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Michael Oakeshott on life: waiting with Godot

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Abstract:

Until quite recently Michael Oakeshott has been widely regarded as a political thinker. So clearly has he been taken to express his political views that there is often little question as to where he lies in the political spectrum. He has been perceived by both ‘friend’ and ‘foe’ as one of the most eloquent twentieth- century exponents of the conservative cause. His best known work is a collection of essays first published together in 1962 as Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays. The title, which is drawn from the first essay in the volume, belies a much broader agenda than one might at first expect. These ‘other essays’ broach a diverse selection of subjects ranging from the idea of the university and what it is to be a historian to the part played by poetry in human experience. This might reveal something about the way in which Oakeshott works as well as what his project might be. He is not only interested in politics (this, if anything, is peripheral): he has a more general concern about a way of thinking which is encroaching upon how we understand ourselves. Oakeshott calls this way of thinking rationalism, and he identifies in rationalism an intellectual disposition to view the world as a series of problems to be solved by appeal to Reason. The rationalist reduces experience to instrumental relations, that is, he views all other objects in this world as means to his ends. Oakeshott identifies other hallmarks of rationalist thought but my present purpose leads me to concentrate on this particular aspect of rationalism. I mention rationalism only to give an indication of the type of thinking that Oakeshott has in his sights.

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Australian National University.

Publication date: January 1, 1995

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