R. G. Collingwood Biography

Biography (Survey of World Philosophers)

Article abstract: Collingwood stimulated international interest with his efforts to harmonize philosophy and history. His effort to explain what was meant by the term “philosophy of history” resulted in its becoming a respected discipline in Great Britain and the United States.

Early Life

Robin George Collingwood, the only son of William Gershom Collingwood, a professional painter, archaeologist, and secretary and biographer of English art critic John Ruskin, inherited a great appreciation of the arts and archaeology from his parents. He was home-schooled until the age of thirteen; his early education included formal lessons, provided by his father, in Greek, Latin, and history, along with readings in geology, astronomy, and physics. His mother, an accomplished pianist, instilled in her son a lifelong love for classical music. As a youth, Collingwood learned to play the piano and violin and demonstrated a commendable talent for painting. He continued to paint and compose music throughout his adult life, and his paintings merited exhibits at Oxford University.

Collingwood’s formal education included five years at Rugby, followed by four years of study at Oxford, where he graduated with honors and was elected tutor in philosophy in 1912. Although he died at the age of forty-three after developing pneumonia, Collingwood had a very distinguished career at Oxford. He simultaneously held positions as lecturer in philosophy and Roman history and later held the post of professor of metaphysical philosophy until declining health forced him to resign in 1941. In 1915, he received an M.A. degree from St. Andrews University and was awarded an honorary LL.D. from the same institution in 1938.

World War I interrupted Collingwood’s academic career from 1915 to 1918, when he served in the admiralty intelligence in London. Upon returning to Oxford in 1918, he married Ethel Winifred Graham; their marriage produced a son and a daughter. A second marriage, to Kathleen Frances Edwardes in 1942, resulted in the birth of another daughter.

Life’s Work

From 1911 to 1934, Collingwood’s interest in archaeology resulted in his becoming the most highly regarded authority in his day on Roman Britain. His research and publication of The Archaeology of Roman Britain (1930) and Roman Britain and the English Settlements in the Oxford History of England (1936) helped to shape his philosophical thought. Other formative works include Religion and Philosophy and Speculum Mentis, in which he attempted to demonstrate the mental unity between five forms of human experience: art, religion, science, history, and philosophy. In two of his works, An Essay on Philosophical Method, which critics hailed as his best work, and An Essay on Metaphysics, he increasingly proposed a notion of philosophical inquiry that depended on the study of history.

Collingwood wrote other distinguished works on important topics in philosophy, but they defy any systematic classification. Outlines of a Philosophy of Art was one of his early works; two other works, The Idea of Nature, which he began in 1934, and The Idea of History, started in 1936, were published posthumously. In The Principles of Art, published in 1938, Collingwood dealt with various examples of historiography that he described as pseudohistory, a theme that would reoccur in his work on the philosophy of history. (This theme was taken up in Collingwood’s Principles of History, an unpublished manuscript presumed lost and discovered in 1995.) Also in this work, he articulated a “theory on the mind,” a concept that was the basis of his fascination with the “history of thought,” a topic that holds a major place in The Idea of History. During the late 1930’s, Collingwood’s failing health caused him to abandon several works in progress to write An Autobiography. His last major work, The New Leviathan, was a description of the modern European mind. In this work, he sought to convince his contemporaries that history was the only hope civilization had to realize the Socratic dictum, “Know thyself.” History for Collingwood was an adventure in self-discovery through the use of philosophy.

In An Autobiography, Collingwood wrote that “the chief business of twentieth century philosophy is to reckon with twentieth century history.” He predicated this statement on his conviction that for history to be meaningful, historians must make it so. Instead of concentrating on documenting a sequence of events or debating the credibility of sources, Collingwood maintained that history should concentrate on three objectives: looking for a deeper and clearer insight into the conditions that render historical knowledge possible, elucidating the presuppositions upon which historical inquires are founded, and clarifying the principles according to which these inquiries proceed. Failure to formalize a philosophical framework reduced history to chaos, which, to Collingwood, was unacceptable. Inspired by such notable philosophers as Wilhelm Dilthey and Benedetto Croce, Collingwood abandoned the prevailing desire of some scholars to provide an all-embracing synoptic vision of the entire historical process and concerned himself, instead, with an understanding and justification of historical procedures.

The best single source on Collingwood’s philosophy of history is his posthumously published treatise The Idea of History, which contains seven essays written between 1935 and 1939. In this seminal work, Collingwood maintained that true history exists only when the historian is able to relive...

(The entire section is 2357 words.)