Oakeshott, the ‘Practical Past’, Ancestors, and Psychoanalysis

For Michael Oakeshott ( ‘Present, Future, and Past’, from ‘Three Essays on History’ in On History, Liberty Fund, Indianapolis, 1999), the ‘practical past’ is:

[A]n accumulation of symbolic persons, actions, utterances, situations and artefacts, the products of practical imagination, and their only significant relationship to past is not to the past to which they ambiguously and inconsequentially refer but to the time and circumstances in which they achieved currency in a vocabulary of practical discourse. (48)

Elsewhere Oakeshott notes that the contents of this practical past are ‘capable of being enlisted to help us respond to our current situations’ (42) and goes on to recount an anecdote in a footnote:

When we were children, out for a walk in difficult country, tired and disposed to lag or to subside on a grassy bank, my father used, half-seriously, to exhort us to further effort by invoking record: this, he would say, is not what Trojans would do. But Trojans were not long-perished people, the intricacies of whose lives, performances and fortunes only a critical enquiry could resuscitate from record; they were living and to us familiar emblems of intrepidity. (42, fn.11)

Oakeshott thus theorizes a sentiment frequently heard in recollections of those long-departed: they live on for us in some way, perhaps by inspiration, perhaps as bad examples. In this manner, giants still stalk the land, monsters still haunt us in our nightmares and fantasies,  and loved ones still comfort us. They are residents of the practical past.

But so too, of course, are our ‘previous selves’ so to speak; those entities that we see ourselves as the current incarnations of,  connected us to by, among other things, memory. They too, serve, as inspiration and bad examples. So this practical past is also the ‘didactic past’:

The  present contents of a vast storehouse into which time continuously empties the lives, the utterances, the achievements and sufferings of mankind…this storehouse has acquired such a reputation as a collection of potentially useful objects that there is now a profession of persons, who for a fee, will rummage through it on your behalf, coming up with perhaps the disconcerting or gratifying news that you are somebody quite other than you supposed yourself to be. (43)

Oakeshott’s reference to psychoanalysis is cleverly and colorfully done but is worth amending just a little bit. The ‘rummaging’ carried out in the ‘storehouse’ is not performed alone by our helpful guide; rather we assist them a great deal, providing pointers and directions. Furthermore the results of this rummaging are not merely presented to us as gifts that we can simply take on board and walk away with. We must know what to do with them, how to make use of them, now and later. To extend Oakeshott’s analogy a bit further, while we might be led to these contents of our storehouse of the ‘didactic past’ by our guide, we need to bring them back home, to figure out how they can be slotted, integrated, and configured for our current abode, and how we may go on living with that piece aligned and arranged with other possessions of ours in that ‘didactic’ storehouse.

There is more to say here, of course, and I hope to take both threads up later in a longer post.

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