Articles on Collingwood

This article gathers, and in some cases quotes and examines, popular articles about R. G. Collingwood (1889–1943).

  • By articles, I mean not blog posts like mine and others’, but essays by professionals in publications that have editors.

  • By popular, I mean written not for other professionals, but for the laity.

The following list may grow, if more articles come to light:

  1. Ray Monk, “How the untimely death of RG Collingwood changed the course of philosophy forever,” Prospect, September 5, 2019. I talked about this in the post “Anthropology of Mathematics.”

  2. Jonathan Rée, “R.G. Collingwood on the corruption of democracy,” New Humanist, August 30, 2019:

    Collingwood … did not believe that philosophy could put people in contact with eternal principles of politics or anything else, and it was for precisely that reason that he deplored fascism and advocated liberalism and democracy.

  3. Jonathan Rée, “A Few Home Truths,” London Review of Books, Vol. 36, No. 12, June 19, 2014. On R. G. Collingwood, “An Autobiography” and Other Writings, with Essays on Collingwood’s Life and Work (edited by David Boucher and Teresa Smith, Oxford, 2013):

    Both [of Collingwood’s parents] were professional painters, and like their friend and near neighbour John Ruskin they regarded art not as a quest for aesthetic perfection but a joyful inquiry into the inexhaustible variety of the world, closely allied with history, natural science and the arguments of everyday life …

    [Collingwood’s autobiography] leaves you thinking that the literary form best suited to philosophy is not the treatise, the commentary or even the all-conquering academic paper, but the memoir of a seriously thoughtful life.

  4. Simon 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 opinion, obviously).

  5. Mary Beard, “No More Scissors and Paste,” London Review of Books, Vol. 32, No. 6, March 25, 2010. (Added to the list, October 18, 2020.) A review of Fred Inglis, History Man: The Life of R.G. Collingwood, like Blackburn’s article; but Beard is less threatened by Collingwood’s ego. Her theme: like Collingwood himself and other scholars of the man, Inglis ranks Collingwood’s being an historian below his being a philosopher; however,

    it is surely crucial that he was a product of the old Oxford ‘Greats’ (that is, classics) course, which focused the last two and a half years of a student’s work on the parallel study of ancient history on the one hand, and ancient and modern philosophy on the other. Most students were much better at one side than the other … Collingwood was not a maverick with two incompatible interests. Given the educational aims of the course, he was a rare success, even if something of a quirky overachiever; his combination of interests was exactly what Greats was designed to promote.

    I made that quote without ellipses in “Effectiveness.”

  6. Jonathan Rée, “Life after Life,” London Review of Books, Vol. 22, No. 2, January 20, 2000. The best and most thorough of the list, though (inevitably) passing over some things. I shall come back to it.

I prepare this post, goaded by the friend who suggested that I was “a bit fixated on Collingwood.” Responding to Adam Kirsch, “Philosophy in the Shadow of Nazism” (New Yorker, October 19, 2020), I had written that anybody interested in the Vienna Circle or in analytic philosophy in the UK ought to read Collingwood’s 1940 Essay on Metaphysics.

Kirsch writes,

Since the Greeks, Western thinkers had tried to understand the world using terms such as “being” and “becoming,” “substance” and “essence,” “real” and “ideal.” But these abstractions gave rise to complicated arguments that went around and around, never reaching any definite conclusion …

This sounds like the complaint of people who cannot be bothered to try to understand somebody else. Kirsch makes it in the voice of one inspired by Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921).

There’s an argument that reaches no definite conclusion in the dialogue of Plato called the Thaeatetus. Socrates and the title character try out some definitions of knowledge. All are found wanting. My sense (mentioned elsewhere) is that analytic philosophers actually fail to recognize the unsatisfactory conclusion, or else they fail to consider that Plato had a good reason for writing it.

Effectively on behalf of such philosophers, Kirsch asks,

In an age of triumphant physics, did philosophy still need to bother with metaphysics?

We might as well ask whether we still need bother to be human beings. We need bother with metaphysics, and Collingwood shows this.

Nonetheless, for the Vienna Circle, according to Kirsch,

Philosophy’s role in the search for truth is to examine the form of our statements, to insure that they are syntactically and logically correct.

It seems like such a sad project now; also an authoritarian one, and therefore something to be decried, even though

Nazis and Austria’s Christian fascists were right to see the Vienna Circle as an enemy. In Edmonds’s words, the Circle was “contemptuous of superstitious thinking,” including myths about race and religion.

David Edmonds is the author of The Murder of Professor Schlick, which Kirsch is reviewing. Not having read the book itself, I can respond only to Kirsch’s review. This observes that, when they took over Austria, the Nazis let Moritz Schlick’s murderer out of jail, because they judged him to be inspired by nationalism and anti-Semitism.

In this deranged atmosphere [writes Kirsch], no one was deterred by the fact that Schlick was not Jewish but, rather, a German Protestant … in their eyes Jewishness wasn’t defined only by religion or ethnicity. It was also a mind-set, characterized by the modernism and liberalism they saw as sources of spiritual corruption.

This is why the Vienna Circle were the enemy of “Nazis and Austria’s Christian fascists.” The Circle

included Christians and Jews, but its members’ real creed was what they called “the scientific conception of the world.”

Today many of us decry the failure of political leaders to have a scientific conception of the world, as for example regarding Covid-19 in particular, and climate change in general. I’ll suggest that the “real” problem is authoritarianism, which can in principle be a problem in science, as anywhere else.

Authoritarianism can in principle be a problem in science, because the scientist has to allow the possibility of being wrong and of being shown a better way by others. Perhaps the bigger actual problem is that authoritarians take advantage of the uncertainty of science. They attack changing one’s mind as a weakness.

In my last post I wrote about how any kind of practice, once recognized as a practice, can be abused. For me the locus classicus of this idea is in The Principles of Art (Oxford, 1938), the first of Collingwood’s books that I read. That was in 1987, and the book remains my favorite. It is one of the few that Jonathan Rée does not mention in “Life after Life,” which is ostensibly a review of new editions of the three books that Collingwood wrote last:

  • An Essay on Metaphysics (edited by Rex Martin, Oxford, 1998);

  • The New Leviathan (edited by David Boucher, 1999);

  • The Principles of History (edited by W.H. Dray and W.J. van der Dussen, Oxford, 1999).

Rée concludes, “Let’s hope these fine new editions will give Collingwood the good readers he abundantly deserves.” Meanwhile, he has given an excellent overview of much of Collingwood’s work. I select some choice passages:

… Collingwood had never learned the meaning of academic fear … When he went to study philosophy at Oxford … he found himself drawn to the supposedly obsolete social liberalism of T.H. Green, which he associated with Ruskinian political radicalism in its idealisation of active ‘citizenship’ within a comprehensively caring State …

It was the same unaffected self-confidence, combined with chronic insomnia and an incapacity for lazing around, that enabled Collingwood to sustain a part-time career as an archaeologist. He found it a relief from the idiocies of philosophy …

He regarded [his philosophical colleagues’] attempts to make philosophy an academic plaything … as a betrayal, not only of science and culture, but of society, too … They were making the world safe for political irrationalism, for Fascists and Nazis in particular …

In Oxford in 1938, the idea that there was something deeply wrong with Fascism and Nazism was not quite the polite commonplace it has since become, and some of the Delegates of the Oxford University Press wanted Collingwood to cool his rhetoric down …

The kind of historicised metaphysics that Collingwood advocated … would provide us all with reminders that presuppositions which once served our purposes can quickly turn into obstacles to further progress …

… he is one of the classiest philosophical writers in the English language.

… philosophical authors must always write primarily for themselves … And philosophy, like poetry, required not only a rigorously honest author, but a ‘good reader’ as well: a reader committed to ‘living through the same experience’ as the writer went through, and skilled in sustaining a ‘peculiar intimacy’ in the act of reading.

Rée says of The New Leviathan, the last book Collingwood saw to press (in 1942), that it “bears ugly marks of carelessness and haste,” and a “broad theme is not enough to prevent The New Leviathan from meandering and marking time.” None of that bothers me, who spent five years blogging chapter by chapter about the book. Rée has a good selection of the book’s “unusual variety of intelligent political observations” (these are printed continuously in the text; the links are to my own posts on relevant chapters):

  • “that the overall goal of politics is the promotion of ‘civility’, or respect for self and others;”

  • “that there will always be ‘conflicts between one way of life and another’;”

  • “that pacifism may promote war rather than prevent it, because it is more interested in giving the pacifist a clear conscience than in navigating the rough seas of actually existing hostilities;”

  • “that deceit may sometimes be a political duty;”

  • “that education should be provided on the same basis as medicine—always available when needed, but never forced down anyone’s throat; and”

  • “that the professionalisation of teaching is the enemy of the efficient education of children.”

According to Rée,

The only thing tying these observations together … was Collingwood’s general idea that ‘classical politics’ had failed because of its refusal to ‘think dialectically’ …

I don’t need the observations to be tied together by anything but Collingwood himself, as I don’t need A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers to be tied together by anything but Thoreau.

Rée pays almost no attention to the first part of The New Leviathan, the part about the development of the individual. He need not; he cannot cover everything. But to me the most important passage in the book is in that first part, in Chapter XIII:

The problem of free will is not whether men are free (for every one is free who has reached the level of development that enables him to choose) but, how does a man become free? For he must be free before he can make a choice; consequently no man can become free by choosing.

A related feature of Rée’s review may have to do with its having been written in 2000, before the election of George W. Bush as President of the US, and thus before that his invasion of Iraq. I had a similar concern with the Editor’s Introduction to the 1999 edition of The New Leviathan. Back then, it was easier to think that the problem facing the world when Collingwood wrote was over.

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