R. G. Collingwood
Robin George Collingwood
22 February 1889
|9 January 1943 (aged 53)
Coniston, Lancashire, England
|University College, Oxford
|The Principles of Art (1938)
The Idea of History (1946)
|Pembroke College, Oxford
Philosophy of history
Coining the English term historicism
Robin George Collingwood //; 22 February 1889 – 9 January 1943) was an English philosopher, historian and archaeologist. He is best known for his philosophical works, including The Principles of Art (1938) and the posthumously published The Idea of History (1946).(
Collingwood was born 22 February 1889 in Cartmel, Grange-over-Sands, then in Lancashire (now Cumbria), the son of the artist and archaeologist W.G. Collingwood, who acted as John Ruskin's private secretary in the final years of Ruskin's life. Collingwood's mother was also an artist and a talented pianist. He was educated at Rugby School and University College, Oxford, where he gained a First in Classical Moderations (Greek and Latin) in 1910 and a congratulatory First in Greats (Ancient History and Philosophy) in 1912. Prior to graduation, he was elected a fellow of Pembroke College, Oxford.
Collingwood was a fellow of Pembroke College, Oxford, for some 15 years until becoming the Waynflete Professor of Metaphysical Philosophy at Magdalen College, Oxford. He was taught by the historian and archaeologist F. J. Haverfield, at the time Camden Professor of Ancient History. Important influences on Collingwood were the Italian Idealists Benedetto Croce, Giovanni Gentile and Guido de Ruggiero, the last of whom was also a close friend. Other important influences were Hegel, Kant, Giambattista Vico, F. H. Bradley and J. A. Smith.
After several years of increasingly debilitating strokes, Collingwood died at Coniston, Lancashire, on 9 January 1943. He was a practising Anglican throughout his life.
Collingwood is widely noted for The Idea of History (1946), which was collated from various sources soon after his death by a student, T. M. Knox. It came to be a major inspiration for philosophy of history in the English-speaking world and is extensively cited, leading to an ironic remark by commentator Louis Mink that Collingwood is coming to be "the best known neglected thinker of our time".
Collingwood categorized history as a science, defining a science as "any organized body of knowledge." However, he distinguished history from natural sciences because the concerns of these two branches are different: natural sciences are concerned with the physical world, while history, in its most common usage, is concerned with social sciences and human affairs. Collingwood pointed out a fundamental difference between knowing things in the present (or in the natural sciences) and knowing history. To come to know things in the present or about things in the natural sciences, "real" things can be observed, as they are in existence or that have substance right now.
Since the internal thought processes of historical persons cannot be perceived with the physical senses and past historical events cannot be directly observed, history must be methodologically different from natural sciences. History, being a study of the human mind, is interested in the thoughts and motivations of the actors in history, this insight being encapsulated in his epigram "All history is the history of thought." Therefore, Collingwood suggested that a historian must "reconstruct" history by using "historical imagination" to "re-enact" the thought processes of historical persons based on information and evidence from historical sources. Re-enactment of thought refers to the idea that the historian can access not only a thought process similar to that of the historical actor, but the actual thought process itself. Consider Collingwood's words regarding the study of Plato:
In its immediacy, as an actual experience of his own, Plato's argument must undoubtedly have grown up out of a discussion of some sort, though I do not know what it was, and been closely connected with such a discussion. Yet if I not only read his argument but understand it, follow it in my own mind by re-arguing it with and for myself, the process of argument which I go through is not a process resembling Plato's, it actually is Plato's, so far as I understand him rightly.
In Collingwood's understanding, a thought is a single entity accessible to the public and therefore, regardless of how many people have the same thought, it is still a singular thought. "Thoughts, in other words, are to be distinguished on the basis of purely qualitative criteria, and if there are two people entertaining the (qualitatively) same thought, there is (numerically) only one thought since there is only one propositional content." Therefore, if historians follow the correct line of inquiry in response to a historical source and reason correctly, they can arrive at the same thought the author of their source had and, in so doing, "re-enact" that thought.
Collingwood rejected what he deemed "scissors-and-paste history" in which the historian rejects a statement recorded by their subject either because it contradicts another historical statement or because it contradicts the historian's own understanding of the world. As he states in Principles of History, sometimes a historian will encounter "a story which he simply cannot believe, a story characteristic, perhaps, of the superstitions or prejudices of the author's time or the circle in which he lived, but not credible to a more enlightened age, and therefore to be omitted." This, Collingwood argues, is an unacceptable way to do history. Sources which make claims that do not align with current understandings of the world were still created by rational humans who had reason for creating them. Therefore, these sources are valuable and ought to be investigated further in order to get at the historical context in which they were created and for what reason.
The Principles of Art (1938) comprises Collingwood's most developed treatment of aesthetic questions. Collingwood held (following Benedetto Croce) that works of art are essentially expressions of emotion. For Collingwood, an important social role for artists is to clarify and articulate emotions from their community.
Collingwood developed a position later known as aesthetic expressivism (not to be confused with various other views typically called expressivism), a thesis first developed by Croce.
In politics Collingwood defended the ideals of what he called liberalism "in its Continental sense":
The essence of this conception is ... the idea of a community as governing itself by fostering the free expression of all political opinions that take shape within it, and finding some means of reducing this multiplicity of opinions to a unity.
In his Autobiography, Collingwood confessed that his politics had always been "democratic" and "liberal", and shared Guido de Ruggiero's opinion that socialism had rendered a great service to liberalism by pointing out the shortcomings of laissez-faire economics.
Collingwood was not just a philosopher of history but also a practising historian and archaeologist. He was, during his time, a leading authority on Roman Britain: he spent his term time at Oxford teaching philosophy but devoted his long vacations to archaeology.
He began work along Hadrian's Wall. The family home was at Coniston in the Lake District and his father was a leading figure in the Cumberland and Westmorland Archaeological Society. Collingwood was drawn in on a number of excavations and put forward the theory that Hadrian's Wall was not so much a fighting platform but an elevated sentry walk. He also put forward the suggestion that Hadrian's defensive system also included a number of forts along the Cumberland coast.
He was very active in the 1930 Wall Pilgrimage for which he prepared the ninth edition of Bruce's Handbook.
His final and most controversial excavation in Cumbria was that of a circular ring ditch near Penrith known as King Arthur's Round Table in 1937. It appeared to be a Neolithic henge monument, and Collingwood's excavations, failing to find conclusive evidence of Neolithic activity, nevertheless found the base of two stone pillars, a possible cremation trench and some post holes. Sadly, his subsequent ill health prevented him undertaking a second season so the work was handed over to the German prehistorian Gerhard Bersu, who queried some of Collingwood's findings. However, recently, Grace Simpson, the daughter of the excavator F. G. Simpson, has queried Bersu's work and largely rehabilitated Collingwood as an excavator.
He also began what was to be the major work of his archaeological career, preparing a corpus of the Roman Inscriptions of Britain, which involved travelling all over Britain to see the inscriptions and draw them; he eventually prepared drawings of nearly 900 inscriptions. It was finally published in 1965 by his student R. P. Wright.
He also published two major archaeological works. The first was The Archaeology of Roman Britain, a handbook in sixteen chapters covering first the archaeological sites (fortresses, towns and temples and portable antiquities) inscriptions, coins, pottery and brooches. Mortimer Wheeler in a review, remarked that "it seemed at first a trifle off beat that he should immerse himself in so much museum-like detail ... but I felt sure that this was incidental to his primary mission to organise his own thinking".
However, his most important work was his contribution to the first volume of the Oxford History of England, Roman Britain and the English Settlements, of which he wrote the major part, Nowell Myres adding the second smaller part on English settlements. The book was in many ways revolutionary for it set out to write the story of Roman Britain from an archaeological rather than a historical viewpoint, putting into practice his own belief in 'Question and Answer' archaeology.
The result was alluring and influential. However, as Ian Richmond wrote, 'The general reader may discover too late that it has one major defect. It does not sufficiently distinguish between objective and subjective and combines both in a subtle and apparently objective presentation'.
The most notorious passage is that on Romano-British art: "the impression that constantly haunts the archaeologist, like a bad smell, is that of an ugliness that plagues the place like a London fog".
Collingwood's most important contribution to British archaeology was his insistence on Question and Answer archaeology: excavations should not take place unless there is a question to be answered. It is a philosophy which, as Anthony Birley points out, has been incorporated by English Heritage into the conditions for Scheduled Monuments Consent. Still, it has always been surprising that the proponents of the "new" archaeology in the 1960s and the 70s have entirely ignored the work of Collingwood, the one major archaeologist who was also a major professional philosopher. He has been described as an early proponent of archaeological theory.
Outside archaeology and philosophy, he also published the travel book The First Mate's Log of a Voyage to Greece (1940), an account of a yachting voyage in the Mediterranean, in the company of several of his students.
Arthur Ransome was a family friend, and learned to sail in their boat, subsequently teaching his sibling's children to sail. Ransome loosely based the Swallows in Swallows and Amazons series on his sibling's children.
All 'revised' editions comprise the original text plus a new introduction and extensive additional material.
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