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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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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