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14 oakeshott on civil association Noël O’Sullivan The distinctive achievement of Western political thought since the seventeenth century is the ideal of the limited state. Despite extensive theorizing about this ideal, however, there has always been profound disagreement about its precise nature and implications. The full extent of this disagreement has been especially evident during the decades since World War II, in the course of which sustained efforts have been made by a variety of thinkers to construct a coherent alternative to totalitarianism. In Friedrich Hayek’s view, for example, the limited state is principally characterized by a free market economy that facilitates human progress. For Karl Popper it is characterized by commitment to creating an open society that rejects absolute truth and asserts the conditionality of all knowledge. In the early writings of John Rawls, the limited state is characterized by commitment to rational principles of distributive justice. For Robert Nozick it means the minimal state. For Ernest Gellner it is the political structure appropriate to what he termed “modular man.” For Jürgen Habermas, echoing Rousseau, it refers to a political order based on rational will formation. For Václav Havel what characterizes the limited state is the promotion of spiritual integration instead of the spiritual fragmentation associated with totalitarian regimes. Still other interpretations of the ideal of the limited state are found among theorists of globalization and the European Union.1 In light of this disagreement, Michael Oakeshott’s interpretation of the limited state as civil association is of special interest, seeking as it does to give a degree of conceptual coherence to the ideal that is otherwise lacking. The principal obstacle to achieving this coherence, Oakeshott believes, is a deep division of opinion among modern political theorists about the nature of political science. To understand Oakeshott’s identification of the limited state with civil association, it is therefore necessary to begin by considering his understanding of political science. Franco.indb 290 8/2/12 8:44 AM oakeshott on civil association   291 political science and the theory of civil association The core of Oakeshott’s conception of civil association is his characterization of it as the only appropriate moral response to the problem of reconciling authority with freedom in a modern Western political order. Accordingly, civil association can be adequately theorized only by a political science capable of acknowledging and analyzing its moral presuppositions. Ever since the seventeenth century, however, many Western thinkers have aspired to transform the study of society into a science by applying the methods of the natural sciences to the study of human beings. For Oakeshott this project has been disastrous because it impoverishes the study of civil association by reducing political science to the study of facts, thereby rendering it impossible to theorize the moral dimension of the civil order. This criticism was developed by Oakeshott at a relatively early stage when, shortly after graduating at Cambridge, he wrote a deeply disillusioned indictment of the teaching of politics, which provided the foundation for his subsequent philosophical work. What he had expected at Cambridge, Oakeshott wrote, was to study the part played by politics in the human condition, whereas what he had encountered was a narrowly institutional approach in which the political philosophers who might have given him the assistance he sought were not studied in any depth. Explaining precisely why the Cambridge syllabus was so impoverished, Oakeshott observed, “Where the Cambridge syllabus fails is in its attempt to make political science into a natural science which gives its definitions in terms of fact and not of meanings” (WIH, 57). Confining attention to the study of fact, he wrote, is unsatisfactory because it “leads simply to other facts, which may equally well be made the objects of further analysis. Indeed, by analysing a single fact into a number of separate elements, we are in general only multiplying our problems” (56–57). When political science is conceived in this way, Oakeshott caustically observed, the emphasis on facts means that the study of institutions is prone “to fly off into an irrelevant treatment of the habits of animals, of the marriage ceremonies of the inhabitants of Morocco or the islands of Fiji (subjects in which our ‘sociologists’ seem more deeply versed than in the institutions and thoughts of Englishmen to-­ day)” (59). Turning from the critical to the constructive side of Oakeshott’s rejection of the Cambridge syllabus, what must now be considered is his view of what a sound political science...


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