Professor Michael Oakeshott made a durable constructive contribution to Burkean political philosophy with his concept of “the pursuit of intimations.” It appears in his essay “Political Education” (which was appended to many versions of his Rationalism in Politics) which is an exemplar of his discursive yet inimitable style:
Politics is the activity of attending to the general arrangements of a collection of people who, in respect of their common recognition of a manner of attending to its arrangements, compose a single community. To suppose a collection of people without recognized traditions of behavior, or one which enjoyed arrangements which intimated no direction for change and needed no attention, is to suppose a people incapable of politics. This activity, then, springs neither from instant desires, nor from general principles, but from the existing traditions of behavior themselves. And the form it takes, because it can take no other, is the amendment of existing arrangements by exploring and pursuing what is intimated in them. 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 of 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.
That is superb; demanding but superb. Like so much of his best writing, Oakeshott teases out with great care a “middle way” feature of human life: in this case the singularly human world of politics. Oakeshott may come off as a moderate in all things — though fortunately not one bereft of warmth, a failing so common today’s humorless pedants — but in fact he was a great and forceful critic of modernity, precisely because he worked with such skill to examine aspects of reality that the harsh ideologies of the modern age have obscured.
In this he is clearly an inheritor and expounder of the Burkean tradition. His interests include preserving the communication between man’s animal nature and his angelic nature: between the earthy, embodied life of a creature of flesh and blood, and the life of wisdom of the philosopher, whose mind is ever in the realm of ideals and dreams; between poet and statesman, teacher and businessman. All good and patriotic men want to do right by their country and her people. But they find themselves hemmed in by circumstances, checked by accidents of history; and presented with opportunities that only emerge out of the particular character of their countrymen. A realism is imposed on man, and thus politics “springs neither from instant desires, nor from general principles.”
The definition even works for evil men, those conniving at fraud and imposition, or sedition and mayhem, or in any case generally treating politics as nothing more than a means to the acquisition of their desire. Still the brute facts of their political circumstances check them. The effective demagogue will discover straight away the avenues of approach by which he might manipulate a people. Aristotle reminds us that what makes a sophist is not his capacity but his moral purpose; happily, there are a lot of incapable sophists out there. The students of the ancient philosophers to this day emphasize the proper assessment of moral purpose in the art of rhetoric. Another great critic of modernity, Richard Weaver, was one such student. For Weaver so much of the orator’s vocation was the discovery of facts about the people to whom he is speaking; so that he might thus appeal to them more effectively. Noble rhetoric works to raise men to more just conduct, to truer feeling and deeper knowledge; base rhetoric works to debase them.
But both the sophist and patriotic orator pursuing justice alike labor under the sovereignty of the unyielding facts about a people, the particular facts of a certain particular people, which are expressed in traditions, habits, prescriptions, memories, etc.