R. G. Collingwood

R. G. Collingwood (1889–1943)

by Simon Blackburn

Collingwood was the greatest British philosopher of history of the twentieth century. His experience as a practising historian of Roman Britain led him to believe that the besetting vice of philosophy is to abstract propositions away from the context of the practical problems and questions that gave rise to them. Until we know the practical context of problems and questions to which a proposition is supposed to be an answer, we do not know what it means. In this respect his concern with the living activities of language users parallels that of the later Wittgenstein. Collingwood also believed that the interpretation of others was not a scientific exercise of fitting their behaviour into a network of generalizations, but a matter of rethinking their thoughts for oneself. His conviction that this ability, which he identified with historical thinking, was the neglected and crucial component of all human thought stamped him as original, or even a maverick, during his own lifetime. He also shared with Wittgensteinthe belief that quite apart from containing propositions that can be evaluated as true or false, systems of thought depend upon ‘absolute presuppositions’, or a framework or scaffolding of ideas that may change with time. The business of metaphysics is to reconstruct the framework that operated at particular periods of history. Collingwoodhad extensive moral and political interests, and his writings on art, religion and science confirm his stature as one of the greatest polymaths of twentieth-century British philosophy.


Collingwood was born in the Lake District of England, and educated until the age of 13 by his father, a painter and friend of Ruskin. It was during his childhood that he absorbed his admiration for practical problem-solving, whether the problems were those of a painter, an archaeologist or a sailor: ‘I learned to think of a picture not as a finished product exposed for the admiration of virtuosi, but as the visible record…of an attempt to solve a definite problem in painting, so far as the attempt has gone’ (1939: 2). He subsequently attended Rugby School and University College, Oxford, where he had a brilliant career as a classicist. He was the only pupil of F.J. Haverfield, the Romano-British historian, to survive the First World War, and conceived it his duty to carry on Haverfield’s work. So he effectively combined two careers, as a teacher of philosophy at Pembroke College, Oxford, from 1912, and as a practising archaeologist and classicist. In the second capacity he made extensive contributions to the corpus of Roman inscriptions recorded in Britain, and wrote the sections on Roman Britain in the Oxford History of England. Although in his Autobiography (completed in 1938) he liked to portray himself as a philosophical outsider, his distinction was acknowledged by the Waynflete Chair of metaphysical philosophy, to which he was elected in 1936, and which he held until a series of strokes forced him to retire in 1941.

Collingwood characterized the philosophical situation at the Oxford of his time as one of opposition between the lingering ‘school of Green’ and the ‘realists’, whose members includedJohn Cook-Wilson, H.W.B. Joseph and H.A. Prichard. Similar tendencies to realism in Cambridge were represented by G.E. Moore and Bertrand Russell. By the ‘school of Green’ Collingwood referred to what is often called ‘absolute idealism’, although he is careful to note that the leading representative of that school in his time, F.H. Bradley, repudiated the label of idealist, as Collingwood himself did. Although educated as a realist, Collingwood locates his progressive disenchantment, in the years before the First World War, in his realization that the historical understanding that the realists brought to philosophy was totally inadequate. Moore criticizedBerkeley for views which Berkeley never held; Cook-Wilson criticized Bradley for views thatBradley never held. As a historian Collingwood found himself offended by the lack of historical scholarship demonstrated by such performances. He differs from the analytic tradition most fundamentally over history. If one reads Moore, or Wittgenstein, it might seem that philosophy and history have nothing to do with one another, and if Moore made a historical mistake aboutBerkeley, that need not diminish the importance of his philosophical thought. But Collingwood sees thought as something that is essentially historically embodied: the idea of a worthwhile philosophy with no reflection on its own historical situation would be a contradiction. We can understand where we are only by understanding our own historical embedding: how we got there and the thoughts of those who would wish us to have got somewhere else. For Collingwood, therefore, there is no split, of the kind that has been made much of in recent philosophy, between treating historical philosophers as great, but unlearned, contemporaries and treating them as historical material: in all the important respects, the past lives in the present and the present cannot be understood without it.

Major themes

According to Collingwood, the realists of his time thought of knowledge as the static, direct apprehension of the truth of a proposition: a mysterious unity that arises when mind confronts fact. Collingwood, making use of his experience as a working historian, insisted that knowledge is never that, but must be the outcome of a moving, active, dynamic process of hypothesis formation and testing. Questioning is one half of the act of which the other half is forming an answer, and it takes both halves to make up a situation of knowing anything. It should be noticed that this is not an opposition to realism on behalf of any kind of idealism, and the label is of little diagnostic value in attempting to understand Collingwood.

Applying this doctrine to the interpretation of historical texts, Collingwood insists that you cannot know what a philosopher meant by a doctrine until you know the question to which the doctrine was intended as an answer and how that question arose. Immediately it follows that you cannot tell whether propositions contradict each other unless you know that they are answers to the same question. This is partly a plea for intelligent appreciation of the space of problems within which different writers work, and in effect Collingwood is highlighting a version of what later became called the principle of charity. Indeed, he sometimes embraces one extreme consequence of a method based on the principle of charity, namely that since we have to read the questions to which philosophers address themselves back from their answers, there is no possibility of saying that their answers are inadequate or muddled or mistaken. Using his favourite analogy of naval history he asks: ‘How can we discover what the tactical problem was that Nelson set himself at Trafalgar? Only by studying the tactics he pursued in the battle. We argue back from the solution to the problem’ (1939: 70). He himself notes that this works at least mainly because Nelson won the battle, and we may legitimately wonder whether it is right to assume that the great dead philosophers won all their battles. But for Collingwood the integrity of the historical quest requires interpreting them substantially as if they did.

The upshot is that the scope for fundamental criticism of a philosopher diminishes markedly, and this leads to the second theme of constant importance to Collingwood: the identification of metaphysics with history. At first blush it may seem that he must believe that metaphysics, at least as it is done in critical discussion of the views of great past thinkers, has been entirely superseded by the historical problem of discovering the questions and answers they are proposing. However, the twist is that solving this historical problem, for Collingwood, requires reliving the problem and rethinking the issue for oneself. It requires making the words of the text into one’s own, re-centring one’s concerns and seeing how these things are to be said or these actions performed in answer to them. So if the metaphysical problem gives way to a historical one, it is equally true that a historical problem gives way to a metaphysical one: for example, to understand Plato historically requires fully grasping the problem to which the theory of Forms provides an answer.

Collingwood’s rapprochement between history and metaphysics here depends upon his insistence that historical thinking is in this way a matter of living through the thinking of the person confronted with a problem. This is perhaps the best-known of his doctrines, and he has several interlocking reasons for it. He holds that to study a person in respect of their mental features is to study their own self-understanding, and that means the concepts that determine their plans and activities. Understanding these concepts is not an atomistic project, a matter of finding individual elements, perhaps written in the brain, connected by scientific law with other elements. It is an essentially holistic enterprise that needs to draw on the wider knowledge of the person’s human context. When I come to understand why you acted as you did I am not concerned to place you in a law-like causal network, but to see the point of your doings. In the modern jargon, rationalizing you is a distinct normative activity, not reducible to seeing your behaviour just as part of what generally happens, part of a scientifically repeatable pattern. By the normativity of thought Collingwood means not just that as bystanders we can assess the thoughts of others for truth or falsity, rationality or the reverse. He means that thinking itself is essentially a process of which such assessments are a part. The thinker is actively engaged in solving a problem, and is constantly evaluating proposals, withdrawing some and improving others. What is being done cannot be clocked or recorded or understood in terms of a succession of passive occurrences.

In all his works, from the early Religion and Philosophy (1916), he opposes this theory of interpretation to ‘scientific’ psychology. He sees the scientific psychologist as one who treats the phenomena of mental life as natural events, surveyable from the outside, and who seeks to generate laws of association and development. But, he says, the mind regarded in this way ceases to be a mind at all. He has no objection to this treatment of essentially passive mental phenomena, such as he takes feelings to be. It is when the approach is tried upon thinking that he objects. He is at his most scathing when describing the grotesque failure of psychologists of his day to engage with thought, even when they purport to be giving its scientific nature. His critique goes to the heart of the question of method in gaining human understanding. For although he calls his epistemology a theory of history, it is what is with less dignity called a theory of folk psychology. He is quite clear that he is not only concerned with the remote past: ‘If it is by historical thinking that we re-think and so rediscover the thought of Hammurabi or Solon, it is in the same way that we discover the thought of a friend who writes us a letter, or a stranger who crosses the street’ (1946: 219) – and, he adds, our own thoughts of ten years or five minutes ago. The inclusion of self-knowledge is deliberate and impressive, for Collingwood held that there was no division between knowing one’s own mind and knowing that of others. In this respect his approach is more sophisticated than the verstehen method of Wilhelm Dilthey. Its closest successor in current philosophy is the view that ascription of belief and desire to others is best seen as an ‘off-line simulation’ of their active processes of thought. Collingwood’s view that the self-controlling normativity of thought unfits it for being the subject of a self-standing science strikingly anticipates the later discussions of interpretation of others given by writers such as Davidson and Dennett. His hostility to the external, objectifying, professedly ‘scientific’ approach to the human world is as radical as anything to be found in more recent debates.

A final theme that can be isolated as a constant in his work is the dependence of all thought upon absolute presuppositions. Collingwood is not here thinking of the a priori, for, this time anticipatingQuine, he has no use for the category. Rather, at a particular time the identification of questions and the production of answers in response to them must go on against a largely unnoticed background of presuppositions. These themselves are not posed in answer to any questions, and therefore cannot be assessed as true or false. To use the analogy with which Wittgenstein inOn Certainty characterized the same doctrine (which he held for the same reason – the absence of a method for raising and answering the question of truth) they are the hinges on which the door swings. Collingwood has in mind something like the paradigms of Thomas Kuhn: the resources for thought and the devices for structuring it that, in a particular period of time, form the framework within which ordinary investigation proceeds. Again, his prescience in isolating such a category and insisting that historical research be directed at uncovering its operations in the history of science and philosophy has been amply confirmed by later writing.

Other works and topics

If one thinks of British philosophy of the 1920s and 1930s as mainly concerned with Russellian and Moorean approaches to mind and matter, or as easing itself into some kind of relationship to logical positivism, then Collingwood’s interests will seem unusual. His first attempt at a system of his own is Speculum Mentis (1924), which reviews five forms of experience as modes of discovering the truth. These are art, religion, science, history and philosophy. Art and religion stand at the bottom, since neither aims at expressed knowledge, although religion aims at symbolizing our relationship with the world. Science aims at truth, but its categories are inadequate to capture human experience. History suffers because historians can be seen as spectators of the events that they write down, and their own perspectives are distorting influences. Only in philosophy does the possibility of transcending these partial perspectives arise, and with it an understanding of the relative place of the four inferior modes of experience. The hierarchy of different modes of knowledge is an example of what he later explored as a ‘scale of forms’ or dialectically related set of categories whereby the essence of a phenomenon becomes more perfectly instanced. There are echoes here of the idealism to which Collingwood was not formally committed. His later reaction to this work was that it misunderstood the nature of history: historians are not spectators, but by reliving past thought become one with the histories they are writing.

The theme of artistic experience is the topic of his justly famous The Principles of Art (1938). Collingwood considers, and rejects, several views about the nature of art: that it is craft, representation or imitation, magic or amusement. He finds its essence in expression and imagination, which gives definite form to what is hitherto unconscious. Arguably the least successful part of the work is the attempt to examine what is involved in expression, which leads to the paradoxical doctrine that successful artists achieve their success in their own imagination, while externalizing or expressing what has been imagined is mere craft. This separation of thought and expression seems to witness a surprising and naive separation of mind and body, and his full view may be more complex. He certainly held, for instance, that there is no such thing as an unexpressed emotion (1938: 238), which is hardly consistent with a simple-minded dualism.

Throughout his life Collingwood wanted to put his theoretical concerns into close relationship with practical, moral and political activity. His deep hostility to utilitarianism, especially visible in hisEssays in Political Philosophy (1989) and The New Leviathan (1942), probably originated in the work of the ‘school of Green’ although it is also fertilized by continental moral philosophy. Proper living, for Collingwood, is not the repeated satisfaction of a stream of arbitrary desires or caprices, but an exercise of rational, free agency, in conformity with duty. Rationality and freedom are equated with knowledge. Collingwood here sympathized not only with Kant, but with the tradition of European liberalism of such writers as Giovanni Gentile and Guido de Ruggiero. For such thinkers the conditions for freedom include an especial sort of community, whose members acknowledge the same freedom in each other, and in which the institutions are organized so as to promote this mutual recognition. Like Benedetto Croce, Collingwood believed that, properly understood, liberalism tempers democracy with aristocracy. In any body politic there will be rulers and ruled; the rulers will be objects of emulation, and therefore under an obligation to comport themselves aristocratically, in the sense of possessing full awareness of the dignity due to their station. In a liberal society the ranks of the rulers would be replenished from those of the ruled, and systems of education and freedom of ideas would be the devices for ensuring the ongoing quality of the intake.

Collingwood’s writing is undoubtedly infuriating. Along with passages and doctrines of great depth and interest there are casual formulations of argument and a rather donnish delight in pugnacious overstatement and paradox that have left him easy prey to unsympathetic critics. Nevertheless the depth and range of his thought have seldom been equalled, and the years since his death have only slowly revealed the central importance of his problems, and the interest of his discussions of them.

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