An Essay on Metaphysics

by R. G. Collingwood

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 119

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 solving the problems of human existence, starting from certain beliefs and commitments. These considerations are commonly called metaphysics, after the treatise by Greek philosopher Aristotle in which they were first systematically considered.

In Aristotle’s thinking, according to Collingwood, two quite different inquiries are confused. Aristotle perfected the logic of classification by genus and species. He saw that at the bottom of the table there must be infimae species that are fully differentiated and that, by the same logic, at the top there must be a summum genus, which, because it is completely undifferentiated, may be designated by the term Pure Being. In a different context, Aristotle dealt with the structure of the sciences. Aristotle understood—much better than the philosopher Plato—the necessity of delimiting a particular subject matter and defining the presuppositions that it involves. He saw that this task was a distinct one that required a new science to deal with it, which he called first philosophy, wisdom, or theology. At this point, according to Collingwood, Aristotle made a mistake. Influenced excessively by the ontological tradition from Parmenides to Plato, Aristotle supposed that the first principles of the sciences could be identified with the Pure Being of his logic of classification. In Collingwood’s view, in the history of Western philosophy, metaphysics has had great difficulty extricating itself from this confusion, and philosopher Immanuel Kant’s Kritik der reinen Vernunft (1781; The Critique of Pure Reason, 1838) is a notable attempt to set it free. Kant’s transcendental aesthetic and the analytic pursue the proper task of metaphysics, which is seeking for absolute presuppositions; and the transcendental dialectic exposes the fallacies of pseudometaphysics, which seeks to fit these absolute matters into a conditional scheme of things.


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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 these realms; therefore, psychology arose to deal with this third realm. Properly, psychology deals with problems of motivation that cannot be accounted for by either mechanical or rational means; however, according to Collingwood, these problems do not include those of ethics, aesthetics, and religion. These are rational pursuits, each with its own logic and presuppositions. They are mental sciences that fall outside the province of psychology. Collingwood states that these pursuits have been included under psychology partly because of what Collingwood terms the irrational tendency of the nineteenth century, describing it as “a kind of epidemic withering of belief in the importance of truth.” He cites Sigmund Freud’s Totem und Tabu (1913; Totem and Taboo, 1919) as an example of the errors and confusions that arise when a great psychoanalyst tries to apply psychological techniques to a rational pursuit. If the presumptions of psychology are not turned back, science itself is doomed. Citing at length three instances of careless thinking to be found in standard psychology books, Collingwood calls psychology a deliberate conspiracy to undermine scientific habits.

The other characteristic expression of antimetaphysics is positivism. Collingwood admits that it has greater respect than does psychology for the autonomy of humanity’s rational activity; but in maintaining that science is made up entirely of empirical truths, it is a victim of the same irrationalist infection. Philosopher John Stuart Mill set the pattern when he maintained that the principle of uniformity in nature is an inductive inference, whereas it is the absolute presupposition on which induction depends. Philospher Francis Herbert Bradley, according to Collingwood, disclosed his own positivist affinities when he defined metaphysics as “the finding of bad reasons for what we believe on instinct.” Mill saw rightly enough that the science of his day presupposed belief in the uniformity of nature; however, he introduced radical incoherence when he treated it as a proposition that must be verified by experience.

The irrationalist propensities of positivism become most clear, however, in the dictum of the logical positivists that any proposition that cannot be verified by appeal to observed facts is nonsensical. That is to say, because they cannot be treated as factual statements, the absolute presuppositions of science, ethics, and politics are subrational. Collingwood agrees with A. J. Ayer’s strictures on pseudometaphysics (a science that would treat absolute presuppositions as if they were facts), but he blames Ayer for what seems to him to be merely a petulant attack arising from the lunatic fear that in some way metaphysics is a threat to science. The threat that Collingwood sees is the habit of mind that narrows rational investigation to the limits of sense verification.

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 Collingwood, Saint Athanasius and Saint Augustine are only the best known of a number of first-rank intellects who would have been drowned in a sea of trivialities if they had not been able to extract from the Gospel the basis for a new science. Their Trinitarian statements are properly understood as a highly fruitful solution to the metaphysical problem that had defeated the Greeks. In this connection, Collingwood chides English historian Edward Gibbon, claiming that he obscured an important truth in order to be clever. Gibbon said that the doctrine of the Logos was taught in the school of Alexandria in 300 b.c.e. and revealed to the Apostle John in 97 c.e. As Collingwood points out, Gibbon took this fact from Augustine, but he omitted the point that Augustine went on to make and that proved the key to Christianity’s success; namely, that the Christians for the first time bridged the chasm between time and eternity, inasmuch as the Logos was made flesh. One must, Collingwood says, “regret the slipshod way in which Gibbon speaks of Plato as having marvelously anticipated one of the most surprising discoveries of the Christian revelation.’”

Collingwood maintains that Christian theology not only provided a rallying point for good minds during the decline and Fall of Rome but also furnished the fundamental assumptions that enabled European science to make significant advances over that of the Greeks. In part, Aristotle’s presuppositions agree with those of modern humanity—that there is one god and that there are many modes of that god’s activities—but they also disagree, notably on the question as to the origin of motion, which Aristotle tried to explain but which modern science takes as a presupposition. In this connection, Collingwood analyzes the statement of belief in the Trinity. That this statement contains the words “I believe” indicates from the very first that it is not a proposition but a presupposition. The doctrine of a single god, in whom, however, is contained not only the principle of being but also those of order and of motion, places all these severally and together on the plane of absolute presuppositions. According to Collingwood, this doctrine, and not the metaphysics of Pythagoras, Plato, Aristotle, or Plotinus, provided the indispensable foundation upon which Galileo and Isaac Newton founded modern science.

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 states that an absolute presupposition, taken in relation to the truths based upon it, is not a truth; however, viewed historically, it is. In order to preserve the distinction, Collingwood provides a special rubric to be applied to every metaphysical proposition: “In such and such a phase of scientific thought it is (or was) absolutely presupposed that. . . .“ The statement as a whole is a proposition that may be true or false.

Taken in this way, metaphysics plays the same important role as any other kind of history: namely, to help people understand the human enterprise. According to Collingwood, when metaphysics studies the present, it has the special utility of disarming reactionary thinkers who, because of inattention to historical tensions, remain wedded to the errors of the past. Such reactionaries can be found among pseudometaphysicians, who are committed to eternal truths and deductive proofs. However, they can also be found among antimetaphysicians, many of whom, in their ignorance of the role played by absolute presuppositions, perpetuate outmoded assumptions under the guise of intuitions or inferences. Collingwood cites examples of new realists and analysts who continue to affirm the “law of causation.” For instance, John Wisdom states, “I do not know how we know that things are as they are because they were as they were. However, we do know it.” Wisdom’s “we,” says Collingwood, can only be a group or society of persons whose reverence for the past has blinded them to the developments of twentieth century science. The group does not include contemporary natural scientists or those philosophers who understand what the natural scientists are doing. He quotes Bertrand Russell: “The law of causality, I believe, like much that passes muster among philosophers, is a relic of a bygone age, surviving, like the monarchy, only because it is erroneously supposed to do no harm.”

In Collingwood’s opinion, the sciences (both natural and historical) are flourishing, and prospects for their growth were never more promising—if the anti-intellectual threat does not overpower them. He sees two great danger spots: a political order in which reason is replaced by emotion and an academic atmosphere in which pseudosciences are nurtured alongside the true sciences. Collingwood feels it is his duty to warn people of the danger, as he does in this work.


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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.

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