The Conversationalist

Writing for The Weekly Standard, Joseph Epstein explores the conservatism of Michael Oakeshott.

Although “Oakeshott suggested no programs, advocated no policies, and worked with no specific ends in mind,” Epstein explains, he still considered himself a conservative.  As Epstein describes, Oakeshott believed that philosophers (as well as scientists, historians, politicians, economists, and poets) could not access the world outside of their individual “mode of experience,” and therefore, they could never present a complete story of human existence.  What they could do is engage in “unending conversation about the complexities of life and life’s proper ends.”

This conversation, he held, ought never to lapse into argument. Nor is it hierarchical. Every thoughtful person can participate. In “The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind,” he wrote that “conversation is not an enterprise designed to yield an extrinsic profit, a contest where a winner gets a prize, nor is it an activity of exegesis; it is an unrehearsed intellectual adventure.” Life, for Oakeshott, as he put it in “A Place of Learning,” is “a predicament, not a journey.” The predicament is how to make the best of it and get the best out of it.

The answer for Oakeshott, as he set out most emphatically in “On Being Conservative,” is to cultivate “a propensity to use and to enjoy what is present rather than to wish for or to look for something else; to delight in what is present rather than what was or what may be. .  .  . To be conservative, then, is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss.”

For Oakeshott, conservatism was a disposition rather than a doctrine. From this disposition certain political positions followed, views of change and innovation key among them: “Whenever stability is more profitable than improvement, whenever certainty is more valuable than speculation, whenever familiarity is more desirable than perfection, whenever agreed error is superior to controversial truth, whenever the disease is more sufferable than the cure, whenever the satisfaction of expectations is more important than the ‘justice’ of the expectations themselves, whenever a rule of some sort is better than the risk of having no rule at all, a disposition to be conservative is more appropriate than any other; and on any reading of human conduct these cover a not negligible range of circumstances.”

Epstein goes on in this article to discuss Oakeshott’s views on politics, the role of government and morality.  For the full text, click here.