restricted access Chapter 9: Michael Oakeshott on the History of Political Thought
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9 michael oakeshott on the history of political thought Martyn Thompson My concern is twofold. First, I outline what I take Oakeshott to have meant by the phrase “the history of political thought,” and then I consider some criticisms from Oakeshott’s perspective of the theory and practice of Quentin Skinner, the leading figure in the so-­ called Cambridge School of historians of political thought.1 Oakeshott was impressed by his work. But there are significant points of disagreement. I focus on two: first, Oakeshott’s disagreement with Skinner about the historical interpretation of Hobbes’s Leviathan; and second, more generally, Oakeshott’s objections to Skinner’s reduction of the history of political thought to “the history of ideologies.”2 The two points are closely connected. i I do not attempt to compare any of Oakeshott’s historical narratives with any of Skinner’s, because Oakeshott published nothing which, in his own account of the logic of historical inquiry, might properly be characterized as an exclusively historical narrative.3 Even the posthumously published works that many have taken to be histories, such as The Politics of Faith and the Politics of Scepticism (1996), are not.4 Included among these posthumously published writings are Oakeshott’s undergraduate lectures that appeared in print with the misleading title of Michael Oakeshott: Lectures in the History of Political Thought (2006). I must begin, then, by correcting the false impression that these lectures are likely to give to anyone interested in Oakeshott’s understanding of the history of political thought. There is much in the lectures that is relevant to my concerns, but it has to be extracted from a work of a quite different character. Franco.indb 197 8/2/12 8:44 AM 198   political philosophy The published title is an invention of the editors.5 Anyone even partly familiar with Oakeshott’s published writings on the logic of history is bound to be surprised by some aspects of the lectures. They contain much that is unhistorical, some of which will be obvious to everyone. His decision to reverse the historical sequence of intellectual influence by examining Aristotle ’s political philosophy before considering the ideas of Socrates and Plato is one example. Other unhistorical moves will be apparent only to those with some familiarity with Oakeshott’s ideas. Examples here include his relatively frequent recourse to “ideal types” as organizing ideas in the lectures (especially the lectures on medieval monarchies and on modern ideas of “telocracy ” and “nomocracy”). Ideal types, for Oakeshott, were the analytic tools of philosophers, not historians (LHPT, 111–12).6 The fact that nonhistorical elements were interwoven into the lecture course strongly suggests that Oakeshott was doing something other than offering his students an outline history of Western political thought. And this suggestion is in part confirmed by the fact that Oakeshott’s own title for the lectures did not mention “history.” They were simply lectures on “political thought.”7 Their purpose, Oakeshott noted, was to offer undergraduates “a study of political thought, or aids to the study of political thought.” To be sure, he went on immediately to say that in “the main” what he proposed to offer was a “historical study” (LHPT, 31). But the appropriate context for understanding what he meant by this is his clearly articulated view, part of his philosophy of education, of what is involved in the study of politics at a university .8 The “problems” of the lectures as history disappear, and an immensely important set of observations for understanding Oakeshott’s conception of the history of political thinking becomes clear when they are seen, as Oakeshott intended them to be, as “aids” to the study of politics at a university.9 So what are the main components of this more appropriate context? The key distinction is between the ideal types of vocational and university education in politics. A university education in politics is exclusively focused on the explanation and understanding of domestic and foreign traditions of political activity and political philosophy. It is not at all concerned with developing the vocational skills believed necessary from time to time to formulate policy and engage successfully in political activity. The appropriate explanatory “languages” for understanding political activity are those of history and philosophy; there is next to nothing in political activity capable of genuinely scientific explanation. So the undergraduate lectures provide students with examples of historical and philosophical explanation. They are sophisticated lectures, but their purpose is introductory. They are, indeed, neither more...