3 MAY 1975, Page 12


George Gale on a conservative philosopher

Few men are so uncontradictory as Michael Oakeshott: what he says and does and is are all of a piece; and that considerable number of people who have been influenced by him — even if not that much greater number of people who have been influenced by him at one or two stages removed — will know that the man and his style are just about as inseparable as the style and its content. What we have here* is a distillate of what Oakeshott has been saying, in Cambridge and then at the London School of Economics and now in retirement, all his life: "The themes explored here have been with me nearly as long as I can remember; but I have left the task of putting my thoughts together almost too late and the reader must forgive me if I have consequently gone slowly in order to avoid being flustered. And when I look back upon the path my footprints make in the snow I wish that it might have been less rambling." His footsteps might ramble a bit; but he doesn't sound at all flustered.

For those who do not know (and there are probably more of these than there ought to be), Michael Oakeshott is a teacher who, since the 1930's, has made a series of .conservative utterances to do with men, history and philosophy. On the whole he has attacked and criticised more than he has defended or stated; and particularly he has attacked what he has_ called 'rationalism' in politics, the claims of 'social engineers' and of sociologists, and those who have sought to impose unifying systems upon manifolds and multiplicities. His tone and

*On Human Conduct Michael Oakeshott (OUP 0.75) voice are alike light; but their lightness excludes no density or indeed opacity of thinking and expression. His characteristic metaphors have to do with travelling and with conversation, and he is never far away from a poetic quotation. He is certainly an intellectual companion who constantly delights; but at the same time his demands are great. This is, in part, a conse quence of the difficulty of the language he employs and in part, I think, a consequence of his own diffidence in the face of the ideals he is putting forward. Put in other words (as he very much likes to reiterate), what Oakeshott seems to me to be doing in this work (and has been throughout his academic life) is to use, in the nicest and politest possible way, his own almost private translation of Platonic language to demolish a, or even the, central structure of Platonic theory while at the same time celebrating, justifying and himself practising Plato's own activity in seeking to understand human conduct.

What, precisely, we have here, then, are three connected essays, 'On the understanding of human conduct,' On the civil condition' and 'On the character of a modern European state.' The first is at once the most difficult and the most rewarding. The second, although described in the blurb as "the central theme in the book" is the least satisfactory, apart from its final brief section and some incidental illuminations en route. Oakeshott wastes a lot of time considering lex and, having concluded after a great deal of discussion that "Civil authority and civil obligation are the twin pillars of the civil condition," a not unhelpful but somewhat obvious observation, he remains saying at the end of his essay "The most difficult feature of the civil condition to identity and get into place has been law." It might have been more fruitful and ultimately easier to do this, I respectfully suggest, had Oakeshott followed what is often his own advice, and endeavoured to do so in the vernacular language instead of using throughout his discussion the Latin terms, civitas, cives, lex and respublica.

It is with great relief that the reader emerges from this 'central' essay into the bright historical daylight of the introductory sections of the third essay on the modern European state. There is some marvellously vigorous stuff here dealing with the evolution of the idea of 'state'; indeed Oakeshott's last essay is a tour de force as a piece of highly concentrated historiography. To read this was, for me, to be transported back almost thirty years to the excitements of immediately post-war Cam bridge and the refulgences of Russell, Brogan, Knowles, Butterfield and Oakeshott himself. The terms of the Oakeshottian thesis have changed; but not the tone, nor, come to that, the practical observations that follow upon the theory. This brilliant third essay should be standard reading for anyone capable of making the intellectual effort to grasp it and wishing to understand not only how the modern European state came to be what it more or less is about but also what, more or less, it is.

But it is the first essay, fully entitled 'On the Theoretical Understanding of Human Con duct' which is the most substantial part of this work. Having disposed of sociological and psychological claims to explain, if not to understand human conduct; and then having referred back to Plato, the cave, shadows and the fire; he looks at what he calls the 'ideal character' of human conduct, and discovers that "doing . postulates reflective consciousness" and postulates also "an agent whose situation is what he understands (or misunderstands) it to be and who understands it to be one which invites an action . . , In short, conduct postulates what I shall call a 'free agent' "; what is more, such an agent "is 'free' not because his situation is alterable by an act of unconstrained 'will' but because it is an understood situation and because doing is an intelligent engage ment." Oakeshott dismisses swiftly, rather than entangles with, the determinist position and reverts, time and again to the proposition that an agent "is not 'free' because he is able (or because he believes himself to be able) to 'will' what he shall do or say; he is 'free' because his response to his situation, like his situation itself, is the outcome of an intelligent engagement. Indeed," he continues, "what is called 'the will' is nothing but intelligence in doing; denying `will' to an ebbing tide we are refusing to recognise it as an exhibition of intelligence."

Later Oakeshott asserts: "A human being does not begin his life in a world lit only by biological urges from which he escapes with difficulty into agency." Doesn't he? "Nor does he start out with unconditional desires which he learns subsequently to choose between and control with the aid of a moral practice." Doesn't he? "He comes to consciousness [my italics] in a world illuminated by a moral practice and as a relatively helpless subject of it" Yes: he may so come to consciousness in a situation in which "The nuture of children is everywhere performance governed by moral practice." But was he free to choose that nurturing? Obviously not; nor was he free to choose the quality of his ratiocinative competence. Neither his intelligence nor his 'history' were, to begin with, other than given; and because of this one wonders how 'free' is the choice confronting "an understood situation" with "an intelligent engagement."

This said, I will not dispute the Oakeshottian

analogy in which morality is compared with the vernacular language in which "moral conduct is to be recognised as agents seeking satisfactions in the responses of one another and acknowledging, in this reciprocal intercourse, the authority of a language which articulates considerations, rules, duties, etc." He concludes, "A morality, then, is neither a system of general principles nor a code of rules, but a vernacular language . . . That there should be many, such languages in the world, some with their familiar likenesses . . . is intrinsic to their character." And this is all right as far as it goes. It may well indeed be impossible to go any further. But we should note that we are given no means to distinguish between such languages: and to recall that among such languages, internally grammatical in their own ideal way, were those of Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Soviet Union. Few, however, will dispute that Oakeshott's "engagement to understand" is "an engagement to abate mystery rather than to achieve a suppositious definitive understanding" and I certainly will go along with his assertion, "The theoretical understanding of a substantive action or utterance is, then, in principle, a 'historiar understanding."

I fear that in this note I have not conveyed any of the delights (and not all of the difficulties) of Oakeshott's prose. The style is, as I've said, almost the same as the content. Often, in this hard, and both obvious and enlightening, book, the 'ideal' Oakeshott breaks out, declaring, for instance, in a sudden brief sunlight: "I cannot: want happiness; what I want is to idle in Avignon or to hear Caruso sing." Myself, I'd prefer to idle in England, where after all, we were nurtured, and to listen not to Caruso singing but to Oakeshott talking, any day.