Professor examines ‘the poetic character of human activity’ in new book

In “The Poetic Character of Human Activity,” professor Wendell John Coats Jr. and co-author Chor-Yung Cheung explore the work of 20th-century political philosopher Michael Oakeshott.

The book’s title is a phrase Oakeshott used in his critique of modern rationalism. In this series of essays, Coats, a professor of government at Connecticut College, and Cheung, a political theorist and dean of students at City University of Hong Kong, apply the phrase to Oakeshott’s body of work and draw comparisons between his theories and those of Taoist thinker Zhuangzi (Chuang Tzu), among others.

“The poetic character of human activity” refers to Oakeshott’s view that all human experience—including both thought and action—arises creatively or poetically.

“This means that both how we do or think something and what we do or think arise simultaneously and affect one another. This means, in turn, that there are no antecedently formulated ideas or plans to act upon, and that when we think we are doing this, we do not really understand what we are doing,” Coats said. “Thus, there are no universal plans or models for action, as rationalists from Plato onwards have thought, and when we attempt to apply universal models, especially in politics and governance, the effects are destructive of genuine skill and moral balance.”

Coats, who teaches classes on the history of western political thought, said he was drawn to Oakeshott’s skillful prose and his unique approach to political theory. 

“He was brilliant,” Coats said. “His work is not very well known, but it is becoming more so, because he was very talented.”

Coats is the author of eight books, including a previous work on Oakeshott, “Oakeshott and His Contemporaries.”

December 21, 2012