R.G. Collingwood, 1889-1943 1934 1926
Photo taken at the Roman fort at Birdoswald on Hadrian’s Wall, in 1929. From right to left: R.G. Collingwood, S. Applebaum, K. Stade, H.S. Addison, F.G. Simpson, R. Turner, E.B. Birley, J. Charlton. Photo taken at the Roman fort at Ravenglass, in September 1927. From right to left : W.G. Collingwood (father of R.G.), miss M.C. Fair, R.G. Collingwood
Basic principles of Collingwood'sphilosophy of history • For human beings the past is not dead, but a living part of the present. Natural processes are different in this. Whatis called human natureis actually human history. Historyanditsstudy is essentialforself-knowledge. • Since the 19th century the study of historybecameprofessionalizedand 'scientific'. In Collingwood's view, this approach was ill-conceivedbytryingtoimitate the naturalsciences (establishing 'facts' andsearchingforhistoricallaws). • It was Collingwood'saimtostudyhistoryproperly, that is, accordingtoitsownprinciplesandmethods, theybeing different from the ones of naturalscience. • In contrast toallothertheorists of history he insistedthathistoryis a full-fledgedscience. His philosophy of history is aimed at exploringitscharacteristics. In thisconnection he stronglyresisted the still prominent influence of naturalscience on the study of history, calledbyhimpositivismor naturalism. • At present the influene of natural science on the study of history is not a topical subject anymore as it was in Collingwood's time. Since the so-called 'linguistic turn' history is not seen as a science but as part of literature. Collingwood would be opposed to this position, because he was explicit in considering a science of its own. In this respect he is of great current interest in present discussions on the nature of history. • - Philip J. Ivanhoe, ‘Historical Understanding in China and the West. Zhang, Collingwood and Mink’, Journal of the Philosophy of History 8 (2014), 78–95. • Zhang Xuecheng 章學誠 (1738–1801): ‘one who does not understand the age in which the ancients lived cannot recklessly discuss their writings. Even if one understands the age in which they lived, if one does not understand their individual perspectives, one still cannot hastily proceed to discuss their writings’.
Complexities in interpreting Collingwood’s philosophy of history The Idea of History would not have been published in its present form by Collingwood. It was posthumously put together by T.M. Knox from various sources, ranging from 1935 to 1939, and consisting of lectures, some previously published articles, and parts of a manuscript of an unfinished book. In 1978 a large amount of manuscripts of Collingwood (some 4000 pages) has become available, some important ones being on philosophy of history. Besides these, the manuscript of his unfinished book The Principles of History (1939) was discovered in 1995 in the archives of Oxford University Press. Collingwood’s exceptional broad scope of mind, covering various fields and a bewildering amount of subjects. Collingwood was both a philosopher, historian and accomplished archaeologist. In all three areas he has published extensively and has made important contributions. Though Collingwood is at present primarily known as a philosopher of history, during is life he has hardly published on the subject. His philosophy of history has therefore to be reconstructed from bits and pieces. The Idea of History is unreliable and An Autobiography too fragmentary.
Collingwood on historical process, progress, civilization, and the idea of the living past Change, development, and process - Are philosophical concepts as explained in An Essay on Philosophical Metod (1933). They are unlike scientific or empirical concepts, in that no exhaustive definition can be provided. A philosophical concept is characterized by an overlap of its specific classes; these overlapping classes each embody the generic essence, but they make up a scale of forms differing from each other both in degree and kind, and by opposition and distinction. - The difference between change, and development or process is based on the one between matter and life. With change there is always a substratum x which is permanent and changes from one state into another, the cause being something from without. Example of water (solid, liquid or gaseous). - In a development there is no substratum, but something turning into something else. Is typical for organic nature. Acccording to Aristotle it is of cyclical nature, without evolution, that is, the forms remain constant. - Within development or process Collingwood distinguishes natural processes from processes in human history. Though nature exhibits a process as well in which the forms change (Darwin), historical processes are fundamentally different from natural processes.
Historical process in human history - To see history as a process was Collingwood’s ‘first principle of a philosophy of history’. He worked it out in his essay Libellus de Generatione of 1920: ‘At the time, I expressed this by saying that history is concerned not with “events” but with “processes”; that “processes” are things which do not begin and end but turn into one another’ (Aut, 97-8). - In an historical process there is no mere time-sequence as in nature, but the past conserves itself in the present, the historical process accordingly being of a rational nature. The past accumulates in the present: ‘For mind in general this accumulation is called experience; for consciousness, it is called memory; for a social unity, it is called tradition; for knowledge, it is called history’ (‘Notes towards a Metaphysic, PH, 131). - Summary: there is a scale of forms of overlapping classes from (1) natural change with a permanent substratum undergoing various changes caused from without, to (2) natural development of a cyclical nature, the forms remaining constant, to (3) natural process or evolution where the forms change, and finally (4) historical processes with their distinguishing feature of retaining the past in the present.
The idea of progress - Collingwood is reluctant to conceive historical processes as being progressive, since he argues that each generation is confronted by unique situations giving rise to unique problems. - Collingwood's position on the idea of progress is variegated, and includes four standpoints: (1) it is dependent on a point of view; (2) it is meaningless; (3) it is meaningful; (4) it is necessary. - (1). 'A change that is really a progress seen from one end, is no less really a decadence, seen from the other': 'The growth of the steamship is the passing-away of that splendid thing, the sailing-ship’. - (2). The idea of progress is meaningless in the realms of art, happiness, and morality.‘Every phase of art has its own beauty, which it is idle to assess in terms of a scale of degrees’. ‘Different ages find happiness in different things’, and ‘the happiness of a peasant is not contained in the happiness of a millionaire’. ‘A man’s moral worth depends not on his circumstances, but on the way in which he confronts them’. - (3).The identity of a certain problem serves Collingwood as a criterion for the meaningful application of the concept of progress.‘The main purpose of the architect is to build; the Gothic architect built stronger and cheaper than the Norman’. - (4). In science the idea of progress is not only meaningful, but also necessary in being related to the historical thought of the scientist. That is, a scientist always relates his work to the ones of his predecessors. But also in solving practical problems the idea of progress is necessary, historical thought being involved as well.
Collingwood on civilization Historical background - In 'What "Civilization" means', written in preparation for The New Leviathan. - The concept of civilization has a history of its own. In 17th and 18th centuries a dichotomy made of civilized and barbarous societies. In an absolute sense civilization and barbarism are two ends of a scale. Societies had a definite place on the scale. - In the course of the 19th century civilization was seen as a process, being always and everywhere the same (historical monism). Civilization seen as relative: a society is civilized as compared with one lower down on the scale, and barbarous as compared with one higher up the scale. - This has been replaced by a ‘historical pluralism’, that is, the idea that there are different kinds of civilization, each with their own characteristics. Idea that at different periods of history and among different peoples different ideals of civilization are envisaged and accordingly different civilizing processes realized. 'Hence we speak of Chinese civilization and European civilization as different things, realizing or attempting to realize different ideals, and not capable of being described as merely different in the degree to which one single ideal has been realized. They are different, we think, in kind'.
Distinctions within civilization - The notion of civilization is not confined to the actual behaviour of people, but essentially involves certain ideals inherent in a civilization. It is therefore essentially normative. - In this connection Collingwood makes a distinction between 3 levels of ideals: - (1). Civilizational ideals that have been realized (factual level). - (2). Civilizational ideals that are recognized but not realized. The discrepancies between the achieved ideals of the first order and the non-achieved of the second are called by Collingwood the elements of barbarism within a civilization. - (3). The ways in which all civilizations, or ways of living in a civilized manner, are one. 'Civilization has something to do with the mutual relations of members within a community … with the relation of these members to the world of nature; and … with the relation between them and other human beings not being members of the same community' (NL, 35.34).
Progress in civilization • A partial progress in civilization is only a neutral opportunity inherited from the past, which may also be used in a way leading to barbarism. Barbarous elements are always lurking in the background of every civilization. They are accordingly not foreign elements within a civilization but inherent to it. Opportunities progress. What does not progress is the human will, which is just as capable of using its opportunities well or ill. • The essence of Collingwood’s view on the process of civilization is that though the aspect of the inheritance from the past (the ‘factual’ side) indeed is a necessary condition for it, the aspect of the human will is of primordial importance. It is neither inherited nor determined. As with the solution of theoretical and practical problems it is guided, though, by the idea of progress. • ‘Civilization and the advancements of civilization are one and the same. The will to be civilized is identical with the will to become more civilized’. To go on being civilized is to eliminate the barbarous elements (NL, 500). • In his ‘Lectures on the Philosophy of History’ of 1926 (IH, 359-425) Collingwood makes the observation that ‘History is nothing but the attempt to understand the present by analysing it into its logical components of necessity, or the past, and possibility, or the future; and this is an attempt that is made by everybody and at all times’ (IH, 422). From this point of view the idea of progress in civilization, made concrete in certain ideals for the future, may indeed be seen as a guiding principle in deciding which possibilities, and consequently opportunities, should be realized.
The idea of a living past - Collingwood’s idea of the living past exhibits the core of his view on the relation between past and present. As such it implies, among other things the specific nature of historical processes and the re-enactment doctrine. It also implies a continuous fight against positivism and naturalism. It has never been worked out by him as a special issue, however, and is only referred to in passing in The Idea of History. - In cricizing Oakeshott for claiming that the past is either dead or not past at all but simply present, Collingwood retorts that ‘The third alternative is that it should be a living past, a past which, because it was thought and not mere natural event, can be re-enacted in the present and in that re-enactment known as past’. In this sense history is ‘an integral part of experience itself’ (IH, 158). - From another perspective Collingwood says in his criticism of Toynbee that he sees history as a spectator as a scientist does with nature. In this way ‘history is converted into nature, and the past, instead of living in the present, as it does in history, is conceived as a dead past, as it is in nature’ (IH, 164). - Of Rickert Collingwood says that ‘he fails to see that what gives value to past facts is the fact that they are not mere past facts, they are not a dead past but a living past, a heritage of past thoughts which by the work of his historical consciousness the historian makes his own’ (IH, 169-70). - On Simmel: ‘because he has not sufficiently grasped the nature of the historical process he does not realize that the historian’s own mind is heir to the past and has come to be what it is through the development of the past into the present, so that in him the past is living in the present (IH, 171). - In a natural process in the past dies in being replaced by the present, while in an historical process the past, so far as it is historically known, survives in the present. - ‘The historical past, unlike the natural past, is a living past, kept alive by the act of historical thinking itself, the historical change from one way of thinking to another is not the death of the first, but its survival integrated in a new context involving the development and criticism of its own ideas’ (IH, 225-6).
Practical dimension of the idea of a living past - What we call human nature is the product of historical processes, and the past as living in the present. Though what history has produced is mere fact and unalterable, ‘nature’ is something more than fact, it is compulsion: ‘If I do actions of a certain kind because, as a matter of historical fact, I have acquired the habit of doing them, it is an unalterable fact that I acquired that habit: but it does not follow that, in the further course of my history, the habit cannot be modified or broken. On the contrary, since the habit is a mere fact, it falls away, like any other fact, into the past, unless it is constantly renewed by fresh action’. ‘Thus if the habitual “sets” or recurrent patterns of action in a given man or people are historically produced, the gates of the future are open; if natural, they are shut’ (‘Reality as History’, PH, 193-4). - In the scheme of his planned book The Principles of History, the title of its third part reads: ‘Relation of history as thought to practical life’. He describes the outline of its content as follows: History is the negation of the traditional distinction between theory and practice. In natural science the object is presupposed. In history the object is enacted and is therefore not an object at all. An historical morality and historical civilization, contrasting with our ‘scientific’ one. Where science = natural science. A scientific morality will start from the idea of human nature as a thing to be conquered or obeyed: an historical one will deny that there is such a thing, and will resolve what we are into what we do. A scientific society will turn on the idea of mastering people (by money or war or the like) or alternatively serving them (philanthropy). An historical society will turn on the idea of understanding them’. Parts of this position are to be found in the last chapter (‘Theory and Practice’) of An Autobiography.