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.”
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.