The State Is the Attempt to Strip Metaphor Out of Politics
This chapter considers the two major ways Oakeshott attempted to make sense of the state, first, in the 1920s and 1930s, as “the whole of moral and social experience”, and second, from the 1950s onwards, as one particular political idea, which was ambiguous and so had to be theorised in terms of a contradiction, or, as he put it in 1975, “an unresolved tension between the two irreconcilable dispositions represented by the words societas and universitas”. In this chapter, both of these theories are fed back into Oakeshott’s major critical recognition that the state was an ambiguous concept. The point is to indicate that the ambiguities Oakeshott’s own writings exhibit were even greater than the ambiguities he was willing to recognise. In order to make sense of the state, we have to struggle with the metaphors and analogies which have been used to make sense of political order ever since the Greeks and Romans spoke of the related but distinct terms stasis and status. As everyone now knows, the concept of the state arose when the standard phrase, “the state of x” (where x was a king, a regime, a city, a republic, a church), was replaced by the phrase “the state” (where the state itself was the “x”). I argue that the state is the attempt to strip metaphor out of politics. It allowed us to remove all older and authoritative meanings from politics in order to think again. The state is best seen as the blank slate on which modern political theorists have attempted to inscribe their theories of politics.