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Michael Oakeshott and the Traditionalists:
Philosophy and Conservative Ideologies

TSUI, LIN (2021) Michael Oakeshott and the Traditionalists:
Philosophy and Conservative Ideologies.
Doctoral thesis, Durham University.

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This thesis has two main objectives. The first is to provide a new understanding of Michael Oakeshott’s intellectual development, both political and philosophical. The second is to assess his place in post-war conservatism through using his works as a framework in which to interpret the political thought of various traditionalists associated with the Conservative Party.

Part I analyses Oakeshott’s philosophy in its own right without considering whether he is a liberal or a conservative. I argue that his political philosophy and general philosophy must be treated separately because of their different implications for politics, and because of the different purposes and speed of their subsequent transformation. I contend further that Oakeshott’s political philosophy is more strictly philosophical in claiming that the political philosopher contributes most to society when he remains loyal to his calling and refuses to address current affairs. By contrast, Oakeshott’s general philosophy centred on the modes of experience was an offshoot from his early political philosophy, though it acquired a life of its own, and was for the most part polemical within the wider intellectual and political context in which it developed. It is only in Oakeshott’s late works that his general philosophy again became sensitive to the needs of his political philosophy, which had already undergone repeated revisions. Consequently, it is incorrect to argue, as the leading Oakeshott scholar Efraim Podoksik did, that as early as Experience and Its Modes Oakeshott’s general philosophy defended plurality and individuality by breaking with the tradition of holism and dialecticism in British Idealism, with his political philosophy following suit much later.

Part II then considers three traditionalists, Kenneth Minogue, Roger Scruton, and Peregrine Worsthorne, to illustrate the fruitfulness of this framework.

First, it shows that rejecting the interpretation of Oakeshott’s works as predominantly a form of liberal individualism does not, pace Andrew Gamble, entail regarding his political thought as unambiguously conservative instead. This becomes clear in both Minogue’s and Scruton’s versions of conservatism; the tensions between them elucidate the significant contrasts between Oakeshott’s late and early political philosophy, respectively. This makes it difficult to regard Oakeshott’s thought as straightforwardly conservative, and is less interesting than understanding Oakeshott by reference to conservative intellectuals, and vice versa.

Second, Part II evaluates the extent of Oakeshott’s influence on the development of conservatism. In keeping with Oakeshott’s late political philosophy, Minogue’s conservatism emphasises that the freedom of choice in the moral life of the individual should not be confused with impulse but focuses instead on the satisfaction of desires and the constitution of one’s moral identity. Though he became more concerned with the permissive society in his late years, which goes beyond the influence of the late Oakeshott, Minogue never went so far as Scruton who argued that it is social institutions which give freedom its meaning and the individual his moral identity. On the other hand, notwithstanding this similarity with the early Oakeshott’s Idealist theory of the State, Scruton’s conservatism is distinctive not in virtue of its Hegelianism but in its revival of the concept of corporate personality for which Oakeshott had no sympathy. In relation to public debates, both Minogue’s late and blatantly political works and Scruton’s political pamphlets concerning education policy further emphasise the limits of Oakeshott’s political thought.

Finally, Part II shows that Worsthorne’s claim that his defence of the traditional ruling class and the notion of noblesse oblige was inspired by Oakeshott’s “Rationalism in Politics” and “The Masses in Representative Democracy” represents yet another distinctive reading of Oakeshott. This combines Oakeshott’s general and political philosophy, not to defend the New Right, whether neo-liberal or neo-conservative, but the aristocracy of One Nation Toryism. The example of Worsthorne emphasises that even focusing narrowly on Oakeshott’s more politically relevant writings and his later development of political philosophy does not result in a uniform sense in which he can be regarded as a conservative.

Against the prominent commentators on Conservatism Mark Garnett and Kevin Hickson, the thesis concludes that while Oakeshott’s philosophical works appear aloof from practical politics and defy conventional ideological classifications, they are nevertheless essential to understanding the diverse forms of political thought associated with the Conservative Party in post-war Britain.

Item Type:Thesis (Doctoral)
Award:Doctor of Philosophy
Keywords:conservatism, Michael Oakeshott, Kenneth Minogue, Roger Scruton, Peregrine Worsthorne, traditionalist
Faculty and Department:Faculty of Social Sciences and Health > Government and International Affairs, School of
Thesis Date:2021
Copyright:Copyright of this thesis is held by the author
Deposited On:02 Mar 2021 11:36

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