restricted access Chapter 2: The Victim of Thought: The Idealist Inheritance
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2 the victim of thought: the idealist inheritance David Boucher Philosophical knowledge is knowledge which carries with it the evidence of its own completeness. The philosopher is simply the victim of thought. —Michael Oakeshott, Experience and Its Modes Michael Oakeshott’s indebtedness to philosophical idealism has been touched on by many commentators as incidental to their main concerns, and his relative silence after World War II compared with his defiant proclamations of loyalty before it gave rise to suspicions that he was no longer as committed to its tenets as he once was or that if there were remnants of idealism to be detected in the later work they were almost unrecognizable.1 This is not a view unanimously shared. There may be many reasons why Oakeshott ceased to wear his idealist credentials on his sleeve, but the fact that he had abandoned them was not one. He seems to have had a certain sensitivity to the criticisms of him as a philosopher of the day before yesterday. On the presentation of his Festschrift, Oakeshott made light of the honor, expressing surprise given that he had read somewhere: “Oakeshott, yes, an interesting survival; out of date before he was born; you can’t take him seriously. Not the sort of thing to make one exactly glow with pride. True enough, though; and I thought that perhaps I really would be able to get over this vast expanse of sand intact leaving a foot-­ print” (BLPES, 1/3, various speeches). After World War II the sorts of metaphysical and epistemological considerations that permeated Experience and Its Modes were touched on but not systematically addressed in his later writings. Some modifications in the vocabulary were necessary to accommodate developments in his thought and Franco.indb 47 8/2/12 8:44 AM 48   the conversation of mankind incorporate them into the larger point of view, but they were added in essays that deliberately left “much to the reader, often saying too little for fear of saying too much” (OHC, vii). Commentators such as W.H. Greenleaf, Wendell John Coats Jr., and Efraim Podoksik acknowledge the changes in vocabulary and nuance but insist on a basic consistency in his philosophy. Podoksik, for instance, contends that Oakeshott’s philosophical framework and the nature of his engagements were “consistent throughout his writings, although he modified his views on some points.”2 When Oakeshott developed his philosophical ideas, idealism, while not ascendant, could still boast a powerful intellectual presence. Most of the important thinkers in British idealism were still actively contributing to philosophical and practical controversies, with the exception of T.H. Green (1836– 1882), David George Ritchie (1853–1903), R.L. Nettleship (1846–1902), and Edward Caird (1835–1908), who had all died. Oakeshott evaded the influence of the strident Cambridge realism and was seduced instead by the towering figure of J.M.E. McTaggart (1866–1925) and the less well-­ known William Ritchie Sorley (1855–1935). In Scotland Henry Jones (1852–1922), the heir to Edward Caird (1835–1908), and Andrew Seth Pringle-­ Pattison (1856–1931), the joint editor with R.B. Haldane (1856–1928) of Essays in Philosophical Criticism, were formidable forces.3 At Oxford J.A. Smith (1863–1939), Harold Joachim (1868–1938), R.G. Collingwood (1889–1942), and the indomitable F.H. Bradley (1846–1924) kept the idealist flag flying. Bernard Bosanquet (1848–1923) had left St. Andrews in 1908 but remained one of the most influential figures in British philosophy until he died. Both Bosanquet and Bradley were leading figures in British philosophy and both in different ways contributed to the shaping of modern analytic philosophy. John Henry Muirhead (1855–1940) remained a venerated figure. Overseas Josiah Royce (1855– 1916), John Watson (1847–1939), William Mitchell (1861–1962), and Brand Blanshard (1892–1987) continued to keep idealism in the public gaze. It was not, then, such a “strangely bold thing” for Oakeshott to declare his allegiance to idealism in 1933, and to F.H. Bradley in particular.4 The second edition of Bradley’s Ethical Studies was published in 1927, and shortly after Experience and Its Modes, Bradley’s Collected Essays appeared and W.D. Lamont published the Introduction to Green’s Moral Philosophy.5 W.R. Boyce Gibson and Bernard Bosanquet were at the forefront of pioneering continental ideas in Britain, and whereas analytic philosophy eventually came to dominate British philosophy, we should not be anachronistic in underestimating the competition of ideas during the 1920s and 1930s.6 Indeed...