Front Page Titles (by Subject) Oakeshott\'s Political Philosophy - Literature of Liberty, Summer 1980, vol. 3, No. 2
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Oakeshott's Political Philosophy - Leonard P. Liggio, Literature of Liberty, Summer 1980, vol. 3, No. 2 
Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought was published first by the Cato Institute (1978-1979) and later by the Institute for Humane Studies (1980-1982) under the editorial direction of Leonard P. Liggio.
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Oakeshott's Political Philosophy
“Review Article: The Political Philosophy of Michael Oakeshott.” British Journal of Political Science 9 (October 1979):481–506.
The author evaluates Michael Oakeshott's conception of philosophy, especially his political philosophy. Oakeshott's conception of philosophy falls within the idealist tradition. For him experience—the unity of subject and object—is the only reality, and philosophy's task is to offer an absolute understanding of experience as a whole. Any limited standpoint distorts experience; in order fully to understand something within the whole of experience, one must understand its relation to other experiences or entitites, its conditions of existence or its postulates. Philosophy is able to understand the totality of experience by putting together all these defined and interrelated concepts into a coherent whole.
Oakeshott's conception of political philosophy follows from his conception of philosophy, although at different points in his career he has stressed more the critical or the constructive aspect.
There are two types of “practices”: prudential and moral. Prudential practices are instrumental, designed to achieve a specific substantive purpose. Moral practices have no extrinsic purpose, are accepted as authoritative or binding, and are not instrumental. Human associations are, similarly, either enterprise (or purposive) associations or moral (or practicebased) associations. “Enterprise associations” contain members united by pursuit of a common purpose; whatever authority there is derived from the common purpose and is meant to help achieve the purpose. A “moral association,” however, accepts the authority of common practices and procedures and it is only this which binds its members together, who may pursue any self-chosen substantive purpose they wish.
A civil association cannot be an “enterprise” (or purposive) association: says Oakeshott. For a purposive association is voluntary, but a civil association is not voluntary in that people can't leave it when they no longer share its purposes. A compulsory enterprise association forces men to subscribe to purposes they may not believe in, and thus violates their freedom and autonomy.
Civil associations are constituted by the recognition of the authority of respublica, that is, the system of interrelated rules which specify civil obligations. Citizens need not share any other purposes, nor do they need to approve of the rules.
Oakeshott calls the process by which citizens influence the legislative authority “politics.” He believes you cannot discuss political principles in terms of abstract ideals and principles, for they are too broad and indeterminate to be integrated into the life of the community. Politics tries not to pursue perfection, and political proposals should be understood in terms of how well they fit within the prevailing civil discourse. Politics need not occur in civil life, for Oakeshott doesn't see its great significance. Civil association exists to provide civil freedom, that is, freedom to pursue one's purposes and be restrained by nothing except general and formal norms to respect each other's civility.
Parekh thinks Oakeshott may be the only thinker in the history of political philosophy to have noticed the problematic nature of political philosophy; in order to truly analyze the grounds of politics, a philosopher must go far beyond it, but in order to be political philosophy, the philosopher must treat politics as an autonomous realm.
Parekh's criticisms of Oakeshott are as follows. Oakeshott's account of theorizing is dubious, since it is hard to see how, for example, a historian relates events to the postulates underlying the disciplines; nor are scientific laws the conditions or postulates of the events explained by them. Furthermore, although Oakeshott says theorizing entails no recommendations, Oakeshott's own work is full of implicit and explicit recommendations. Thus, in his account of the civil association, Oakeshott can claim that it is not an enterprise by identifying freedom with the ability to choose one's substantive purposes and by believing that such freedom is desirable. How else could he maintain that enterprise must be voluntary? There is nothing in the nature of an enterprise that makes this so; it is because Oakeshott thinks a compulsory enterprise would violate autonomy and this ought not to be done that he thinks compulsion should be limited to a civil association where this compulsion is more indirect.
Oakeshott's definition of a moral purpose as one with no extrinsic purpose is open to serious dispute. There are nonpurposive practices (e.g. good table manners) and there are authoritative practices that aren't moral (e.g. apartheid, caste system). Indeed, it is difficult to see how practices can be defined independently of the context of human purposes and satisfactions. This is particularly so for civil society, for many of the rules are made for specific purposes (e.g. tax laws). Though civil society may be constituted by authority, the legislative conduct is surely purposive.
Oakeshott's attempt to combine freedom in his interpretation with a civil association is also fragile. If the citizens must recognize the authority of the laws, why does this not violate their freedom to some extent?