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  • Flathman’s Oakeshott and Oakeshott’s Pluralism
  • Richard A. Boyd (bio)


Throughout his career Richard Flathman has returned again and again to Michael Oakeshott's theories of authority, individuality, and self-enactment—and with great profit to those of us who have followed his writings on these and related themes. So it comes as no surprise that Pluralism and Liberal Democracy's chapter on Oakeshott is one of the most illuminating and synoptic interpretations of Oakeshott's pluralism to appear in print. In what follows I will confine my remarks as much as possible to this chapter of the book. I want to underscore three main points: first, the importance of Flathman's philosophical understanding of the nature and origins of pluralism; second, what I take to be the strengths and weaknesses of his account of how individuals negotiate pluralism; and finally, the originality and importance of Flathman's emphasis on dispositional as opposed to institutional methods for dealing with pluralism. Because Flathman proceeds by way of a presentation of the writings of Oakeshott, my praise (and criticism) of the two are necessarily intertwined. Where I see a divergence in their ideas I will try my best to emphasize relevant differences.


For all of today's talk about "pluralism," there is remarkably little consensus about what the term means or where this pluralism comes from. What Isaiah Berlin, Joseph Raz, John Rawls, William Galston and other political philosophers mean by pluralism is the fact that there are a plurality of distinct and incommensurable moral goods, and that any choice between them leaves behind irresolvable moral remainders. Others like Will Kymlicka, Charles Taylor, and contemporary multiculturalists have focused on a sociological pluralism rooted in a multitude of ascribed identities, cultures and communities. Still others speak of pluralism in terms of the voluntary choices of individuals in forming, or not forming, groups in the space known as civil society.

Just as there is little consensus about what pluralism means, liberal thinkers are divided on the question of whether pluralism is something that needs to be encouraged (when lacking) or circumnavigated (when present). J. S. Mill and Tocqueville famo- usly worried that pluralism is not self-reproducing. Modern democratic conditions tend to discourage the creation of a vibrant world of plurality. This complaint is echoed by contemporary critics of the vapid conformity and homogeneity allegedly generated by globalization. In this view something needs to be done to encourage or preserve a rich condition of human plurality. On the other hand the condition of pluralism can be taken as a limiting condition for political life that needs to be dealt with, managed, or neutralized (as liberal thinkers as different as Hobbes, Locke, Madison, and Rawls all assumed in one way or another). On the whole, I think, Flathman agrees with the latter group who take the existence of some kind of pluralism as a constant. And yet he also sees his task as a theorist as plumbing the conditions necessary to make this kind of pluralism viable. Liberal political theory must find ways of accommodating a pluralism that is neither incompatible with liberal democracy nor the rights of individual citizens. Flathman's discussion of Oakeshott illuminates all of these dimensions of the question of pluralism.


Locating the condition of human plurality in the very nature of human cognition, Oakeshott's seminal Experience and its Modes is central to Flathman's view of pluralism. The first and most abiding source of pluralism is what Flathman (following Oakeshott) describes as "modal plurality" (131). Experience gets filtered through "modes of experience" as qualitatively different as science, history, and practice (with religion being one of the most significant species of practice). This accounts for the "categorial" differences between scientific knowledge, historical knowledge, practical knowledge, and (later in Oakeshott's writings) poetic knowledge. These modes are incommensurable in the sense that they are "invulnerable to cogent critique or alteration based on considerations drawn from other modes" (113). Nor can any single mode be said to capture the totality of human experience. Trying to reduce human experience to a single voice or mode is representative of a dangerous monism. "Because these distinctions are categorial," Flathman observes, "because...


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