The Magazine

Ideas Matter

One Englishman’s adventures in the life of the mind.

May 23, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 34 • By EDWARD SHORT
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History Man

R. G. Collingwood

R. G. Collingwood

The Life of
R. G. Collingwood

by Fred Inglis

Princeton, 400 pp., $39.50

"One day when I was eight years old curiosity moved me to take down a little black book lettered on its spine Kant’s Theory of Ethics,” the philosopher R.G. Collingwood recalled in An Autobiography (1939), “and as I began reading it .  .  . I was attacked by a strange succession of emotions. First came an intense excitement. I felt that things of the highest importance were being said about matters of the utmost urgency: things which at all costs I must understand. Then, with a wave of indignation, came the discovery that I could not understand them. .  .  . Then, third and last, came the strangest emotion of all. I felt that the contents of this book, although I could not understand it, were somehow my business.”

Other English boys might have dreamed of being cricketers or engine-drivers, but Collingwood wanted to do something different: “There came upon me by degrees .  .  . a sense of being burdened with a task whose nature I could not define except by saying, ‘I must think.’ ”

Thinking was, indeed, the governing passion of Collingwood’s life, and Fred Inglis, professor emeritus of the University of Sheffield, takes up that passion here with something of his subject’s irrepressible brio. Robin George Collingwood (1889-1943) was born at Cartmel Fell, Lancashire, the only son of the four children of W. G. Collingwood and his wife Edith Mary, the daughter of Thomas Isaac, a corn merchant. His delight in the life of the mind came from his father, a painter, archaeologist, and writer, who later became John Ruskin’s secretary and biographer. After being educated at home, where his father taught him Greek and Latin and included him in archaeological digs in the Lake District, Collingwood, thanks to a rich patron, entered Rugby.

There, his precocity set him apart. “The boys were nothing if not teachable,” he recalled.

They soon saw that any exhibition of interest in their studies was a sure way to get themselves disliked, not by their contemporaries, but by the masters; and they were not long in acquiring that pose of boredom towards learning and everything connected with it which is notoriously part of the English public school man’s character.

If Collingwood took learning seriously, he had interests outside his academic work. He was an accomplished pianist and took a lifelong interest in art, about which he wrote with discriminating panache. A fan of Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers, he also had a sense of fun, which often enlivened his otherwise abstruse philosophical musings. It certainly gave his prose a playful elegance: “Going up to Oxford,” he wrote in his autobiography, “was like being let out of prison. In those days .  .  . a candidate for honours was expected to read Homer, Virgil, Demosthenes, and the speeches of Cicero more or less entire. .  .  . This was not only leading a horse to water, but .  .  . leaving him there. The happy beast could swill and booze on Homer until the world contained no Homer that he had not read.” At University College, he also made time for “many long walks in the country, many idle afternoons on the river, many evenings spent playing and hearing music, many nights talking until dawn.” After obtaining a First in classical moderations in 1910, he turned to Greats, in which he duly received another First. In 1912 he was elected to a fellowship and tutorship in philosophy at Pembroke College.

During the First World War Collingwood worked with the intelligence department of the Admiralty, after which he taught philosophy at Pembroke and Lincoln College. In 1918 he married, and had two children. In 1927 he became university lecturer in philosophy and Roman history. In 1941 his wife dissolved their marriage, and in the same year, he married one of his former students, with whom he had a daughter. He died two years later of pneumonia.

Throughout his career, Collingwood set himself one goal: “to bring about a rapprochement between philosophy and history,” which would culminate in his best book, the posthumous The Idea of History (1946). Although the thesis is not entirely persuasive—all history is not the history of thought—its insights into the way history animates philosophy are still compelling. (Other notable works include An Essay on Philosophical Method, 1933, and The Principles of Art, 1938.)  

Better than most historians, Collingwood recognized how “we all approach history infected with tendentiousness.” Accordingly, he was convinced that “our actual historical labor must consist largely in overcoming it and .  .  . endeavoring to bring ourselves to a frame of mind which takes no sides and rejoices in nothing but the truth.” For Collingwood, to give way to tendentiousness meant “ceasing to be an historian and becoming a barrister; a good and useful member of society, in his right place, but guilty of an indictable fraud” if one claimed to be an historian. Of the tendentiousness that first arose in the histories of the early 20th century, Collingwood was profoundly prescient.

It is said, and widely believed, that history has hitherto been written by capitalists, and from a capitalist point of view. It is time, therefore, to take it out of their hands and write it deliberately from a proletarian point of view, to construct a history of the world in order to show the proletariat as the permanently oppressed hero and the capitalist as the permanent villain and tyrant of the human drama. This proposal, however strange it may seem in an Oxford lecture-room is today [1926] a matter of practical politics; numerous people are acting on it, and are manufacturing the literature which it demands. The result is a type of history somewhat recalling the anti-religious histories of the eighteenth-century—a history inspired by hatred and endeavoring to justify itself by, most anachronistically, projecting the object of that hatred, by an obsession that partakes of the nature of madness, into the whole course of human development.

The acuity of Collingwood’s work came at a cost. Unremitting writing, lecturing, and tutoring left him frazzled, and before he was out of his forties he had had two strokes. It was to help him recuperate that an inspired doctor ordered him to take a six-month cruise to Java, during which Collingwood wrote his sprightly autobiography. If not his best book, it is certainly his most enjoyable. 

The rise of the dictators in the 1930s confirmed Collingwood’s belief in the power of history to inform and rouse moral action. At the end of his autobiography he made a pledge that few intellectuals of the time could echo: “I know that Fascism means the end of clear thinking and the triumph of irrationalism. I know that all my life I have been engaged unawares in a political struggle, fighting against these things in the dark. Henceforth I shall fight in the daylight.”

That philosophy could learn from history was not an approved conviction in the philosophical circles of Oxbridge between the wars. If Collingwood was convinced that “we might very well be standing on the threshold of an age in which history would be as important for the world as natural science had been between 1600 and 1900,” Bertrand Russell distrusted history, seeing it merely as Gibbon’s “register of the crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind.” Indeed, in Principles of Social Reconstruction (1916), Russell repudiated history, arguing that a new civilization needed to be built to replace the one that was being obliterated in the trenches. Collingwood disagreed: “Destroy history, and you destroy the nourishment on which philosophy feeds; foster and develop a sound historical consciousness, and you have under your hand all .  .  . that philosophy needs.”

The Great War proved Collingwood’s point. Afterwards he looked back on “the characteristic theory of the state which we have learnt to call Prussianism” and saw a theory which “starts from the undoubted fact that the individual man is by himself powerless for good or evil, that as he owes his literal, physical life to a social fact—the union of his father and his mother—so he owes his economic, political, and spiritual life to the society into which he is born.” From this, it followed that “all originative and creative power is vested in the state, and that the state is, therefore, so to speak, God.”

In our own time, we have seen this conception gain new ground, though its import remains the same. It is still a conception which imagines the state “as responsible to nothing higher than itself .  .  . [with] no responsibilities, no duties, no obligations, no responsibilities to anyone except itself.” And Collingwood had no hesitation in concluding that, if “in framing this conception, [the Prussian state] was attempting to conceive the state in the likeness of God .  .  . it succeeded in creating a state that was rather an incarnation of the devil.”

Here is a reading of the philosophical genesis of the Great War that one will not find in military historians. But it is a reading that offers a powerful corrective to our own growing statism. When Pope Benedict XVI visited England last fall to beatify John Henry Newman, he warned his hosts (on the anniversary of the Battle of Britain) that it was precisely this deification of the state that had led to the horrors of Nazism in the Second World War and might lead to more ghastly mischief in the future.

Since Inglis was not given access to Collingwood’s personal papers, History Man is more commentary than biography. Nevertheless, while he is good on Collingwood’s feel for the richness of history, he overlooks his greatest accomplishment, which was to show how bad ideas wreak havoc beyond the academy. In this, Collingwood paved the way for one of our own most caustic historians, Theodore Dalrymple, who observes in Life at the Bottom: The Worldview that Makes the Underclass (2001), his collection of essays about his experiences as a doctor in an English slum hospital and prison, how irresponsibility, bred of fashionable notions of determinism, now define the underclass:

Here the whole gamut of human folly, wickedness, and misery may be perused at leisure .  .  . abortions by abdominal kung fu; children who have children, in numbers unknown before the advent of chemical contraception and sex education; women abandoned by the father of their child a month before or a month after delivery; insensate jealousy, the reverse coin of general promiscuity, that results in the most hideous oppression and violence; serial stepfatherhood that leads to sexual and physical abuse of children on a mass scale; and every kind of loosening of the distinction between the sexually permissible and the impermissible.

In this catalogue Collingwood would have seen the harvest of what he called “the modern pretense that psychology can deal with what once were called the problems of logic and ethics.” For Collingwood, such pretense required “the systematic abolition of all those distinctions, which, being valid for reason and will but not for sensation and appetite, constitute the special subject-matter of logic and ethics: distinctions like that between truth and error, knowledge and ignorance, science and sophistry, right and wrong, good and bad, expedient and inexpedient.” And since these distinctions “form the armature of every science,” psychology “regarded as the science of the mind, is not a science. It is what ‘phrenology’ was in the nineteenth century, and astrology and alchemy were in the Middle Ages and the sixteenth century: the fashionable scientific fraud of the age.”

Edward Short is the author of Newman and his Contemporaries.

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