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introduction Paul Franco and Leslie Marsh It is now more than twenty years since Michael Oakeshott died on December 18, 1990. In that year the first book-­ length studies of the whole compass of his thought appeared: Paul Franco’s The Political Philosophy of Michael Oakeshott and Robert Grant’s Oakeshott. Since then there has been a veritable flood of scholarship, consisting of dozens of monographs and many more dozens of articles, devoted to every aspect of his thought, from his conservatism, political philosophy, and theory of history to his aesthetics, philosophy of religion, and ideas on education.1 Given the sheer volume of this scholarship, the time is ripe to harvest some results and come to some provisional conclusions about the nature and significance of Oakeshott’s multifarious philosophical contributions. This is what this volume of essays aims to do. We have asked a variety of Oakeshott scholars—some of them long-­ established authorities, others promising younger researchers—each to write an essay on a particular aspect of Oakeshott’s thought, summarizing its main features and assessing its ultimate significance. The result, we believe, is an authoritative and synoptic guide to the wide-­ ranging achievements of one of the most important philosophers of the twentieth century. Who was Oakeshott?2 Born in Chelsfield, Kent, on December 11, 1901, he attended a progressive coeducational secondary school, St. George’s, Harpenden , before going up to Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, in 1920. At Cambridge he took the political science option of the history tripos—there was no separate political science department at this time—and in 1923 he graduated with first-­ class honors. In 1925 he was elected to a fellowship at Caius and shortly thereafter began teaching in the history department. His writings from this period show him to be preoccupied with two principal themes: political philosophy and theology. With respect to the former, he defended a philosophical understanding of politics against various positivistic attempts Franco.indb 1 8/2/12 8:44 AM 2   a companion to michael oakeshott to transform political science into a natural science, either by focusing on the empirical classification of political institutions and forms of government or by treating the nature of human sociality in terms of the behavior of ants and prairie dogs.3 With respect to theology, Oakeshott’s purpose was primarily apologetic. He defended religion against the criticisms of science and history by arguing that religious experience is not to be judged by its theoretical truth but by a pragmatic criterion.4 In 1933 Oakeshott published his first book, Experience and Its Modes. It was a bold and unusually precocious book—Oakeshott was only thirty-­ one years old when it appeared—devoted to working out the idea of philosophy as “experience without presupposition, reservation, arrest, or modification” (EM 2). He developed this idea of philosophy by examining the forms of experience of science, history, and practice and showing them to be abstract and incomplete in comparison with the concrete standpoint of philosophy. That philosophy was superior to these abstract modes of experience, however, did not mean that it could dictate to them. Oakeshott argued that, within its own sphere, every mode is autonomous and immune from the authority of other forms of experience. History is independent of science and the practical attitude, and practice has nothing to learn or fear from history or science. Most important, philosophy has nothing to contribute to practical or political life. Oakeshott frankly acknowledged in the introduction to Experience and Its Modes that his argument was heavily indebted to the idealism of G.W.F. Hegel and F.H. Bradley, but this did not do justice to what was fresh and distinctive about it. In its engagement with twentieth-­ century positivism and the problem of history, Oakeshott’s idealism was much closer to that of R.G. Collingwood and Benedetto Croce than to nineteenth-­ century British idealism. It perhaps seems strange that Oakeshott’s first book was devoted wholly to the theory of knowledge, mentioning political philosophy only once—in a footnote. But nothing was clearer in his writings from the 1920s than that such a methodological prolegomenon was necessary before the substantive issues of political philosophy could be taken up. In one such writing, he declared, a “political philosophy founded upon no metaphysical prolegomenon , or upon one fundamentally in error, is doomed to propagate not truth, but falsehood.”5 Oakeshott spent the rest of the 1930s drawing out the implications of the idea of philosophy...


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