Executive summary (added October 6, 2018). Historian Niall Ferguson praises Collingwood as a philosopher of history, while showing no sign of understanding Collingwood’s actual philosophy. This provokes me. My comments are in the following sections.

By Collingwood’s account, there is a science of our absolute presuppositions, be these in natural science or in politics. The science of absolute presuppositions is metaphysics, and it is an historical science, because absolute presuppositions do change with time.
The historian’s job is to know the thoughts of the past. Leo Strauss disagrees with Collingwood over how one goes about this; but he would seem to agree with Collingwood that what is to be known is thought, as distinct from feeling.
I know of three examples of failures to understand Collingwood (Niall Ferguson provides a fourth).
Ferguson reviews a book in which twenty historians try to recover the feeling of certain historical events. By saying that for Collingwood, “the historian was limited to reconstructing recorded thoughts,” Ferguson errs in two ways.

  1. Those thoughts need not be “recorded,” but anything can be used as evidence for a thought, if one knows how to use it.
  2. Feelings from the past can come down to us, only if they have been converted to thoughts.

See also “The Ambiguity of Feeling.”

To know whether “an individual act altered the course of history,” Ferguson does recognize that we need to know more than past feelings. For him, “We need to imagine what would’ve happened if the act in question had not happened.” However, we cannot say where any particular thought is going to go, until we see where it does go, by thinking it. In this sense, every thought alters the course of history. Neither then can we say where a thought would have gone. In this way, history is different from natural science.


A theme of my last two articles here (namely “What It Takes” and, before that, “Effectiveness”) is the value of metaphysics, as being concerned with such problems as the following:

  • Physics has not been able to reconcile its theories of the infinitesimally small and the infinitely large.
  • America has not been able, in the words of Martin Luther King, to live out the true meaning of its creed, that all of us are created equal.

In a technical sense, these problems may not belong to natural science or political science as such. Considered as diseases, whether of the body politic or of the “body scientific,” the problems may not be curable, either by the body’s own immune system, or by remedies from outside. What is needed may be something resembling psychoanalysis, so to speak, or what Collingwood actually calls metaphysical analysis. This is an examination of absolute presuppositions, or the fundamental assumptions that have heretofore been left unquestioned. The analyst—the metaphysician—may suspect what those assumptions are; but the patient must confirm the suspicion, or else discover the assumptions independently. In any case, the patient will not be cured without agreeing that there is a disease.

Cures do happen, because absolute presuppositions change. An example is the Russell Paradox. This is no longer a contradiction in the foundations of mathematics, but a theorem: the theorem that not every class is a set. The contradiction became a theorem, once it was recognized that the class of all sets that do not contain themselves not only cannot, but need not, be a set.

The possibility of a change in absolute presuppositions makes metaphysics an historical science. This does not mean that a textbook of metaphysics will be historical, in the sense of telling us what philosophers of the past, from Aristotle on down, have said about the nature of reality, or something like that. What we need is to know not only what people say, but what they mean; and even more than this. As Collingwood puts it in his posthumous Idea of History (1946),

Confronted with a ready-made statement about the subject he [sic] is studying, the scientific historian never asks himself: ‘Is this statement true or false?’, in other words ‘Shall I incorporate it in my history of that subject or not?’ The question he asks himself is: ‘What does this statement mean?’ And this is not equivalent to the question ‘What did the person who made it mean by it?’, although that is doubtless a question that the historian must ask, and must be able to answer. It is equivalent, rather, to the question ‘What light is thrown on the subject in which I am interested by the fact that this person made this statement, meaning by it what he did mean?’


I pause to note an objection. In his 1952 review of Collingwood’s book, Leo Strauss refers to Collingwood’s “admission” of a distinction here as

much too weak. The answer to the question “What did the person who made the statement mean by it?” must precede the answer to the question “What does this statement mean within the context of my question?” For “the statement” is the statement as meant by the author. Before one can use or criticize a statement, one must understand the statement, i.e., one must understand it as its author consciously meant it …

… [B]oth “the scissors-and-paste historian” and the scientific historian make the same mistake: they use the classical historians for a purpose alien to the latter before having done justice to the purpose of the classical historians.

A teacher of mine, a student of Strauss’s, has tried to convince me that there is more of a difference between Strauss and Collingwood than I realize. Strauss emphasizes the consciously intended meaning of a person (here a “classical historian,” such as Herodotus). Collingwood’s concern is what we can do with this meaning. This seems to be brought out at the beginning of The Principles of Art (1938), where the concern is the thought of the present, and Collingwood distinguishes between what we mean and what we are trying to mean:

The proper meaning of a word (I speak not of technical terms …) is never something upon which the word sits perched like a gull on a stone; it is something over which the word hovers like a gull over a ship’s stern … The way to discover the proper meaning is to ask not, ‘What do we mean?’ but, ‘What are we trying to mean?’ And this involves the question ‘What is preventing us from meaning what we are trying to mean?’

For both Collingwood and Strauss, what is important is what people think. Here again is Strauss:

By the very fact that he [sic] seriously attempts to understand the thought of the past, [the historian] leaves the present. He embarks on a journey whose end is hidden from him. He is not likely to return to the shores of his time as exactly the same man who departed from them. His criticism may very well amount to a criticism of present day thought from the point of view of the thought of the past.

My present concern is with an historian who is not a year older than I am, and who praises Collingwood, even while overlooking his central distinction between feeling and thought.


I am thus going to add to a list of instances of what I perceive as failures to read Collingwood properly, if he is read at all. I have already discussed or alluded to three instances in the two last articles:

  1. In “Effectiveness,” I quoted Michael J. Loux from his textbook Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction: “it is not a mere consequence of human thought or language that there are elephants, oak trees, and paramecia.” We may discuss what consequence means here; but we should still observe that it is we who decide how to classify things. They do not classify themselves, though they come with the features that we use to do the job. In doing the job, we use our presuppositions about what is important. As always, these presuppositions may be called into question, as is being done today in (for example) the matter of sex and gender.
  2. In the same article, I quoted Collingwood from The Principles of Art as saying that T. S. Eliot took artistic competence

    forwards into a new path where the ‘artist’, laying aside his individualistic pretensions, walks as the spokesman of his audience.

    This and other examples show that, in its article on Aesthetics by Barry Hartley Slater, the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy is misleading to suggest that Collingwood “took art to be a matter of self-expression.” There was no call to add the restriction to the self.

  3. In “What It Takes,” I noted the skepticism of Simon Blackburn, according to whom (in a review of a biography of Collingwood) we cannot know our own absolute presuppositions, any more than we can know the bemusement with which contemporary fashions will be seen in the future. The analogy is interesting, but frivolous. The whole point of Collingwood’s Essay on Metaphysics (1940) is the need to try to know our presuppositions, even for our very survival. When Collingwood is writing, the Munich Agreement has been signed. When war breaks out anyway, and Collingwood knows he is dying of his own weaknesses, he writes The New Leviathan: Man, Society, Civilization and Barbarism (1942), to work out the presuppositions of civilization, so that his readers and compatriots may know what there is to defend.


Now, finally, I turn to Niall Ferguson, in his 2007 review (preserved on his website) of a book called I Wish I’d Been There: Twenty Historians Revisit Key Moments in History (edited by Theodore K. Rabb and Byron Hollinshead). Ferguson quotes “the great Oxford philosopher of history, R. G. Collingwood,” as saying, “Historical knowledge is the re-enactment of a past thought.” This is the beginning of the sentence on page 114 of Collingwood’s Autobiography that reads in full,

Historical knowledge is the re-enactment of a past thought incapsulated in a context of present thoughts which, by contradicting it, confine it to a plane different from theirs.

Collingwood presents this very sentence historically, as a quotation of the “third proposition” that he had reached in thinking about what it meant to do history.

  • The first proposition was simply, “all history is the history of thought” (page 110).
  • The second proposition was, “historical knowledge is the re-enactment in the historian’s mind of the thought whose history he is studying” (page 112).

The key word is thought. Ferguson seems to miss the importance of this. In his review, he says,

Theodore K. Rabb and Byron Hollinshead have assembled a formidable array of scholars to engage in imaginary time travel. This exercise is subtly different from Collingwood’s, however. These contributors imagine themselves there, as invisible observers, rather than as historical actors … To Collingwood, the historian was limited to reconstructing recorded thoughts. In I Wish I’d Been There, it’s often the unrecorded that is reconstructed.

If “recorded thoughts” are written thoughts, then Ferguson is simply wrong, and astonishingly so. One can use literally anything in reconstructing or re-enacting a thought. As Collingwood says in Idea of History (page 280),

In scientific history anything is evidence which is used as evidence, and no one can know what is going to be useful as evidence until he has had occasion to use it.

The same point seems clear enough in An Autobiography (page 109):

History and pseudo-history alike consisted of narratives: but in history these were narratives of purposive activity, and the evidence for them consisted of relics they had left behind (books or potsherds, the principle was the same) which became evidence precisely to the extent to which the historian conceived them in terms of purpose, that is, understood what they were for.

Ferguson praises the book he is reviewing, not for giving us thought, but for giving us “ambience.” Thus,

Tom Holland vividly imagines Hannibal’s elephants suffering as they struggled across the Alps. John Julius Norwich conjures up Venice in 1077, the setting for the reconciliation of Emperor Frederick Barbarossa and Pope Alexander III …

Others go further. “What I really want to know,” writes Josiah Ober, at the death of Alexander the Great, “is what it felt like to be at the centre of the world, at a moment when human history had reached one of its great turning points.”

It seems to me that, if you really want to know what it feels like to be at the center of the world, you have no choice but to put yourself there, really. Without doing this, you may know the thoughts of a person like Alexander. To know these is what you must try to do; otherwise you are just amusing yourself. Collingwood suggests as much in An Autobiography (page 110), in a passage that I quoted at greater length when I reblogged somebody else’s article called “Hands on ≠ Minds on”:

Military history … is not a description of weary marches in heat or cold, or the thrills and chills of battle or the long agony of wounded men. It is a description of plans and counter-plans: of thinking about strategy and thinking about tactics, and in the last resort of what the men in the ranks thought about the battle.

This would seem to distinguish Collingwood from the book that Ferguson reviews; but Ferguson himself does not seem to recognize this. What he is writing is not an essay on Collingwood, but a brief review of a book by other historians. Still, since he mentions Collingwood and calls him a great philosopher, I think he ought to say a word about why Collingwood is great.

To my mind, one aspect of Collingwood’s greatness is

  • recognizing the distinction between feeling and thought, and
  • writing a book about each one.

Those books were The Principles of Art and The Principles of History. Collingwood could not finish the latter before he died, but parts of it ended up in The Idea of History. Other parts were published only in 1999, and in “Thales of Miletus” I considered a passage that began:

I do not doubt, again, that the purely physical effects produced in man’s organism by its physical environment are accompanied by corresponding effects in his emotions and appetites; although this is a subject on which information is very difficult to procure, because what has been written about it has mostly been written by men who did not understand the difference between feelings and thoughts, or were doing their best, consciously or unconsciously, to obscure that difference.

I propose as an example the ancient mathematician, such as Euclid. In giving a lecture, he or she had no blackboard or whiteboard to write on simultaneously; but he or she may have used ready-made diagrams. This doubtless produced a certain feeling in speaker and listener, and it may help explain Euclid’s use of perfect imperative verbs, as in “let a triangle have been constructed …” However, the practice doesn’t determine the mathematics, or tell us whether it is well done (by ancient standards or our own).


Finally, in his book review, Ferguson writes that,

in a number of essays … there is a failure to distinguish between points on a well-defined trend line and real structural breaks. The coronation of Charlemagne did not cause the separation of the Roman and Orthodox churches. That would have happened even if Charlemagne had never come to Rome …

To claim that an individual act altered the course of history necessitates a thought experiment more challenging than just imagining “what it felt like to be there”. We need to imagine what would’ve happened if the act in question had not happened.

Only a few contributors make this leap …

That we can know, or at least usefully “imagine,” “what would’ve happened” is a presupposition that bears questioning. It gets us far in natural science, through use of the controlled experiment, if not simple observation. After studying the natural world as it is now, we can say what is going to happen: the moon will rise an hour later each day, and over the months and years, the weather will become more extreme. However, there is no telling where thought will go, unless, by thinking, we go there with it.

10 Trackbacks

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    […] I confess to being not so impressed at Strauss’s attempt at poetry. But then I think Strauss is too bent on criticizing his subject Collingwood to acknowledge what they may have in common. I briefly discussed Strauss’s criticism in the Thales article (and again in “Re-enactment”). […]

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  6. By NL XL: Peace and Plenty « Polytropy on September 25, 2018 at 8:46 am

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  7. By NL V: “The Ambiguity of Feeling” « Polytropy on January 25, 2019 at 5:44 am

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