NL XXII: The Family As a Mixed Community

Index to this series

This chapter and the next concern the family, which like most communities is a mixed community (22.11): part of it is a non-social community, but some part of it is a society proper (22.1), this being, again, as in Chapter XX especially, a community constituted as an act of will on the part of its members.

Thus some members of the family are wilfully so, and some are not. The latter are children, who constitute the nursery (22.12). This is self-emptying, in the sense that children grow up and leave it; it is not self-filling, since children themselves cannot have children (22.21). The nursery is rather replenished by parents (22.17).

The family being a politically sensitive topic, we want to know where Collingwood is going with his account of it. In the present short chapter, he will mention some qualifications and modifications of the basic set-up just described. The next chapter will mention how contraception changed the understanding of the family in Collingwood’s lifetime (he had been born in 1889).

Collingwood does not contemplate single parenting or gay marriage. I knew a Roman Catholic convert who tried to argue that marriage of two men or two women was not just a bad idea, but an impossibility. He wanted to start his argument on some such foundation as Collingwood’s, that whatever else a family may be, what we have already described is at least an example of one. Collingwood will come out in opposition to doctrinaire Roman Catholics by praising contraception as having enlarged our freedom and our conception of freedom (23.87): those who are enemies of contraception in principle are enemies of free will (23.88).

Chapter XXIII will discuss as well how the nursery is not strictly self-emptying. If children are to graduate from the nursery into the social part of the family, action by that part is needed (23.64). This action can be performed, though it may not always be; thus the social part of the family may consist of more than the parents. They will be described as the nucleus of the family (23.1).

In the Republic, Socrates discusses the ideal state—we might say now, the ideal community—ostensibly in order to understand the individuals such as ourselves who may make up this community. Collingwood studies the family, in order to understand processes in the state. I have mentioned that parents must act, in order to bring children out of the nursery, but that some parents may be reluctant. In Chapter XXVI, there is a similar tension between democracy and aristocracy, as I discussed at the beginning of this series, more than three years ago, in “A Personal Overview of Collingwood’s New Leviathan.

Let me now review the sections of the present chapter one by one. Some of them consist of a single numbered paragraph.

  1. The non-social part of the family is called the nursery. This is run by nurses and replenished by parents, who are typically the same persons (22.19).
  2. For the moment, we consider the nursery as self-emptying (22.21), and we consider human beings to “fall into two classes, the childish and the adult or grown-up” (22.24). Humans reach physical and mental maturity at roughly the same time (22.27).

    22.29. On these assumptions puberty not only liberates a child from the conditions of nursery tutelage, but also enables him to set up a nursery of his own; and the human race, freaks apart, is divisible into those young enough to need the tutelage of a nursery themselves, and those old enough to provide it for others.

  3. The assertions of the previous section may have held traditionally.

    22. 32. If that is not the case among Europeans the reason is that European life is a more complicated and more dangerous thing, one harder to find your way about in; and demands a correspondingly longer educational preparation.

    We may note that here and elsewhere Collingwood’s emphasis is not on England or the United Kingdom, but on Europe. Perhaps then we should consider this Europe as having been engaged in a civil war at the time.

  4. Through the social contract called marriage, a man and a woman constitute a society for producing children (22.34): this the modern European conception, though not the Roman Republican conception (22.4). The children that are the products of a marriage “need an ordered or regular life, and cannot of their own initiative either provide or demand it” (22.43), since the child lacks a will (22.44). The section ends with an emphatic repetition of this point:

    22.47. A child noticeably craves order and regularity in everything to do with its life; enjoys it when it is forthcoming, and clamours for it when it is not.

    I suppose this is true, while thinking it important to note that different children will clamor for different things in different ways.

  5. There is a further summing up with a one-paragraph section:

    22.5. Parents who wish their children to thrive and enjoy such health as they may (that the average parent is thus disposed is an assumption, once more, not too remote from the facts) have a motive for providing them with an orderly life. Granted these assumptions the nursery will be a normal, even if unintentional, consequence of marriage.

  6. “The typical or simplest family (22. 18) may be complicated in various ways” (22.6), detailed in paragraphs as follows.
    1. In the Republic, Plato separates the role of parent from the role of nurse.
    2. The Roman family includes, beyond the nursery, a second non-social community of slaves.
    3. Rich people in Europe have servants instead of slaves, and these at least are “treated at law as capable of owning property and making contracts.”
    4. Extended families are possible, as by agnation or cognation.
    5. Polygamous families are possible.
    6. Where does it end?
    7. Are pets to be considered as members of the family?
    8. “And what about even human members who enjoy a merely adoptive relation with the main stem of the family?”
    9. There is no need to bother with these complications.

    Collingwood does not explain why there is no need. He ends the chapter with three single-paragraph sections, as follows.

  7. “For scientific purposes we are safe from all criticism if we flourish our typical case beneath the reader’s nose, and refer all questions about the rigid definition of the family, as such, to that.”
  8. “And, let us remember, without rigid definition there is no science; and the aim of this treatise is to be scientific.”
  9. “In brief: a family consists of parents and children; whatever, over and above that, claims to be recognized as belonging to it has no scientific title to membership.”

These last sections are ironic; for we may recall a couple of passages of Chapter I:

1.43. The beginner has in his head a definition of the science; a childish definition, perhaps, but still a definition; of the science’s subject-matter he has no definition at all.

1. 46. A man ceases to be a beginner in any given science and becomes a master in that science when he has learned that this expected reversal is never going to happen and that he is going to be a beginner all his life.

I take Collingwood’s later assertions not as contradicting these, but as a warning to accept nothing too naïvely. Every assertion is subject to future modification.

In considering the previous chapter, I noted a lack of attention to how the formation of a society requies trust of, or even caring for, one’s fellow members. Collingwood gave the example of a society for the study of mathematics; anybody in principle could be a member, but in practice members would tend to speak English. Could one marry anybody in principle, for the purpose of raising children? We may consider this in more detail in the next chapter.

One Trackback

  1. By NL XXIII: The Family As a Society « Polytropy on September 15, 2017 at 7:38 am

    […] The aim of my marriage in Ankara, seventeen years ago, was convenience in extending my visa, since I did not yet have the work permit that is now my legal basis for living in Turkey. By Collingwood’s account, the normal aim of a modern European marriage is the propagation of children (23. 5). As I suggested in considering the last chapter, […]

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