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5 radical temporality and the modern moral imagination: two themes in the thought of michael oakeshott Timothy Fuller My intention is to reflect on two themes that run through the whole of Oakeshott ’s thought: first, the radical temporality of the human condition and, second, the character of modernity’s response to radical temporality. The first is, for Oakeshott, universal in experience to all times and places; the second is peculiar to a development in the modern West that, Oakeshott suggests, began to come into sight about five centuries ago and persists into the present and that manifests our particular experience of, and response as he understands it to, the universal condition of radical temporality. The second theme emerges as Oakeshott’s exploration of the distinctively modern response to the universal condition. My approach here prepares the way to expound a “philosophy of politics,” which Oakeshott has described as “an explanation or view of political life and activity from the standpoint of the totality of experience ” (RPML, 126). My reflections are based on considering the whole of his work, published and unpublished, but among those writings especially important are the following : Experience and Its Modes (1933); “The Concept of a Philosophical Jurisprudence ” (1938); The Politics of Faith and the Politics of Scepticism (1950–52); the essays in Rationalism in Politics (1962); his various writings on Hobbes (especially the original 1946 introduction to the Blackwell edition of Leviathan ); On Human Conduct (1975); and the essays in Religion, Politics, and the Moral Life (1993). In short, I am attempting, following his lead, to put into other words what I already understand Oakeshott to be saying. I begin with radical temporality. Franco.indb 120 8/2/12 8:44 AM radical temporality and the modern moral imagination    121 on radical temporality and human conduct In our day the word change is much used, often more or less arbitrarily associated with progress and improvement, even though, in itself, the word can equally carry the connotation of loss or decline. In current parlance little thought of any depth is given to the significance of this word or to its prominence in contemporary discourse. No doubt this is because its usage is largely associated with various public policy proposals laden with ideological implications , far removed from philosophical reflection. Inherent to human existence, change is a defining feature of practical life and, dramatically, of politics. Oakeshott understands the human being to be “for itself,” trying to make more coherent what seems incoherent, trying to cure dissatisfaction in quest of what is imagined will bring satisfaction (VLL, 19). We are free beings, according to Oakeshott, because we must determine for ourselves what we understand ourselves to be. This is the ordeal of consciousness ; we are incomplete beings searching for completion. This is the human condition. In short, the practical life is constituted in efforts to alter our existence as we currently understand it or to ward off alterations that threaten what we at present take to be satisfactory. Initiating change or defending against change are both alterations and, as they are ever present, have no point of termination . We may talk of programs or plans for change, but we do not require programs or plans for us to be immersed in the experience of change, which proceeds regardless of programs or plans. The conduct of life is inseparable from the experience of change, and every attempt to get beyond the felt necessity of change is an effort to get beyond the life that we have been given. Since this radical temporality is a universal condition of human existence, all human actions belong to the realm of change, including actions that aim to bring changes to conclusive closure. We talk of what is practical or impractical , but these terms are themselves immersed in the medium of change about which we are trying to get our bearings. What is practical or impractical is a matter that can never be finally settled, because human conduct can never be finally settled except perhaps in death. “Practice is activity, the activity inseparable from the conduct of life and from the necessity of which no living man can relieve himself” (EM, 257). “Change we can believe in” is an argument within this endlessness, as is the proposition to be “suspicious of all change.” We need hardly profess belief in change, although much rhetorical energy is spent in such professions; indeed, we have no choice but to accept it. Believing that this or that particular...


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