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The Realities of Political Life
Tim Fuller is a professor of political theory at Colorado College, where he has taught since 1965. He is particularly well known in conservative academic circles throughout the Anglosphere for his standing as one of the world’s foremost scholars of the British political philosopher Michael Oakeshott. The two men had a close friendship for the last sixteen years of Oakeshott’s life, and Dr. Fuller organized and wrote the foreword to Oakeshott’s most famous work, Rationalism in Politics, at the latter’s personal request. While Oakeshott was regarded as an important thinker in some circles before his death, the global influence that his thought now enjoys is a relatively recent occurrence—and Dr. Fuller’s numerous books, essays, and lectures on the subject have thus been widely circulated and translated into five different languages, with his traveling to speak at universities around the world.
My introduction to Oakeshott was, fortuitously, through Dr. Fuller. As a result, I am currently in the process of writing my senior thesis on Oakeshottian political philosophy. As a conservative student, though, I am often surprised at how little my contemporaries have engaged with his thought, despite the fact that he is undoubtedly one of the most important philosophers of the modern Anglo-American right.
Young conservative students are often conversant in their Leo Strauss, their Edmund Burke, and their Roger Scruton, but their knowledge of Oakeshott is less reliable. I reached out to ISI to suggest this interview—which was recorded as a conversation, and then transcribed with edits for length and clarity—in the hopes of changing that.
Dr. Fuller, in the context of this being an interview for ISI, I want to talk about Oakeshott as a thinker that conservative students should be paying more attention to. In my mind, he’s one of the most important conservative political philosophers of the twentieth century. With that being said, although Oakeshott is generally referred to as a “conservative,” something that you’ve emphasized when teaching his work to me is that such labels only fit to a certain extent. He’s a political philosopher, but he simultaneously saw politics as a fundamentally secondary activity—a necessary evil.
So the attempt to impose a political categorization such as “conservative” on him is somewhat limited in its utility.
I’d say that is a fair characterization, especially in the American context where movement conservatism has always found it somewhat difficult to know what to do with Oakeshott, because he never really spent a lot of time talking about policy questions. As far as thinking of himself as a philosopher of politics, he had a very particular view of what the philosophic study of politics was supposed to be. It was fundamentally an attempt to describe the realities of political life. In that respect, he would go back to the influence of people like Hobbes—which is obvious because he wrote quite a lot about Hobbes—but also back to Aristotle’s notion that human beings are by nature political, which means that it’s a permanent characteristic of the human condition, and therefore the task of philosophy first and foremost is to describe what the fundamental recurrent characteristics of political life are.
That already means that in the philosophic study of politics, you’re not primarily concerned with advocating particular political issues or policies in the current state of affairs. That’s not to say he didn’t have preferences . . . but it would be hard for you to find places where he would discuss specific policy issues going on in the electoral process, which he hardly ever did.
You mentioned that Oakeshott’s reception in the United States was initially hesitant. Progressives didn’t like him because of his general skepticism of grand political projects and his emphasis on restraint and humility; but some movement conservatives were distrustful of him because of the difficulty of converting his skeptical political philosophy into programmatic activism. William F. Buckley notably did really take to him, and invited him to lecture at National Review, but other figures like Irving Kristol thought his philosophy was too abstract.
Yes. Actually Buckley is the great exception to this, because although Buckley was obviously an activist, he also was a substantial intellectual. It wasn’t just that he appreciated Oakeshott’s ideas, but he appreciated the wit and style of Oakeshott. And of course, Buckley was noteworthy not only for his ideas but also for his wit and his style. And I think he appreciated that feature of Oakeshott in a way that a lot of other people Buckley was associated with didn’t. Irving Kristol is a classic example of that.
Interestingly enough, since we started publishing accessible editions of [Oakeshott’s] work on a broader scale, he’s of course become a global figure and his works have been translated into many languages, and he’s become quite influential and finally achieved the kind of recognition he deserves, especially but not only among conservatives.
I think his unique brand of conservatism is probably best articulated in On Being Conservative, which has always been my favorite of his essays.
By the way, a lot of my liberal students like it, too.
I’m not entirely surprised by that.
Well, it’s because partly what it really addresses is the adventurousness of starting out in life as much as anything else. And I think that naturally appeals to young people—as it should.
That’s essentially what I wanted to ask you about next. Conservatism, for Oakeshott, was a way of orienting oneself to the world more than it was a specific political program. In On Being Conservative, he describes conservatism as a “disposition.” So I guess I’m curious to hear you describe what the conservative disposition is, and how it might differ or diverge from a more activist, programmatic movement conservatism.
Among the things he says is that people are often too preoccupied with guilt for what the past has been like—that’s something that we are all pretty familiar with at the present time in American higher education, where guilt seems to be the de rigeur position on almost everything. But the other thing, too, is anxiety about the future—something else I think we’re all familiar with. His argument [is] that to be preoccupied with what is past and anxious about what is yet to come deprives you of the ability to enjoy the opportunities of the present moment.
From his point of view, the task is to live as far as possible in the present, and to look for what can be done with the opportunities available to you at that point, and not to be constantly preoccupied with the things about which you can’t do anything—namely what’s gone by, or what’s not yet happened. So the conservative disposition, in a way, is the cultivation of that ability to look for what is worthy to enjoy in the moment that you have.
He also thought that was a particularly good thing for young people, because they hadn’t yet crossed the “shadow line” into the world of adulthood, where everything is much more mundane and where much more disappointment is likely to occur. In that sense, he always had a very considerable fondness for young people. And of course young people aren’t necessarily conservative—but that wasn’t really the point for him. The point is that they were energetic, they were adventurous. They were hopeful, looking for things to do, looking to make a mark in the world, and so on—all of which he thoroughly approved.
So the “disposition” actually could be associated with a lot of people who might disagree with each other on specific policy questions. It’s not a particularly political outlook. Now, I think people of his disposition are conservative in the sense that they’re quite skeptical about the pretensions of public policymakers. That’s true. But that’s not the same thing as joining a party movement and becoming the same kind of thing that you’re skeptical about—which is, I think, what he was mostly concerned with.
On that last point, we’ve talked about the distinctions between Oakeshott’s conservative disposition and a more activist conservatism, but there are also parts of his political philosophy—his entire political philosophy, in some ways—that are clearly reasons to associate him with the political right.
I want to talk about a couple of those, but the first and perhaps most obvious one is his opposition to rationalism. Could you describe what rationalism is and how his opposition to rationalism could be described, broadly speaking, as categorizing him as a conservative?
Contemporary rationalism could be described as what is often now referred to as the “tyranny of experts.” In the current pandemic crisis, we see it in the invocation of something abstractly called “science”; of course, science needs to be taken very seriously, but you can see that in the hands of some politicians, the invocation of science is a kind of rationalization of whatever policy it is that they want to follow, and they try to claim that science supports them.
The current locution is “science is on my side”; there are a number of governors in their lockdowns who say, “Well, I’m just doing what science requires.” That’s the current form of rationalism. And despite Oakeshott’s critique of rationalism, which is quite profound, it persists to a great extent and is coupled with the bureaucratic regulatory system, which leads towards what today you might call the conflict between the constitutional system of the United States and something that you might call a post-constitutional form, in which things like separation of powers, the Electoral College, and the federal system are all now being called into question on the grounds that they inhibit the full reign of expertise. And of course he would oppose all of that. In that respect, of course, he’s absolutely on the side of the conservatives, who oppose the ever-expanding bureaucratic state. No question about that.
That’s something that we have been experiencing or grappling with for the better part of a century. In many ways it mirrors arguments that early progressives like Woodrow Wilson and FDR made. Oakeshott was identifying this rationalism in the forties and fifties, but it’s quite remarkable to me, as a twenty-two-year-old reading his essays in 2020, how little the actual terms of those arguments have changed. What he’s describing in the forties and fifties is almost identical to the arguments that we’re still hearing from progressives today.
Yes, that’s true. Woodrow Wilson is the classic illustration of it, because his vision of a good society was a well-engineered beehive. And I’m quoting him—those are the words he actually used in a book he wrote called The New Freedom. “The new freedom is to be well-organized in a beehive” under the reign of experts. That’s not the old kind of freedom in terms of individual liberty—quite to the contrary.
I think you can see in contemporary academic life the degree to which that attitude has increasingly pervaded the intelligentsia, which leads to a number of other interesting problems such as the fact that, on the right, if you want to call it that, with people like Patrick Deneen and some others of that sort, there’s an equally rampant attack on liberalism. And my difficulty with that is that they don’t seem to understand that they are actually reinforcing the movement towards the kind of bureaucratic control which I think they would otherwise detest if they actually have to live under it.
But that’s another whole issue.
I think that’s where Oakeshott could be called liberal in the classical sense of the word liberal.
Another immediately apparent reason to describe Oakeshott as a conservative is his appreciation for the enormous achievements of the West. He often describes the Western tradition as a “conversation.” Can you explain his conception of this conversation, and how that fits in with the larger Oakeshottian strain of conservatism that we’re trying to get at?
Well, in terms of the issues we’ve just been discussing, one way to look at it is simply that the conversational idea is a way to show profound respect for the capacity of human beings to think for themselves, and to respond intelligently to the world in which they find themselves. And so from his point of view, when he says the things he says or writes the things he writes, he really did think of it as an invitation to other people to respond in terms of how they see things and to enter into a genuine exchange of ideas, rather than an effort simply to defeat each other. He’s quite clear on that. The conversationality is not about winning a debate.
Now of course in politics you have debates and somebody has to win, while somebody has to lose. Of course he understood all that. But if you broaden that feature of politics into the whole of social interaction, as if everything is politics, which is of course one of the things that we often hear nowadays—you know, the politics of the family, the politics of the church, police department, the politics of everything—what you’re introducing into it is a way of thinking that precludes any kind of genuine exchange of ideas in which people simply take an interest in understanding, as far as possible, what is to be understood. So I don’t think he was at all naive about the danger to conversationality. What he was trying to do was remind us that there is another dimension of life besides the political, and that winning and losing are not the only things that count in life. As he sometimes said, it’s not in victory or defeat but in the manner in which you conduct yourself—that’s the important thing.
The rationalist idea—the technocratic idea, the reign of the experts, and so on—is not really a conversational attitude. It’s really: I know what’s right, and that’s the end of the argument. That’s the danger of it. I think he also recognized that in some ways he was fighting a difficult or perhaps a kind of losing battle. But on the other hand, I think he also thought that it was never entirely lost and that it was important for people to have a willingness to try to preserve it to the extent they could.
It seems that, for Oakeshott, the conversational aspect of the human condition is really what makes life worth living. It’s what gives us joy; it’s the poetic aspect of experience. His opposition to rationalism was in no small part because the expansion of a rationalist politics was antithetical to the conversational aspect of our inheritance, and the Western tradition more broadly.
Well, that also brings up the issue of tradition and the attitude toward it. You can see in the present circumstances that the dominant intellectual attitude is the distrust of our inheritance and the belief that it’s essentially wicked and needs to be repudiated. I think his argument could be seen on two levels. One level is simply that it makes no sense to deny the significant advances that we have made over the last several centuries, particularly in terms of defending individual liberty and making it possible for a wider and wider range of human beings to decide for themselves how they’re going to live. And I think he thought that was a genuine and true insight that needed to be preserved. At another level—and this is the part of his argument which is harder to see for a lot of people—he argued that in the end it’s self-defeating to try to live apart from your inheritance, because without that inheritance, you really don’t know how to do anything in the first place.
He would recognize that we’ve had several experiences in the past where the attempt to repudiate our past has led to very bad consequences and not to the kind of utopian fulfillment that the advocates of abandoning our inheritance seem to think is going to follow from it. In that respect, we’re repeating a misunderstanding which seems to appear periodically in the human condition, almost always with consequences that in the long run we will regret. The problem is that when you’re in the fervor of the moment, it’s hard to appreciate the lessons of the past, because of course you’ve begun by being suspicious of all the lessons of the past. It always reminds me of Hegel’s famous remark that the only lesson we’ve learned from history is that we never learn the lessons of history. We make these mistakes over and over again. It’s the Tower of Babel mistake, which seems to be endemic to the human condition.
So what are we to do about it? Well, part of it for him was a kind of stoic attitude because this is a recurrent feature of the human condition. One has to achieve a certain kind of independence of it, even while one is suffering through it, and to have a certain reconciliation to the fact that these kinds of missteps recur in history. And it’s extremely difficult to avoid them, even though it’s clear what’s wrong with them. So I think that’s part of it. There was a strong stoic element in his thought that goes along with his enjoyment of whatever the present moment allows.
About the Author
Nate Hochman (@njhochman) is a senior at Colorado College and an associate contributor at Young Voices. His work has been published in National Review, City Journal, Spectator USA, the American Conservative, Quillette, and a variety of other outlets.
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