Programs | Philosophy of Institutions Project

Philosophy of Institutions Project

Michael Oakeshott Association

At the end of 1999 the newly forming Michael Oakeshott Association affiliated with Sabre under an organizing committee consisting of Leslie Marsh (London), convenor, Josiah Lee Auspitz (Sabre US), Charles Getchell (Sabre Europe), and Jesse Norman (Sabre Trust, UK). In 2000 plans were made for a 2001 inaugural meeting marking Oakeshott's centenary. Under an academic committee consisting of Anthony Quinton (British Library and Trinity College, Oxford), honorary chair, John Gray and Kenneth Minogue (London School of Economics), Timothy Fuller (Colorado College), and Noel O'Sullivan (Hull), 32 scholars from four continents were selected to present papers at an international conference to be held at the London School of Economics September 3-5, 2001.

With the generous encouragement of family and friends of Burton C. Gray this event will be Sabre's first Burton C. Gray Memorial Conference. Co-sponsors include the British Academy, the Mind Association, the British Society for the History of Philosophy, Thoemmes Publishers, individual members of the Michael Oakeshott Association, and the London School of Economics, where Oakeshott chaired the department of government for seventeen years. Other support is expected for publication of conference proceedings.

Michael Oakeshott (1901-1990), a thinker not easy to classify under standard categories, was recognized at the time of his death mainly as a political philosopher-- in the words of the Guardian, "perhaps the most original academic political philosopher of this century" and of the Daily Telegraph as "the greatest political philosopher in the Anglo-Saxon tradition since Mill-- or even Burke". In the past decade he has increasingly won attention for his non-political writings. The Burton C. Gray Conference will be the first international meeting covering the full range of topics addressed in Oakeshott's writings: aesthetics, liberal education, religion, history, science and metaphysics, as well as his better known work in political thought and the rule of law.

The meeting will also inaugurate the formal launching under its own officers and bylaws of the Michael Oakeshott Association. Regularly updated details on the Association and its activities, as well as writings by and about Oakeshott, are available online at:


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The conference is a fitting memorial to Burton C. Gray, who made a careful study of Oakeshott's work and of the quiet influence of groups like the Michael Oakeshott Association.

Burton Craige Gray (1941-1989)

Burton Craige Gray (1941-1989)

Burton Craige Gray was President of the Sabre Foundation from 1984 until his untimely death in 1989 at the age of 48. He brought the sensibilities of a venture capitalist to the world of ideas. He looked for opportunities where alertness, vision and a willingness to stake moderate resources might yield disproportionate returns. At Sabre he provided the first seed funding-- a $5000 advance-- for a program that has grown to donate over $140 million in textbooks around the world.

Gray was especially interested in the influence of loose associations of intellectuals. He made his own study of the work of several such groups in producing profound changes in modern institutions. In 1988 he chaired in Warsaw the concluding session of the first international conference in the Communist bloc to consider market economics in its larger philosophical context. There followed a series of seven conferences co-sponsored by Sabre in Poland, Hungary, Ukraine and the United States devoted to topics in the philosophy of free institutions. His plan was to make Sabre an ongoing venue for such work.

An independent scholar and thinker in his own right, educated at Yale University and the University of Chicago, Gray quietly pursued his own project in economic and legal theory, an inquiry he saw as groundwork for a larger undertaking shared by many minds. His interests extended as well to topics at the frontiers of mathematics, biology and architectural design. Unifying all his concerns was a dedication to a non-coercive social order in which variety, individuality and enterprise would have full scope.

Gray's last paper, read a month before his death, explored the Oakeshottian theme of a rule of law independent of economic and national purpose. He believed that, increasingly, disputes might be settled without invoking the coercive power of the state. Modern commercial practice, as well as ancient common law provided examples of an emerging but still-to-be-defined international legal order in which the rule of law might be divorced from the sovereignty of nation-states.

The same paper included a striking passage evoking his personal philosophy of friendship. It may suggest why his memory is treasured by those who knew him:

"I would suggest that the economist has little to say about friendship. To me purpose is the enemy of friendship. Friends may usually be related in other ways, normally involving purpose, or even Great Purpose, but as friends each wants nothing from the other, nor I would maintain, at the risk of going too far, for the other."