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 gather here some examples (in addition to Niall Ferguson’s) of what I think are failures to understand Collingwood (this gathering is on-going).


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 some of these in previous 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. (I pursue this a bit further in § 1.3, “Individualism,” of the booklet Discrete Logarithms: Mathematics and Art, introduced in a post of the same name, “Discrete Logarithms.”)

  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.

  4. (Example added August 13, 2020.) In Evolution as a Religion, Mary Midgley says, “there are not, as Collingwood supposed, any ‘absolute presuppositions’.” This seems to be a misinterpretation of Collingwood’s use of the adjective absolute. See NL XIX: Two Senses of the Word “Society.”

  5. (Added August 15, 2020.) Midgley says also, in “Creation and Originality” in Heart and Mind,

    I suggest, therefore, that Collingwood’s attempt to show a modest sense of creation which implies no preconceived purpose while still asserting responsibility won’t work. It cannot therefore support his non-technical view of art. Nor—what is our present concern—can it support the idea of arbitrary and mindless creation in morals.

    This can be disagreement with Collingwood, rather than a failure to understand him. I take up the question (and make different quotations from Midgley’s essay) in § 1.1, “Creation,” and § 1.2, “Gender,” of the aforementioned booklet Discrete Logarithms, introduced in a post of the same name.

  6. (Added August 15, 2020.) In “Anthropology of Mathematics,” I questioned words of Stephen Toulmin, seemingly intended as a paraphrase of Collingwood: “If we are to study how people think, we must look and see in what terms they think. Ergo: ‘cognitive psychology’ is the same thing as ‘conceptual history’.”


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.

  1. The first proposition was simply, “all history is the history of thought” (page 110).

  2. 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 The 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.


  1. Posted January 22, 2020 at 6:39 pm | Permalink | Reply

    In carefully reviewing what you, RGC, and Ferguson have written, I’m not convinced we should draw a sharp line between feelings and thought and between individual thought and the setting or environment in which it is expressed. To the extent that RGC supports such a sharp line, I disagree. Of course, circumstances may be only trivially related to a significant thought, but not necessarily so. For instance, Ike’s thought (command) to launch the invasion of Normandy when he gave it was related to weather, his perception of the status of his troops, and his own feelings of uncertainty and compulsion (the deed had to be done). To simply say that Ike gave the command to commence the invasion is–depending on the motive for giving the account)–true but perhaps trivial. Garry Wills, in his Pulitzer Prize-winning LINCOLN AT GETTYSBURG provides a detailed account of the setting, including Lincoln’s train trip to Gettysburg, the history of the cemetery, and Edward Everett’s “Oration,” the main event on the program. Only after doing this, understanding in detail the environment in which Lincoln spoke, can we fully appreciate the significance of what he did and Lincoln’s thought process in delivering his “Dedicatory Remarks.” As with his remarks about biography as a genre, I suspect that RGC has protested too much in response to the worst examples of excess.

    • Posted January 23, 2020 at 6:01 am | Permalink | Reply

      Thanks for writing, Steve. I am responding at length with html, but am not sure how WordPress will treat it.

      In considering such pairs as thought and feeling, we ought to remember, from An Essay on Philosophical Method, the doctrine of the overlap of classes. Collingwood alludes to it in The Principles of Art, saying for example

      a work of art may very well amuse, instruct, puzzle, exhort, and so forth, without ceasing to be art, and in these ways it may be very useful indeed … as Oscar Wilde perhaps meant to say, what makes it art is not the same as what makes it useful. (p. 32)

      A building or a cup, which is primarily an artifact or product of craft, may be also a work of art; but what makes it a work of art is different from what makes it an artifact. A representation may be a work of art; but what makes it a representation is one thing, what makes it a work of art is another. (p. 43)

      Thoughts and feelings overlap, but quâ thoughts they are

      bipolar: true or false, successful or unsuccessful, right or wrong, and so forth;

      public: capable of being shared;

      corroborative: capable of confirming or contradicting one another. (pp. 157–8)

      Feelings then are simple, private, and independent. To me the key idea is that thinking can be successful or not (or somewhere in between, but still trying for success). This is an essential distinction for a mathematician: we have to know whether we have we succeeded in proving some particular theorem.

      According to Wikipedia, mathematics “has no generally accepted definition.” I”ll propose mathematics for an instance of the “leakage” of a philosophical concept, as in Collingwood’s aforementioned Essay:

      when a concept has a dual significance, philosophical and non-philosophical, in its non-philosophical phase it qualifies a limited part of reality, whereas in its philosophical it leaks or escapes out of these limits and invades the neighbouring regions, tending at last to colour our thought of reality as a whole.

      To think successfully, in a sense that everybody (in principle) can recognize: perhaps this is just to do mathematics.

      In any case, there will be an overlap of history and biography. Have you read Collingwood’s full account in The Principles of History? History is a study (or even the study) of thoughts, and a biography is a study of a person. Inglis quotes only the latter half of the following:

      The historian’s aim is to trace the thought embodied in actions. Within that sphere he admits no other limitation, except so far as he ‘specializes’ in one group of subjects or another. The distinction set up by his specialization between what belongs to his subject and what does not is in no sense a distinction between what belongs to the proper subjects of historical study and what does not belong there. The biographer, on the contrary, includes in his subject a good deal which does not belong to the object of any historical study whatever. He includes some events which embody no thought on the part of his subject, and others which do no doubt embody thought, but are included not because they embody thought but because they have an interest, or what is better perhaps called an appeal, of a different kind. (p. 70)

      You write of thoughts and feelings of the D-Day invasion. This appeals to my own feelings, since my grandfather joined the invasion as a journalist:

      When the time came the Navy gave us a big going-away party in Plymouth and I was put aboard an assault transport ship manned by the Coast Guard. I was feeling no pain and feisty. “Why not a first wave assignment?” I asked the captain. “No reason,” he said. “I’ll give you a first-wave boat.” He did and I woke up the next morning slightly hung-over and regretting my chestiness of the night before …

      We were aroused on The Day at 4 a.m. and fed … Between the vomit and the salt water the deck of our barge was awash. The sight as we approached the beach was fantastic. Patrol boats leading the way were often hit by fire from the shore, pieces of the artificial harbors flying. Barrage balloons towed by tugs were just behind us. Over our heads came a barrage from ships’ guns. And closer to our heads silver streaks of torpedoes fired from small ships with torpedo racks on their decks. Also just behind us were amphibious tanks, many foundering before they reached shore but a few making it. I stumbled into waist-deep water charging over the ramp at the end of the barge when it was let down. I lost my helmet and my trenching tool but I got to the lee of the sea wall flanking the beach without further incident. There I joined General Roosevelt, assistant commander of the Fourth Infantry Division, and volunteered to do some observing for him …

      This is certainly thrilling. If it lets us understand a feeling (and not just enjoy a feeling), it is art. It may be an inducement to do history. But does it, itself, tell us anything about success in carrying out a thought?

      In the section before the quoted passage contrasting history and biography, Collingwood observes (pp. 67–8):

      The historian may find that in the course of a certain campaign a certain officer caused a fort of a certain kind to be built in a certain place. The historian’s business is to find out what he did this for …

      … the consciousness that one is providing protection against danger will be accompanied by certain emotions … These are emotions essentially related to the thought of the officer responsible for the fortification. And if we know what his thoughts were, we know what emotions of this essential kind he experienced.

      But in the life of this officer, while the fortification was being planned and carried out, there were plenty of other emotions for which we have no evidence … He may certainly have been frightened; or he may have been unhappy at leaving his newly-married wife, or his child in the crisis of an illness; he may have been consumed with professional ambition or tortured by money troubles; but so long as these emotions are neither directly due to his building the fort, nor the cause of his building it in what a military engineer would consider a bad or inappropriate way, they have nothing to do with the fort and relatively to his action in building it are inessential emotions.

      For that matter, many thoughts too find a place in his mind, while he is planning and building the fort, which affect his building of it not at all, and therefore have no connexion with the history of that event …

      When in Ankara I taught (in English) a course in the history of mathematics in 2009–10, I just had the students read and present old mathematics (Greek, Arab, Renaissance …), in the manner of my alma mater. When I invited comments and suggestions at the end of the first semester, one student wrote:

      The course can be improved by making it “more” history included and “less” mathematics included. Maybe other than learning history of mathematical concepts, we also need to learn the lives of the mathematicians who discovered those mathematical concepts.

      I can only say that it might be enjoyable to learn about the lives of mathematicians, if only that were possible. We often can know them only through their own mathematics (as Collingwood’s officer can be known only through his fort). If we want to understand them as mathematicians, we have to learn their mathematics. This requires being a mathematician, though not just a mathematician, but also an historian.

  2. Posted January 23, 2020 at 4:25 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Thanks for your reply. In reading and considering what you (and RGC) have written, I think that there is a third element or distinction that we might find useful here. Recently reading John Lukacs’s HISTORICAL CONSCIOUSNESS, I found that Lukacs misread RGC. Lukacs stated (in at least one place) that RGC contended that all history is the history of ideas. Of course, this is not what RGC wrote, he wrote that all history is the history of thought. Teasing out a distinction between “thought” and “idea” may, however, prove quite useful. For instance, what your mathematics examples consist of are ideas. “2+2=4” is an idea: public, T or F, easily shared. It is thought brought into the public light. A thought, I propose, is that which an individual realizes (thinks) that may or may not be verbalized or acted upon For instance, I may think, “I”m hungry” or “I’m angry,” etc. That interior voice is a thought, which more often than not is fleeting, transient, and never spoken aloud (although it generates lots of internal chatter & even debate). It recognizes (and often de-fangs) a feeling. Thus, I perceive a scale that runs from feelings to thoughts to ideas. Now for the historian or a lawyer trying a case, that sequence can provide crucial insight and perspective; for instance, suppose a person is accused of murder. 1st degree murder requires malice aforethought (among other elements). As a defense lawyer (and for a just prosecutor) we’d want to know the defendant’s state of mind. Perhaps the shooting was accidental (Dick Chaney out hunting, presumably he had not thought about shooting his companion nor did he harbor any ill-will toward him.) Perhaps the defendant states that the defendant came around the corner, he thought he saw a gun and was sorely frightened, knowing that there had been many robberies of late and pulled the trigger almost reflectively because of his fright. (Police shootings can happen this way.) Emotions may never rise to the level of thought. In some cases, however, emotion (feeling) does generate a thought (“I’ll be better off if I kill Tony.”) or an idea (“By executing John Doe, we will deter other murders.” ) (Doubtful but not an irrational hypothesis.) I note that my examples are from the legal world (40 years a lawyer will do that to you) and not from history (of which I’m only an amateur student), but when attempting to understand a course of events or even as life as a whole (biography), all of this information may—MAY–prove relevant. It depends upon what question your want to answer; to wit, the logic of question and answer! In fact, now thinking more about it, RGC’s detective analogy in IH (p. 266ff) & PH (p. 21ff), the solution to the crime (as both a matter of history and the law) can only come about my learning each person’s motives, which in turn are certainly driven by feelings and turned into rough thoughts and maybe ideas. We might say that “intent” in the law (and history) is a matter of gauging whether feelings mesh with actions Juries are told that intentions can rarely be proven by direct testimony but may be inferred by the (often circumstantial) evidence.

    I will leave this here for now and go back and read IH & PH about “who killed John Doe?” to determine of my take meshes with RGC. In any event, thanks for prodding me to these considerations. sng

  3. Posted January 24, 2020 at 7:16 pm | Permalink | Reply

    As an addendum of sorts from reading IH today:

    If it is said that human thought is often or generally far from reasonable, Hegel will reply that this is an error which comes of failing to apprehend the historical situation in which a given piece of thinking is done. Thinking is never done in vacuo; it is always done by a determinate person in a determinate situation; and every historical character in every historical situation thinks and acts as rationally as that person in that situation can think and act, and nobody can do more. This is a very fertile and valuable principle, which Hegel worked out with important consequences. He held that the abstractly rational man conceived by the Enlightenment is nothing real; the reality is always a man who is both rational and passionate, never purely one or the other, his passions being those of a rational being and his thoughts those of a passionate being; and, further, without passion there is no reason and no action. To prove, therefore, that someone acted in a certain way from passion — e.g. a judge sentencing a criminal in a fit of anger or a statesman overriding opposition from motives of ambition — is not to prove that he did not act rationally; for the judge’s sentence or the statesman’s policy may be a just or a wise one notwithstanding this passionate element in its execution. Hence, Hegel maintains, the admitted fact that human history exhibits itself as a display of passions does not prove that it is not controlled by reason. He thinks of passion as the stuff, so to speak, out of which history is made: it is, from one point of view, a display of passions and nothing else; but all the same it is a display of reason, for reason uses passion itself as its tool in bringing about its ends.

    Collingwood, R. G.. The Idea of History. Albion Press. Kindle Edition; p. 116, rev’d edition pb

    I contend that this goes back to my assertion that history shouldn’t exclude the passions (feelings) because they are too entangled (often) with “thoughts” and ideas. Feelings can be observed from the outside, even as dull as me has learned to pick up subtle clues when I’m angering a judge or my wife. Of course, we don’t have first-hand observation in history, just re-enactment, which, may not receive confirmation via language from the subject. But then reliable observer testimony may confirm as a state of feeling (passions). So, in re-enacting, I don’t believe that we should shunt aside feeling or the circumstances (events) of the actions. To go too far no doubt shades into art (say a Shakespeare play), but this too is a matter of gradient because both history and art require imagination to some measure. For isn’t “re-enactment” a form of imagination, albeit grounded in a shared, reliable record?

    • Posted January 25, 2020 at 5:36 am | Permalink | Reply

      Hi Steve, I think you are arguing, more or less, that Collingwood goes too far in his criticism of biography; and I, perhaps, of Niall Ferguson.

      Collingwood did write a biography of himself, and perhaps we can understand it as a model for how biographies ought to be written, at least biographies that aim to be history and not just entertainment. Is it a defective model?

      I like how Collingwood writes in The Principle of Art, page 86,

      No one has yet taken up the detective story and raised it to the level of genuine art. Miss Sayers, indeed, has given reasons why this cannot be done.

      It doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with detective stories; nine pages later he writes about the fun, which may even be recreation, of lying in the garden reading Sayers. (For the record, I wrote about this in 2014, in a post you read.)

      A biography may well be a valuable resource for somebody doing history. I have the feeling that you are saying this. As Collingwood says, anything is evidence for the person who knows how to use it.

      As for myself, I am still content with my writing,

      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.

      I may trace the idea here back well before my reading of Collingwood (which began at age 22 in 1987) to a story in Childcraft (probably the 1970 edition) about a French peasant couple to whom Napoleon offered a gift for their hospitality. They didn’t want to ask for anything, but felt they must ask for something, so they asked to know how Napoleon felt when he had hid in a chimney as a house was being searched for him.

      Do you perhaps know whether, and when, that really happened? In the story, the general flew into a rage and had the couple placed before a firing squad. Then he explained: “Now you know how I felt.”

      Added later: I found the story on the Internet Archive.

      Meanwhile, “That interior voice is a thought,” you say; “I perceive a scale that runs from feelings to thoughts to ideas.” Collingwood like a scale; the “scale of forms” in An Essay on Philosophical Method.

      Your use of “thought” here may agree with many people’s use. But there is at least a kind of thought that is really trying to do something, and that may or may not succeed, by its own standards. This kind of thought could be called “getting an idea,” perhaps; but this does not seem like a good description of what I am doing when trying to establish (to name a recent example in my professional life) that the dominance of a rational map over an arbitrary field is a first-order property of the parameters.

      It does sound like an error on the part of Lukacs to say that the history of thought is the history of ideas. (I have not read Lukacs; should I? I found a review of Historical Consciousness on the site of the Abbeville Institute, which seems to have a creepy mission.)

      I looked at Collingwood’s use of “idea.” In The Principles of Art (pp. 170–1), he writes how his contemporaries

      are systematically misusing the word “sensum” and all its cognates; using it to mean not the momentary and evanescent colours, sounds, scents, and the rest which in sensation we actually “feel”, but something different which these writers mistake or substitute for them …

      … there are such things, to be identified with what Hume … called ‘ideas’ as distinct from ‘impressions’. I shall try to show that there is a special activity of mind correlative to them, and that this is what we generally call imagination, as distinct from sensation on the one hand and intellect on the other.

      Thanks for pointing out the passage on Hegel in The Idea of History. It seems to illuminate Collingwood’s thoughts (ideas?) on freedom, which I was considering in the post of that name, which I see you also read. You say, “history shouldn’t exclude the passions,” and surely Collingwood does not disagree; but the passions should be relevant to the thought being investigated. If you say we never know what will be relevant, well, sure; but doesn’t Collingwood ridicule the idea of a Sherlock Holmes who tries to collect all of the evidence before sitting down to think it over?

14 Trackbacks

  1. By Effectiveness « Polytropy on June 4, 2018 at 6:09 am

    […] more on the last points, see a more recent article, “Re-enactment.” (This Preface added June 3, […]

  2. By On Knowing Ourselves « Polytropy on June 5, 2018 at 7:27 am

    […] 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”). […]

  3. By NL XXVI: Democracy and Aristocracy « Polytropy on August 29, 2018 at 8:02 pm

    […] He said in An Autobiography that history is the history of thought, and doing history means re-enacting, re-thinking the thoughts of the […]

  4. By NL XXVII: Force in Politics « Polytropy on September 1, 2018 at 7:09 am

    […] Ferguson also has a fundamental misunderstanding of Collingwood’s philosophy. In short, as I wrote here in June, Ferguson does not recognize the distinction between feeling and […]

  5. […] are salient—as I argued (among other things) in “Effectiveness” and “Re-enactment.” In the case of the class called “the lexicographer’s unit,” the decision […]

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

    […] if a lot of people have not heard of him, much less read him. I have listed elsewhere, in “Re-enactment,” some ways that even his admirers have misread him. In considering “Civilization As […]

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

    […] “History as the Self-knowledge of Mind.” I shall take up these matters again in “Re-enactment.” The relevance for now is that to remember is to be an historian of […]

  8. By The Peace of Liberal Education « Polytropy on May 27, 2019 at 7:08 am

    […] is a re-enactment of the past in the present. Collingwood says this in An Autobiography (Oxford, 1939), where he also […]

  9. By On Chapman’s Homer’s Iliad, Book XVI « Polytropy on September 18, 2019 at 9:20 am

    […] that the peaceful likes of myself could never understand Achilles. For Collingwood, history is re-enactment of the thoughts of the past, and such re-enactment is possible; but one must not be facile in […]

  10. By Anthropology of Mathematics « Polytropy on October 13, 2019 at 6:05 pm

    […] have to consider whether Toulmin’s example should be added to the list given in “Re-enactment” of what I judge to be misunderstandings of […]

  11. By Articles on Collingwood « Polytropy on October 17, 2020 at 5:53 pm

    […] Blackburn, “Being and Time,” The New Republic, April 3, 2010. I have written about this in “Re-enactment,” referring back to “What It Takes.” Blackburn is positive, but misunderstanding (in my […]

  12. By To Be Civilized « Polytropy on May 27, 2021 at 9:26 am

    […] of Catastrophe. I had criticized Ferguson’s understanding of Collingwood in my 2018 post “Re-enactment.” I thought I should give the historian more of a […]

  13. By Nature « Polytropy on October 8, 2021 at 10:29 am

    […] and Time” (New Republic, April 3, 2010), and I complained about it in “What It Takes” and “Re-enactment.” In the latter post, I called Blackburn’s fashion analogy “interesting, but frivolous.” […]

  14. By The Society of Mathematics « Polytropy on July 20, 2022 at 11:20 am

    […] context of history as such, Collingwood called this “re-enactment,” and I took it up in a “2018 post,” revisiting the idea (because apparently it is difficult to understand) in “To Be […]

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