The Philosophy of Political History in Oakeshott and Collingwood

in Journal of the Philosophy of History
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Every political philosopher has a philosophy of political history, if sometimes not a very good one. Oakeshott and Collingwood are two twentieth century political philosophers who were particularly concerned with the significance of history for political philosophy; and who both, in the 1940s, sketched what I call philosophies of political history: that is, systematic schemes which could make sense of the entire history of political philosophy. In this article I observe that Oakeshott depended for the political threefold sketched in his Introduction to Hobbes’s Leviathan on a threefold Collingwood had developed in relation to science in The Idea of Nature. This is, I think, a novel observation. I contrast this political threefold with Collingwood’s own political threefold in The New Leviathan. I then consider the neglect of these schemes, along with the rare attempts to defend such philosophies of history in the writings of Greenleaf and Boucher. My own claim is that these philosophies of political history are exemplary: and that the threefold is, for obvious Hegelian reasons, a still useful form for this sort of reflection. Political philosophy is likely to improve the more it takes the philosophy of political history seriously.

The Philosophy of Political History in Oakeshott and Collingwood

in Journal of the Philosophy of History




Oakeshott‘Introduction’ pp. xi–xii (also found in Oakeshott Hobbes on Civil Association pp. 7–8 and Rationalism in Politics pp. 227–8).


See for instance Roy TsengThe Sceptical Idealist: Michael Oakeshott as a Critic of the Enlightenment (Exeter: Imprint Academic2003) p. 191 and Kenneth McIntyre The Limits of Political Theory: Oakeshott’s Philosophy of Civil Association (Exeter: Imprint Academic 2004) pp. 144–5 for a lack of criticism. Sometimes there is error as when we are told that Oakeshott’s threefold is an account of three ‘stages’ rather than of three ‘traditions’ (as in The Cambridge Companion to Michael Oakeshott p. 226). The only detailed consideration and use of the threefold is by David Boucher (about which see below). Most scholars of Oakeshott do not know what to make of the threefold. Ian Tregenza comments that Oakeshott ‘never fills in the detail of this history in the way Hegel or indeed Collingwood does’. See Michael Oakeshott on Hobbes: A Study in the Renewal of Philosophical Ideas (Exeter: Imprint Academic 2003) p. 13. Paul Franco goes even further: ‘What exactly this means or involves is not yet clear.’ The Political Philosophy of Michael Oakeshott (New Haven: Yale University Press 1990) p. 88.


R.G. CollingwoodThe Idea of Nature (Oxford: Clarendon Press1945) p. 1.


Ibid. p. 3.


Ibid. pp. 4–5.


Ibid. p. 5.


Ibid. pp. 8–9.


Ibid. p. 9.


Ibid. p. 10.


Michael OakeshottLectures in the History of Political Thought (Exeter: Imprint Academic2006) p. 404. See pp. 404–25 for the entire discussion. David Boucher whose paper I discuss below notes the moments when Oakeshott uses the triad in his writings especially the lectures but appears to have missed this decisive passage on p. 404. See ‘Oakeshott and the History of Political Thought’ Collingwood and British Idealism Studies 13 (2007). pp. 69–101.


OakeshottLectures in the History of Political Thought p. 405.


Ibid. p. 412.


Ibid. p. 416.


Ibid. p. 421.


Here against Noel Malcolm‘Oakeshott and Hobbes’ in A Companion to Michael Oakeshott ed. Paul Franco and Leslie Marsh (Penn State University Press 2012) pp. 217–31 it is necessary to say Oakeshott appears to recognise that Hobbes’s political philosophy has a teleology. Malcolm ignores the threefold architectonic which prevents Oakeshott from ever doing anything as simple as associating his own theory which is necessarily that of the third interpretation with Hobbes’s which is that of the second. So when Malcolm comments as if against Oakeshott ‘there was underlying Hobbes’s concept of the state a substantive aim: peace’ on p. 229 he is saying something Oakeshott certainly recognised.


Ibid. p. 23.


Ibid. pp. 29 & 33.


Ibid. p. 36.


BoucherPolitical Theories of International Relations p. 37.


Ibid. p. 395.


Boucher‘Oakeshott and the History of Political Thought’ p. 79 ff.


Ibid. p. 76.


W.H. Greenleaf‘Hume, Burke and the General Will’Political Studies 20 (1972) 131–40at p. 140. See also David Boucher ‘W.H. Greenleaf: Idealism and the Triadic Conception of the History of Political Thought’ Idealistic Studies 16 (1986) pp. 237–52.


Boucher‘Oakeshott and the History of Political Thought’ p. 93 quoting a letter from Oakeshott.


Geuss‘On the Very Idea of a Metaphysics of Right’Politics and the Imagination (Princeton: Princeton University Press 2010) pp. 43–60.


R.G. CollingwoodThe New Leviathan (Oxford: Clarendon Press1943) p. 261.


Ibid. p. 178.


Ibid. p. 179.


Ibid. p. 180.


Ibid. pp. 180–1.


Ibid. pp. 181–2.


Ibid. p. 183.


Ibid. p. 253.


Ibid. p. 254.


Ibid. p. 262.


Ibid. p. 247.


Quoted in BoucherThe Social and Political Thought of R.G. Collingwood p. 67.


Norberto Bobbio‘The Conceptual Model of Natural Law Theory’ in Thomas Hobbes and the Natural Law Tradition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1993) pp. 1–23 p. 24.


Slavoj ZizekEvent: Philosophy in Transit (London: Penguin2014) p. 77.

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