An Encounter with History

British philosopher Michael Oakeshott deserves our intellectual attention for a variety of reasons, one of them being that Oakeshott is sui generis: a one-of-a-kind thinker. His unique positions on philosophy, world affairs, and education, to name a few, often led others to occasionally misunderstand him, and thus affix limiting labels that don’t fit Oakeshott as a thinker. In fact, it could be said that Oakeshott’s thought is beyond the usual philosophical and political categorization. The same can be said of his lectures on history.

He refused to speak about important subjects simplistically and relied on nuance and careful distinctions in philosophical terms. This is perhaps why he was often dismissed. But he knew that if we don’t make intellectual distinctions, if we don’t define certain aspects of our society, then the whole civilization might find itself in deeply troubled waters. And that is precisely where we are today. We have neglected the past for the fleeting present, and we have no notion of the future. We are, in effect, only concerned with “presentism,” in order to suit our ideological needs. This strange sense of time has been called out by writer and cultural critic Camille Paglia: “Presentism is a major affliction—an over-absorption in the present and near-past, which produces a distortion of perspective and a sky-is-falling Chicken Little hysteria.”

Mass hysteria appears to be the norm these days, and part of it is our grave misunderstanding of history. But in what way are we misunderstanding or misusing the concept of time? What are the ways through which we can learn what history is in itself, and thus, how we relate to it? In On History and Other Essays, Oakeshott offers his views on the meaning of past, present, and future. For Oakeshott, the notion of mode of being and mode of experience is what drives his entire philosophical project, and this is the case here as well. 

Although he has definite positions, Oakeshott did not intend to redefine either history or the role of a historian. Keeping with his usual approach, he is respectful and open minded, and first and foremost concerned with the human condition. We focus too much on practical applications of either education or attempting to scientifically quantify wisdom, and we forget other aspects of being human. Oakeshott’s world is full of “human possibilities,” as Timothy Fuller writes in his foreword to the book. Practical applications (especially in trying to find the “usefulness” of the humanities) tend to leave out thoughtful analysis of a particular field. As Fuller writes, “The study of politics [for instance] in a university can illuminate the goings-on in political activity, but it cannot direct politics; on the contrary, when students of politics enter politics, politics will subdue them to its own contingencies.”

Oakeshott didn’t seek to simplify in order to reduce the complexity of thought into a measurable chart that can be referred to and treated as the truth. Rather, as Fuller points out, “for him, the most important point to establish is that philosophy and history seek to explain the world philosophically and historically, accepting that these inquiries succeed insofar as they set aside the claims of competence to interfere with the world or to transform it.”

History as a Mode of Enquiry

Oakeshott immediately alerts us that the word history is “ambiguous,” and can mean many things, and thus perhaps confuse an inquiry. He is not interested in chronologies of events, or of the history of a particular group of people. Neither is he concerned with a sociological approach to history, but with “history as an enquiry and with the character of an historical enquiry.” In a typically singular fashion, Oakeshott goes even further, in which he writes that “the word ‘history’” is “a distinguishable mode of enquiry,” and “a mode of understanding.”

But as Oakeshott writes, this “is not merely an attitude or a point of view. It is an autonomous manner of understanding, specifiable in terms of exact conditions, which is logically incapable of denying or confirming the conclusions of any other mode of understanding, or indeed of making any relevant utterance in respect of it.” Throughout this project on history, Oakeshott is mostly concerned with finding a way “to specify the conditions of a mode of understanding,” which means not with specifically philosophically logical conclusions but with seeing a path (or conditions) toward an inner, if you will, understanding of history (inner denoting a movement away from historiographical mission and into the interiority of enquiry that shows the conditions).

Even when not literally referencing it, Oakeshott’s philosophical concerns rest on modes of being, or on relations. It is a way to make distinctions that allow for a better understanding of not only knowledge itself but different spheres of life as they interact with each other (this is especially seen in his superb discussions on the meaning of liberal education). Here, too, Oakeshott sees the necessity of the relationship between past and present, and, in some way, the overbearing uncertainty of the future. According to Oakeshott, “Subjectivity is not an ontological category,” and given that conclusion, we must ask, how does a human being fit into this endeavor of understanding history? And more importantly, what does Oakeshott’s view provide for us to move out of the current “anti-metaphysical age,” to use Iris Murdoch’s phrase?

Oakeshott writes that “The present-future of practical understanding is also related to past. And past here is, of course, a past related to this present; that is, our practical concern with past is our concern with present objects in relation to ourselves, to ascertain their worth to us and to use them for the satisfaction of our wants.” Much of our present is composed of future, and vice versa. We recollect all the time, even the mere short moments that have passed, yet we could say that we recollect precisely because of our concern for the future. We are continuously relating to objects (be they animate or inanimate), and these relations are based on individual perception of reality. But it would be foolish to assume that the only reality that exists is our own. This is what renders historical enquiry, or rather mode of historical enquiry complex. If we look at history and time merely subjectively (as is seen in Paglia’s statement on presentism), then we are denying ontological categories of the past as well as the future.

Oakeshott offers an antidote to ideology of time, and beckons us to enter into an encounter with history.

But Oakeshott is not naïve. He knows that “human beings lived long enough with only the haziest notion of an historical mode of understanding and with little incentive to learn.” Yet there is a lot to learn from Oakeshott’s view of history. Without giving it much thought, we are constantly in an encounter with objects from the past, and thus experiencing the cause and effect of this encounter. We find ourselves in the present time, while being connected to someone else’s present. The truth is that we are rarely aware of this relationality, and that the awareness itself has its limitations, especially in attempting to unravel one’s life only through logical means. As Oakeshott writes, “What we ordinarily perceive rarely, in fact, has this absence of ambiguity: it is a much more messy affair in which we come and go somewhat inconsequentially between a variety of universes of discourse. And as for priority, some of our earliest experiences are not practical, governed by usefulness, but poetic and governed by delight.”

Some things in life cannot be fully articulated, and unlike most philosophers, Oakeshott fully accepts this in his humility as a thinker. And yet, even the inarticulate matters have a way of emerging through our relationship with time.

The Language of Historical Events

Just like in his discussion of the relationship between past, present, and future, Oakeshott looks at historical events through the lens of modality. We, who are living in the present, are inextricably tied to the past, especially the past that is far removed from us. We have a task before us: to keep re-remembering the events that have now become part of our consciousness, whether we are fully aware of it or not.

Historical events cannot exist without historical objects or artefacts. But these are not mere things that can be discarded. They are imposing upon us, and as Oakeshott writes, “…for an historian it is an object which provokes enquiry: for him, a recorded exploit, whatever its immediate interest or intelligibility, is something not yet understood.” This lack of understanding is the cause of the artefact’s imposition. We have no choice but to observe it, study it, and enter as it were into the consciousness (or a mode of being) of another human being.

In this case, Oakeshott uses a rather beautiful example of a fragment that was found on the shore of P’uch’ang Sea in 1908 that stated the following: “The Tatar girl addresses you. Since we parted I went westward, and whenever I remember the days we spent together my heart is heavy. I write this letter in haste and time allows only a few lines. The heart is broke by absence.” What are we to do with such a fragment? Perhaps, for Oakeshott, the best is to not look at this from an historian’s perspective, but rather we ought to view this as human beings first—puzzled and intrigued by the object.

This particular object—a fragment of what appears to be a declaration of love and sorrow—by the virtue of its own ontology is wholly separated from us in the present and becomes part of an historical inquiry. At first glance, this fragment is not interested in the future at all because its author is concerned with the preservation of love, sorrow, and memory of such metaphysical events. But, if we give this a closer look, we shall see that paradoxically, it is precisely (and perhaps only!) the future that is of any concern to the author. He cries to be remembered into the future because he cannot fully comprehend the possibility and the inevitability of his death. In a sense, it is only the consciousness that continues to live and is reanimated the moment the present touches the past, the moment one human being enters into an encounter with the embodied past of an historical event.

Oakeshott deems such an artefact a “performance.” He writes that “The present in historical enquiry is, then, composed of performances which have survived, and the first engagement of such an enquiry is to distinguish and understand these performances in terms of their connections with others to which they may be circumstantially related.” In addition, “Each performance has a language…a performance, however, is never merely a subscription to a practice. It is also a substantive action or utterance which belongs to a transaction and seeks a satisfaction; that is, a future.”

We don’t have to take this notion of “language” literally. Art, for example, has its own language that doesn’t rely on words at all but its own set of aesthetic forms in order to show its meaning and essence. Nor do we have to take the notion of “performance” to be exactly that either. Rather, Oakeshott’s use of these words exemplifies a quality of his own philosophical inquiry. The events are linked by the series of “performances,” which function simultaneously as separate and inextricably connected modes of inquiry and being. In other words, a performance or utterance from the past (such as the letter fragment) functions purely on its own metaphysical level, divorced from its own view of the past, or the future. But the very creation of such an historical event that is contained within the letter fragment is “thrown into the world,” and inevitably its metaphysical presence becomes ours as well.

Historical Identity

The imposition of this artefact, thus, is not only physical but, naturally, metaphysical. Our identity begins to change because of the contact with the past. Oakeshott writes that “The idea of [historical] change is a holding together of two apparently opposed but in fact complementary ideas: that of alteration and that of sameness; that of difference and that of identity.” Again, we are somehow relating to the object and, because of this relation, we are witnessing some kind of change.

One of the most interesting aspects of Oakeshott’s analysis of historical change is his inclusion of teleology within historical inquiry. With only a few strokes of the proverbial pen, Oakeshott destroys the obsessive intentions of ideological historians, who are more interested in changing or reading a teleology into an historical event or circumstance than studying the conditions of it. “The notion that ‘the past’ constitutes a single teleological process, which a masterful historian may be expected to exhibit in its entirety…is absurd…Augustine, for example, could represent the history of the world from the Creation…to the coming of Christ as a unique passage of change in the teleological mode only because he had identified its initial condition and its end…” In other words, Augustine did not use one historical event and one historical identity to change the metaphysics of the event. There was a larger reality at play than Augustine’s philosophy, and this was the theological events of Christianity. Such events move beyond chronological time, and are characterized more by the notion of Kairos. Augustine, for example, understood the ontological meaning of “the coming of Christ,” and because of this, he emptied himself in order to be filled with Christ. Augustine’s approach to history wasn’t historical at all but, as Oakeshott indicates, if there was any teleology in Augustine’s case, it was exemplified in one statement: Soli Deo Gloria.

This appears to be the point at which we, presently, find ourselves. We are surrounded by a variety of incomprehensible languages, most definitely full of “sound and fury, signifying nothing.” The idea of historical enquiry is removed from our current expression of collective consciousness, which doesn’t seem to be conscious or aware of anything except for the present as represented by the fleeting news feeds. Oakeshott offers an antidote to ideology of time, and beckons us to enter into an encounter with history.