Pluralism and Uncertainty after Philosophy's Linguistic Turn: The Pragmatism of Michael Oakeshott and Practical Politics

17 Pages Posted: 11 Aug 2010 Last revised: 28 Sep 2010

See all articles by Conor Williams

Conor Williams

Georgetown University - Department of Government

Date Written: 2010


Modern pluralism has long been bedeviled by polemical attacks. Its critics seemingly come from many sides: here natural law and natural right thinkers join forces with post-modern linguistic philosophers. Michael Oakeshott strenuously defends modern pluralism as well as the existence of absolute truth. His account of the various modes of human experience makes it possible for him to simultaneously make both of these claims. He argues that politics is a mode of experience dominated by practical affairs, relegating truth claims to the sidelines. This move has a great deal in common with the writings of John Dewey, Richard Rorty, and other pragmatic defenders of liberalism, and has been largely ignored by commentators seeking to claim Oakeshott as a purely conservative, idealist political thinker. The paper rectifies this misreading through an exploration of Oakeshott's historical foundationalism (in his political thought). I also show how Oakeshott's caution serves as a significant improvement on some of the latter's less cautious arguments.

As such, Oakeshott defends modern pluralism (and modernity itself) from those who seek political certainty as well as those who yearn for pure ethical relativism. Modernity is at once a compromise and an ideal. It is not well-suited to satisfy human yearnings for solidarity, but it still requires more than atomized individuals. The modern political sphere is only partially amenable to calls for community solidarity, since these often pose a threat to individual pluralism. Since moderns are not immune from these yearnings, however, other modes of existence become increasingly important. It is for this reason that Oakeshott privileges religion, aesthetics, and friendship so highly. An outline of his particular historical account of pluralism’s genesis makes clear the tradeoffs implicit in modernity, as well as the continuing importance of satisfying the human impulse to ethical holism in other ways.

Keywords: Pluralism, Pragmatism, Michael Oakeshott, Oakeshott, Idealism, Hegel, Modernity, liberalism, communitarianism

Suggested Citation

Williams, Conor, Pluralism and Uncertainty after Philosophy's Linguistic Turn: The Pragmatism of Michael Oakeshott and Practical Politics (2010). APSA 2010 Annual Meeting Paper, Available at SSRN:

Conor Williams (Contact Author)

Georgetown University - Department of Government ( email )

ICC, Suite 681
Washington, DC 20057-1034
United States

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