restricted access Chapter 3: Philosophy and Its Moods: Oakeshott on the Practice of Philosophy
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3 philosophy and its moods: oakeshott on the practice of philosophy Kenneth McIntyre Among nonacademic intellectuals and political theorists, Michael Oakeshott is known primarily as a conservative political thinker who produced a series of essays in the 1950s critical of “rationalist” or “ideological” politics.1 Others who have read more deeply in Oakeshott’s corpus are aware of his contributions to the philosophy of history and of his considerable achievement as a philosopher of practical and political life.2 Although there has been a significant increase in the attention paid to Oakeshott’s contributions to the theoretical understanding of history and politics, Oakeshott’s understanding of the character of philosophical activity has remained relatively neglected.3 This neglect is unfortunate because Oakeshott was one of the few political philosophers of the twentieth century who also provided a more-­ or-­ less systematic theoretical context to his political philosophy.4 Thus, an examination of his understanding of the character and activity of philosophizing is a necessary part of any treatment of his more generally known ideas about the logic of historical explanation, the nature of poetic experience, or the character of practical life and the place of politics within that life. In this chapter, I examine Oakeshott’s understanding of the character of philosophical activity. Oakeshott’s thoughts on the subject are scattered throughout his essays, but his most extensive and concentrated reflections on philosophy are found in three works: Experience and Its Modes, “The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind,” and the first essay of On Human Conduct. His treatment of the activity of philosophizing in these three different pieces manifests a remarkable degree of continuity in terms of the kinds of questions and concerns which animate his inquiry and in terms of the proper disposition of the philosopher. Oakeshott understands philosophical activity as informed by an unconditional commitment to the interrogation of Franco.indb 70 8/2/12 8:44 AM philosophy and its moods   71 the conditions of understanding and thus maintains that the disposition of the philosopher is fundamentally skeptical toward the world as it normally appears. Philosophy is understood as a kind of mood that draws us away from the various practices in which we normally engage in order to question the logic of those practices. Thus, there is a distinction between the activity of philosophizing, which is expressive of a disposition toward appearances, and the particular conclusions of philosophers, which, as such, represent a further invitation to reflect on their specific conditions and on conditionality itself. In terms of his own philosophical conclusions, Oakeshott’s work manifests a consistent commitment to conceiving various practices or modes of understanding, such as history, science, and art, as quasi-­ sufficient, autonomous , and independent worlds logically unrelated to one another and in viewing philosophy as a nonnormative, second-­ order, explanatory activity in relation to the modes. But his essays also reveal significant terminological changes related to Oakeshott’s various attempts to stress different aspects of the character of modality, and they strongly suggest substantial equivocation on Oakeshott’s part concerning the criterion of a successful or coherent set of philosophical conclusions. Thus, though his vision of philosophy as a disposition to investigate the conditions of intelligibility remains relatively unchanged throughout his long life, the conclusions that Oakeshott sets down as the result of his inquiries often reveal subtle and interesting adjustments of perspective and sometimes disclose serious tensions both between and within his various iterations of the nature of philosophy. To scrutinize more carefully both the continuities and discontinuities in Oakeshott’s treatment of philosophy, it is useful to examine his work chronologically instead of thematically. Thus, I approach Oakeshott’s work through the three primary elaborations of his understanding of philosophy manifested in Experience and Its Modes, “The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind,” and On Human Conduct. Such an inquiry offers support to one of Oakeshott’s own descriptions of the coherence of his work. He writes that his essays “do not compose a settled doctrine, [instead] they disclose a consistent style or disposition of thought” (RP, xii). Furthermore, I attempt to place his work in the milieu of several philosophical conversations taking place during his career. Like most of his contemporaries , Oakeshott rarely mentions his interlocutors by name, thus leaving the task of placing Oakeshott’s philosophy in its proper intellectual context largely up to the interpreter. But despite his reserve, Oakeshott’s essays on philosophical activity are often redolent of the most...