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  • Conservatism, Pragmatism, and Historical Inquiry
  • Seth Vannatta

I. Introduction

In a 2001 article entitled “The Classical Conservative Challenge to Dewey,” Shawn O’Dwyer puts John Dewey’s understanding of method to the test of criticisms made by conservative theorist Michael Oakeshott. Oakeshott criticizes the view that technical knowledge is superior to the reliance on custom, tradition, and habit in practical knowledge, that moral intelligence can be taught, and that moral intelligence consists of the application of techniques to resolve problems. O’Dwyer concludes that Dewey’s reflections on moral deliberation pass Oakeshott’s challenge to rationalism “with its central themes intact, if not unscathed.”1

In light of O’Dwyer’s article, we see that the classical conservatives and the classical pragmatists share some enticing similarities in their views on moral philosophy. Both acknowledge that “inquiry draws upon its own inheritance of beliefs from the past, beliefs successfully yielded by past inquiry, and avails itself of them as resources in addressing present problems.” O’Dwyer continues, “Inquiry, then, is not external to tradition, and it is not ahistorical; it stands in continuity with past ideas, and these comprise its own traditions.”2

Additionally, despite the fact that Oakeshott made few references to the mood and method of American philosophical pragmatism, and in the few instances where he does refer to pragmatism, he often does so in order to distinguish his position from it,3 the secondary literature provides some insights into an overlap between Oakeshott and American pragmatism. For example, the conservative disposition that Oakeshott illustrates and the conservative moral philosophy of Charles Sanders Peirce offer enticing points [End Page 55] of commonality (Vannatta 2013). Oakeshott and Dewey also offer parallel critiques of rationalism in education (Currie-Knight).

I begin with an acknowledgment of O’Dwyer’s conclusions, with which I agree, because I intend my present inquiry to be a continuation of his reflections on the extent to which classical American pragmatism holds up to the challenges of classical British conservatism. Both moods of thought rely, albeit critically, on the wisdom found in historically inherited knowledge, tradition, and custom. What we think of as a past-oriented philosophy of conservatism is more complex. For instance, Edmund Burke referred to the “method of nature in the conduct of the state, in what we improve we are never wholly new; in what we retain, we are never wholly obsolete” (120). What we think of as a future-oriented philosophy of pragmatism is also more nuanced. For example, Dewey emphasized the virtues of the past when he wrote, “There is a danger . . . of losing the sense of historic perspective and of yielding precipitously to short-term contemporary currents, abandoning in panic things of enduring and priceless value” (LW 11:6). Because of the central function of history and tradition in conservatism, it is fitting to subject Dewey’s view of historical inquiry to the conservative conception of history as offered by Oakeshott. However, as we will see, the result of my inquiry is that we should invert O’Dwyer’s initial question and ask: “Does Oakeshott’s view of historical inquiry pass the pragmatic challenge?”

I will focus on three aspects of historical inquiry. First, I will illustrate the methodological norms common to both Oakeshott’s conservative and Dewey’s pragmatic methods of historical inquiry. Second, I will demonstrate that Oakeshott’s description of the proper way to conceive of a historical event serves as an exemplar of the pragmatic approach to meaning, articulated by C. S. Peirce.4 Last, I will examine Oakeshott’s criticisms of “practical history.” In distancing the “historical past” from the “practical past,” Oakeshott drew a distinction between practical-normative language, which expresses strategies to preserve or to change, convictions, sentiments, and tastes, and philosophical-historical language, which is “explanatory,” concerned only with “its coherence, its intelligibility, its power to illuminate, and its fertility”(Rationalism in Politics 215). Dewey understood these endeavors not as discrete or dichotomous, but as continuous with one another. To the extent that Dewey’s principle of continuity does not pass Oakeshott’s challenge unscathed, Oakeshott’s dichotomies are those that deserve to be challenged. [End Page 56]

II. Normative Methodology in Conservatism...


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