R. G. Collingwood Essay - Critical Essays

Collingwood, R. G.


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.

Principal Works

Religion and Philosophy (philosophy) 1916

Ruskin's Philosophy (criticism) 1920

Roman Britain (history) 1923

Ambleside Roman Fort (history) 1924

Speculum Mentis; or, The Map of Knowledge (philosophy) 1924

The Roman Signal Station on Castle Hill, Scarborough (history) 1925

A Guide to the Chesters Museum (history) 1926

A Guide to the Roman Wall (history) 1926

Outlines of a Philosophy of Art (philosophy) 1926

Faith and Reason (philosophy) 1928

Roman Eskdale (history) 1929

The Archaeology of Roman Britain (history) 1930

The Book of the Pilgrimage of Hadrian's Wall, July 1st to 4th, 1930 (history) 1930

The Philosophy of History (philosophy) 1930

An Essay on Philosophical Method (philosophy) 1933

The Historical Imagination (philosophy) 1935

Human Nature and Human History (philosophy) 1936

Roman Britain and the English Settlements [with J. N. L. Myres] (history) 1936

The Principles of Art (philosophy) 1938

An Autobiography (autobiography) 1940

An Essay on Metaphysics (philosophy) 1940

The Three Laws of Politics (philosophy) 1941

The New Leviathan; or, Man, Society, Civilization and Barbarism (philosophy) 1942

The Idea of Nature (philosophy) 1945

The Idea of History (philosophy) 1946

Essays in the Philosophy of Art (philosophy) 1964

Essays in the Philosophy of History (philosophy) 1965


G. Buchdahl (essay date 1948)

SOURCE: "Logic and History: An Assessment of R. G. Collingwood's Idea of History," in The Australasian Journal of Philosophy, Vol. XXVI, No. 2, September, 1948, pp. 94-113.

[In the following essay, Buchdahl focuses on Collingwood's approach in The Idea of History to the problematic nature of historical facts and historical knowledge.]

This article is not concerned with everything Collingwood has had to say about history, but only some interesting parts of certain passages in his Idea of History. The problem dealt with in those passages is: How can we give an account of historical facts, how can there be historical knowledge? And this may (without perhaps...

(The entire section is 7260 words.)

Errol E. Harris (essay date 1951)

SOURCE: "Collingwood on Eternal Problems," in The Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 1, No. 3, April, 1951, pp. 228-41.

[In the following essay, Harris discusses Collingwood's ideas on the possibility of an "ultimate standard" of philosophical truth.]

The notion of eternal truth is as old as philosophy itself, and, surely, of all things, truth can hardly be subject to alteration. The standard by which we judge must be an ultimate standard, for, if it were not, no claim even to relative truth could be justified; and no such standard could be changeable, for, if it were, the claims of the successive competitors for our allegiance would be utterly baseless. The attempt, so...

(The entire section is 7068 words.)

Leo Strauss (essay date 1952)

SOURCE: "On Collingwood's Philosophy of History," in Review of Metaphysics, Vol. V, No. 4, June, 1952, pp. 559-86.

[In the following essay, Strauss studies the relationship between philosophy and history in Collingwood's works.]


R. G. Collingwood's The Idea of History "is an essay in the philosophy of history." Philosophy of history, as Collingwood understood it, is of very recent origin. It emerged as a sequel to the rise of "scientific history" which took place in the latter part of the nineteenth century (254). If one assumes that "scientific history" is the highest or final form of man's concern with his past, the...

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Nathan Rotenstreich (essay date 1960)

SOURCE: "From Facts to Thoughts: Collingwood's Views on the Nature of History," in Philosophy, Vol. XXXV, No. 133, April, 1960, pp. 122-37.

[In the following essay, Rotenstreich provides an analysis of Collingwood's views regarding history as a set of facts and as an object of knowledge.]


There is a common distinction between two aspects of history: history as the object dealt with and history as the way of dealing with the object. Within the "objective" aspect of history one may distinguish between the attempt to define the object as man and the attempt to define it as process. Within the "subjective" aspect there is the prevailing tendency...

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Alan Donagan (essay date 1964)

SOURCE: Introduction to Essays in the Philosophy of Art by R. G. Collingwood, edited by Alan Donagan, Indiana University Press, 1964, pp. ix-xx.

[In the following essay, Donagan offers an overview of Collingwood's theoretical writings on art.]

R. G. Collingwood is generally acknowledged to have contributed more to the philosophy of art and the philosophy of history than any other British philosopher of his time. His Principles of Art (1938) and Idea of History (1946) are readily obtainable and widely studied. Yet, despite his beautiful and vigorous prose style, neither of these important books is fully intelligible by itself. You must go to...

(The entire section is 3076 words.)

William M. Johnston (essay date 1967)

SOURCE: "Benedetto Croce as a Foil to R. G. Collingwood," in The Formative Years of R. G. Collingwood, Martinus Nijhoff, 1967, pp. 68-80.

[In the following excerpt, Johnston focuses on the philosophical career of Benedetto Croce in relation to Collingwood's development as a philosopher]


Benedetto Croce is the contemporary thinker whom early Collingwood most resembles. As we shall see, this is true especially of Croce's writings from 1901 to 1910. Whether the resemblance is owing to Croce's direct influence upon Collingwood or to Vico's influence upon both Croce and Collingwood is one of those problems of...

(The entire section is 4777 words.)

Julian Hartt (essay date 1969)

SOURCE: Review of Faith and Reason: Essays in the Philosophy of Religion, in The Journal of Religion, Vol. 49, No. 3, July, 1969, pp. 280-94.

[In the following essay, Hartt provides an analysis of Collingwood's religious thought.]


Mr. Rubinoff's subtitle is excessively modest. In the Editor's Introduction [to Faith and Reason: Essays in the Philosophy of Religion by R. G. Collingwood], and in the introductions to each of the major divisions of the Collingwood material he presents in this volume, he mounts an interesting and important argument about the consistency of Collingwood's philosophy, early and late. He says:...

(The entire section is 6455 words.)

Louis O. Mink (essay date 1969)

SOURCE: "The Dialectic of Experience," in Mind, History, and Dialectic: The Philosophy of R. G. Collingwood, Indiana University Press, 1969, pp. 7-58.

[In the following excerpt, Mink discusses Speculum Mentis as a work that introduced and coordinated the major issues elaborated in Collingwood's later writings.]


Throughout his life Collingwood occupied himself with the relations and differences among art, religion, science, history, and philosophy, regarded sometimes as ways of life, sometimes as types of experience, and sometimes as modes of knowledge. At least one of his books...

(The entire section is 13125 words.)

Lionel Rubinoff (essay date 1970)

SOURCE: "Philosophy and History: The Need for a Rapprochement," in Collingwood and the Reform of Metaphysics: A Study in the Philosophy of Mind, University of Toronto Press, 1970, pp. 3-34.

[In the following excerpt, Rubinoff considers the relationship between Collingwood's views on history and philosophy.]


In 1938, a few years before his death, Collingwood characterized his life work as "in the main an attempt to bring about a rapprochement between philosophy and history.' Indeed, his deep concern with history is evident from the very outset of his career. In 1919, for example, in...

(The entire section is 4929 words.)

A. J. M. Milne (essay date 1972)

SOURCE: "Collingwood's Ethics and Political Theory," in Critical Essays on the Philosophy of R. G. Collingwood, edited by Michael Krausz, Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1972, pp. 296-326.

[In the following essay, Milne focuses on ethical and political ideas advanced in Collingwood's works.]

Collingwood touched briefly on ethics in Speculum Mentis and in his Autobiography had some hard things to say about contemporary British politics. But it is to his last completed book, The New Leviathan, that we must go for a systematic exposition of his ideas in ethics and political theory. These ideas had apparently been maturing long...

(The entire section is 11972 words.)

David W. Black (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: "Collingwood on Corrupt Consciousness," in The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. XL, No. 4, Summer, 1982, pp. 395-400.

[In the following essay, Black examines Collingwood's concept of "corrupt consciousness ' and its relationship to his theory of art.]

Taken at face value, Collingwood's theory of art seems to focus on an analysis of feeling. The work of art, in Collingwood's eyes, explicates the elements of sensibility by placing them in a self-conscious order. Such a theory of feeling is indeed fundamental to Collingwood's aesthetic; but he has an accompanying intent the purport of which is not fully revealed in his analysis of feeling. This second...

(The entire section is 3722 words.)

John Grant (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: "On Reading Collingwood's Principles of Art," in The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. XLVI, No. 2, Winter, 1987, pp. 239-48.

[In the following essay, Grant finds that Collingwood's ideas concerning art significantly vary throughout the course of his treatise The Principles of Art.]

Perhaps no work of English aesthetics in this century has been more disputed than Collingwood's Principles of Art. On one extreme it is insisted that Collingwood's chief and leading doctrine is that the work of art is something exclusively mental in nature, something whose physical and publicly accessible embodiment is aesthetically extraneous. On the other...

(The entire section is 6645 words.)

Peter Lewis (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: "Collingwood on Art and Fantasy," in Philosophy, Vol. LXIV, No. 250, October, 1989, pp. 547-56.

[In the following essay, Lewis addresses the relationship between Collingwood's philosophy of art and concepts of psychoanalysis.]

In Art and Its Objects, Richard Wollheim devotes considerable space to attacking a theory he calls the CroceCollingwood Theory of Art. According to this theory, as Wollheim presents it, an artist's capacity to create works of art consists in his being able to elaborate images or intuitions in his own mind, irrespective of whether there is any means of publicly externalizing them in the form of paintings, poems, symphonies, etc....

(The entire section is 3973 words.)

W. Jan van der Dussen (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: "Collingwood and the Idea of Progress," in History and Theory, Vol. XXIX, No. 4, 1990, pp. 21-41.

[In the following essay, van der Dussen examines Collingwood's view of the idea of progress as both epistemological and metaphysical in nature.]


At the beginning of the chapter in his autobiography entitled "The Need for a Philosophy of History" Collingwood claims that two branches of philosophical inquiry need special attention. Besides epistemological problems related to historical knowledge he mentions in this connection "metaphysical problems, concerned with the nature of the historian's subject matter: the elucidation of terms like...

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Michael A. Kissell (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: "Progressive Traditionalism as the Spirit of Collingwood's Philosophy," in History and Theory, Vol. XXIX, No. 4, 1990, pp. 51-6.

[In the following essay, Kissell characterizes Collingwood's thought as "progressive traditionalism" in the sense that it addresses both the changing phenomena of history and perennial issues of philosophy.]

Thirty-two years ago when I began my dissertation on Collingwood's philosophy, the people around me said: "Who was he? Where did you dig him up and why, since nobody knows him?" As a young graduate student, I was philosophically very naive and educated in the spirit of dogmatically distorted Marxism, but I saw at once that in...

(The entire section is 3110 words.)

Further Reading


Dreisbach, Christopher. R. G. Collingwood: A Bibliographic Checklist. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University, 1993, 139 p.

Comprehensive bibliography of primary and secondary sources with brief annotations.

Taylor, Donald S. R. G. Collingwood: A BibliographyThe Complete Manuscripts and Publications, Selected Secondary Writings, with Selective Annotation. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1988, 279 p.

In-depth annotated bibliography of Collingwood's writings.


Brown, Merle E. "R. G. Collingwood's Early Aesthetics: Art as Contradiction." In...

(The entire section is 712 words.)