Michael Oakeshott 1901-1990

Michael Oakeshott His Conservative Disposition

Introduction to Oakeshott

Michael Oakeshott, the British political philosopher, made a significant contribution to conservative thinking on human imperfection and pragmatism in works such as Rationalism in Politics (1962) and On Human Conduct (1975).

Oakeshott’s collection of essays, Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays (1962), and his more systematic work of political philosophy, On Human Conduct (1975), were key texts of conservative traditionalism, exploring both the nature and implications of human imperfection. By highlighting the importance of civil association and insisting on the limited province of politics, he developed themes closely associated with liberal thought. Oakeshott is nevertheless best known for his powerful defence of a pragmatic and non-ideological style of politics, upholding traditional values and established customs on the grounds that the conservative disposition is to prefer ‘the familiar to the unknown’. Oakeshott’s style of conservatism was also characterised by the belief that governing is a ‘specific and limited activity’, amounting only to a means of enabling individuals to pursue their chosen activities through the formation of civil associations. In this light, he influenced many of the thinkers of the New Right.

Oakeshott, like Burke, rejected ideology and the idea that there are ‘correct’ answers to practical questions . He criticised the idea that politics can be organised on a rational basis based on abstract principles such as equality due to the limits of human understanding . He attacked rationalism as an idea that placed theory above knowledge, culture and tradition . Instead, Oakeshott argued that politics should be about practical knowledge and pragmatism, rather than ideas and theories that ignore the complexities of human society and tradition . He saw reform as tending to consist of a break with the past, when it was always better to try to create continuity . Creating something ‘new’ was usually a mistake and a failure . Oakeshott blamed the Enlightenment for the rise of the belief in rationality as the method of making political decisions . He argued that politics should be a ‘conversation, not an argument’ therefore rejecting the idea of absolutes . In ‘On Being Conservative’ (1962, in Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays) Oakeshott compared a society with too much personal freedom to a ship lost at sea, restless and without direction and order . Politicians can be seen as the officers on the deck, guided by experts but heading for disaster .

According to Oakeshott, modern society is both unpredictable and complex. Consequently, it cannot be understood in terms of abstract principles or theories. `Rational' attempts to make sense of society's behaviour inevitably distort and simplify the facts — a problem compounded by human imperfection, because people do not have the mental faculties to make sense of a complex modern world.

Also, the 'rationalist' political leader's impulse is to act solely on the 'authority of his own reason' rather than practical experience. This encourages the dangerous idea that the leader fully understands society and knows how it should be changed. Oakeshott considered that the brutal fascist and communist regimes established in the 20th century were clear examples of this misguided human rationalism in politics. He also concluded that parliamentary government in Britain had developed pragmatically over time, and had not followed a rationalist or ideological path, Oakeshott maintained that politics can only be successfully conducted if it accommodates existing traditions, practices and prejudices. This pragmatic approach:

can deliver what is in the best interests of the people without overstepping the limits of public acceptance

· maintains social stability and cohesion by emphasising moderation, cautious change where necessary, and a sense of historical continuity

· is flexible, reflecting complex and shifting social realities, unlike rigid theories and ideologies which encourage dogmatic decision-making.

In his essay "On Being Conservative" (1956) Oakeshott explained what he regarded as the conservative disposition: "To be conservative ... is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss."

“in political activity men sail a boundless and bottomless sea.” In other words, it has neither a starting point nor an appointed destination. The realm of political ideas is therefore beyond our limited understanding.

Critic of rationalism

Oakeshott rejected a knighthood offered by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government in 1981. This may seem surprising. However, Oakeshott was not only disinterested in the practical application of political ideas, he was also profoundly against the rationalistic projects and schemes of politicians across the political spectrum. He certainly did not like the neo-liberalism of Thatcher, nor the idea that a politician’s job was to try and improve people’s lives by achieving certain goals:

‘…in political activity, then, men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting place nor appointed destination. The enterprise is to keep afloat, on an even keel.’

Oakeshott felt politicians were too keen to get themselves involved in projects of which they had little understanding or control – they could often do more harm than good. Oakeshott parodies what he calls such politics of faith in a book he wrote around 1950, ‘…the politics of faith is the politics of immortality, the point of no return cannot be reached too quickly’. Oakeshott’s thinking is clearer in Rationalism in Politics, where, motivated to write in response to the actions of the Atlee postwar Labour government — nationalisation, the NHS and expansion of state education — he criticised these ‘jumped-up kitchen porters’ who, he felt, only had a surface-level understanding of what they were directing. Instead, Oakeshott argued, governments should be umpires, not players: ‘…the office of government is merely to rule’. He wrote passionately against what he saw as the minute and comprehensive control of our lives. Government might be necessary, he believed, but it was not necessarily good.


Although Oakeshott did not exactly endorse a politics of scepticism, it would be fair to label him a pragmatist. In the undertaking of daily life, he believed we should appreciate customs, traditions and knowledge of practical experience over grand designs and theory. Rationalists, Oakeshott argued, would rather be cooked for by an avid reader of cookery books than a well-practised chef. He argued rationalists also saw no value in tradition, and were only excited by the new. They would see little point in patching up and repairing, in preserving. Conversely, what he saw as important in life were those everyday exchanges, hobbies, habits and customs, and daily conversations. He was interested in conserving.


Oakeshott was forceful in his ideas that governments should not be practising the ‘politics of faith’. He it was not only against people’s interests, but it was unachievable: ‘It requires what it cannot command and needs what its character prohibits.’ Therefore, rationalism ultimately fails as humans are imperfect and our understanding is also too limited. Moreover, society can be unpredictable. There is much that Oakeshott writes that suggests he is somewhat circumspect about human nature, and he does convey a strong view that societies need laws and that governments should administer them.

However, he argued strongly in Politics of Faith that the state should be limited, and remain nimble, and trim. He also expressed a faith in the power of the human spirit to maintain an even keel. Balance and experience were important. He felt we must welcome the adventures of life, and learn for ourselves what it means to be human. We should enjoy the opportunities that life brings, without worrying too much about where they are going. We may do well or do badly. For Oakeshott, there was no ‘rational’ solution to this, nor should there be: ‘…there is a time for everything, and everything has its time.’

Oakeshott’s writing can be difficult, as are his ideas. However, it is clear that he argued strongly against rationalism, was in favour of law and order and preferred traditions and customs to modernity and innovations. In these ways he can be seen to be firmly in the conservative as well as Conservative camps.

On the other hand, he has also been labelled a liberal, as he defended many of the rights of individuals and he has received cutting criticism from conservatives with a big as well as a small ‘c’ for his lack of ambition, and his supposed pessimism and defeatism. Many of these critics rather miss the point: he was trying to emphasise strands of both conservativism and individualism. Indeed, he wrote in his defence that ‘…it is not at all inconsistent to be conservative in respect of government, and radical in respect of every other activity.’ In his private notebooks, he summed up the purpose of politics: ‘Politics is the art not of imposing a way of life, but of organising a common life…the art of accommodating moralities to one another.’ In this he felt that it was the role of politicians to allow us to live in liberty, so we could come together to form what he called a ‘civil association’. Not an easy idea to understand, but very Oakeshott.