R. G. Collingwood

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2357

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...

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abandon several works in progress to writeAn 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 past in his own mind. He formulated his idea of history in reaction to what he termed “scissors-and-paste” history or the “commonsense” approach, which defined history as knowledge of the past based on the report of someone who actually observed the occurrence. The observer was deemed the “authority” and the believer was the historian. Although Collingwood recognized the importance of credible sources, he argued that historical events are understandable only when historians penetrated the mind of past actors. It is only when historians immerse themselves in the thought patterns of the past and rethink the past in terms of their own experiences that the significance and patterns of past civilizations can be discovered. Contrary to the commonsense view of history, Collingwood’s scheme made historians their own “authorities” in that they are the interpreters of the evidence.

History is far more than the stringing together of names, dates, places, and events from carefully studied primary sources. Obviously historical evidence must be credible, but as Collingwood argued, it is not enough for historians to know “exact chronology” because each event in history is an action and historians must think their way into the action. Historians must discern the thought of their agent. In The Idea of History, Collingwood states, “Man is regarded as the only animal that thinks, or thinks enough, and clearly enough, to render his actions the expression of his thoughts.” When historians note that a fortress has been built, the fortress becomes a document to be read. Actions, like written documents, express reflective thought that must be interpreted. When historians try to determine the purpose of the fortress, they are seeking to enter the mind of the person who built it. Historians must look “through” events in history to ascertain the thoughts within them, just as historians must look “through” a document to deduce the thoughts of the writer. Stated in its briefest form, history to Collingwood was the study of res gestae, or things done by human beings in the past. The subject matter of history is reflective thought—acts done on purpose. Thus, Collingwood saw history as a set of human actions that were expressive of rational thought or as a science of thought that dealt with the rational aspects of human activity.

Collingwood’s ideas on the “inside-outside” theory of historical action shed light on his perceptions regarding the reconstruction of the past. Historians investigating any historical event need to distinguish between what may be called the “outside” and the “inside” of the event. For Collingwood, the “outside” of an event includes that which can be described in terms of bodies and their movement: For example, Julius Caesar and his army crossed the Rubicon on a specific day, or Caesar was slain on the floor of the Roman senate. The “inside” of these events can be explained only in terms of “thought,” such as Caesar’s willful defiance of Roman law and the clashing of constitutional viewpoints between Caesar and his assassins. Historians are never to limit themselves to one of these concerns to the exclusion of the other. Those historians whose task begins and ends with the discovering of the “outside” of an event produce an incomplete history. Every event is an action, and historians must think their way into the action to become part of the thought process of the actors. Human actions are the grist of history, and these actions are both discernable and understandable when they are perceived to be rational efforts enacted by the agents of history to solve problems of significance to them. Historians must use their own powers of rational action to reconstruct a spatiotemporal picture of the past in which they are able to reenact the thought that went into the events being described. In other words, to understand the drafting of the U.S. Constitution, it is necessary to reenact the thoughts of the framers of the Constitution. For Collingwood, this is an achievable exercise because each person has the capacity to think within any given culture.


Collingwood’s labors to establish a philosophy of history bore fruit. His philosophy of history sparked a major controversy among his successors regarding the role of historians. Two of the major criticisms of Collingwood’s philosophy of history involve the degree of autonomy he assigned to historians in their reconstruction of the past and the process whereby the past is reconstructed. As stated in The Idea of History, historians have no other authority than themselves. The “thoughts” and “ideas” of the historian are “autonomous, self-authorizing, and possessed of criterion to which his so-called authorities [primary sources] must conform and by reference to which they are criticized.” The historian alone decides what criteria and sources will be used to explain the events of the past. Also, where gaps exist because of the absence of source material, it is the historian who fills the gaps based on the individual’s own methodological principles.

With regard to reconstructing the past, Collingwood states that historians infer what happened in the past by means of their “a priori imagination.” Stated another way, historians’ reconstruction of the past is the work of their imagination, and it is a priori, or necessary. His use of “a priori” has a double meaning. First, when historians use their imagination to fill gaps, the interpolations must be logically deduced from the sources, whether written documents or the actions of the agents. Second, the act of interpolation is essential for any historical knowledge to be discovered. Using their a priori imagination, historians create a mental picture of the past and then evaluate sources based on how they conform to their imagined picture.

When Collingwood refers to the reconstruction of the past as “imagination,” he does not mean that it is fictitious. If historians know from their sources that an army was in one location on a given date and in another location at a later date, they must “imagine” that a journey has occurred. The use of the imagination must be limited, however, to what the evidence allows as a possibility. For Collingwood, the imagination was an ontological condition for understanding and without it, historical knowledge would be impossible. This does not mean, as some critics have suggested, that Collingwood’s philosophy of history is based in radical subjectivity, as he qualifies the autonomy of the historian and the use of the imagination.

Although Collingwood’s philosophy of history appears to be individualistic, making each person his own historian, this must be qualified. Human action, he maintained, is predicated on human experience, but each society accepts certain absolutes (worldviews) that serve as a framework for human experience. People rarely question their own worldviews, but use these absolute presuppositions to address specific problems. Tribespeople perceived the natural world to be controlled by the actions of gods, and modern societies entertain a mechanistic view of the world, whereby everything has a natural explanation. For historians to be able to reenact the past, they must learn to think within the framework of the past, adopting their absolutes for the purpose of reenacting the thoughts that led the agent to provide certain solutions to existing problems.

Collingwood’s efforts to explain “what is history” and describe the role of the historian in the reconstruction of history were crucial to the establishment of the philosophy of history as a discipline in the twentieth century.

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.


Critical Essays