Defenders of a shared culture

Oliver Letwin compares and contrasts two conservative philosophers, the late Roger Scruton and Michael Oakeshott

Features Roger Scruton

The last occasion on which I talked to Roger Scruton was a few months before his untimely death, as it sadly turned out. But there was at that stage, at least outwardly, no sign of the cancer that did him in. He seemed, in fact to be more or less the same age as when I had first come across him 45 years earlier in Cambridge. Time, until the very end, did not really catch up with him.

We conversed over bacon and eggs at his club. He had, with typical courtesy, invited me to breakfast in order to discuss his review of the aesthetics of house-building. The question of how to make more beautiful houses very much interested Roger, because it allowed him to apply in practice the theoretical conclusions he had reached about more abstract issues. Aesthetics had been at the centre of his attention for many years. He had been, after all, a professor of aesthetics and had written extensively on the philosophy of art. But he was preoccupied by the need to identify a social consensus about what constituted beautiful and appropriate domestic architecture. He definitely did not mean by this what many other members of the intelligentsia would have meant by it — a consensus of the cognoscenti, the experts, the establishment. He meant a consensus of the citizens as a whole.

This was not an idle speculation. He had taken the trouble to find out what the citizens as a whole actually thought about domestic architecture. His review team had commissioned surveys, presenting a wide cross-section of the people with pictures of various architectural forms in various settings, and asking what view the recipients of the survey took about the suitability and attractiveness of the different styles when set against different backgrounds.

This investigative, empirical approach to his task was not just a device for justifying preconceived recommendations about the right way of designing new homes. His concern with the aesthetic attitudes of the broad swathe of his fellow citizens sprang from a deeply felt and intellectually grounded belief in the fundamental importance of shared culture — a belief which permeated both his academic and his polemical work.

It is true that some of his best writing was devoted to the history of philosophy; and, in this domain, he sublimated his own views sufficiently to provide a lucid and sympathetic account of the theories and analyses of philosophers of many different schools. But whenever he was speaking in his own voice about his own ideas, the basic presumption that values of all kinds, standards of all kinds, meanings of all kinds are derived from shared culture was to be found lurking beneath both his theorising and his criticism.

Scruton and Oakeshott are different kinds of thinker, thinking different kinds of thoughts

In this sense, he was a Hegelian. He regarded individual identity as something formed by the conjunction of the social identities which characterise the individual in question. Both logically and historically, he put the “we” before the “I”. For Roger, a person was first and most deeply a speaker of a language given by social inheritance, a product of the modes of thinking constituting the culture of their society, a product of inherited religion, inherited nation, inherited family. If he was right, then I am not me, me, me, but rather a particular variant of we, we, we.

It was, of course, this same basic presumption that characterised his brand of conservatism. For him, conservatism was a kind of rearguard action — an effort to preserve, so far as possible, the shared culture, the nationhood, the institutions and the social frameworks that give us recognisable identities, enable us to converse, endow us with standards and values by which to make intellectual, moral and aesthetic judgments, and hence give our lives meaning.

If one had described him, to his face, as a reactionary, he would not have regarded this as a term of opprobrium; on the contrary, his political disposition was precisely and consciously a reaction to what he saw as the attack from all quarters on the preservation of the shared culture that he was seeking to defend.

No surprise, then, that he found himself surrounded by enemies with whom he energetically joined battle. Liberal individualism, free market enthusiasm, Marxism, utopian socialism, anarcho-syndicalism, structuralism in all its varieties, progressivism and political correctness of all kinds: each of these were seen by him as different forms of armed attack on the cultural castle. Each needed, accordingly, to be repulsed by force if the walls of the castle were to be kept intact. The moats were to be filled, the drawbridges drawn up, the boiling oil poured liberally from the ramparts in an all-out effort to keep the barbarians of every description from entering the gate.

Needless to say, this approach tended to engender a certain amount of controversy. Many different kinds of intellectual who, for many different kinds of reason, did not share Roger’s view that the preservation of the cultural inheritance was the be-all and end-all of politics, did share the view that he was either a ludicrous eccentric or a dangerous lunatic. They returned his pugilism, punch for punch, often ignoring in the process the insights he had to offer and wholly failing to see the force of his argument. At worst, they were willing to traduce him (as in the distorted reporting of the interview that led to his brief and wholly unfair removal from the review of beauty in housing); at best, they tolerated his interventions without taking them seriously.

But the truth is that, for those of us who seek a balanced view, there is in Roger’s brand of Hegelianism a great deal that deserves to be taken seriously. One does not have to be wholly smitten with his emphasis on the primacy of the shared culture in order to recognise that an inherited framework of convention and language is required to sustain a civilised life.

Nor does one have to believe that the sole legitimate purpose of politics is the preservation of the shared culture (or even that it is easy, beyond a certain point, to discern what the “shared culture” is) in order to accept that our intellectual, moral and aesthetic values and standards do, in some important way, arise from our collective history. Ludwig Wittgenstein, the deepest philosopher of modern times and not by any means the hate-figure that Scruton became for so many, would certainly have accepted both of these propositions at face value.

So the pugilism on both sides — Roger’s own and that of his critics — was ultimately unfortunate. It earned him fame; but it reduced the amount of attention that was paid to his message.

There is, here, an analogy with the reception of the work of another well known English Hegelian of the previous generation — Michael Oakeshott. In personality, Michael was entirely different from Roger. Quiet, dispassionate, avoiding attention, averse to any form of heated argument, a brilliantly eirenic convenor of the government department at LSE, Oakeshott produced only a small volume of philosophical work in an inimitable style of his own. He drove a half-timbered car, lived in an isolated cottage of extraordinary beauty at Acton, near Langton Matravers, Dorset, and responded to any observation with which he disagreed with the disarming phrase, “I dare say.”

Michael Oakeshott

Never seeking to be a public intellectual, he shunned the media entirely. His sole foray outside the purely academic sphere was his co-authorship of a work wholly misleadingly entitled A Guide to the Classics, which turns out on inspection to be about how to spot a Derby winner.

Although there is a small band of Oakeshott devotees located at various universities around the world, it can accurately be said that, as with Roger Scruton, the significance of Michael Oakeshott has generally been underestimated in philosophical circles. This was not in any way due to Scrutonesque pugilism on Oakeshott’s part. It occurred, in fact for precisely the opposite reason. Oakeshott simply did not engage with the mainstream philosophical thinking or thinkers of the age. Where Scruton’s polemics infuriated, Oakeshott’s subtleties remained largely invisible to academic philosophers. He retired into his study at the Aldwych and his library in Purbeck, making no attempt whatsoever to participate in the contemporary debate.

But it is not only the differences of character between Scruton and Oakeshott that are instructive. There are also profound differences in the forms of Hegelianism which they adopted.

Oakeshott, like Wittgenstein and Scruton, certainly accepted the centrality of inherited, shared modes of experience. He fully recognised the existence of a cultural and institutional framework as the indispensable precondition for a civilised life. In this sense, he and Scruton were intellectual allies. But only in this sense. For Oakeshott, the institutional framework (and in particular the legal and constitutional framework) had a very particular, and characteristically liberal purpose, which never commanded Scruton’s attention or approval.

Oakeshott’s abiding concern in political theory was to identify the social conditions under which individuals can peacefully conduct their own lives and engage in their own chosen enterprises. True, his answer was conservative: he argued that we can live together peaceably only if we collectively restrict the demands of the state to negative laws (or “adverbial conditions”) that all of us, with our many different positive engagements and enterprises, can accept.

This means eschewing the use of the state for positive purposes, whether mercantilist, socialist, welfarist or otherwise. Manifestly, it is a traditionalist view inasmuch as it requires us to accept that, in order to preserve orderly conduct, the procedures under which we alter the laws at any moment must be those which we have inherited.

But, in stark contrast to Scruton’s emphasis on the need collectively to defend the last bastions of a shared culture, Oakeshott’s thesis is liberal through and through. The focus of Oakeshott’s attention is on the liberty of the individual to write his or her own life story, limited only by such negative laws as are required to prohibit conduct that would otherwise threaten to disrupt peaceful coexistence with fellow citizens.

So Oakeshott should not be confused with Scruton, and Scruton should not be confused with Oakeshott. They are different kinds of thinker, thinking different kinds of thoughts. But they do both draw our attention to something that we stand in grave danger of ignoring.

As we progressively alter the laws by which we live, in an effort to improve our society in whatever way our own politics dictates, none of us can afford to neglect the fundamental importance of the inherited cultural and institutional framework which sets at any given moment the terms under which we make whatever changes are made. Whether seen as the guarantor of standards and values, or as the precondition for combining liberty with peaceful life, or (more plausibly) as both, that inherited framework has a price above rubies.

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