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In designating his philosophical books “essays,” R. G. Collingwood, who preserved a keen sense for etymologies, meant to imply that they were not general “treatises,” and he made no claim either to comprehensiveness or to system. On the contrary, each essay was written to make a special point.

These remarks apply to the work at hand, both to its outline and to its texture. It is far from being a “metaphysical” book, in the usual sense of that word. Instead of propounding the author’s metaphysics, it is a lively statement of the importance of metaphysics, sharpened by a polemic against certain antimetaphysical tendencies, and it is enforced by three extended illustrations (which make up half of the volume).

Absolute Presuppositions

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Collingwood argued that any intelligible statement, if fully fathomed, rests upon a series of presuppositions that terminate in one or more absolute presuppositions. This is not a mere matter of fact but a consequence of the nature of the understanding itself. Not merely philosophy, but everything that is included under science (taken in the sense of systematic thought about a determinate subject matter) involves logical or a priori elements.

Writing on board a freighter, Collingwood took as an example a cord that the crew had stretched above the deck. He recognized it as being a clothesline. However, this supposition presupposes another thought, namely, that the line was put there on purpose. Had this assumption not been made, the thought that identified it as a clothesline would never have occurred. In other words, every thought that can be put into words is the answer to some question and can be understood only if the question is sensible. However, a sensible question rests upon other thoughts that, if put into words, are likewise answers to questions—and so on, until one finally comes to a thought that is not the answer to any question. It is an absolute presupposition.

Inquiries and Metaphysics

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Collingwood is almost as well known as a historian (of Roman Britain) as he is as a philosopher, a circumstance that shaped his views on metaphysics. As an excavator, he formulated and was instrumental in giving currency to the methodological principle: Never dig except to find the answer to a question. As a historian, he brought new clarity to the concept that the only subject matter of history is the thoughts of people who lived in the past. “Why did Caesar invade Britain? Did he achieve his purpose? If not, what determined him to conclude the campaign?” Armed with questions of this sort, the archaeologist becomes something more than an antiquarian and the historian something more than an editor of texts: They become scientists. They increase the store of relevant knowledge by following philosopher Francis Bacon’s advice about interrogating nature.

Collingwood relates that it was this kind of intellectual discipline that overthrew in his mind the claims of the Oxford realists under whom he had studied philosophy. He abandoned their claim that knowledge is made up of simple truths that are independent of each other and immediately knowable; he maintained, to the contrary, that a fact is meaningful only as it fits into an inquiry. Moreover, he argued, a particular inquiry is always part of a more comprehensive undertaking—civilization itself—that gives it backing and direction, for at any given moment, people of a living culture are engaged in...

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There is a significant agreement, at this point, between Collingwood and various present-day antimetaphysical groups. He insists that much of what is traditionally called metaphysics is bad science because it seeks to treat transcendental issues as matters of fact. Ordinary presuppositions are factual: They can be stated as propositions and are either true or false. However, absolute presuppositions are not factual: They do not answer any question and are neither true nor false. Properly speaking, they are not propositions at all.

However, if Collingwood agrees with the realists and positivists in assailing the claims of ordinary metaphysics, his emphasis on the importance of absolute presuppositions represents a significant protest against this group. In his opinion, their radical empiricism is a species of anti-intellectualism. Such empiricism accounts for truths such as: “This is the back of my hand,” but it breaks down when called upon to account for complex truths that make up natural science, not to speak of ethics and politics. He sees it as part of a dangerous tendency in the contemporary world that he broadly designates as irrationalism and, in its philosophical expression, as antimetaphysics.

The second part of An Essay on Metaphysics is given over to the discussion of two characteristic expressions of this antimetaphysical tendency. The first is pseudopsychology. Collingwood has no quarrel with psychology as long as it sticks to its subject. It began as a distinct science when sixteenth century thought began to insist on a sharp distinction between mental (logical) and physiological (mechanical) explanations of human conduct. Emotion or feeling did not seem to fit in either of...

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Theology and Science

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The remainder of the book is given to three examples that illustrate the thesis that metaphysics is the science of absolute presuppositions. The first is an illuminating account of the role theology has played in Western intellectual history. One of the names that Aristotle gave to the science of first principles was “theology.” According to Collingwood, the classic concern of Greek philosophy was to formulate the new convictions that had replaced the older Homeric beliefs. Thales is important because he gave expression to the new belief that the multiform spheres of nature are at bottom one, and Heraclitus because he saw that all change is according to law. These, according to Aristotle, are divine matters. Far from being hostile to art, ethics, and knowledge, these matters were the foundations upon which Greek achievement rested. They were also the measure of its limitations. The failure of the Greek polis and the later collapse of the Roman Empire are traced by Collingwood to metaphysical causes; that is, to inadequacies in the fundamental axioms of the Hellenic mind. People could not overcome the impression that the world falls into irreconcilable parts: necessity and contingency, eternity and time, or virtue and fortune. The sense of the contradictions in human existence that this worldview entailed left people unnerved in the face of the progressively greater challenges to which their own achievements gave rise.

When Christianity arrived, it offered a different metaphysics. According to...

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Metaphysics as a Science

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In Collingwood’s view, it is not the job of metaphysicians to say what absolute presuppositions one should or should not hold. Their business is merely to discover the presuppositions, and they are most likely to find them not in the writings of philosophers but in those of constructive workers in the various fields of human interest such as physics or law. Essentially, metaphysicians are historians—for it makes no difference whether one investigates the “so-called past” or the “so-called present.” In either case, one has to do firsthand historical work, and the things one studies—namely, absolute presuppositions—are historical facts. It is in this way that metaphysics takes its place among the sciences. Collingwood...

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Additional Reading

Boucher, David. “The Significance of R. G. Collingwood’s Principles of History.” Journal of the History of Ideas 58, no. 2 (April, 1997): 309-330. Boucher, from the University of Wales, Swansea, provides a very interesting and informative account of the mysteries surrounding Collingwood’s missing manuscript, Principles of History, which was discovered in 1995. His analysis of the manuscript helps elucidate Collingwood’s philosophy of history while providing interpretations that are likely to ignite new controversy.

Dobbins, William, ed. Essays in the Philosophy of History: R. G. Collingwood. New York: McGraw-Hill Paperbacks, 1966. These eight essays focus on Collingwood’s philosophy of history and include a discussion of the philosopher’s criticism of Benedetto Croce’s philosophy of history. The editor’s introduction provides a good, brief account of Collingwood’s life.

Dray, W. H. Re-enactment and History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. This work focuses on Collingwood’s concept of re-enactment, a central part of his philosophy of history.

Johnson, Peter. R. G. Collingwood: An Introduction. Bristol, England: Thames Press, 1997. This biography incorporates some of the latest discoveries and theories regarding Collingwood’s work.

Mink, Louis O. Mind, History, and Dialectic. Bloomington: The University of Indiana, 1969. Some critics of Collingwood have focused on his use of a priori imagination as the criterion by which historians evaluate and criticize sources. Mink sees a priori imagination as an absolute presupposition of history.

Ridley, Aaron. R. G. Collingwood. New York: Routledge, 1999. An excellent biographical introduction to the thoughts of the philosopher, clearly presented and requiring no special background. Bibliography.

Rubinoff, Lionel. Collingwood and the Reform of Metaphysics. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1970. This work deals with the issue of a priori imagination as a criterion for evaluating historical sources.