NL XXIX: External Politics

Index to this series

Executive summary (added September 13, 2018): External politics—dealing with other bodies politic—is the third stage of political life, after the forming of societies (as if by marriage), and their coming to rule over non-social communities (as if by having children) in the formation of a body politic. Since dialectic has been used in the first two stages, it can be used in the third. Thus, being the eristic of external politics, war has no psychological cause. Still, war is a state of mind, which does not think non-agreement can become agreement. Pacifism has this state of mind.


External politics are international relations. These represent a third “stage” in political life (29. 1):

  1. The first stage is the the joining of wills into a society, which rules itself (29. 11).
  2. The second stage is such a society’s ruling over a non-social community in a body politic (29. 12).
  3. The third stage is dealing with other bodies politic (29. 13).


Strictly speaking, the second stage may also be the ruling of parents over the children in a family. In any case,

29. 2. Each of these three stages has a dialectic of its own. Each is a Heraclitean world in which everything moves and nothing rests (24. 64). Each involves constant change from a ‘not-x’ into an ‘x’; but the values of ‘x’ and ‘not-x’ are different in each case.

There is also an eristic of each stage, and the eristic of the third stage (29. 61) is making war (29. 62). The key idea of the chapter is that war has no “psychological” cause, such as a “pugnacious instinct” (29. 8). If there is such an instinct, we have already learned twice how to overcome it, in forming first societies, then bodies politic (21. 82). War is a failure to do what we already know how to do, which is to solve problems dialectically.

The theme will continue in the next chapter, “War As the Breakdown of Policy.” Meanwhile, let us recall Collingwood’s cited paragraph and others from Chapter XXIV, “The Body Politic, Social and Non-Social,” concerning the recurring terms eristic and dialectic:

24. 57. All logic is concerned with discussions; but Plato distinguished two kinds of discussions, ‘eristical’ and ‘dialectical’ (Meno, 75 c-d).

24. 58. What Plato calls an eristic discussion is one in which each party tries to prove that he was right and the other wrong.

24. 59. In a dialectical discussion you aim at showing that your own view is one with which your opponent really agrees, even if at one time he denied it; or conversely that it was yourself and not your opponent who began by denying a view with which you really agree.

24. 6. The essence of dialectical discussion is to discuss in the hope of finding that both parties to the discussion are right, and that this discovery puts an end to the debate. Where they ‘agree to differ’, as the saying is, there is nothing on which they have really agreed.

Dialectical discussion is superior to eristic, because there is also a “dialectic in things” (24. 61), as discovered by Heraclitus (24. 62).

24. 63. Plato’s discovery was how the intellect could find its way about in a Heraclitean world. The answer is: think dialectically.

24. 64. A Heraclitean world is not a world of compromise; there might be compromises in a non-Heraclitean world; it is a world of change. Change implies a pair of contradictories (call them x and not-x) so related that the positive term is gradually gaining on the negative term: there is something that was not-x, but whatever was not-x is turning into x. Think of a pot of paint in which you are mixing more and more white with some other colour, say black. The paint was never either pure black or pure white; it is always turning into a paler and paler grey.

24. 65. And if you settle upon any standard of light-greyness with which at any moment it conforms, you must be ready to give that up as a standard which by now has been left behind. This readiness to give up something which at a certain time you settled upon as true is dialectical thinking.

The dialectic of society is conscious (29. 35). We form societies because we decide to. However, we “can never eliminate all traces of the non-social community” from which we began (29. 31). I would call this an instance of the Law of Primitive Survivals (9. 51); but Collingwood’s reference is to Chapter XXI, “Society As Joint Will,” ¶ 21. 5 to be precise. The League of Nations failed, not because of its non-social elements, but for failing to recognize that these elements would always be there (21. 46). We shall return to the League below.

You can try to eliminate the non-social elements of a society, but the attempt would be eristic:

29. 34. It would mean working not for an agreement with ‘the forces of reaction’ (as the engine called the brake, 27. 93) but for their annihilation.

The dialectic of internal politics—of ruling within a family or body politic—may be unconscious (29. 41). The rulers need not think about what they are doing; as long as they just do it, and do it freely, this freedom with “percolate” through the whole community.

29. 42. But if the act of ruling is not an act of will but an involuntary act due to irresistible passion or desire, what percolates through the body politic will be not freedom but servility; the Third Law of Politics will operate negatively (25. 95).

Collingwood does not now speak literally of an eristic of internal politics, but he did in Chapter XXVII, “ Force in Politics,” when considering the failure of the Liberal party in Britain:

27. 92. In a dialectical system it is essential that the representatives of each opposing view should understand why the other view must be represented. If one fails to understand this, it ceases to be a party and becomes a faction, that is, a combatant in an eristical process instead of a partner in a dialectical process.

As we noted above, the eristic of external politics is war.

When there are bodies politic, simply because they differ from one another (29. 55), there will be non-agreement among them (29. 54). The dialectic of external politics is the conversion of non-agreement here into agreement (29. 5).

Collingwood finds it important to emphasize that we are talking about non-agreement rather than disagreement (29. 52). He does however use the latter word when speaking of its inevitability:

29. 57. It is sheer Utopianism to think that any expedient whatever could remove the causes of such disagreement. To think, for example, that it would disappear if the ruling classes or their diplomatic representatives were drawn from similar strata of the population, such as feudal aristocrats or large-scale manufacturers or working men or wearers of the same old school tie or party uniform, is to display political imbecility in its most exaggerated form.

This is part of a general theme: there are no excuses and no short-cuts.

  • You humans have learned how to form societies and bodies politic.
  • This means you know how to use dialectic.
  • Now you can use it in your international relations.

The constitution of your bodies politic has been a long difficult process; world peace may need the same.

When George H. W. Bush threatened war with Iraq, I agreed with those who said sanctions ought to be relied on instead. I was young enough at the time that being drafted to join an invasion was conceivable. Older friends, with much experience of politics, asked what I would do if this happened. I could not imagine taking up arms, even if obliged by law. I had to acknowledge what my friends said, that many people had thought the same thing, but ended up fighting anyway.

Now Collingwood points out that sanctions are also an act of war. “To propose the supersession of war by economic sanctions was one of the most transparent insincerities of the League of Nations” (29. 69). But Collingwood also says:

29. 63. War is a state of mind. It does not consist in the actual employment of military force. It consists in believing that differences between bodies politic have to be settled by one giving way to the other and the second triumphing over the first.

However, if people believe that war is theoretically necessary, but the bombs are not actually dropping, is that not better than the alternative? Collingwood condemns pacifism for being “pro-war”:

29. 95. It is to acquiesce in the findings of war as the only valid solution for differences between bodies politic as regards their external relations, and to cast yourself, or rather the body politic to which you happen to belong, in the role of defeated party.

Collingwood praises “Lord Russell and Mr. Joad” for recanting their earlier pacificism in the summer of 1941, the year before publication of the New Leviathan (29. 92).

Collingwood will not live to see the independence of India, or Black liberation in the United States. It has been said that non-violence was effective in each of those two cases, because there was a public that could be shamed by the violence committed in its name. Non-violent tactics may not have worked with Nazi Germany, and indeed this seems to be Collingwood’s argument. Modern war is “a neurotic thing” (29. 97).

29. 88. If A attacks B because he is afraid of B and is convinced that he must hit first, the blame is shared. A is acting, admittedly, like a criminal lunatic; but B is to blame for having been so foolish as to frighten him into a fit of aggressiveness.

“I agree,” says Collingwood’s pacifist; “the aggressor is frightened. We must eliminate the fear by disarming.” No, you have missed the point: the fear is neurotic and does not concern something so simple as armaments. Collingwood does not refer back to Chapter X, “Passion,” but he could, since passion there is described as having two forms, fear and anger (10. 2). “Passion is the power of the not-self” (10. 18).

10.33. Fearfulness, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. The object of fear, the terrible object, is made such by fear itself: which (like love) is a form of consciousness arising spontaneously in the mind of man and creating for itself appropriate objects: for it is not the object’s being alive (10. 3) that frightens you but your thinking it alive, whether it is or not.

I leave the reader (if only myself) to contemplate these things.

7 Trackbacks

  1. By NL XXX: War As the Breakdown of Policy « Polytropy on September 6, 2018 at 6:05 pm

    […] I suppose this sense includes both inductive and deductive science. As I pointed out in the last Collingwood post, the follower of Aristotle will understand theology as metaphysics. Another term of Aristotle for […]

  2. […] One may well ask what a long difficult book like the New Leviathan can contribute to fighting a war; but then what else can a dying man more than fifty years old do? We have seen Collingwood’s criticism of pacifism starting in Chapter XXIX: […]

  3. By NL XXXVI: The Essence of Civilization « Polytropy on September 18, 2018 at 8:56 am

    […] Is it for trying to be civil that Democrats in the US have lost ground to the ruthless Republicans? Recall Collingwood’s ridicule of the pacifist at the end of Chapter XXIX: […]

  4. By NL XXXVII: Civilization As Education « Polytropy on September 20, 2018 at 7:48 am

    […] to constitute the biggest part of the answer so far, unless one counts the rejection of pacifism in Chapters XXIX and XXX. For Collingwood, writing during an actual war, this rejection may have been more […]

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

    […] (40. 24). Collingwood has noted that the word pacifism is “ungrammatical” (29. 91); he has omitted to observe that the word ought to be something like […]

  6. By NL XLI: What Barbarism Is « Polytropy on September 27, 2018 at 6:22 pm

    […] 29. 52. Dialectic is not between contraries but between contradictories (24. 68). The process leading to agreement begins not from disagreement but from non-agreement. […]

  7. […] falsely (26. 17), as “mutually independent and hostile entities” (26. 19). In Chapters XXIX and XXX, Collingwood warned against pacificism; we might call this a false abstraction of civility. […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: