All history is the history of thought. –R.G. Collingwood
R.G. Collingwood (1889–1943) was an English philosopher, archeologist, and historian of Roman Britain whose views, expressed in The Idea of History (1946) have dominated much historical thinking in the twentieth century. Along with his contemporary, Benedetto Croce, and other philosophers of the “Neo-Idealist” school, Collingwood argued for a modified form of Hegel’s philosophy of history, which he opposed to the nomothetic, or law-governed, conception advanced by Comte, Marx, and Hempel. Historical events, Collingwood insisted, had to be understood through a reconstruction of the underlying ideas they expressed, not through an analysis of material factors.
Like Hegel (subject of an earlier article), Collingwood saw human nature and reason as variable across time and space, and denied that there was any extra-historical vantage point from which they could be assessed (a philosophical position called historicism, also subject of an earlier article). We are not simply commentators on history, but its products, and we can only understand it in terms of the ideas and categories that the past has handed us. Our task is to understand how the latter have been produced by the former, and by extension, what possibilities the present does and does not offer. Historical reasoning, then, occurs by means of analogy to the present. If we want to understand Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon, or the French Revolution, we have to proceed by means of comparison of past events and reasoning to those of the present. But because such a comparison was not possible at that time (our frame of reference did not exist), this form of analogy would certainly mislead us in some ways. The past and the present cannot be disentangled, for it is from the vantage point of the present that the past has to be interpreted, and the present itself is always changing into something new. History is for this reason a dialogue between the past and the present, not a quest for nomothetic and final knowledge.
That dialogue takes place in the effort to understand the ideas of the past through a process that Collingwood called “re-enactment.” Historians of the French Revolution has to put themselves in the place of Robespierre and Danton, etc., in order to see the world from their perspectives. What did they know at a particular time? What were their motivations? What were they hoping, or fearing, would happen? In order to answer these questions, the historian has to turn to the evidence that they have left behind—always of its nature fragmentary and in certain respects misleading, as it was not produced with the historian’s convenience in mind, and in many cases was produced quite consciously in order to deceive people. What we are confronted with when we assess this body of evidence is a range of more or less likely interpretations, but because the actual events of the past and the actual thoughts of the people who lived in it are not available to us, there can be no question of finally settling the matter.
The object of this inquiry is to understand the idea of history, which is not quite the same thing as the ideas of individuals. When Robespierre addressed the Convention, he may have been worried about whether his shoe-buckles were properly fastened, or his coat properly done-up. Those were historical ideas, in a sense, but they do not tell us about the meaning of that historical moment. What we want to know is what did Robespierre’s address mean, what did it express about its time, how was it produced by preceding events, and how did it help to produce their antecedents? In other words, what was the cultural and historical meaning of that speech? To modify Hegel somewhat, Robespierre’s speech can be thought of as an answer to a question posed by his time and place. In order to understand the answer, we must understand the question.
If history, then, is a series of questions and answers, wherein each answer generates a new question, and each historical actor struggles to answer a question, the proper object of history is the inner lives of the people who acted in it, as distinct from the material factors that Marx appealed to. Just as historical actors had a variety of potential answers open to them, but eventually had to settle on one, turning a manifold potential into a singular realization, so do we in the present. Beliefs and choices matter, and that is how the past and present have to be understood. Freedom is not, then, an illusion, as the materialist philosophers of history supposed. Our choices are not completely unrestrained, to be sure, since as we have said all ideas and choices are framed by those that have gone before, but within the boundaries set by past beliefs and choices, their counterparts in the present are real and important.
Collingwood’s historicism, like Hegel’s, also has the consequence that philosophical reflection has to be informed by an awareness of historical change. It is a kind of category mistake to treat Aristotle or Plato as if they were contemporaries, whose views are primarily of interest because we might agree, or disagree, with them in the present. Understanding them on their own terms is not simply a historical exercise, it is a philosophical exercise because the kind of understanding that philosophers seek is only possible by understanding the ways in which ideas relate to their context, and actually function in time and space. Aristotle is interesting on his own terms and in his own context, because this type of analysis suggests ways in which our own ideas relate to our context. Again (and anticipating Thomas Kuhn), the idea of an extra-historical vantage point, or of absolute or positive knowledge, has to be given up, for it is certain that, just as we transform and reject the ideas of our ancestors, so too our descendants will transform and reject our ideas, and so on down the centuries. Our momentary existence and fragmentary reflections preclude the kind of knowledge that philosophers have often dreamed of. As Heraclitus truly said, “all is flux.”
This post is the twenty-third is a series on the philosophy of history; the previous article in the series is here; the next is here.
Daniel Halverson is a graduate student studying the History of Science and Technology of nineteenth-century Germany. He is also a regular contributor to the PEL Facebook page.
Cannon Hubka says
Bravo. That is all.
Daniel Halverson says
Stephen N. Greenleaf says
Thank you for your work on this outstanding series. I share your interest in the philosophy of history (such a broad & provocative term!). I’m especially pleased that you’ve arrived at R.G. Collingwood, whose works I have been reading extensively over the past year or more. I find Collingwood’s insights compelling and useful. Along similar lines, I’ve found the work of Quentin Skinner and Paul Ricoeur (Time & Narrative, vol. 1) have followed and expanded upon Collingwood’s project. But most of all, if perchance in your very thorough examination of this subject you’ve not encountered the work of John Lukacs, I highly commend his work in this field to you. This contemporary Hungarian-American historian writes beautifully, and he’s thought deeply about history as a subject. If you’re new to him, I recommend The Future of History (2011) as an entry point, and his Historical Consciousness: The Remembered Past (1969/1994) as his masterwork in the field of historiography and historical consciousness. If you’re not acquainted with this work, I imagine that you’ll find it worthwhile. If you’re already aware of him, please forgive my presumptuousness. And thanks again for your outstanding contribution.
Daniel Halverson says
Thanks Stephen. I’ve been meaning to look into Riceour for a while now. Lukacs I hadn’t heard of, but I’ll look into his work. I think Collingwood was very insightful, and I’ve tried to integrate his insights into my own views on this topic. I believe we acquire a historical understanding when we understand, among other things, how people very different from ourselves put the world together, and how that way really made alot of sense, or at least seemed to at the time, even though it may be neglected or discarded now. Or, in short, when we understand what ideas motivated the events. Reflecting on contemporary philosophical discussions, I can’t help but feel some nostalgia for the worldview of Collingwood and Croce, where the diversity and temporality of human experience was taken much more seriously. History is not nearly as highly-regarded today as it was at that time, and it seems we often implicitly assume what historicism denies – that we enjoy a kind of epistemic privilege merely from our residence at this particular moment of time. But if we learn anything from history, surely it is that today’s certainties are tomorrow’s outmoded prejudices and curious dogmas. In any case I appreciate your encouragement!
David Pierce says
Greetings Mr Halverson, I enjoyed finding and reading your article. I have a question though. You say,
“What we are confronted with when we assess this body of evidence is a range of more or less likely interpretations, but because the actual events of the past and the actual thoughts of the people who lived in it are not available to us, there can be no question of finally settling the matter.”
How do you see this in Collingwood? It suggests a kind of skepticism that is at odds with a passage from _The Idea of History_ (also _The Principles of History_):
“One hears it said that history is `not an exact science’. The meaning of this I take to be that no historical argument ever proves its conclusion with that compulsive force which is characteristic of exact science. Historical inference, the saying seems to mean, is never compulsive, it is at best permissive; or, as people sometimes rather ambiguously say, it never leads to certainty, only to probability. Many historians of the present writer’s generation, brought up at a time when this proverb was accepted by the general opinion of intelligent persons (I say nothing of the few who were a generation ahead of their time), must be able to recollect their excitement on first discovering that it was wholly untrue, and that they were actually holding in their hands an historical argument which left nothing to caprice, and admitted of no alternative conclusion, but proved its point as conclusively as a demonstration in mathematics.”
As a mathematician, I know from bitter experience that we can make mistakes in our proofs, even published proofs; but this does not keep us from thinking that a particular proof does not settle the question of whether a theorem is true. I understand Collingwood to think history no different in this regard. Cheers!
Stephen N. Greenleaf says
If I may butt in while you await any reply from Daniel, I think RGC creates some ambiguity here. Also in IH, he writes:
It is for the same reason that in history, as in all serious matters, no achievement is final. The evidence available for solving any given problem changes with every change of historical method and with every variation in the competence of historians. The principles by which this evidence is interpreted change too; since the interpreting of evidence is a task to which a man must bring everything he knows: historical knowledge, knowledge of nature and man, mathematical knowledge, philosophical knowledge; and not knowledge only, but mental habits and possessions of every kind: and none of these is unchanging. Because of these changes, which never cease, however slow they may appear to observers who take a short view, every new generation must rewrite history in its own way; every new historian, not content with giving new answers to old questions, must revise the questions themselves; and — since historical thought is a river into which none can step twice — even a single historian, working at a single subject for a certain length of time, finds when he tries to reopen an old question that the question has changed.
This is not an argument for historical scepticism. It is only the discovery of a second dimension of historical thought, the history of history: the discovery that the historian himself, together with the here-and-now which forms the total body of evidence available to him, is a part of the process he is studying, has his own place in that process, and can see it only from the point of view which at this present moment he occupies within it.
Collingwood, R. G. (2015-10-21). The Idea of History (Kindle Locations 4681-4692). Albion Press. Kindle Edition.
This may be a thought that Daniel referenced in his original article. How this meshes with your quote, I’m not sure, except to say that RGC was a very precise thinker, and he makes very sharp distinctions about logic, proof, history and natural science, and so on that may account for this apparent conflict. It the resolution may lie in RGC’s sense of what a mathematical proof does (or does not) entail. At this point, I’m not sure.
Thanks for your indulgence.
David Pierce says
Thanks for your comments, Mr Greenleaf. Apparently you have quoted from “The Historical Imagination,” the 1935 essay that Knox made into §2 of the Epilegomena of _The Idea of History._ Having read that essay again now, I think the reason why no achievement in history is final is *not* that the original events and thoughts are not available to us: they *are* available to us, through the evidence that we have. But the evidence keeps changing and developing, because the evidence is everything that we can use as evidence, *now.*
For example, I think we have the chance to understand Euclid better now than we did 150 years ago, when Euclid was still a standard textbook for mathematics. Then, it was easy to assume that Euclid was doing the same kind of mathematics as was current. Today it is easier to recognize that he is not. I don’t want say that we shall never *really* know what Euclid was thinking, because Euclid is dead. This would suggest that the further into the past Euclid receded, the less we could know; and this is not the case.
I don’t think the difficulty of understanding Euclid, or Collingwood, or any other dead person, is in principle any different from the difficulty of understanding somebody alive today. I don’t expect to achieve some kind of final understanding of my spouse, for example; for we keep changing, and changing together.
It may well be that Mr Halverson meant to say nothing different from this.
By the way, I have used the formal mode of address, because I haven’t known the people I am talking to. I appreciated the use of the formal mode at St John’s College, and I am disconcerted today when some young person unknown to me addresses me (in an email, on some matter of business) by first name. But somebody like you, Steve, who has written to me is known to me at least that much! Cheers, David
daniel halverson says
You raise an interesting point about the nature of historical understanding, and one I would like to consider for a bit before responding in any depth. It is because I felt the necessity of resolving questions just like this that I took up this study in the first place.
I have been reading recently about the early theologian Origen, who was, by our lights, a very strange individual indeed. He tried to martyr himself as a young man, spent most of his life reading the Bible (the version of it current in Alexandria at that time, anyway), and built his entire worldview on a combination of Platonic idealism and Biblical inerrancy. He believed, in other words, that if it was read allegorically it provided an infallible guide to the spirit world, which was in every sense more real and important than the physical. He castrated himself for unknown reasons, but possibly in order to avoid suspicion of sexual misconduct because he was teaching women, or then again maybe because he read Matthew 5:30 a little too literally – and eventually did suffer martyrdom, which he probably could have avoided by sprinkling a bit of incense in front of a statue, or through some other seemingly trivial concession to the customs of his countrymen.
I bring this person up not simply to parade my strange reading habits, but in order to pose the “problem of other minds” in the starkest form I can think of. I don’t think it’s really possible to doubt this person’s commitment. He gave every evidence of being sincerely – indeed, fanatically – committed to ideas that most of us think intuitively and obviously wrong. I also think that his writing evinces a very high intelligence, but not mental instability. He just had very, very different ideas about the world than are current at the moment.
So my question to you is – does the chasm between us and Origen facilitate, or hinder, the kind of understanding that we are after in history? Maybe we can tease out some of our intuitions here, since it is but an exaggerated case of the same problem that arises when we consider the difference between ourselves and Euclid. Also, what can we say with exactness about him and his beliefs? It seems to me, if I can formulate a tenative argument, that the more general the belief we ascribe to him – the desirability of martyrdom, for instance, or commitment to Platonism – the more certain we can be of it. But as much as we change our own minds over the course of days, years, a lifetime, if we want to be very specific and say what he must have been thinking at a particular time – the more specific we try to become, the more difficulties we are confronted with.
I also observe that simple accumulation of data is not necessarily an aid to understanding. The interpretation of Charles Darwin, for instance, remains controversial despite the considerable scholarly attention that has been paid to him, and the immense store of documentary evidence which he has left us. How we assess him depends crucially on the methodological assumptions we bring to our study, and I think this is pretty generally the case when we consider past actors. In that sense I think we need to strive for consistency as, at the very least, a precondition to correspondence. We need, in other words, to know what our principles are and apply them consistently, as historians who neglect this kind of self-reflection will occasionally be found arguing diametrically opposed methodological points _in the same book_, or else shifting them as needed in order to drive the argument where they want it to go, which seems to me just obviously unacceptable. But because the nature of these decisions are basically philosophical, it’s not clear to me that we can say with any definiteness who has the right approach. What we can say – what we have a right to say – is that a historian has either not told us the rules he intends to play by, or, having told us, has not kept to them.
daniel halverson says
Mr. (Dr.?) Pierce,
I apologize for the delay in getting back to you. It seems that both you and David are more intimately acquainted with Collingwood than I am. My articles are often (though not always) compiled from secondary sources, so it is certainly possible that I have misunderstood them, or that they have misunderstood Collingwood. That said, if you can direct me to the place in the Idea of History where this quote occurs, perhaps the context will help elucidate it. But of course you may be entirely correct.
On the face of it, it seems counter-intuitive to me that Collingwood would hold that we can reconstruct the past past with precision, since it is difficult enough – I do not say impossible, but at any rate difficult – to reconstruct the mental states of people who are right in front of us, or who we have known for many years, and whose social and cultural context etc. we share. How much more difficult must it be in the case of an Aztec priest, a Neoplatonic philosopher, a Soviet police spy, etc.? Admittedly what counts as intuitive is historically variable, so what I find intuitive doesn’t tell us what Collingwood did. I certainly think we can have knowledge of these things – else why study history? – but it is of a very different kind than we find in the physical sciences. Or in mathematics, for that matter. But he might have qualified this view elsewhere, or he might have held a different opinion at a different time, so it would be helpful to know where this passage occurs.