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What Andrew Sullivan taught me about Michael Oakeshott

Philosopher Michael Oakshott

December 2, 2019 - 1:57pm

Andrew’s Sullivan’s Confession was remarkable in so many ways: his energy, his raw openness, his unquenchable intellectual curiosity. We talked (well, mostly he talked) for nearly two hours. It continued afterwards in the pub over several Jägermeisters.

Even after that I felt compelled to keep exploring the ideas he was developing, not least by looking up the writings of his great intellectual hero, Michael Oakeshott, whose writings were the subject of Sullivan’s PhD. Oakeshott was one of those figures whose name I knew, but not much more than that. That was a terrible oversight. Because reading him over the weekend came as an absolute revelation.

What Oakeshott describes is a form of conservatism that has little to do with the politics of being Left or Right. Indeed, his conservatism isn’t a theory or an over-arching political philosophy, so much as a habit of mind, a general disposition. And this disposition is to be highly suspicious of the prioritisation of philosophical systems over the ordinary non-ideological day-to-day existence of human lives.

It’s a refusal of the idea that theory is better than practice, a suspicion of big explanations over little ones, an awareness that if we allow some rational system politically to format our lives we can do great violence to the patterns of human flourishing that develop over time and are embedded in specific forms of life.

It is neither Left nor Right because there are ideologues on either side — both market fundamentalism and top-down central planning are forms of heteronomous imposition, ways of knowing better than the practical forms of civility that get developed by human beings over time. It is conservative because, by instinct, it prefers to leave things as they are, particularly aware that a proposed cure for social ills is often more dangerous to the patient than the condition being addressed.

Reading Oakeshott, I am reminded of the equally conservative-minded Wittgenstein — 12 years his elder — who also believed in the priority of practice and practical reasoning over grand philosophical theories. Unlike Marx, who famously believed philosophers should try and change the world as well as understand it, Wittgenstein thought philosophy should leave everything as it is.

That is not to say that Oakeshott and Wittgenstein, comfortable in their donnish seclusion, thought the world perfectly ok as it is. It is just that they believed the people best placed to make the world a better place were not theorists but practitioners. Perhaps the reason Oakeshott was ignored by other philosophers was that he was warning the world against them and the damage they could do.

Oakeshott was no fogeyish conservative preferring the past over the present. As Andrew Sullivan rightly insists, he was perfectly at home in the modern world. Indeed, Oakeshott was a philosopher of human flourishing who understood the danger of universal rationality — a rationality that too often believes it knows better in the abstract and misses what makes for practical human happiness on the ground and in real lives.

Giles Fraser is a journalist, broadcaster and Vicar of St Anne’s, Kew.


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