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SAAP Annual Meeting

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Conservatism, Pragmatism, and Historical Inquiry

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Seth Vannatta
Morgan State University
United States

In this paper I highlight some methodological similarities between Michael Oakeshott’s and John Dewey’s views of historical inquiry and assess the extent to which Oakeshott’s theory stands up to the test of Dewey’s principle of continuity. I focus on three aspects of historical inquiry. First, I illustrate the methodological norms common to both Oakeshott’s conservative and Dewey’s pragmatic methods of historical inquiry. Second, I demonstrate that Oakeshott’s description of the proper way to conceive of an historical event serves as an exemplar of the pragmatic approach to meaning. Last, I will examine Oakeshott’s criticisms of “practical history.” Oakeshott draws a distinction between practical-normative language, which expresses strategies to preserve or to change, convictions, sentiments, and tastes, and philosophical-historical language, which is “explanatory,” concerned only with “its coherence, its intelligibility, its power to illuminate, and its fertility.” Dewey understood these endeavors not as discrete or dichotomous, but as continuous with one another. To that Oakeshott’s dichotomy between these two modes is strict, I argue that Oakeshott’s method fails to pass Dewey’s pragmatic test.


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