8.5.11

R.G. Collingwood

Now that I've pretty much completed my course (apart from the dissertation, which we shall not speak of), I though I should post some of my notes over here for personal reference and for anyone who is interested. I'm starting with Collingwood, since I've been yabbering incoherently about him recently, and some people have questions. Should give warning that this is my interpretation, there are probably other and better ones out there.

In his Autobiography, Collingwood describes the way his contemporaries treated the problems of philosophy as constant: philosophers were all asking the same questions and coming up with different answers. But as anyone with a brain can work out: when Plato and Hobbes talk about the 'state', they mean different things.

Which means that while the solutions philosophers come up with can still be evaluated, their presuppositions cannot. The latter are answers to previous questions, all part of the march of history. 'Metaphysical' presuppositions are 'absolute' in that they are not based on anything else but the natural world (cf. Kuhn's paradigms in the history of science). When interpreting texts, we should look at the particular questions they set out to answer. Nietzsche is (perhaps unconsciously) referenced: there are no philosophical 'facts', 'nothing capable of being memorized is history'.

So what's the point of Plato or Hobbes, then? Collinwood insists that we need a better understanding of human affairs and how to handle them. Science has created weapons of previously unimaginable power, as WWI demonstrated. Thus it is imperative to figure out how to manage human behaviour so that colossal bloodshed is avoided. Psychology is a dead end on this front. Collingwood argues that the subject doesn't really study the mind ('consciousness' 'will' and 'reason') but reduces it to 'sense' and 'appetite'. It gives all activity an (invented) unconscious motive. As a result, it removes the distinctions between truth and error, good and bad (see below for Collingwood's ethics). Rather, the answer to this particular problem is history.

Let's switch over to the Principles of History for a bit, which gives some more background on Collingwood's idiosyncratic reason / passion divide. History should be concerned with 'free activities' i.e. ones that do not proceed from man's animal nature. The historian studies deeds that express thoughts -- the way agents envision and amend their situation. They should rethink the situation again and evaluates the decision reached by the agent. Hence the famous claim that all history is the history of ideas.

Biography is NOT history, because it either details events that embody no thought, or those thoughts that have 'gossip value'. The biographer's purpose is merely to arouse feelings of sympathy or malice in the reader, and so she emphasizes the animal side of a person's existence. History should be about that rationality that is the peculiar capacity of human beings. But the picture is muddied: emotions can come into it if they are related to thoughts, and you might wonder how easy it is to separate one from the other.

Collingwood's notion of free will is even more strange. Physical conditions condition man as a physical being, but his thoughts are 'free' in that they are 'self-determined'. I think this means that agents can recognize the constraints of their environment, society (even their passions?) but can also think beyond them - conceive alternative preferable situations and act to bring them about. History is crucial in providing these alternatives, but we'll get to that in a bit. Here we should note that if history is about recreating the mental world of past agents, then studying the social (even psychological!) constraints they faced would be part of the project. Conceivably then, a division of labour could still be imposed between intellectual and social historians.

Back to the Autobiography. The value of history is in teaching skills that help you recognize the less obvious features of the present: it gives you a 'trained eye' with which to analyze the situation you are in. While we make a lot of decisions according to rules that deliver standard results in standard situations, sometimes the situation is unfamiliar or sufficiently unusual to require going beyond rules. In these cases, we need to be able to ignore present desires and interests, view the situation holistically, and behave 'righty'. As you can tell, Collingwood's ethical system isn't particularly systematic -- it's all about getting that awareness only history can give you.

So what is this awareness exactly? As mentioned above, history according to Collingwood is the history of thought. A historian's job is to think over past thoughts. He doesn't re-imagine them (as one of my teachers, sensibly, suggested). Collingwood is clear on this: the historian rethinks the same thought as the one, say, in Napoleon's head. It's a direct transfer. This makes sense if you keep in mind the reason / passion divide mentioned above. Emotions are particular, ephemeral, inconsequential; rational thinking is entirely recoverable across space and time, so long as you have the presuppositions it's grounded on. Collingwood assumes that these have not changed very much: Medieval thought-patterns are still 'living' in the present.

The past thought in the historian's mind contradicts the other thoughts he has formed by engaging with the present. Hence the proof that human beings are conceptually 'free' from their environment: we can think beyond our temporal context. The historian rethinks lots of different thoughts that originally belonged to different contexts. This amounts to being lots of different people. I think there is an implicit suggestion that such an expanded awareness would dampen the desires and selfish interests that derail 'right conduct'. More explicitly, Collingwood argues that having this augmented consciousness will make you comprehend 'human affairs' better. Being more people will make you understand people more, and hopefully help you work out how to stop them killing each other with the enthusiasm they demonstrated in the latter 1910s.

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