Tag Archives: St. John’s College

War and Talk

This is a foray into the mystery of how things happen, based the 164th of the 361 chapters of War and Peace. This chapter contains, in a one-sentence paragraph, a summary of Tolstoy’s theory of history:

Each man lives for himself, using his freedom to attain his personal aims, and feels with his whole being that he can now do or abstain from doing this or that action; but as soon as he has done it, that action performed at a certain moment in time becomes irrevocable and belongs to history, in which it has not a free but a predestined significance.

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Thoreau by the Aegean

In a session of the 1986–7 senior laboratory at St John’s College in Santa Fe, for reasons that I do not recall, our tutor asked us students whether we had any heroes: for it was said that young people of the day no longer had heroes. None of the students at the table named a hero. I myself refrained from telling how I had once named a hero, when asked to do so in a high-school French class. This hero was the Buddha.

In recent times, I have listed my favorite writers as Somerset Maugham, Robert Pirsig, and R.G. Collingwood. I might add Charlotte Brontë and Mary Midgley to the list. I cannot add the Buddha, because he is not a writer. If my list were of writers and thinkers, I still could not add the Buddha: I cannot know him or any other thinker well enough, except through his own writing. But now I would add Henry David Thoreau. Continue reading

The Tradition of Western Philosophy

Note added October 16, 2018: Here I compare two projects of re-examining the philosophical tradition of the title. The projects are those of

  • R. G. Collingwood in An Essay on Philosophical Method (Oxford, 1933);
  • Stringfellow Barr and Scott Buchanan at St John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland, beginning in 1937.

I review

  • how I ended up as a student at St John’s;
  • how Collingwood has been read (or not read) by myself and others, notably Simon Blackburn;
  • how Collingwood’s Essay is based on the hypothesis of the “overlap of classes.”

I say that Collingwood writes well. This is corroborated, in a sense, in the Introduction to the 2005 edition of the Essay by James Connelly and Giuseppina D’Oro. These editors say of Collingwood’s critics M. C. D’Arcy and C. J. Ducasse,

both agreed that Collingwood’s language was imprecise, sometimes vague, and insufficiently analytical. This criticism was later echoed by A. J. Ayer in his Philosophy in the Twentieth Century where he remarked that ‘An Essay on Philosophical Method is a contribution to belles-lettres rather than philosophy. The style is uniformly elegant, the matter mostly obscure.’

At the end I quote three elegant paragraphs from Collingwood, which begin:

Assumption for assumption, which are we to prefer? That in sixty generations of continuous thought philosophers have been exerting themselves wholly in vain, and have waited for the first word of good sense until we came on the scene? Or that this labour has been on the whole profitable, and its history the history of an effort neither contemptible nor unrewarded?

We prefer the second assumption; and in this we may seem to follow Daniel McCarthy in “Modernism & Conservatism” (The American Conservative, September 25, 2012), an essay recently promoted on Twitter (which is why I return now to this post). The freedom embraced by modernism may drive one to conservatism, as it did T. S. Eliot. McCarthy quotes Donald Livingston:

The true philosopher recognizes that philosophical reflection consistently purged of the authority of the pre-reflective leads to total skepticism. In this moment of despair, hubristic reason … becomes impotent and utterly silent. It is only then that the philosopher can recognize, for the first time, the authority of that radiant world of pre-reflective common life in which he has his being and which had always been a guide prior to the philosophic act.

McCarthy comments on this,

Once reason has disestablished everything, including its own authority, what remains? The ground beneath your feet, the social order of which you are a part—things predicated not on any theory but on their immediacy. This is the profound conservatism to be realized from modernism.

Perhaps one may find this conservatism in some students and faculty at St John’s College; it is not inevitable, and Collingwood hasn’t got it, for all his admiration for Eliot.


A recent theme of this blog has been juxtapositions, especially of paintings, as in the articles “Pairing of paintings” and “More pairings” (both from July, 2013).

In this article I juxtapose two texts, from the 1930s. Both of them decry current intellectual troubles. Both find a solution in a return to the intellectual tradition. Continue reading