Political theory sets out to consider the kind of knowledge involved in political activity and the appropriate form of education that will continue to inculcate this knowledge and the value in sustaining such knowledge to society. Political theory may not be so theoretical, after all.

Within political theory, there is a pressure to operate in one of two spheres: the theoretical or political, which is to say the “practical.” Of course, one can strive for balance: Political theory is, for the most part, grounded on a strong base of knowledge that comprises the abstract principles from which our political observations and analyses stem before setting out to implement them. Still, some would like for the field to be more “applied.” In fairness, there is a different connotation today with the word “political” that contributes to this tension in meaning that teeters between theory and practice. That which is political is associated with current events, public affairs, and popular issues in our government, making it an expected reaction to assume that political theory must have some connection to these day-to-day matters; at the same time, political theory must be based on ideas, thoughts, hypotheses, etc. Hence, the following question: How much of political theory is political (if by political we presume practical)? How much is based on theory? These two questions will be explored in the following paragraphs.

From the outset it helps to clarify that political theory does not primarily concern itself with what regards the contemporary public sphere and the deliberations therein. Surely, it may be the end result of political theory to consider these current events and view them through a nuanced lens to make an educated analysis, but ultimate judgement is seldom a salutary aim if principal understanding is lacking from the field’s framework. This principal understanding, furthermore, is itself an endeavor for the “theorist,” one which might wake us up to the uncomfortable reality: There is no such thing as a theorist. Let me clarify, there should be no such thing as a theorist, especially for political theory.

The term historian gets closer to the nature of the work within political theory. Indeed, for many, the field is synonymous with the “history of political thought”; yet, this phrase also doesn’t quite cut it since “history” and “historian” can become too detached or impartial from the active world of politics. Here, however, an important caveat may be added: History, properly studied, does not turn the pupil into a historian (this is a secondary effect); it turns him first into a thinker, which consequently turns him into the most important type of person one can be in life: a teacher.

It should be plainly clear that by “teacher” I am not only referring to the profession, but also to anyone who partakes in the social exchange of thoughts, experiences, and opinions, be it among friends, citizens, family, or even strangers. The role of a teacher exists in every social sphere: Friends can be mutual teachers to one another; parents teach their children, but children can also come to teach their parents; citizens can learn from their elected officials, but officials also must learn from their constituents in order to know whose interests they represent and why these interests matter. We can correctly assume at first that political theory concerns itself with this last sphere—the public sphere that connects the citizens of a nation and, in some cases, the citizens of various nations—and aims to obtain and to teach political knowledge within this sphere.

Now, what is “political” knowledge? Here, the answer becomes more complex. The best understanding and explanation of “political knowledge” (what it means to study and “do” political theory) that I have come across is in a small essay written by the unique yet quintessentially British character, Michael Oakeshott. His 1951 essay, “Political Education,” will buttress some of these previous musings on the field of political theory.

To begin, we must clarify that for Oakeshott political theory is indubitably rooted in the liberal arts. As such, it is affected by both the virtues and vices of contemporary “liberal” education. A truly liberal education must overcome what has become an insidious program for what Oakeshott called “behavior modification” in our schools—universities included. Oakeshott criticized political education as something “associated with the softening of the mind, by force, by alarm, or by the hypnotisms of the endless repetition of what was scarcely worth saying once, by which whole populations have been reduced to submission.”

To correct this pervasive problem, Oakeshott considered historical study “an indispensable part” of political education. Political theory, like any other field in the liberal arts, should not aim towards changing or ostracizing its students’ views without first exposing them to the tests of deep and genuine inquiry about the human condition through rigorous academic (that is, literary, historical, sociological, philosophical, and theological) research. All fields, after all, begin as courses where students are taught the rigors of their field; as such, they ought to develop this trite and rarely applied term that we call “critical thinking.” But critical thinking is never critical if it does not know or consider the past. “It is true,” Oakeshott wrote, “that nothing appears on the present surface of a tradition of political activity which has not its roots deep in the past, and that not to observe it coming into being is often to be denied the clue to its significance.”

Correcting the dismissal of historical study for political education requires that we distinguish between what is “political” and “politics,” for the former precedes the latter, but it is the latter that has set historical study aside. Oakeshott defined politics as “the activity of attending to the general arrangements of a set of people whom chance or choice have brought together.” “Political,” thus, is an abstract term which describes our natural (inherent) actions that eventually result in politics. But these politics, Oakeshott writes, exist in all spheres of social life such as families, clubs, and learned societies. The study of the “political,” then, includes everything that may help us to create, understand, and attend to these general arrangements that fall within any and all of these social spheres, not just the public sphere that was mentioned above. In other words, the public sphere that connects the citizens of a nation and, in some cases, the citizens of various nations, is not an isolated sphere: It is naturally connected to all of the sub-spheres because its innermost sphere—the family—grows outward to influence all of our other social spheres.

The realm of research for the political theorist now opens up to various possibilities, most of which are only tangentially connected to “politics,” if at all. That these social spheres are linked is no accident, moreover, nor is it the consequence of our deliberate action. While our field opens up to many possible topics, given the broad nature of that which is “political,” only so many possibilities can be entertained until we “teachers” start to lose sight of certain truths (a taboo term, I know) regarding man’s nature and his role in the various social spheres that he frequents in his life; and then until professors start to actively reject these truths within the field; and most dangerously until such rejection culminates in a “political theory” that aims to destroy, obscure, or remove these natural institutions that comprise our social spheres.

If the term “truths” strikes too harshly, we can also replace these lessons for “historically-proven patterns.” Oakeshott highlights some of these patterns. The first one regards our system of national organization. He writes that the communities in which political activity is preeminent “are the hereditary cooperative groups, many of them of ancient lineage, all of them aware of a past, a present and a future, which we call ‘states.’” The existence of the state, according to Oakeshott, is not just a superficially imposed, geo-political tactic, as its critics often claim: It is a mark of hereditary cooperation between people who share a similar historical experience and culture. This cooperation, moreover, is not coercion. Oakeshott writes that “For most people, political activity is a secondary activity—that is to say, they have something else to do besides attending to these arrangements.” Throughout history, people organized themselves into states in order to keep political activity at bay so that they could tend to more important and essential activity for human development and flourishing.

The existence of the state, despite seeming an unrelated issue to the topic of this paper, is actually an important element of political theory because studying it tells us plenty of necessary information regarding people’s organization for political activity, and Oakeshott especially emphasizes how this organization is not at all arbitrary. He amends his definition of politics as “the activity of attending to the general arrangements of a collection of people” by adding that these are people “who, in respect of their common recognition of a manner of attending to its arrangements, compose a single community.” His emphasis on a community’s traditions is integral for his greater point about the nature of political activity: “to suppose a collection of people without recognized traditions of behavior… is to suppose a people incapable of politics.” His claim sheds light on our initial question, for politics to him is an activity that is always anchored to the actions and limitations of its people—those present as well as those absent and gone.

This [political] activity, then, springs neither from instant desires, nor from general principles, but from the exiting traditions of behavior themselves… The arrangements which constitute a society capable of political activity, whether they are customs or institutions or laws or diplomatic decisions, are at once coherent and incoherent; they compose a pattern and at the same time they intimate a sympathy for what does not fully appear. Political activity is the exploration of that sympathy; and, consequently, relevant political reasoning will be the convincing exposure of a sympathy, present but not yet followed up, and the convincing demonstration that now is the appropriate moment for recognizing it.

A field that exposes sympathy about the human condition and ventures to say when it is time to recognize some of its many facets cannot open this conversation in the form of an argument. It is, and can only be, a conversation. Such a conversation requires a sober account of our historically proven patterns, which ultimately means of our limitations. Oakeshott makes the point of historical awareness earlier in the essay. He emphasizes his word choice when writing that politics is the act of “attending to arrangements” rather than “making arrangements” to clarify a key fact: “in these hereditary cooperative groups” that comprise nations, “the activity is never offered the blank sheet of infinite possibility.” The idea that political activity is and can be separated from the past is an illusion that ignores the historically traceable and ubiquitously tangible inheritances of our societies which we take for granted every day. Oakeshott phrases this sentiment the following way:

In any generation, even the most revolutionary, the arrangements which are enjoyed far exceed those which are recognized to stand in need of attention, and those which are being prepared for enjoyment are few in comparison with those which receive amendment: the new is an insignificant proportion to the whole.

Insignificant indeed. Oakeshott responds to those who may believe that it is the job of the political theorist (or of any other profession or vocation) to amend the past by writing that, for most of us,

our determination to improve our conduct does not prevent us from recognizing that the greater part of what we have is not a burden to be carried or an incubus to be thrown off, but an inheritance to be enjoyed. And a certain degree of shabbiness is joined with every real convenience.

To reiterate, politics is an activity that, in order to be understood, requires us to see the whole story behind that activity. This story, we cannot ignore, began long ago and continues today without a break or tear in its trajectory. The most important lesson that Oakeshott imparts on his students regarding the study of political theory is that we must strive to consider the whole of our journey, knowingly imperfect in our act, in order to remain convinced of these two facts: Political does not mean politics, but something much more profound that is rooted in first questions about what it means to be human, exceeding a strictly public sphere; and, with this first fact considered, that man’s political actions and thoughts are so connected to his various spheres of life (oneself, family, friends, citizens) that they become the ongoing partaking in and of a hereditary cooperation that is, in its very essence, tied to the past, present, and future.

Oakeshott recognizes that political knowledge is “not the kind of knowledge that politicians need, but the knowledge we ‘unavoidably’ call upon whenever we are engaged in political activity.” Once we understand that political knowledge is not directly connected with politics, we are closer to gaining an understanding “of the nature of political education.” He advises against a study of politics that aims to “deduce from it the character of political knowledge and education”; instead, it must “observe the kind of knowledge and education which are inherent in any understanding of political activity, and use this observation as a means of improving our understanding of politics.” This understanding requires that we take another look at what Oakeshott calls political ideology. Now, the word ideology carries a negative sense which Oakeshott excludes. For him, it is an “abstract principle, or a set of related abstract principles”—such as freedom, equality, justice, etc.—that have been “independently premeditated” and which supply a society “a formulated end to be pursued” in its arrangements.

A problem for Oakeshott is that the emphasis on understanding political ideologies has faded. Indeed, we study them, but as a thing to be avoided and criticized. Political ideologies, however, can be good and bad; and the good ones ought to certainly be raised up and widely inculcated. Oakeshott quotes historian E.H. Carr, who argued that “few people any longer contest the thesis that the child should be educated in the official ideology of his country.” Proper political education, Oakeshott concludes, is one that enables people “to expound, defend, implement, and possibly invent a political ideology.”

A point of clarification is necessary: Oakeshott writes that ideology is an abstract principle that is independently premeditated, but this does not mean that ideology comes into existence ex nihilo and manifests itself at any given moment. In other words, ideologies do not precede actions. Oakeshott makes an analogy to a cookery book, which “presupposes somebody who knows how to cook, and someone who already knows how to use a it… so must political ideology be understood not as an independently premeditated beginning for political activity, but as knowledge (abstract and generalized) of a concrete manner of attending to the arrangements of society.” Following this statement are some of the best parts in the essay that serve as a rejoinder of contemporary rights theory, which Oakeshott rejects as an epiphanic giant-leap-for-mankind moment in human rights (divine munificence, in his own terms), but defends as the fight “of centuries of the day-to-day attending to the arrangements of a historic society.” Here are two excerpts:

On August 4, 1789, the complex and bankrupt social and political system of France was substituted by the Rights of Man. Reading this document we come to the conclusion that somebody has done some thinking. Here, displayed in a few sentences, is a political ideology: a system of rights and duties, a scheme of ends—justice, freedom, equality, security, property, and the rest—ready and waiting to be put into practice for the first time. For the first time? Not a bit of it. This ideology no more existed in advance of political practice than a cookery book existed in advance of knowing how to cook. Certainly it was the product of somebody’s reflection, but it was not the product of reflection in advance of political activity.

Further down he writes,

Freedom, like a recipe for game pie, is not a bright idea; it is not a “human right” to be deduced from some speculative concept of human nature. The freedom which we enjoy is nothing more than arrangements, procedures of a certain king: the freedom of an Englishman is not something exemplified in the procedure of habeas corpus, it IS, at that point, the availability of that procedure. And the freedom which we wish to enjoy is not an ideal which we premeditate independently of our political experience; it is what I already intimated in that experience.

Which brings us back to our initial question, which asks how much of political theory is political? How much is based on theory? And herein lies the catch: Theory and practice is a false dichotomy, for proper theory is the observation and accumulation of the knowledge that has been gained by practice. Political theory sets out to consider the kind of knowledge involved in political activity and the appropriate form of education that will continue to inculcate this knowledge (and the value in sustaining such knowledge) to society. Political theory may not be so theoretical, after all. The field possesses a more difficult role, which is to obtain intimations of a society’s collective knowledge in order to create a knowledge “as profound as we can make it, of our tradition of political behavior.”

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Works Cited:

Oakeshott, Michael and Timothy Fuller (editor). “Political Education.” In The Voice of Liberal Learning, 159-188. Indiana: Liberty Fund, 2001.

The featured image is a photograph of Michael Oakeshott, which has no known copyright restrictions, and is uploaded by calliopejen1 from Flickr‘s The Commons. It appears here courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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