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“Sophists in academic dress: Oakeshott’s ‘The study of “politics” in a university’”

Fear, Christopher



What sort of activity should Politics academics aim to inculcate in their students? Only truth-seeking, logical thinking, and the ability to scrutinize evidence for themselves? Or also the will and ability to perform supposedly beneficial extra-academic functions, including political activism in the cause of “social justice”? This dilemma, it appears, is presently opening a schism between “Truth Uni” and “Social Justice Uni” (see Lukianoff and Haidt, 2018: 253–62). Here I am proposing that this ongoing general debate about the true nature and purpose of the university can be partially disentangled with the aid of Michael Oakeshott’s essay, “The study of ‘politics’ in a university”, first published in Rationalism in Politics in 1962. That essay remains relevant, instructive, and extremely challenging, and is especially valuable because of its focus on what happens in Politics departments, where it is perhaps more obvious than in any other of the university’s departments how the two implicit teloi, (1) discovering truth, and (2) realizing “social justice”, tend to frustrate and obstruct each other. I close with some reflections on how university teachers of Politics can defend themselves against Oakeshott’s challenge, so long as they can resist the temptations of modern sophistry.


Fear, C. (2022). “Sophists in academic dress: Oakeshott’s ‘The study of “politics” in a university’”. Cosmos+Taxis, 10(7-8), 62-71

Journal Article Type Article
Acceptance Date Feb 17, 2022
Publication Date 2022
Deposit Date May 24, 2022
Publicly Available Date Oct 27, 2022
Journal Cosmos+Taxis
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 10
Issue 7-8
Pages 62-71
Keywords Michael Oakeshott; Politics; Universities; Higher education; Activism.
Public URL
Publisher URL


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