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In this book, leading scholars from East Asia and beyond debate Michael Oakeshott's views on liberal democracy and totalitarianism and their implications for East Asia today. His ideas on rationality in politics, the nature of liberal democracy, and how democracy can defeat anti-liberal politics are explored in ten penetrating essays.



Introduction: Michael Oakeshott’s Cold War Liberalism

Introduction: Michael Oakeshott’s Cold War Liberalism

In most versions of its history, the Cold War ends with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. But on the Korean Peninsula, two states remain in a relationship of hostility that has resisted efforts to repair it. The North’s militarized and hereditary communist regime is the main obstacle to normal relations, eventual unity, and liberal democracy on the Peninsula. Nor is liberal democracy entirely secure even in the South, where questions persist about respect for individual rights, adherence to the rule of law, and the possible recurrence of authoritarian rule. South Korean politics is highly polarized, in part because of differences over how to manage its difficult neighbor. Cold War politics in Korea, then, is not only about relations between North and South but also about how the South can strengthen its liberal democracy while coping with a totalitarian North.

Terry Nardin

Oakeshott on Modern Politics: Conservative or Liberal?


Chapter 1. Michael Oakeshott: Neither Liberal nor Conservative

Why ask whether Oakeshott’s views on modern politics are liberal or conservative? One reason is that Oakeshott contributed to the discussion of public affairs, even if mostly in ways that were relatively detached from immediate issues or personalities. A historian might want to know where he stood in relation to the political debates of his day. And his opinions, along with his failures in detachment, his biases, would interest a biographer. What is less legitimate, in my view, is to ask the question in order to locate him on an ideological spectrum. It is hard to see the point of such an exercise, though one understands the impulse to embrace or repudiate a thinker for political reasons. If we want to understand Oakeshott’s most significant ideas, asking whether he is a liberal or a conservative is like asking how many angels can dance on the head of a pin—the question calls not for earnest inquiry but for a paradigm shift, in the absence of which old and sterile debates are pointlessly repeated.

Terry Nardin

Chapter 2. Oakeshott, Modernity, and Cold War Liberalism

Increasingly recognized as a twentieth-century thinker of the first rank, Michael Oakeshott nevertheless still resists easy categorization. And this is so despite the fact that he has long been recognized as a notable figure in several related intellectual disciplines including the history of ideas, the philosophy of history, and—especially—political philosophy. Indeed, until recently, Oakeshott has often been labelled as a thinker sui generis, difficult to classify and to come to terms with, and even sometimes dismissed as an uncompromising eccentric. Why is this?

Edmund Neill

Chapter 3. Conserving the University as a Place for Liberal Learning

Thatcherism is sometimes seen as the culmination of Cold War liberalism: Margaret Thatcher, with Ronald Reagan, not only reinvigorated a sense of the West as the paragon of freedom but also started a new ideological offensive against Soviet communism. One of the most contested arenas of the Cold War came to be the traditional place of learning and research: the university. The university of the free world was to reflect free market conditions—in Thatcher’s vision—not be sheltered from it. Of course, ironically, in the British university market competition did not at all emerge freely but was engineered by the state. With the fall of the Iron Curtain, the university policies initiated under Thatcher victoriously spread to the Eastern bloc as well as other parts of the world in the name of marketization. Governments adopted them not only as a means to ensure competition but also as a mechanism to reshape the very character of the scholar to make academics more productive, disciplined, and responsible. The current legitimation crisis of the university is now felt globally, but one might argue that it started with Thatcherism.

Erika A. Kiss

Oakeshott on Totalitarianism and Constitutional Democracy


Chapter 4. Oakeshott and Totalitarianism

Michael Oakeshott might seem at first glance to have little to say about totalitarianism and therefore to be an unlikely contributor to either the theory or the practice of Cold War liberalism. The word does not feature in any significant sense in his very extensive writings. If he noted the term totalitarian at all he would have mentally classed it with all those other words like nation-state and popular sovereignty that litter modern political discourse and in his view are best avoided by serious students of politics. Such ideas are derived from rationalist political doctrines and therefore belong to ideological politics. An ideology is an “abstract principle or set of related abstract principles which has been independently premeditated.”1 Oakeshott believed that ideologies confuse more than they elucidate because they are based on a very superficial view of what politics is about, and prevent clear thinking about its nature.

Andrew Gamble

Chapter 5. Rule of Law or City of Babel: Oakeshott on the Twentieth-Century State

When people in East Asia talk about Cold War liberalism, they are more likely to think of Berlin, Popper, Aron, and, in particular, Hayek than of Michael Oakeshott. In the Chinese-speaking world, for example, Hayek’s Road to Serfdom was translated in the mid-1950s and his Constitution of Liberty has been available in Chinese since the early 1970s. In contrast, Oakeshott’s most famous essays, collected in 1962 as Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays, were translated into Chinese and made available in China only in 2004 by Zhang Rulun, who discusses Oakeshott’s reception in China in Chapter 9 of this volume.1

Chor-yung Cheung

Chapter 6. An Association for Amiable Adventurers: On Oakeshott’s Peculiar Constitutionalism

Michael Oakeshott was hardly a typical Cold War liberal.1 Unlike Raymond Aron, for instance, he did not pen polemics against intellectuals who had fallen for the illusions of communism; unlike Isaiah Berlin or Karl Popper, he did not trace the pathologies of Communist political beliefs back to “precursors” in the history of ideas; and, unlike almost everyone else plausibly described as a Cold War liberal, he offered no sketch, let alone a comprehensive theory, of totalitarianism. He gave a talk on Radio Free Europe once and said everything a Cold War liberal would have said about the fallacies of believing in “historical laws”; he also insisted in an unpublished piece on the topic of conversation that he would never want to be a communist.2 But that was it, on the face of it. No grand intellectual-cum-moral battles against “fellow travelers”; no participation in ventures like the Congress for Cultural Freedom; and certainly no attempt to play counselor to any Cold War foreign policy establishment.

Jan-Werner Müller

Oakeshott in the East Asian Context


Chapter 7. Oakeshott in China

Given China’s failure to repel the aggressions of Western and Japanese imperialism, modern Chinese believe that to defend and modernize their country, they must learn from the West. For this reason, the Chinese feel great enthusiasm for Western philosophies and political theories. Most Western political philosophers are warmly welcomed in modern China. But Oakeshott is an exception.

Zhang Rulun

Chapter 8. Oakeshott and Confucian Constitutionalism

Is Michael Oakeshott relevant in East Asia? Some scholars find rich potential for a cross-cultural dialogue between the East Asian philosophical tradition, especially Confucianism and Daoism, and Oakeshott’s “poetic thinking.”1 Given Oakeshott’s interest in East Asian practical wisdom found in the teachings of Confucius and Zhuangzi, among others, this certainly is one way in which Oakeshott can be relevant in East Asia. But what about Oakeshott’s political theory, for which he is best known, despite some recent arguments against characterizing him as a “political” philosopher simpliciter?2 Given that Oakeshott’s political theory has long been neglected even by Anglo-American political theorists, it is hardly surprising that it is less popular, if not completely unknown, in East Asian academia. Even those who have been exposed to Oakeshott’s self-contained, postulates-constituted political theory, most fully articulated in his major work, On Human Conduct, are often puzzled over what to make of it, not only because of its unorthodox style but, more importantly, because of its self-conscious defiance of efforts to categorize it as either conservative or liberal,3 which are the terms casually employed to describe East Asian—especially South Korean and Japanese—domestic politics.

Sungmoon Kim

Chapter 9. Some Implications of Oakeshott’s Thought for Contemporary Korean Society and Politics

Michael Oakeshott, who was once defined as a parochial ideologue, affiliated not only with the British conservative tradition but also with Margaret Thatcher, has begun to attract the attention of scholars around the world as a thinker who escapes that category. Oakeshott’s pluralist epistemology and related conception of modern individuality, his constructive theory of historical knowledge, his radical critique of rationalism in modern politics, his emphasis on the religious dimension of political and moral life, his views on the practice of politics, and his philosophy of education are today being reassessed. As a result, Oakeshott is increasingly recognized as one of the great political philosophers of the twentieth century, even as the greatest political philosopher the English-speaking world has produced since Burke or J. S. Mill.

Bi Hwan Kim


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