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Michael Oakeshott on Civility, Civil Society and Civil Association

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Contemporary treatments of ‘civil society’ have struggled to formulate clear and explicit criteria for determining which associations ought to count as part of a truly ‘civil’ society and, conversely, which other kinds of groups a liberal democracy would best avoid. Michael Oakeshott's idealized distinction between ‘civil’ association and ‘enterprise’ association may prove extremely helpful in sharpening these contemporary discussions of civil society. Rather than a conservative value with exclusionary and anti-democratic overtones, as many have alleged, the virtue of civility entails immanent inclusivity, democratic equality and the active recognition of others. Understanding civility in this way argues for both its normative and conceptual value in distinguishing the good from the bad in associational life. On the other hand, the contemporary literature on civil society draws attention to ambiguities in Oakeshott's thought that make his understanding of the liberal state, for better or worse, an improbable means of encouraging a rebirth of associational life.

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: University of Wisconsin-Madison

Publication date: 2004-10-01

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