NL IX: “Retrospect”

Index to this series

“All I want to know about mind,” says Collingwood,

is what it has done on certain definite occasions; not everything it has done, but enough for my purely practical purpose, deciding how to deal with the present attack on civilization.

This is from ¶9. 2 of New Leviathan. Three years ago, I set out here to read and write about this book, chapter by chapter. I read a few chapters (reread, actually), and I wrote an awful lot about them. Maybe I wrote even more than Collingwood did; but it was not clear what I was accomplishing. I slacked off.

Now I am taking up New Leviathan again, in part because civilization is being attacked by some of the same thinking, or the same refusal to think, to which Collingwood was responding.

I met somebody here in Istanbul last night who had been impressed eight years ago, when Barack Obama became President of the United States. My new friend was still impressed, now that a man like Donald Trump has been able to come President. Only in America can such things happen! A scholar of international relations, this friend was confident that American institutions would prevail against the depredations of the current President and his followers. I can only say that if principles like separation of powers and equality before the law do prevail, it will be because people have worked to ensure their survival. (See the footnote.) As Collingwood observes in Chapter IX of New Leviathan, “The development of mind is not predictable” (9. 43).

In the New Leviathan, we are following the “historical plain method” of Locke (9. 1). This means we are concentrating on facts, things done: what history is about. We ask not what mind is, but only what mind does (9. 16); and not what mind does always and everywhere, but only what mind has done “on certain definite occasions” (9. 18), namely those occasions that, as above, are relevant to the problem of “deciding how to deal with the present attack on civilization.”

Assertions of philosophy may seem to be universal: “this is how we are.” And yet such assertions are not mathematical theorems, with proofs that can be verified step by step. Neither are the assertions mere chronicles of events. As Collingwood says at the end of Chapter I, quoting Hobbes,

I offer you the fruits of my own reflection, so that ‘the pains left another, will onely be to consider, if he also find not the same in himself.’

Law of Contingency

What Collingwood offers us is a “catalogue of functions” of the modern European mind “as exemplified in its practical and theoretical working” (9. 32).

Such a catalogue can never be complete; it can only be full enough to serve our purpose. “Without a practical purpose no scientific work can be done; only pseudo-scientific work” (9. 35).

Collingwood finds it worthwhile to ask and answer the question of how the items of his catalogue should be arranged. He does not propose any alternative answer to the one he gives: “ ‘Serially’; that is to say, each term should be a modification of the one before it” (9. 36). I suppose a catalogue could be a table, like a multiplication table; or a tree, like a genealogical tree. I do not know whether Collingwood means to reject such possibilities. I am aware of the idea that a mathematical proof is “really” a tree, the logic flowing from the leaves to the trunk: the leaves are the premisses, which combine and combine, down along the branches, until the ultimate conclusion is reached. If one is going to check such a proof though, one is still going to do this serially, taking the nodes one by one; and then it seems to me that this serial ordering would be the real proof.

Collingwood’s catalogue is to be arranged in a series; not a regular series, but an irregular series. In a regular series, like the series of integers, you always know what is coming next (9. 37). In an irregular series, such as the depths sounded along a line drawn on a chart (9. 38), you do not know what is coming next.

“The series of mental functions is an irregular series” (9. 4). This seems clear enough. “The development of mind is not predictable” (9. 43). We may think certain tendencies are more likely than others, in the growth and maturation of a human being; but we shall never know for sure until they happen. Collingwood’s example may be worth considering:

9. 41. … the depth of water obtained by sounding at ‘consciousness’ is simple feeling; but the formula ‘find out what it is that is given to mere consciousness’ will not tell you what feeling is like. If you want to know you must put yourself into that position by a practical effort and find out.

9. 42. The depth of water obtained by sounding at ‘second-order consciousness’ is appetite; but the formula ‘find out what becomes of feeling at the position of second-order consciousness’ will not tell you what appetite is like; you must find out.

You may have feelings of hunger, but you do not know what they are like unless you pay attention to them. This paying attention is the taking a sounding. You become hungry: you are aware of an unpleasant form of consciousness, which contrasts with another form, not currently present to you. What is this hunger like? Again, to know, you have to take another sounding.

Collingwood refers all of this to the “Law of Contingency: the earlier terms in a series of mental functions do not determine the later” (9. 48).

Law of Primitive Survivals

Collingwood closes the chapter with the “Law of Primitive Survivals” (9. 5):

9. 51. When A is modified into B there survives in any example of B, side by side with the function B which is the modified form of A, an element of A in its primitive or unmodified state.

Collingwood suggests an analogy that I think must be mistaken: “Apes have evolved into men; but there are still apes.” As far as I know, humans and apes alike evolved from a species that no longer exists.

When hunger evolves into love though, hunger must survive, “as a tendency one has learned to resist or reject” (9. 58); otherwise there would be no sense in saying that love has arisen.


I expressed concern for “principles like separation of powers and equality.” I originally followed this with a kind of disclaimer; now I have taken this disclaimer out of the flow, placing it here.

Not everybody will take the principles of American democracy as sacred values. Separation of powers was disdained by an activist with the Socialist Workers Party USA whom I spoke with in the 1990s. Lawmakers ought to have the responsibility of enforcing their laws, she said. However, even from the radio program of Dorothy Healey, formerly of the Communist Party USA, I recall an argument for the importance of an independent Supreme Court, with judges who respected the Constitutional Bill of Rights: such a court had freed Healey and her comrades from imprisonment in the United States following a visit to the USSR.

As for equality before the law, there already may not be much in the US. The system has ways of tricking poor defendants into waiving their right to a jury trial. Black lives already matter little. Lives of foreigners mattered not at all, even under the previous administration, which was killing them by remote control through its drone program. One might be refreshed that the new American President is open about caring for nobody else. And yet his supporters apparently believe that he does care about them. I don’t know that Collingwood will have any particular explanation for this. He was however writing in a country that had effectively supported Fascism in Spain, with the help of what is now called fake news.


  1. Posted February 9, 2017 at 6:55 am | Permalink | Reply

    As a fellow SJC alum, I’m glad to have discovered your site. I look forward to reading more.

    • Posted February 9, 2017 at 3:45 pm | Permalink | Reply

      Thanks for letting me know! I have followed your own blog now.

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