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.)  

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