A personal overview of Collingwood’s New Leviathan

These are the notes of an amateur of the work of the philosopher R. G. Collingwood.

Published in 1942, The New Leviathan was the last book that Collingwood wrote. He finished it in some haste, because he knew he was dying—albeit of a condition brought on or at least exacerbated by overwork in the first place. He did die in 1943. Having been born in 1889, he was not so old as Socrates at death; but like Socrates, he had a babe in arms.

Collingwood’s babe in arms grew up to hold the copyright on the 1992 second edition of The New Leviathan. The first edition had had no express copyright, presumably because of Collingwood’s opposition to the whole idea, explained in his Principles of Art of 1938. That book was written

in the belief that [everything in it] has a practical bearing, direct or indirect, upon the condition of art in England in 1937 …

The New Leviathan was intended to bear on the war against Hitler. In its preface, Collingwood explains that the title can be taken

to mean that I have set out … to portray and anatomize the new absolutism of the twentieth century, based (like that which Hobbes described) on the will of a people who in thus setting up a popular tyrant gave into his hands every right any one of them has hitherto possessed.

However, Collingwood also gives an alternative, grander interpretation of the title, as indicating that the book takes Hobbes’s Leviathan as a model for

dealing with the entire body of political science and approach[ing] its colossal subject from first principles, that is, from an examination of man, his faculties and interests, his virtues and vices…

In finishing his preface, Collingwood suggests that

some degree of greatness, though I hardly know what, might be ascribed to a book written in great part not (as Hegel boasted) during the cannonade of Jena, but during the bombardment of London.

Greater presumption is found in Chapter IV, “Feeling,” where Collingwood says, “feeling is indefinite” (4. 8), and “However strong it may be, it is not clear” (4. 81), and then,

4. 82. This has already been said, emphatically enough, by two great men whom it is an honour to follow: Plato and Leibniz.

4. 83. For Plato, sensations and emotions cannot be knowledge because they lack the precision which knowledge must have.

4. 84. For Leibniz, feeling in general is confusa cognitio.

Finally, “I do not accept either view in its entirety” (4. 85).

The honor of following Plato and Leibniz would appear to be given to Collingwood by himself, unless perhaps the honor is granted by Oxford University Press in agreeing to publish Collingwood’s book. Or perhaps readers honor Collingwood, just by reading him in addition to Plato and Leibniz. Then any readers of my own words are likewise honoring me.

Europe in 1942 faced an awful future. As Collingwood points out, enough people had given over their rights to one man that this man could proceed to take away the rights and the lives of many other people. Today, in 2014, many of us have effectively abrogated our privacy rights and just about every other right, except the right to make a profit by any means possible; and almost nobody can take advantage of this right, if indeed it is any more of a right than the right of the strongest.

In An Autobiography of 1938, Collingwood had already described the weakening of democracy.

I thought the democratic system was not only a form of government but a school of political experience coextensive with the nation, and I thought that no authoritarian government, however strong, could be so strong as one which rested on a politically educated public opinion …

The whole system, however, would break down if a majority of the electorate should become either ill informed on public questions or corrupt in their attitude towards them: by which I mean, capable of adopting towards them a policy directed not to the good of the nation as a whole, but to the good of their own class or section or of themselves.

In the first respect, I became conscious of a change for the worse during the eighteen-nineties … Then came the Daily Mail, the first English newspaper for which the word ‘news’ lost its old meaning of facts which a reader ought to know if he was to vote intelligently, and acquired the new meaning of facts, or fictions, which it might amuse him to read.

I suppose such complaints about journalism have been made ever since. My uncle William Crawford was a producer for CBS News until he was forcibly retired during the Persian Gulf War; unfortunately I can no longer consult him, but I believe he found himself resisting the corporate forces that would turn the news into entertainment.

Collingwood’s passage ought to be examined historically. The applicable notion of voting has changed somewhat. According to J. P. Kenyon, Wordsworth Dictionary of British History (Wordsworth Editions, 1998), the Reform Act of 1884 extended the franchise in Britain to all county householders; not until 1918 was the right to vote of all men over 21 and all women over 30 recognized. It is good to increase the compass of the franchise; but it is good also to increase the likelihood of its responsible use. Unfortunately a reference to responsibility of voting must recall the words attributed to Henry Kissinger about Chile before the Pinochet coup:

I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its people.

And yet responsibility has no meaning if people cannot be irresponsible. Learning means learning from mistakes. I would just quote Collingwood, from Chapter XXVI, “Democracy and Aristocracy,” of the New Leviathan. The doctrinaire democrat and the doctrinaire aristocrat are discussed.

26. 12. These are hostile to each other. But democracy and aristocracy, properly understood, are not hostile to each other. They are mutually complementary.

26. 13. Each of them gives a partial answer to the question: ‘How shall we make the ruling class as strong as possible?’

26. 14. Democracy answers: ‘By enlarging it so far as is possible. By recruiting into it, to discharge one or other function, every member of the ruled class who may constitute an addition to its strength.’

26. 15. Aristocracy answers: ‘By restricting it so far as is needful. By excluding from its membership everyone who does not or would not increase its strength.’

26. 16. There is no quarrel between these answers. The inevitable recruitment of a ruling class from its correlative ruled class is a dialectical process, part of the process which is the life of the body politic. Democracy and aristocracy are positive and negative elements in that process.

26. 17. The rise of doctrinaire democracy or doctrinaire aristocracy happens when these elements are considered in false abstraction from the process to which they belong, and then considered eristically as competing for the politician’s loyalty. One must be the better worth following: which?

26. 18. Abstraction is a necessary part of thought. In thinking of a process of change you must think of its positive and negative elements in abstraction from the process.

26. 19. False abstraction is the same thing complicated by a falsehood: the falsehood, namely, that these two opposite elements are mutually independent and hostile entities.

This all makes perfect sense to me. And yet politics as actually practiced made no sense to me when I was young. Coming of age in the United States under Ronald Reagan, I could not understand the enmity between the systems calling themselves Democracy and Communism. I thought the systems should fight it out, not with masses of nuclear weapons, but with actual arguments for which system was better. I said this as a student in a classroom in Washington, D.C. I acknowledged that I was idealistic, and my classmates who were more savvy in politics must have agreed.

Collingwood begins the New Leviathan at a kind of logical beginning. The first few chapters are:

  1. Body and Mind,”
  2. The Relation Between Body and Mind,”
  3. Body as Mind,”
  4. Feeling,”
  5. The Ambiguity of Feeling,”
  6. Language,”
  7. Appetite,”
  8. Hunger and Love.”

In Chapter III, it is observed that references to the body are often references to feeling. Every kind of exertion is a bodily exertion, in the sense that our physical bodies are involved; but a bodily exertion is connected to physical sensations in a way that an attempt to prove a mathematical theorem is not. So says Collingwood, and he seems to make sense. But why is the distinction important? He goes on to say in Chapter IV:

4. 2. Man as mind is consciousness, practical and theoretical, both in its simplest form and also in specialized forms; he has feeling, both in its simplest or purely sensuous-emotional form and also in specialized forms.

Thus Collingwood makes a distinction by means of the two verbs used most commonly as auxiliaries: be/am/is and have. How important is it that not every language has this verbal distinction? Turkish has no verb for have, and the verb that can be used for be/am/is usually means become. One can however say:

  • İnsan bilinçtir “A person is consciousness”;
  • İnsanın hisi vardır “A person’s feeling is existing.”

In either case the ending tir/dır marks the predicate. But meanwhile, Collingwood has also expressed his distinction in other terms: A possession or a belonging can be a constituent or apanage. Consciousness then is the essential constituent of mind, while feeling is an apanage of consciousness.

Still I am going to ask: Why is this distinction important? Collingwood has begun Chapter IV with another distinction: within a feeling itself, there is a sensation as well as an emotional charge on the sensation. Collingwood discusses this distinction in The Principles of Art, where he observes that sensations cannot be sterilized of their emotional charges, although the attempt can be made. In a piece of mathematics I can write “Let A be a set” or “Let Ω be a set.” There is not supposed to be any mathematical difference between these two directives, since the letters are supposed to be just letters; and yet still I am going to have emotional reasons for preferring a particular letter.

“A feeling is a here-and-now” says Collingwood (4. 4). “Within a here-and-now … distinctions are made by the act of selective attention” (4. 5). Here is where I am going to stop these notes for now: with the observation that Collingwood’s analysis of these primordial features of ourselves inevitably involves selective attention. That is what analysis is. And there is perhaps no reason for the analysis to go a particular way. We must see where it takes us. Meanwhile I return to the end of Chapter I.

1. 87. A man who wants to know what he is in his capacity as mind has no need to ask a specialist, and no specialist has any right to demand his acceptance of any particular answer.

1. 88. The general form of answer to any such question is: In teipsum redi. You have the makings of the answer in your own consciousness. Reflect, and you will find what it is. In the meantime I offer you the fruits of my own reflection, so that ‘the pains left another, will onely be to consider, if he also find the same in himself. For this kind of Doctrine, admitteth no other Demonstration.’

The quotation is marked as being from page 2 of Hobbes’s Leviathan. The Latin phrase (which perhaps should have been printed as four words rather than three) is apparently from Augustine. An academic blogger happens to provide an explanation [dead link]:

But in the Preface to PoP Merleau-Ponty, perhaps surprisingly, references a passage from Augustine’s early work De Vera Religione. The passage, in context, reads as follows: noli foras ire, in te ipsum redi. in interiore homine habitat ueritas. Roughly, this translates as, “Do not wish to go outside (foras), return into yourself. Truth dwells in the inner man.” Merleau-Ponty’s point in referring to this passage is to deny its truth. Indeed, he says, “Truth does not ‘inhabit’ only the ‘inner man.’ Or more accurately, there is no inner man; man is in the world, it is within the world that he knows himself” (p. v).

Judging especially from Collingwood’s Speculum Mentis, I don’t think he would disagree with the quotation of Merleau-Ponty. As detailed in An Autobiography though, he would dispute the presumption that truth is an attribute of isolated passages. One has to see the passages in context, as a part of a complex of questions and answers. It is in agreeing with this view that I have put together the present notes.

Edited September 20, 2018


  1. Posted September 19, 2019 at 7:49 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Mr. Pierce: I just discovered your blog, and I’m looking forward to reading it further. I’m currently reading Collingwood (or at the moment, about his work via Louis Mink). In any event, I’ve developed a late-in-life intellectual crush on Collingwood (since about 2015), so I’m excited to read your entries on NL & other topics as well. I know of (but have not read) Brann’s book on imagination, one of the topics that I was reading about earlier today in Mink. A Google search of “Eva Brann” and “Collingwood” led me to your site. Having read only a couple of posts, I’m in a position to say “thank you” for your efforts. I’ve read NL once, but I’ll certainly benefit from your guideposts when I plunge into it once again.

    • Posted September 20, 2019 at 9:22 am | Permalink | Reply

      Thanks for writing and letting me know, Mr Greenleaf! Comments, criticisms, suggestions are always welcome. Do you like Mink’s writing? I have read little secondary literature on Collingwood

      • Posted September 20, 2019 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

        I’m nearing the end of the Mink book & I intend to post a review soon after, but as a preview, I will say that I’ve found Mink’s book quite helpful. Mink is a sympathetic but not uncritical expositor of RGC’s thought. He recognizes that RGC was a systematic thinker, but that RGC was also economical in his writing–not often repeating contentions or arguments from book to book. And, of course, RGC’s thought developed over time. Mink identifies SM as the first map of RGC’s thinking, and he then reveals how RGC alters and details that map in his later works. I’ve read all of RGC’s major works except R&P, EPM, and EM, and so I now have a better sense of what I’ve missed and how it can all tie together. I’ve read only a couple of other book-length considerations of RGC’s work (one focused on IH & the Fred Inglis biography, History Man), but Mink’s book has provided the most thorough and well-presented roadmap of Collingwood’s project as a whole that I can imagine anyone writing in a single, 268-page text.

        *As I believe that I’m the elder between the two of us, I’ve taken the liberty of dropping the initial formalities.

7 Trackbacks

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