A History of Political Experience [Book Review]

This book survives superficial but fails deeper scrutiny. A facile, undiscerning criticism of Lectures in the History of Political Thought (LHPT) is that on Oakeshott’s own account these are lectures on a non-subject: ‘I cannot detect anything which could properly correspond to the expression “the history of political thought”’ (p. 32). This is an entirely typical Oakeshottian swipe – elegant and oblique – at the title of the lecture course he inherited from Harold Laski. If title and quotation sit awkwardly we should remember that Oakeshott never prepared the text for publication – a fortiori he did not prepare it for publication under this title. Moreover, for Oakeshott the compound notion of ‘political thought’ does not denote much either (pp. 33–4). A positive characterization can, however, be made for the notion of ‘political experience’ or ‘intellectual organization’ (p. 42), a particular context-bound agglomeration ‘of sentiments, beliefs, habits of thought, aspirations and ideas’ (pp. 43, 45, 391, 393). This notion, with its enumeration and specification into Greek, Roman, medieval and modern political experience, structures the 32 lectures that comprise the book. Oakeshott’s notion of political experience has deep affinities (at least) with the style of political analysis followed by the Cambridge classicist, F.E. Adcock, in Roman Political Ideas and Practice (1964), a text surely not fortuitously included in the course reading-list for the original lectures.
Keywords history  political thought  Oakeshott
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