Category Archives: Collingwood

Concerning the philosopher R. G. Collingwood (1889–1943).

Evolution of Reality

I enjoy and recommend Robert Wright’s Nonzero Newsletter, which presents thought on both American politics and thought itself.

Tiny green plants on red tile roof, cloudy day

In a 2017 post of this blog, I quoted Wright’s 1988 article in The Atlantic Monthly about Edward Fredkin. Somewhat differently from Fredkin, I spelled out my title, “What Philosophy Is,” without actually being a professional philosopher. I touched on a theme that I shall take up now: that thinkers today could benefit from knowing the thought of R. G. Collingwood.

In Wright’s newsletter this week, the thought that is thought about is more precisely thought about “reality.” The person thinking about it (besides Wright and interested readers) is billed as a “cognitive scientist.”

Stone house lit by sun, bare trees in front

I would say I too am a cognitive scientist, just for being a logician. Every science aims to produce cognition that is satisfactory on its own terms; thus a science of cognition will be neither purely descriptive, nor normative in the sense of imposing standards from outside. A science of cognition as such will be criteriological, in the sense of Collingwood, which I have discussed in “A New Kind of Science.” Logic is the traditional name for the study of theoretical cognition; the study of practical cognition is ethics.

So I say, as somebody who began pondering Collingwood’s voluminous œuvre more than thirty years ago, albeit with little attention to the more recent thinkers now called analytic philosophers. As far as I can tell, a proper reading of Collingwood could straighten them out. They may respond that I lack their training and knowledge; but how will they know this matters, if they have not read Collingwood for themselves?

Two figures assembled from gnarled wood

This week, as far as I understand from Wright’s interview with him, cognitive scientist Donald Hoffman accepts a syllogism that I formulate as follows.

  1. (See below.)

  2. What evolution favors is not our perception of reality as such (called “reality as it is,” “objective reality,” “actual reality”), but whatever traits we may have that

    • are determined by genes,

    • promote the propagation of those very genes.

  3. Therefore, as evolved beings, we cannot expect to grasp reality as such.

This makes a certain sense, but prompts the question: What did we think reality was in the first place, before our study of evolution straightened us out? Beyond this, there is the missing major premiss: Evolution itself is real. How do we know?

Here is some of what Hoffman thinks, in his own words from Wright’s interview:

I’m happy to contemplate the idea that the notion of causality itself is not a fiction, but that the specific causality that we all know and love—namely that [of] a physical object like a billiard ball hitting another billiard ball and making it move—that that’s genuine causality, that I think we will have to give up.

So when the white ball hits the eight ball into the corner pocket, we can say that the cue ball caused the eight ball to move, and for practical purposes, that’s fine. It’s a useful fiction. But strictly speaking, it’s a fiction.

Of course it’s a fiction that the cue ball causes the eight ball to move. It is we who cause the latter to move, by means of the former. We are the agent, and a cause needs an agent. In speech and thought, we may find it convenient to transfer our agency to the cue ball (though here I speak theoretically, not actually having spent much time with billiards). I imagine anybody would agree that this transference is, in Hoffman’s term, a fiction.

Archway of brick and stone

So I imagine; but then I see in the world a lot of (what I think is) confusion about causation. I have tried to address this in my post “On Causation,” which is based on an article by Collingwood that ended up in his Essay on Metaphysics (1940) as an example of how to do metaphysics.

The post mentions Collingwood’s argument that our notion of causation in the natural world is a remnant of Neoplatonism. Our notion of evolution might be explained in similar terms. In any case, it is a fiction that evolution “favors” anything. According to Hoffman again,

the assumption in the field has been that the perceptual strategies that will actually be favored by that kind of natural selection are perceptual strategies that see reality as it is. Not exhaustively—very, very few people would claim that we see all of reality as it is—but that those aspects of the world that we do see, we do see accurately; and we see the ones that we need to survive and reproduce.

Hoffman takes issue with the particular assumption discussed. I take issue with the assumption that any kind of “perceptual strategy” can be “favored” by an abstraction called “natural selection.” This assumption is anthropomorphism.

Passage downhill between green roof and hammam dome, tower in distance

Perhaps it is inevitable. As Collingwood says,

We cannot help thinking anthropomorphically; but we are provided with a remedy: our own laughter at the ridiculous figure we cut, incorrigibly anthropomorphic thinkers inhabiting a world where anthropomorphic thinking is a misfit.

That’s paragraph 14. 61 of the New Leviathan (1942), alluded to in my post about the “Reason” chapter, but actually quoted in the post about Chapter XVIII, “Theoretical Reason.” Collingwood’s theme is that the science we do—our study of the world—will reflect how we think about one another and ourselves. He concludes Chapter XVIII with paragraph 18. 92:

It is in the world of history, not in the world of Nature, that man finds the central problems he has to solve. For twentieth-century thought the problems of history are the central problems: those of Nature, however interesting they may be, are only peripheral.

Collingwood may be justified here, writing as he is in response to a war that is said to have arisen from problems not resolved by an earlier war. No historical problems are ever permanently resolved, and it is dangerous to think they are, as he writes in Chapter XXVI, “Democracy and Aristocracy.” Victory over the Nazis did not eradicate fascism, as unfortunately we are seeing now. I think this is a reason why part of the Nonzero Newsletter is called “Mindful Resistance.” It is a reason why I have found the New Leviathan worth studying. The last book that Collingwood saw to press is itself an instance of mindful resistance.


The photographs above are from the Nesin Mathematics Village, during the two winter weeks of January 27 and February 3, 2020, when I taught courses on the ordinal numbers. I took the photos with my feature phone, mentioned in “Computer Recovery” as an alternative means of web access to the laptop I have used to compose the present post. I took the photos on February 7 and 9; I included three similar photos from the former, cloudy, day in a tweet. I also have a dedicated camera, which would have taken better photos, had I brought it with me.

On the Odyssey, Book I

  • In reading his rendition of the Iliad, having enjoyed hearing Chapman speak out loud and bold;

  • having enjoyed writing here about each book, particularly the last ten books in ten days on an Aegean beach in September of this year (2019);

  • having taken the name of this blog from the first line of the Odyssey;

  • having obtained, from Homer Books here in Istanbul, Emily Wilson’s recent translation (New York: Norton, 2018);

  • Book on table, Wilson's Odyssey Continue reading

On the Idea of History

Our environment may influence our feelings, but what we make of those feelings is up to us. Thus we are free; we are not constrained by some fixed “human nature”—or if we are, who is to say what its limits are?


Rembrandt van Rijn (and Workshop?), Dutch, 1606-1669,
The Apostle Paul, c. 1657, oil on canvas,
Widener Collection, National Gallery of Art

Insofar as we humans have come to recognize our freedom, we have done so after thinking that what we did depended on our class—our kind, our sort, even our “race.” We might distinguish three stages of thought about ourselves.

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Anthropology of Mathematics

This essay was long when originally published; now, on November 30, 2019, I have made it longer, in an attempt to clarify some points.

The essay begins with two brief quotations, from Collingwood and Pirsig respectively, about what it takes to know people. The Pirsig quote is from Lila, which is somewhat interesting as a novel, but naive about metaphysics; it might have benefited from an understanding of Collingwood’s Essay on Metaphysics. A recent article by Ray Monk in Prospect seems to justify my interest in Collingwood; eventually I have a look at the article. Ideas that come up along the way include the following.

  1. For C. S. Lewis, the reality of moral truth shows there is something beyond the scope of natural science.

  2. I say the same for mathematical truth.

  3. Truths we learn as children are open to question. In their educational childhoods, mathematicians have often learned wrongly the techniques of induction and recursion.

  4. The philosophical thesis of physicalism is of doubtful value.

  5. Mathematicians and philosophers who ape them use “iff” needlessly.

  6. One pair who do this seem also to misunderstand induction and recursion.

  7. Their work is nonetheless admirable, like the famous expression of universal equality by the slave-driving Thomas Jefferson.

  8. Mathematical truth is discovered and confirmed by thought.

  9. Truth is a product of every kind of science; it is not an object of natural science.

  10. The distinction between thinking and feeling is a theme of Collingwood.

  11. In particular, thought is self-critical: it judges whether itself is going well.

  12. Students of mathematics must learn their right to judge what is correct, along with their responsibility to reach agreement with others about what is correct. I say this.

  13. Students of English must learn not only to judge their own work, but even that they can judge it. Pirsig says this.

  14. For Monk, Collingwood’s demise has meant Ryle’s rise: unfortunately so since, for one thing, Ryle has no interest in the past.

  15. In a metaphor developed by Matthew Arnold, Collingwood and Pirsig are two of my touchstones.

  16. Thoreau is another. He affects indifference to the past, but his real views are more subtle.

  17. According to Monk, Collingwood could have been a professional violinist; Ryle had “no ear for tunes.”

  18. For Collingwood, Victoria’s memorial to Albert was hideous; for Pirsig, Victorian America was the same.

  19. Again according to Monk, some persons might mistake Collingwood for Wittgenstein.

  20. My method of gathering together ideas, as outlined above, resembles Pirsig’s method, described in Lila, of collecting ideas on index cards.

  21. Our problems are not vague, but precise.


When Donald Trump won the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, which opinion polls had said he would lose, I wrote a post here called “How To Learn about People.” I thought for example that just calling people up and asking whom they would vote for was not a great way to learn about them, even if all you wanted to know was whom they would vote for. Why should people tell you the truth?

Saturn eclipse mosaic from Cassini

With other questions about people, even just understanding what it means to be the truth is a challenge. If you wanted to understand people whose occupation (like mine) was mathematics, you would need to learn what it meant to prove a theorem, that is, prove it true. Mere observation would not be enough; and on this point I cite two authors whom I often take up in this blog.

  • In the words of R. G. Collingwood in Religion and Philosophy (1916, page 42), quoted in An Autobiography (1940, page 93) as well as in the earlier post here, “The mind, regarded in this external way, really ceases to be a mind at all.”

  • In the words of English teacher and anthropologist Verne Dusenberry, quoted by Robert Pirsig in Lila (1991, page 35), “The trouble with the objective approach is that you don’t learn much that way.”

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On Translation

Achilles is found singing to a lyre, in a passage of Book IX of the Iliad. Homer sets the scene in five dactylic hexameters; George Chapman translates them into four couplets of fourteeners.

I wrote a post about each book of the Iliad, in Chapman’s version of 1611. As I said at the end, I look forward to reading Emily Wilson’s version. Meanwhile, here I examine the vignette of the lyre in several existing English translations, as well as in the original.

Three books mentioned in the text Continue reading

On Chapman’s Homer’s Iliad, Book XVIII

I analyze Book XVIII of the Iliad into seven scenes.

Branches against sky

  1. Achilles receives from Antilochus the news of Patroclus’s death, and Thetis receives the news from Achilles. She tells him not to fight till she has brought new arms from Mulciber (Chapman’s lines 1–136).

  2. Continue reading

Math, Maugham, and Man

A human being was once a man. A female of the species was a wife; a male, a were. The latter appeared in werewolf, but also were-eld, which became our world. Our woman comes from wife-man.

That is roughly the history, which I shall review later in a bit more detail. It would be a fallacy to think the history told us how we must use the words “woman” and “man” today. The history does suggest what may happen again: in a world dominated by men, a word like “person,” intended for any human being, may come to have its own meaning dominated by men. Yet again, this is no reason not to try to make our language better.

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On Being Given to Know

  1. What if we could upload books to our brains?
  2. What if a machine could tell us what was true?

We may speculate, and it is interesting that we do speculate, because I think the questions do not ultimately make sense—not the sense that seems to be intended anyway, whereby something can be got for nothing.

View from Şavşat

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On Causation

Causation seems commonly to be understood as a physical concept, like being a fossil. The paleontologist seeks the one right answer to the question of when a particular dinosaur bone became part of the fossil record; likewise readers of international news seem to think there is one right answer to the question of whether Donald Trump or Ali Khamenei caused the shooting down of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 on January 8, 2020.

There is not one right answer. If you are Trump, you caused 176 civilian deaths by attacking the Iranians and provoking their response. If you are Mitch McConnell, you caused the deaths by inhibiting the removal of Trump from office. If you are Khamenei, you did it by meeting Trump’s fire with fire.

Being a cause does not mean you deserve condemnation or praise: that is another matter.

Causation is relative. This is an observation by R. G. Collingwood in An Essay on Metaphysics (1940). Continue reading

NL I: “Body and Mind” Again

Index to this series

“We are beginning an inquiry into civilization,” writes Collingwood, “and the revolt against it which is the most conspicuous thing going on at the present time.” The time is the early 1940s.

Human tourists photographing sculptured supine blue ape with chrome testicles outside the Intercontinental Hotel, Prague Continue reading