Oakeshott and the infinite conversation

Michael Oakeshott, the conservative philosopher, has appeared once or twice before in the Burning Archive, mostly in association with my discussions of governing. I discussed how Paul Kelly took ideas from Oakeshott – specifically that “citizenship is a spiritual experience” – to diagnose the morass that is our contemporary political conversation. Oakeshott is, of course, the inventor of the term, conservative disposition, which I increasingly recognise in myself. As he wrote in “On being conservative”:

“My theme is not a creed or a doctrine, but a disposition. To be conservative is to be disposed to think and behave in certain manners; it is to prefer certain kinds of conduct and certain conditions of human circumstances to others; it is to be disposed to make certain kinds of choices.”  Oakeshott “On being a conservative”

And those dispositions and choices, Oakeshott set out so:

“To be conservative, then, is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss. Familiar relationships and loyalties will be preferred to the allure of more profitable attachments; to acquire and to enlarge will be less important than to keep, to cultivate and to enjoy; the grief of loss will be more acute than the excitement of novelty or promise. It is to be equal to one’s own fortune, to live at the level of one’s own means, to be content with the want of greater perfection which belongs alike to oneself and one’s circumstances. With some people this is itself a choice; in others it is a disposition which appears, frequently or less frequently, in their preferences and aversions, and is onto itself chosen or specifically cultivated. “
Oakeshott “On being a conservative”

It is an unpopular disposition in our world today, ravaged by the mercenaries of change who bring all familiar institutions to their knees to worship some form of “this must be.” How often have I longed for some present, familiar laughter to dissolve the utopian bliss of the stern, ruthless parrots of change.

It is hard to imagine a pair of writers more different than Oakeshott and Maurice Blanchot. One wrote a book on wagering on horse races, and the other ghost wrote manifestos for the disastrous radical movements of the 1960s. But today I discovered an uncanny connection between them – the infinite conversation.

Conversation was a dominant metaphor for both Blanchot and Oakeshott, and both prized the openness to the interlocutor, the open-endedness of the inquiry, with no fixed positions, and the freedom of each party to the conversation to redirect and to respond within a temper of good manners, courtesy and mutual affection. If only we could bring that spirit to today’s political and cultural conversations.

Yet Oakeshott, I discovered today, wrote the best description of the infinite conversation, and why it is such a precious and rare thing that we should seek to conserve against the flames.

“As civilized human beings, we are the inheritors, neither of an inquiry about ourselves and the world, nor of an accumulating body of information, but of a conversation, begun in the primeval forests and extended and made more articulate in the course of centuries. It is a conversation which goes on both in public and within each of ourselves.” 
― Michael Oakeshott

Image Source: Michael Oakeshott painted in 1985 by Paul Gopal-Chowdhury. via History Today

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