaged in an inquiry or a debate; there is no "truth" to be discovered, no proposition to be proved, no conclusion sought. They are not concerned to inform, to persuade, or to refute one another, and therefore the cogency of their utterances does not depend upon their all speaking in the same idiom; they may differ without disagreeing ...

Sensible yet sophisticated, bang-on yet nuanced, solid yet perverse -- I read Oakeshott experiencing mucho deep pleasure, and breathing big sighs of relief, too.

Fun to notice that the once-every-few-years get-together of the Michael Oakeshott Association is taking place this year in Colorado Springs, from June 8th through June 11th. I wonder what Colorado Springs is going to make of having a crowd of Oakeshottians around. Here's the announcement and schedule; here's the MOA's home page.

If you want to sample Oakeshott's brain and writing, you could start with Wikipedia's good entry; move on to this Andrew Sullivan talk (Sullivan did his dissertation on Oakeshott, and the talk is an excellent one); and then try perhaps a half a dozen essays in this collection. Here's one of the best of his essays, free for reading online. Don't expect to breeze through Oakeshott's own writing, though. It's a true pleasure, but one to be savored slowly rather than wolfed down.

Best,

Michael

PS: Hey, Michael Oakeshott and I share a first name. I wonder if that's a coincidence ...

PPS: I notice that Denis Dutton has published a first-class piece in The Australian about Darwinism and how it is -- and might yet be -- affecting thinking about the arts.

posted by Michael at January 18, 2006




Comments

"But what I hope I have made clear is that it is not at all inconsistent to be conservative in respect of government and radical in respect of almost every other activity. And, in my opinion, there is more to be learnt about this disposition from Montaigne, Pascal, Hobbes and Hume than from Burke or Bentham."

From "On Being Conservative" by Michael Oakeshott

Found here in Microsoft Word 2000 format:

http://www2.muw.edu/~jmiller/POL101/readings/oakshott.doc

or as html here:

http://64.233.167.104/search?q=cache:Gzn7l2HA_FIJ:www2.muw.edu/~jmiller/POL101/readings/oakshott.doc+oakeshott+%22on+being+conservative%22&hl=en

Posted by: Dave Lull on January 18, 2006 4:36 PM



So is this Darwinian approach to aesthetics part of the "evo-bio" new approach to the arts that will (happily) replace all the theory about post-modern It-means-what-I-say-it-means?

I'm certainly willing to listen to anything Dutton says.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on January 18, 2006 4:52 PM



Would you guys stop posting so much good stuff I don't have time to read! Cut it out, will 'ya :)

Posted by: MD on January 18, 2006 6:00 PM



Thank you for the links. I have often been curious about Oakeshott and am a admirer of Sullivan, but never before had an occasion to actually learn anything about Oakeshott. Sullivan provided an interesting and challenging introduction.

OTOH, if the questions from the AEI audience are any fair sample, American conservatism is apparently rapidly devolving into theocracy or fascism.

Posted by: bob mcmanus on January 18, 2006 9:10 PM



I'm a staunch Democrat and what would in the U.S. be called more or less a liberal, and I like Oakeshott a lot. I find contemporary American conservatism to be completely unrelated to his thought. What I do wonder is whether he ever commented on the American civil rights movement in the 60s. A lot of American conservatives were making what might be called somewhat "Oakeshottian" arguments against that movement (basically that it was damaging the framework of Southern tradition and society in the name of abstract rights). I feel those arguments were quite wrong; having a good eye for those cases in which justice really should trump tradition is something I look for in conservatives. I don't know whether Oakeshott even dealt with this topic, I don't think he commented a whole lot on contemporary politics.

Posted by: mq on January 19, 2006 3:13 AM



Davd -- You're amazing, many thanks again.

Mary -- Anything that undercuts the academic view of the arts is OK by me. Well, almost anything, I suppose. Gotta keep the academics off-balance, in any case. Can't let them think they've got it all figured out.

MD -- We live to overwhelm!

Bob -- Thrilled hear you're curious about Oakeshott. People who get hooked seem to get very hooked. But a lot of people just blank out before him. Understandable: he takes some effort, and maybe too much. How are you reacting?

MQ -- Yeah, there's a big diff between political philosophy and practical politics, isn't there? What's conservative about today's free-spending, imperialistic Republicans, for instance? And what's liberal about a lot of leftie thought-police types? Yet it can be fun to explore the theoretical/philosophical background of it all. I think Oakeshott was very wary about pronouncing on practical politics, although I imagine he had his opinions. (Who doesn't?) I seem to remember that he was once asked for advice about how America ought to address some problem or other, and his resopnse was "That's their business." I suppose that's curt, but it also strikes me as profound and wonderful.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 19, 2006 12:19 PM






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