Michael Oakeshott, the Ancient Greeks, and the Philosophical Study of Politics

Dissertation, University of Michigan (2004)

This dissertation is an assessment of the philosophical view of Michael Oakeshott and the value of the study of political philosophy in light of early notebooks he kept on the ancient Greek thinkers, primarily Plato. A close textual analysis of the notebooks reveals Oakeshott's unique philosophical position among the British Idealists. An analysis of his confrontation with the thought of the ancient Greeks helps us appreciate this unique position and understand the contribution Oakeshott makes to our understanding of political philosophy. Oakeshott's reading of the ancient Greek thinkers, in his notebooks, reveals a mixture of powerful philosophical skepticism along with commitments to a philosophical monism he shared with other British Idealists. ;This mixture has surprising and important implications for political philosophy. In an unusual reading of the character of Socrates, Oakeshott sees a social conservatism and a philosophical radicalism emblematic of his own thinking and exemplary of the gap he understood to exist between philosophical activity and practical activity. Oakeshott understood philosophical activity to be primarily descriptive and explanatory. This understanding sheds new light on Oakeshott's brief and intermittent treatment of Plato in his published writing, but also results is an extremely subtle reading of Plato while critiquing the limits of Platonic theorizing. Though there are strong beginning points in Oakeshott's and Plato's theorizing of the state, Oakeshott thought Plato did not adequately theorize the state because he was too distracted with practical concerns. This reforming disposition carries over into the understanding of the philosophical study of politics of Plato, but also of neo-Platonists and skeptical historians of the history of political philosophy today. Oakeshott's critique of this over-concern with practical change prevents reflections on politics from rising to a level Oakeshott thought merited the name 'political philosophy'. Oakeshott's position offers an alternative to both the "perennial questions" approach and the contextualist approach, exemplified by Quentin Skinner. Oakeshott's insistence on a rather specific understanding of political philosophy is analyzed and tied to his view of the poetic quality of life and to the modern threat he saw emanating from the dominance of the practical viewpoint
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