How do our thoughts age?

Having written recently that natural science was not history of nature, I looked back at Collingwood’s posthumous Principles of History for his arguments about this. I read his discussion of freedom as what distinguishes history from natural science. I recalled that his earlier writing was more concerned with removing distinctions than drawing them.

This is something that I investigate here. I occasionally encounter denials that we have “free will.” I find such denials bizarre; but evidently some people believe them, or at least believe they are worthy of consideration. I find Collingwood’s own account of freedom to be worthy of consideration. But then, considering this along with the rest of his œuvre, I have to conclude that everything is free. This conclusion is not really new to me; I drew such a conclusion as an adolescent. It may be a common thought. Wordsworth seems to have had such a thought, according to his Ode:

There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
Is it not now as it hath been of yore;—
Turn wheresoe’er I may,
By night or day,
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.

Wordsworth lost his vision. Did Collingwood?


R. G. Collingwood was born on February 22, 1889. Writing about freedom in February, 1939, he was not a year older than I am now. He died on January 9, 1943. When considering his later writing, I am often drawn back to his earlier books: Religion and Philosophy (1916) and Speculum Mentis (1924). Unlike his later books, these have neither stayed in print nor been brought back into print. Yet they contain some of Collingwood’s finest writing and his clearest vision.

The vision is of a unified world. The first chapter of his first book ends up identifying religion, theology, philosophy, and science:

Now the Doctrine of God is of course theology; it is in fact the translation of that word. Accordingly, a creed is a theology, and there is no distinction whatever between Theology and Religion, so far as the intellectual aspect of religion is concerned. My theology is the beliefs I hold about God, that is to say, my creed, the intellectual element of my religion [page 12].

If religion and philosophy are views of the same thing—the ultimate nature of the universe—then the true religion and the true philosophy must coincide, though they may differ in the vocabulary which they use to express the same facts [page 18].

It is no doubt possible to forget the whole in laying stress on isolated parts, as it is possible to forget details in the general view of a whole. But each of these is a false abstraction; we cannot identify the former with science and the latter with religion or philosophy. The ideal, alike for philosophy and science, is to see the part in its place in the whole, and the whole perfectly exemplified in the part [page 20].

In Speculum Mentis, Collingwood does offer a qualification of these identifications:

With much of what [Religion and Philosophy] contains I am still in agreement; but there are certain principles which I then overlooked or denied, in the light of which many of its faults can be corrected. the chief of these principles is the distinction between implicit and explicit. I contended throughout that religion, theology, and philosophy were identical, and this I should now not so much withdraw as qualify by pointing out that the “empirical” (i.e. real but unexplained) difference between them is that theology makes explicit what in religion as such is always implicit, and so with philosophy and theology. This error led me into a too intellectualistic or abstract attitude towards religion, of which many critics rightly accused me … [page 108, footnote].

But the aim of this second book is still a unification:

What is wrong with us is precisely the detachment of these forms of experience—art, religion, and the rest—from one another; and our cure can only be their reunion in a complete and undivided life. Our task is to seek for that life, to build up the conception of an activity which is at once art, and religion, and science, and the rest [page 36].

I turn now to a passage that appeared first in Collingwood’s Idea of History (1946), edited by his student Knox. The passage appeared again in The Principles of History (1999) after the recovery of Collingwood’s original manuscript. There had been some question of Knox’s faithfulness to Collingwood’s intentions; but for present purposes, the differences between the two versions of Collingwood’s text are inconsequential.

Dated 23.2.39 in the manuscript, the passage is §5, “Freedom,” in Chapter 3, “Nature and Action,” of The Principles of History; and it is §6, “History and Freedom,” of Part V, “Epilegomena,” of The Idea of History. Far from unifying, Collingwood is at pains to distinguish history from natural science. He has refuted attempts to reduce history to natural science, while admitting that the attempts have been understandable, given that the study of nature rose to the level of science earlier than history did.

Here are some summary passages of the section. I note that Collingwood makes the distinction between want (appetite) and choice that he will make in the New Leviathan:

With the disappearance of historical naturalism, the conclusion is reached that the activity by which man [sic] builds himself his own constantly-changing historical world is a free activity …

This does not mean that a man is free to do what he wants …

Nor does it mean that a man is free to do what he chooses: that in the realm of history proper, as distinct from that of animal appetite, people are free to plan their own actions as they think fit and execute their plans, each doing what he set out to do and each assuming full responsibility for the consequences, captain of his soul and all that. Nothing could be more false …

The rational activity which historians have to study is never free from compulsion: the compulsion to face the facts of its own situation. The more rational it is, the more completely it undergoes this compulsion. To be rational is to think, and for a man who proposes to act, the thing that is important to think about is the situation in which he stands. With regard to this situation he is not free at all. It is what it is, and neither he nor anyone else can ever change that …

The freedom that there is in history consists in the fact that this compulsion is imposed upon the activity of human reason not by anything else, but by itself …

I shall consider the foregoing also in “Thales of Miletus.” The verses “I am the master of my fate, / I am the captain of my soul” are the last of “Invictus,” by William Ernest Henley; it will be the Poetry Foundation’s Poem of the Day of February 11, 2020, when the Editor will point out that the poem was Nelson Mandela’s favorite; this is also documented in the Wikipedia article on the poem, where I learn also that Churchill will say in the House of Commons, “We are still masters of our fate. We still are captains of our souls,” on September 9, 1941, almost three years after Collingwood writes.

Is freedom really slavery, provided it is self-imposed? If one is going to speak in such terms, one might just as well say that freedom is mastery, namely self-mastery. This brings to mind the cruel Lutheran bishop in Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander, who punishes or rather tortures his stepson for a supposed infraction and then congratulates him for his “victory over himself.” (See the note at the end of the text.)

But this is not quite what Collingwood has in mind. The point is simply that we act. We have initiative.

snow-capped mountains seen from the Niesen, Bern, Switzerland, July 5, 2008

From the Niesen, Bern, Switzerland, July 5, 2008

Collingwood’s example is a man for whom it is hard to cross the mountains, “because he is frightened of the devils in them.” Collingwood is writing in Java, but the heat there may make him dream of Switzerland. In any case, I can go to my shelf to quote from a book bought in Berne: Joëlle Kuntz, Switzerland: How an Alpine pass became a country (“a historical primer for English speaking visitors,” Geneva, 2008):

The Swiss themselves have never venerated the mountains like the Hindus or the Greeks whose gods are up in the Himalayas or on Mount Olympus. On the contrary, they considered mountains as somewhere foreboding, full of terror, dragons and demons … Even a scholar as rational as John Evelyn, one of the founders of the Royal Society, wrote on his return from Italy via the Simplon Pass in 1646 that the Swiss natives apparently nailed down their shutters at night to fend off the devils!

If the Swiss of a few centuries ago did such a thing, then they were burdened with an irrational belief. It is well that they have freed themselves of it now. And yet the earlier superstitious Swiss were still free, because their superstitions were theirs. This is what Collingwood says:

The compulsion which the devilhaunted state of the mountains exercises on the man who would cross them consists in the fact that he cannot help believing in the devils. Sheer superstition, no doubt: but this superstition is a fact, and the crucial fact in the situation we are considering. The man who suffers for it when he tries to cross the mountains is not suffering merely for the sins of his fathers who taught him to believe in devils, if that is a sin; he is suffering because he has accepted the belief, because he has shared the sin.

We need not say that the man has chosen his belief in mountain devils. The point is simply that he believes: this makes him free. Today, if we believe there are no mountain devils, this makes us free.

If a spring thaw dislodges a rock, which dislodges others, we do not think that the warming air decided, or believed, that it was time for an avalanche. The rocks themselves did not think it was time to move along. There was no thinking involved at all. We humans do think, even if what we think is that there are devils in the mountains. This is what makes the methods of natural science unfit for the study of ourselves.

Is that quite right? The sun shines; the wind blows; a bird flies; a man keeps to the valleys. Is one of these things really not at all like the others? It is important now for Collingwood to say that it is. When he was writing, developments in natural science had made the last war deadlier than any other. They would do the same for the coming war (arguments that the Bomb shortened the war notwithstanding; the Final Solution was technological). Some other approach than natural science would evidently be needed to deal with human conflicts.

And yet Collingwood’s Essay on Philosophical Method (1933) is based on the “overlap of classes”: no two philosophical concepts are absolutely disjoint. This is illustrated in The Principles of Art (1938): although art and craft are different concepts, they are often embodied in the same work. Moreover, like everything else, we humans evolved from inanimate matter, and Collingwood knows this.

The last chapter of Religion and Philosophy seems to argue that natural science must ultimately be history. That chapter is called “Miracle,” and it refutes the notion that some events are miracles, while others are not:

… Every cure is equally a miracle, and every doctor (like every other active and creative mind) a miracle-worker, in the only sense which can reasonably be attached to the word.

For again, if the miraculous and the non-miraculous must be distinguished, into which category does human life and activity fall? That again cannot be answered. It is not nature in the sense required; it must be miracle, and yet we do not call it so. And if our scheme of reality is such that we can find no place in it for man, what is to become of it as a philosophy?

“Nature in the sense required” operates mechanically. It might be distinguished from the so-called supernatural. There is no such nature at all for young Collingwood, as he suggests immediately:

But, even after reconciling ourselves to the fact that all events are volitions and that the mechanically controlled “order of nature” is non-existent, we may still ask, Does not this view overthrow all we have believed about the uniformity of nature? And if we give up the uniformity of nature, where is our boasted volition? for without a reliable and steadygoing nature to ride upon, Will would never be able to get to the end of its journey.

Well, even if nature is not bound by laws (argues Collingwood), we can still trust it, just as we can trust a friend, even though he might theoretically betray us. We get the hang of living with people; we get the hang of living with nature.

In what Collingwood says, I see no reason for scientists not to go on looking for physical laws. However, they may ultimately rise above this pursuit, for:

To the eye of perfect insight, nothing is merely uniform; everything is unique. For such a consciousness there are no classes, there are only individuals; not in chaos, for every individual is related to every other … The true relation between individuals is not the resemblance which connects members of a class, but the co-operation which unites parts of a whole. Such parts are not bound by abstract rules. They are free, but their freedom is not caprice, for they act in and through the whole and each other, so that the whole perpetually re-creates itself in their actions.

This is one of the most inspiring passages that Collingwood would ever write. “To the eye of perfect insight, nothing is merely uniform; everything is unique.” When we classify things, filing them away, it is because of our weakness. When Facebook invites us to categorize our “friends,” it encourages our weakness. I do in fact try to classify my papers; but no classification is ever perfect. The papers end up in various stacks, which I go through now and then and rearrange.

In Collingwood’s vision of the universe as a whole, the warm air does decide to push the rock down the mountainside; and the rock itself does choose to jump.

I had such a vision in high school, when I used to talk to a friend about the consciousness of rocks. I figured rocks were conscious of the gravitational forces that they were subject to. In terms of Collingwood’s Principles of History then, rocks impose these forces on themselves. Rocks are free.

I wrote a short story back then in which a rock fell into the Earth’s gravitational field and burned up in the atmosphere. Its dust settled onto a field and was drawn up into the wheat growing there. A boy ate bread from the wheat and remembered having seen a meteor. Thus the rock achieved self-consciousness.

Until the Great Awakening though, when we all achieve the eye of perfect insight, it is probably a good idea to distinguish natural science from history, as the mature Collingwood does. It is fine to go on seeking natural laws; indeed, Collingwood is a great booster of this pursuit, as he shows for example in An Essay on Metaphysics (1940). There he condemns the philosophers who try to interfere with science, when their job is to understand it. (This does rather invert the eleventh and last of Marx’s “Theses on Feuerbach”: “The philosophers have interpreted the world in various ways; the point however is to change it.” However, I don’t think interpreting necessarily implies understanding; moreover, desirable change is not likely to happen without understanding.)

If it is good to seek natural laws, why not also seek historical laws? Well, as I understand the argument of the 1940 Essay, the existence of natural laws is not an observation or a discovery, but a presupposition. Once one makes the presupposition, then one can find particular laws.

Why not then presuppose that there are historical laws? This has indeed been done, and the result is works like Spengler’s Decline of the West (1932). I happen to have this tome on my shelf, because an enthusiastic friend from college dragged me into a used bookstore near Columbia University to buy it. Now it sits, perused, but mostly unread. The pursuit of historical laws is unsatisfactory. This is the argument of Collingwood’s work on history.

Why is this? There can be no rule, no law, that determines which parts of experience are explicable by laws. Humans did not always look for physical laws: this has happened only in recent centuries, since the Renaissance. We cannot prove that there are no laws of history. What Collingwood proves is that laws of history are not what we want.

Obviously somebody reading this can say, “Well, I want to see some laws of history!” But if you ponder the matter sufficiently, I think you must find this desire to conflict with your status as a free agent. If you deny being free, you might as well deny existing at all—unless you want to say, “I exist; I just don’t think.

It is possible to predict human events, such as how many people will die on a construction job, or kill themselves in a country over the next year. Organs like Facebook study us and find something like laws, which they can use to influence our viewing habits and make us more attractive to advertisers (who are the real customers that Facebook serves). These laws of human behavior may be probabilistic; but then so are the laws of physics, at least on the small scale. Perhaps Collingwood came too early to appreciate this feature of physical laws. All I can say is that at every moment we ourselves are faced with the question of what to do next. Usually the question answers itself. But sometimes it does not, and then no law can tell us what to do, unless we obey. Thus we are free.

So it seems to me at least. But then I assume that we all can recognize the activity of creation that Collingwood describes in The Principles of Art. He describes specifically the creation of a painting, but it might as well be a sentence:

Any theory of art should be required to show, if it wishes to be taken seriously, how an artist, in pursuing his artistic labour, is able to tell whether he is pursuing it successfully or unsuccessfully: how, for example, it is possible for him to say, “I am not satisfied with that line; let us try it this way … and this way … and this way … there! that will do.” A theory which pushes the artistic experience too far down the scale, to a point below the region where experience has the character of knowledge, is unable to meet this demand. It can only evade it by pretending that the artist in such cases is acting not as an artist, but as a critic and even (if criticism of art is identified with philosophy of art) as a philosopher. But this pretence should deceive nobody. The watching of his own work with a vigilant and discriminating eye, which decides at every moment of the process whether it is being successful or not, is not a critical activity subsequent to, and reflective upon, the artistic work, it is an integral part of that work itself. A person who can doubt this, if he has any grounds at all for his doubt, is presumably confusing the way an artist works with the way an incompetent student in an art-school works; painting blindly, and waiting for the master to show him what it is that he has been doing. In point of fact, what a student learns in an art-school is not so much to paint as to watch himself painting: to raise the psycho-physical activity of painting to the level of art by becoming conscious of it, and so converting it from a psychical experience to an imaginative one.

The incompetent student is still free; the purpose of school is for them to learn that they are free.

Note added, August 31, 2016. When I mentioned above the “victory over oneself” described in Fanny and Alexander, I did not have Plato consciously in mind; but in Book IV of the Republic, when temperance or sobriety (σοφροσύνη) is being sought in the soul and the city, Socrates says (in Shorey’s translation),

“Now the phrase ‘master of himself [sic]’ is an absurdity, is it not? For he who is master of himself would also be subject to himself, and he who is subject to himself would be master. For the same person is spoken of in all these expressions.”

“Of course” [said Glaucon].

“But,” said [Socrates], “the intended meaning of this way of speaking appears to me to be that the soul of a man within him has a better part and a worse part, and the expression self-mastery means the control of the worse by the naturally better part. It is, at any rate, a term of praise.”

Note added, October 28, 2018. The closing quotation from Collingwood about painting is partially echoed in Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (Chapter 14):

“Sometime look at a novice workman [sic] or a bad workman and compare his expression with that of a craftsman whose work you know is excellent and you’ll see the difference. The craftsman isn’t ever following a single line of instruction. He’s making decisions as he goes along. For that reason he’ll be absorbed and attentive to what he’s doing even though he doesn’t deliberately contrive this. His motions and the machine are in a kind of harmony. He isn’t following any set of written instructions because the nature of the material at hand determines his thoughts and motions, which simultaneously change the nature of the material at hand. The material and his thoughts are changing together in a progression of changes until his mind’s at rest at the same time the material’s right.”

“Sounds like art,” the instructor says.

“Well, it is art,” I say. “This divorce of art from technology is completely unnatural …”

12 Trackbacks

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  4. By Thales of Miletus « Polytropy on February 14, 2018 at 4:51 pm

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