Commentary Magazine

On Human Conduct, by Michael Oakeshott

On Human Conduct.
by Michael Oakeshott.
Oxford. 352 pp. $18.50.

On Human Conduct is the most important work in the philosophy of politics to have been published in a long time. It will need to be taken into account in any future discussions of the theory of justice, the development of the modern state, the nature of historical explanation, the basis of political experience, the general theory of human action, and the character and practical relevance of theoretical inquiry itself. Its central essay, “On the Civil Condition,” presents in seventy-five exceptionally concentrated pages a philosophcial treatment of what is commonly called “the rule of law” in terms that more richly repay close study than those to be found in any similar essay published in our language in this century.

Those who have followed closely the work of Michael Oakeshott will not be surprised at this achievement, to which he has devoted himself since his retirement in 1968 from the University Professorship of Political Science at the London School of Economics. The seeds of this work—indeed, the necessity for it—have long been evident in certain anomalies in the discussions of history, science, and practice in his first book, Experience and Its Modes (1933), and in his exploration of the grounds for resolving them in the essays collected in Rationalism in Politics (1962). Even his uncollected essays and incidental reviews—his first writings in the philosophy of religion in the 1920’s, his important statement on “The Concept of a Philosophical Jurisprudence” (1938), his defense of the humanities against the claims of politics before he joined the army in World War II, his several critical essays on Thomas Hobbes,1 his occasional writings on education—have suggested both greater reserves of insight and a remarkable persistence in finding discursive form for them. On Human Conduct is thus the outcome of many years devoted to reflection on the place of politics in the totality of human experience.

It is not an easy book. While advancing his own point of view, Oakeshott is often simultaneously disposing of unnamed authors and schools of thought. Yet, following the maxim of the purist that philosophy gains no authority from citation, he allows himself few digressions, footnotes, or critical remarks that do not advance his own point of view. To appreciate the path he treads, then, requires more than casual interest in what is being superseded. Still, the general reader can also study the book for its own argument, which is in any case the real test. Oakeshott’s accomplishment is not that he has gone deeper than others in this or that respect, but that he has made an enduring statement on a few very important issues.



There are three essays in the book. The first, “On the Theoretical Understanding of Human Conduct,” begins with a case for the unity and purity of theorizing as a commitment. Whether one is engaged in history, science, or philosophy, discursive theorizing is the attempt to make the world intelligible in terms of its organizing conditions. Though it may lead indirectly to changes in the world, it is not itself pursued as an attempt at social amelioration or moral uplift, and a theoretical understanding is not, in Oakeshott’s view, an adequate qualification for giving practical advice.

Philosophy differs from other kinds of theorizing only in being more radically skeptical—in never accepting any stopping place as final. Science and history, on the other hand, work within fairly stable interpretative constructs, or what are more fashionably called paradigms. Science sees the world in terms of process, and human action as “behavior,” externally observable regularities. History sees the world in terms of practices, and human action as “conduct,” moral and prudential choices which are meaningful to the person acting.

Oakeshott devotes the main part of this first essay to elucidating the character of conduct. He sets forth its “postulates,” that is, the categories one must accept to talk about it: human agency and interaction, deliberation, persuasion, explanation, and the notion of a practice as providing a context that makes individual choice meaningful. In so doing, he presents the basis for spotting individuality in experience. To observe individual style requires, he shows, a vocabulary systematically different from that of the natural or behavioral scientist. Oakeshott thus reasserts the integrity of what German writers have called “the human sciences” and what we more often group within the “humanities”: history, cultural anthropology, and literary criticism. Historical understanding is par excellence the theoretical mode for relating individual performances to the context that charges them with meaning. It provides, in Oakeshott’s view, explanations not in terms of cause and effect, probabilistic relations, or behavioral covering laws, but in terms of “contingent relations”—the intelligent and intelligible responses of one agent to the conduct of others in a practical context. Oakeshott promises a fully developed discussion of contingency in a forthcoming collection of historiographical essays, but there is already enough in his dense concluding pages to show that he is well on the road to a rigorous defense of history as a humane discipline.

His first essay is designed also to fork in another, complementary direction: toward a powerful argument for the integrity of civil politics. It contains brief sketches of morality and religion sufficient to suggest that politics should not be confused with either of them. Oakeshott’s second essay, “On the Civil Condition,” then provides a positive statement of the defining marks of political experience.

The distinctive character of politics, Oakeshott believes, consists in a procedural sensibility that has no exact parallel elsewhere. In politics, one feels a moral obligation to obey existing laws at the same time that one is bargaining for an authoritative change in them. One feels an inner demand to submit to rules which are not instrumental to one’s own purposes and of which one may actively disapprove. Politics thus requires a “disciplined imagination,” a delicate combination of submission with criticism, a well-developed facility for putting one’s demands for change in the form of legislative proposals that can be integrated into an existing body of authoritative procedure.

This procedural sensibility Oakeshott calls “civility,” which he uses in the old-fashioned sense to mean not the virtues of civilization and good manners but those of citizenship and civil order. As he uses it, civility is most nearly synonymous with the loose expression, “the rule of law.” It connotes a mode of association based not on any shared purpose or organic sense of community, but on a common recognition of the authority of law and the prerequisites for sustaining it. Oakeshott shows that if law is to command an inner sense of obligation, it cannot be merely instrumental to some managerial objective, to the favoring of some person, faction, or interest, or to the imposition of a given religion or morality on a disparate citizenry. To the extent that one treats a civil order as if it were a corporate enterprise—a church, club, estate, or business—the formal equality of its citizens will be sacrificed to the common mission, the law will become merely instrumental to a “national purpose,” and the basis of obedience will depreciate either to blind obedience or to cold instrumental calculation.

As he did with conduct, Oakeshott presents the “postulates” of civil association, those organizing categories which one must accept to speak the language of civility: authority, obligation, adjudication, law, citizenship, justice, equity, legislation, ruling, enforcement, politics, public and private concerns. Many others, of course, have writen intelligently on these topics; Oakeshott’s contribution is to have drawn them together without reference to specific historical events or institutions. In so doing he enables us to understand them in terms not of their contingent but of their ideal relations. He presents them not as isolated, empirical phenomena but as a coherent ensemble, a mode of human association. He thus shows civility to have achieved an ideal character independent of the circumstances which have given rise to it in the past few centuries of Western history.

This constitutes a forceful denial of both “realistic” and sociological views of law as a mere response to historical circumstances or pressing social needs. It constitutes an equally strong rebuke to those who attempt to derive workable principles of justice from natural law or some other universalistic or transcendental standard. One may certainly believe in such moral standards and use them to lend that certain majesty and mystery without which, it is often held, there can be no widespread sense of legal obligation—indeed, Oakeshott himself sees the notion of a divine lawgiver as an important theological adumbration. of the rule of non-instrumental law in human affairs. But once a practice achieves an ideal character, its historical and doctrinal supports become mere antecedents. Just as modern science has achieved a coherence independent of its origins in neo-Platonism and the craft traditions of medieval guilds, so civility, Oakeshott believes, can now be discussed philosophically independently of God, natural law, the Magna Carta, the Napoleonic code, and the Declaration of Independence.

That he is nevertheless abundantly aware of the contingencies surrounding the emergence of civility is clear from his concluding piece, “On the Character of a Modern European State.” This is the only essay in the book that one can hope to digest in a single reading. For it is not a densely written philosophical treatise but a learned, witty, illuminating, and opinionated excursus in the history of ideas. In a bold improvisation on a theme from Maitland, Oakeshott traces the contrasting notions of civil and enterprise association to two concepts in Roman law, societas and universitas. These two views of the state have been “sweet enemies,” shaping the antinomies of European political thought. Oakeshott’s review of their development provides the general reader with an accessible introduction to his views.



Oakeshott’s two previous books have each sold only a few hundred copies in the United States. Recently he has been introduced to a wider audience through the good offices of William F. Buckley, Jr., who invited him to deliver the guest lecture at the twentieth-anniversary celebration of the National Review (see “Talking Politics,” National Review, December 5, 1975). In his opening remarks Oakeshott made clear that he was not a house philosopher. He noted that such labels as conservative and liberal, Left and Right, now serve only to confuse political discourse—this to the evident dismay of those who had come to applaud fulminations against liberalism, forced busing, the rising crime rate, and the decline of the West.

Yet a disposition that can be called deeply conservative does shape Oakeshott’s entire work. In order not to confuse it with the motley conservatisms seeking public notice, one might call Oakeshott’s attitude traditionalist. It consists simply in the desire to hold on to what experience has taught us to cherish. It is a disposition that we all share to some degree. In those activities in which we prefer the tested and familiar to the abstractly desirable, we are, in his sense, dispositionally conservative.

In times of rapid change reflective men of affairs often invoke deep and elusive forces to buttress a conservative disposition, after the manner of Burke (or of Oakeshott in some of his earlier essays). But a discursively philosophical mind must find more precise and systematic grounds for justifying a tradition: the philosopher cannot be satisfied until he has defined what it is that needs to be conserved and has shown it to be logically defensible and capable of adaptation.

Hence Oakeshott’s emphasis on “ideal character.” By elucidating meaningful conduct, civility, theorizing, and historical explanation as frameworks for ordering experience, he shows them to have a conceptual integrity that can survive changes in circumstance. And he suggests a coherent relation among them, so that one unable to grasp the proper uses of theory will also be incapacitated for making law, writing history, or appreciating individuality.

Oakeshott thus follows those philosophers like Plato and Hegel in the West and Mencius in the East, for whom a “conservative” disposition had its denouement in a radical philosophical “idealism.” He has pressed his views to a level at which those who differ from them—and there will be few modern intellectuals who can share Oakeshott’s sympathies—have the obligation to differ philosophically, by sketching alternatives to his notions of modality, ideality, theorizing, and language.2

Certainly it will take more than merely doctrinal opposition to supplant the most striking contribution of On Human Conduct: an elucidation of law as a civilized achievement. Oakeshott makes no concessions either to pragmatic or to supernatural justifications of civil order. For him the unvarnished truth about the rule of law is that, like any other institutional achievement, it must be continually held in one’s head. It is a fragile artifice that can be lost merely by not being practiced.

The key to its preservation lies in the ability to make a fine discrimination: though moral absolutes and instrumental judgments are essential to all conduct, they cannot provide the organizing categories of civil conduct. In this simple and in many ways unsatisfying disjunction lies one of the major contributions of Western civilization. Like Western science or symphonic music, the rule of law can now travel elsewhere. And there is no guarantee that it will survive in the lands of its origin if its defining conditions are forgotten in expedient calculations or submerged in higher-law rhetoric. Michael Oakeshott has performed the inestimable service of elucidating the conditions of justice as civility without invoking either mythic particulars or inflated universals. He has done the best a philosopher can do to preserve a cultivated ideal—he has enabled us to see clearly what is intrinsic to it.


1 All but the first of these have now been collected in Hobbes on Civil Association, University of California Press, 162 pp., $11.00.

2 Scholarly discussion is just beginning. Later this year the journal Political Theory will publish a special issue on Oakeshott. For discussions of his earlier work and a comprehensive bibliography, see Politics and Experience: Essays Presented to Professor Michael Oakeshott on the Occasion of His Retirement, edited by Preston King and B.C. Parekh, Cambridge University Press, 1968.

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