(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

R. G. Collingwood 1889-1943

(Full name Robin George Collingwood) English philosopher and historian.

Both an acknowledged authority on the archaeology of Roman Britain and a renowned philosopher of history, Collingwood is remembered for his philosophical system in which he analyzed the relationships between art, religion, science, history, and philosophy. First outlined in his Speculum Mentis; or, The Map of Knowledge and later revised and expanded in subsequent works, the bases of this system are several of Collingwood's most well-known theories of knowledge. The first of these, the basic tenet of his historical theory, states that the historian can only achieve knowledge by recreating prior acts of thought. Another of his central ideas is the convertibility of history and philosophy, a concept which implies that a thorough study of either discipline will ultimately lead to the same end. A third element of Collingwood's philosophy is his Theory of Presuppositions. According to this theory, every form of science (which includes historical inquiry) seeks to achieve truth by posing and then answering questions. This complex of questions, however, must finally rest upon a system of presuppositions—accepted absolutes that can be deemed neither true nor false.

Biographical Information

Collingwood was born in Cartwell Fell, Lancashire, on February 22, 1889. His father was a painter and archaeologist who passed his interest in Roman archaeology on to his son. Raised in a relatively poor family with three sisters, Collingwood was educated at home under the tutelage of his father and mother until the age of thirteen. He spent five years at Rugby beginning in 1903, assisted financially by a wealthy family friend. Although he disliked the school, he continued there and later matriculated at University College, Oxford. He earned his bachelor's degree in 1912, and was thereafter granted a fellowship from Pembroke College as Tutor in Philosophy. He began working on his Religion and Philosophy at this time, and served as a tutor until the outbreak of World War I. During the hostilities he joined the Admiralty Intelligence Division of the British Armed Forces, employing his considerable knowledge of foreign languages. After the war Collingwood returned to writing and teaching as a professor-lecturer at Pembroke College between 1921 and 1928 and later at Oxford until 1935. During this period he developed his mature philosophical system, which he constantly revised throughout his career. In 1932 he suffered a stroke that forced him to take an extended leave of absence from teaching. In the interim he continued to focus attention on his writing, and later resumed teaching. In 1934 Collingwood was named Waynflete Professor of Metaphysical History and in 1938 received an honorary doctorate from St. Andrews University, Scotland. Continued strokes devastated his health over the course of the decade, however, forcing him to resign his post in 1941, and eventually leading to his death on January 9, 1943.

Major Works

In one of his earliest works, Religion and Philosophy, Collingwood defined many of the problems that would characterize his philosophical career. In it, he stated that in order to understand the nature of knowledge the human mind must be examined historically rather than psychologically and that history and philosophy were identical disciplines, an idea that he later retracted, although he continued to acknowledge deep affinities between these two fields of study. By 1924 he had formulated his Theory of Presuppositions—outlined, he later noted, in a destroyed manuscript of 1917, but not published until 1940 in An Essay on Metaphysics—and realized his goal of developing a philosophical system. The result was his Speculum Mentis, in which Collingwood delineated five types of experience and their guiding principles. These five—ranging from those that rely on imagination to those that most closely approach concrete truth—were experiences relating to art, religion, science, history, and philosophy. Thus, art involves an imaginative experience guided by a perception of beauty, while philosophy renders truth through self-knowledge and the awareness of the limitations of the other four forms of experience. In his later works, Collingwood refined, reevaluated, and in some cases rescinded these evaluations. In Faith and Reason he dropped his former idea that religion was a symbolic form of experience reliant upon imagination and inferior to philosophy. The Philosophy of History and The Idea of History prsented Collingwood's conception of history as a form of scientific inquiry, along with his notion that the historian must reenact ways of thinking peculiar to various periods of the past in order to attain knowledge of human history. This elevation of religious and historical experience led Collingwood to expand his definition of philosophy in An Essay on Philosophical Method, calling it not only an awareness of the limitations of natural science, religion, and art, but also a source of true knowledge, both categorical and universal, achieved through "critical reflection" on these other disciplines. In the field of aesthetics Collingwood had adopted a language-based theory of art by the late 1930s, a position which led him to view artistic creation as a phenomenon of expression as well as one of imagination. He documented this revised conception in The Principles of Art. In The New Leviathan; or Man, Society, Civilization and Barbarism, the last book he published during his lifetime, Collingwood discarded many of his doctrines of an earlier period and stated the precepts of his ethical and political theories. As part of the former he defined three types of ethical thought—utilitarian ethics, concrete ethics, and absolute ethics—while in his political philosophy he attempted to construct a twentieth-century version of Thomas Hobbes' "classical politics."

Critical Reception

While Collingwood was criticized during his lifetime for his adoption of the precepts of traditional idealism, and later for his rejection of those ideas, more recent critics have perceived both of these stages as integral to his philosophy. Ater his death, Collingwood was labeled a neo-idealist and his philosophy described as a "systematic synthesis of British empiricism and post-Kantian idealism." Nevertheless, although the overall significance of his work remains a matter of contention among scholars, Collingwood is generally acknowledged for his important contribution to the philosophy of history, and critics continue to evaluate his thought on the subjects of aesthetics, metaphysics, and the philosophy of science.