One Englishman’s adventures in the life of the mind.
May 23, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 34 • By EDWARD SHORT
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.
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.”