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History Man: The Life of R. G. Collingwood
Princeton University Press, 2009
400 pp., $52.50
Lenore T. Ealy
A School of Wisdom
In An Autobiography, published in 1939 on the eve of World War II, English philosopher R. G. Collingwood (1889-1943) reflected on the historical legacy of World War I. "[A] war of unprece-dented ferocity," wrote Collingwood, "closed in a peace-settlement of unprecedented folly, in which statesmanship, even purely selfish statesmanship, was overwhelmed by the meanest and most idiotic passions." The war, Collingwood conceded, "was an unprecedented triumph for natural science," a triumph that also "paved the way to other triumphs: improvements in transport, in sanitation, in surgery, medicine, and psychiatry, in commerce and industry, and, above all, in preparations for the next war." The Treaty of Versailles had nevertheless failed, on Collingwood's account, to restore the human side of affairs to any semblance of good order. The "power to control Nature" had overrun man's "power to control human situations," and the treaty gave way to a reign of natural science with the power to convert Europe "into a wilderness of Yahoos."
By 1939, Collingwood had been embarked for two decades on a quest to develop a philosophy and methodology of history that might awaken history as "a school of moral and political wisdom." This journey had taken Collingwood along a garden of forking paths. He broke away from the philosophical realism prevalent in Oxford in his youth to seek a philosophy of mind that allowed moral theory to make a difference in moral action. From those who believed that an understanding of "the human mind and its various processes" would be best attained through the science of psychology, Collingwood also departed. Dismissing the encroaching materialism of psychology that saw reason and will as mere "concretions of sense and appetite," Collingwood turned to history as the arena through which human affairs might best be investigated and understood. Here, he had to blaze yet another trail. He dismissed the "scissors-and-paste" methods of examining the past as a dead object ...