NL XLV: The Germans

Index to this series

At the end of Collingwood’s New Leviathan (1942), we reach a chapter whose theme is that of my more recent articles on grammar.

By August Macke – The Yorck Project (2002) 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei (DVD-ROM), distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH. ISBN: 3936122202., Public Domain, Link

As history, Collingwood’s last chapter is difficult, for the reasons that trouble Herbert Read at the beginning of his Concise History of Modern Painting (revised 1968, augmented 1974). Read opens his first chapter with a passage from Collingwood’s Speculum Mentis (1924):

To the historian accustomed to studying the growth of scientific or philosophical knowledge, the history of art presents a painful and disquieting spectacle, for it seems normally to proceed not forwards but backwards. In science and philosophy successive workers in the same field produce, if they work ordinarily well, an advance; and a retrograde movement always implies some breach of continuity. But in art, a school once established normally deteriorates as it goes on … Whether in large or in little, the equilibrium of the aesthetic life is permanently unstable.

Collingwood’s observation suggests a theme of “Antitheses”: once we identify a rule for living, then we may obey it only in letter, not in spirit.

Herbert Read goes on to observe, in his own voice and then Collingwood’s again, what is also to our present purpose:

So wrote one of the greatest modern philosophers of history and one of the greatest philosophers of art. The same philosopher observed that contemporary history is unwritable because we know so much about it. ‘Contemporary history embarrasses a writer not only because he knows too much, but also because what he knows is too undigested, too unconnected, too atomic. It is only after close and prolonged reflection that we begin to see what was essential and what was important, to see why things happened as they did, and to write history instead of newspapers.’

The people who are the subject of the last chapter of The New Leviathan are occupying the newspapers. Collingwood refers specifically to the writings of German émigrés in Britain that we looked ahead to earlier:

45. 76. There are some wines which, they say, do not travel. The same is true of these samples of modern German politics. On reflection, it seems only natural that an author who has taken part in a long and nerve-racking political battle in one country should arrive in another with his nerves shot to pieces and a determination (very likely unconscious) that his new audience should fully realize how invincible is the man or party or machine that defeated him.

Collingwood does not say that the German émigrés will damp the British war effort; but he suggests it. In his chapter on duty, he said that C, Christ, might discharge the responsibility undertaken by B, the Believer, for the sin of A, Adam (17. 33); but now he observes that some duties are not so transferable:

45. 71. This is because the obligation here in question is not only an obligation that the act should be done, it is an obligation that it should be done by B; if A puts in his oar and takes it upon himself to do it, the result may be (must be, if the, obligation is one of those which admit of being discharged only by one irreplaceable agent) that A does what he is under no obligation to do, and that what B is under obligation to do is not done.

We could take B here to be the British, who need to fight the war, undiscouraged by any of the A, the Alemanni. However, Collingwood does not now exhibit such cleverness with the letters A and B; and anyway, their roles can be reversed. The people B, ruled from Berlin, have to civilize themselves, and aliens A cannot do it for them.

Collingwood recalls an observation made in “Decline of the Classical Politics,” that this classical politics “was unadvisedly and unsuccessfully transplanted into the soil of Prussia by Frederick the Great” (45. 85). Now he suggests that it was not until the time of Bismarck that German barbarism began to form (45. 49). He declines to consider this an inconsistency (45. 87). We are doing history now, which is about things that become, not things that are (45. 22).

The barbarists of the past may seem always to have been so (45. 12); but now, since Germans that we know personally seem not to be innately barbarist (45. 13), the same may be true of everybody whom we have considered barbarist (45. 14). Or say the Germans were always “bad neighbours,” at least latently so (45. 15); we still cannot name conditions that are bound to bring out this barbarism (45. 17).

By Collingwood’s metaphorical account, the Germans were schoolboys, trained in grammar and logic by strict schoolmasters (45. 36). Now they have revolted (45. 37). Says an imaginary Nazi psychologist,

45. 28. ‘And why not? What Nazis call thinking with your blood is a much quicker way of thinking than the old-fashioned way of doing it with your brains.’

45. 29. Certainly, provided that you sometimes have someone with brains at your elbow to check your results and see that they are right; or, failing that, do not care whether they are right or wrong.

45. 3. I am not sure that Nazis understand what logic is for; at any rate they talk as if they were proud of believing a lot of nonsense about it.

45. 31. Everyone who has digested Locke’s Essay knows that it is a great mark of folly to over-estimate the value of logic, or to think that anything can be done with it that cannot be done just as well without it.

45. 32. But the Nazis advocate ‘thinking with your blood’ as if it were a new and revolutionary idea; which it could only be for a generation slavishly taught, in sheer defiance of Locke to think exclusively with their brains.

45. 33. Exclusively, I say; for therein lies the whole difference between thinking like a sane man and thinking like a Nazi.

I have not read Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding (at St John’s College we read only from his Two Treatises of Government). Nothing indeed requires logic, if we understand this—as Collingwood does elsewhere—as a criteriological science, giving an account, or logos, of the standards, or criteria, that we are already wont to apply in our endeavors. I tried to work out the idea of a criteriological science in “A New Kind of Science.”

Herbert Read, A Concise History of Modern Painting (cover black with 17 small images of paintings)

In “Writing Rules,” I took issue with some academics’ ideas about teaching grammar. Collingwood himself takes issue with Matthew Arnold, who was a school-inspector as well as a writer. We have seen Collingwood’s idea that children ought to be free-ranging and home-schooled. Apparently Arnold would instead send British children to schools like those in Germany, which ended up spawning Nazis (45. 82).

If we want to see for ourselves, Collingwood suggests Arnold’s Friendship’s Garland (1871). The title continues: Being the conversations, letters, and opinions of the late Arminius Baron von Thunder-ten-Tronckh. Arminius would seem to be an imaginary Westphalian nobleman, and Arnold seems to respect his advice for Britain, though Arnold’s true opinion could possibly be hidden in irony. In one reported conversation, Arminius tells Arnold (pp. 52–3),

you were talking of compulsory education, and your common people’s want of it. Now, my dear friend, I want you to understand what this principle of compulsory education really means. It means that to ensure, as far as you can, every man’s being fit for his business in life, you put education as a bar, or condition, between him and what he aims at. The principle is just as good for one class as another, and it is only by applying it impartially that you save its application from being insolent and invidious. Our Prussian peasant stands our compelling him to instruct himself before he may go about his calling, because he sees we believe in instruction, and compel our own class, too, in a way to make it really feel the pressure, to instruct itself before it may go about its calling.

This all sounds sensible. Should not people be qualified for what they do? In that case though, somebody has to assess qualifications, and it is hard to say who this should be. I see the problem in Turkey, where there are good-faith efforts to make admissions and promotions unbiassed and objective; but then, as suggested earlier, once rules for these things are in place, then people can figure out ways around them.

When I was a graduate student, my office-mate from Taiwan was studying for the U.S. naturalization test, but she did not understand trial by jury. Should not experts be doing the judging? I tried to explain that a jury trial was a right, which one could waive if one wanted.

What shall we do? For Collingwood, the arch-barbarists are the Ottoman Turks, when they are at the height of their power (45. 93); but even they “are no exception to the rule which elsewhere, to the best of my knowledge, is unbroken: the rule that barbarists in the end have always been beaten; a rule which I state here merely as the conclusion arrived at by the inductive study of cases” (45. 94). Such an induction is not a proof; to draw the universal conclusion that barbarism always fails, one would have to give a reason—as I suggested in the post “On Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem.”

All Collingwood is prepared to do is close his book by saying (45. 96),

I think it not wholly without interest to read once more how the professed champions of barbarism, embattling themselves time and again to make an end once for all of the thing we call civilization, have not so much perished at the stroke of lightning from heaven as withered away in the very hour of their victory, or even after it, until those who once feared their rage come first to despise, and then utterly to forget, those who once set themselves up as champions of that which needs no champion, and would not even tolerate a champion if it was the sheer force it pretends to be.

So Collingwood ends his race with death, and so I end this reading of the last book of his that he saw to press. It may be worth while to recall from An Autobiography (1939) that Collingwood learned from his artist-parents

what some critics and aestheticians never know to the end of their lives, that no ‘work of art’ is ever finished, so that in that sense of the phrase there is no such thing as a ‘work of art’ at all. Work ceases upon the picture or manuscript, not because it is finished, but because sending-in day is at hand, or because the printer is clamorous for copy, or because ‘I am sick of working at this thing’ or ‘I can’t see what more I can do to it’.

Paul Cézanne (1839-1906), Le Jardin des Lauves (c. 1906), The Phillips Collection, Washington

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