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History Man: The Life of R. G. Collingwood
History Man: The Life of R. G. Collingwood
Fred Inglis
Princeton Univ Pr, 2024
385 pp., 52.50

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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 of inquiry and conceived of history as the investigation of a living past, a past from which the purposive actions of men continue to generate echoes and resonances into our own time.

Conceiving of history as the study of the self-knowledge of the human mind, Collingwood proposed a question-and-answer methodology by which the historian re-enacts in his own mind the thoughts of those whose history he is investigating. The possibility generated by this approach to historical study was that the historian may then gain both self-knowledge (an awakening to the range of thoughts it is possible for him to think) as well as insight into the broader world of human affairs in his own time. "We study history," wrote Collingwood, "in order to see more clearly into the situation in which we are called upon to act."

This understanding of the history and possibility of human affairs required Collingwood to part ways once again, this time from English statesmen who misread the growing turmoil in Europe and sided with fascism during the Spanish Civil War and in the Czechoslovakia crisis. Though he would be derided as a Communist for his outspoken opposition to what he saw as England's betrayal of its own parliamentary system, Collingwood concluded An Autobiography with a ringing renunciation of his "pose of a detached professional thinker":

I know now that the minute philosophers of my youth, for all their profession of a purely scien-tific detachment from practical affairs, were the propagandists of a coming Fascism. I know that Fascism means the end of clear thinking and the triumph of irrationalism. I know that all my life I have been engaged unawares in a political struggle, fighting against these things in the dark. Henceforth I shall fight in the daylight.

In History Man: The Life of R. G. Collingwood, Fred Inglis has opened a window on that fight, providing us an opportunity to revisit Collingwood, to seek to understand the questions for which he was seeking answers, and to reconnoiter the history of the bloody 20th century to ascertain whether we can in fact come to a better self-understanding of its legacy for the moral and political questions for which we need answers today.

Inglis introduces us to Collingwood's early years in the English Lake District, where his father, Gershom, served as a secretary of sorts to the great and aging John Ruskin. Collingwood's was an idyllic childhood, filled with the making of art and music and poetry alongside his parents and three sisters. He was homeschooled to age 14 in the very atmosphere where Charlotte Mason was working out her pedagogy and Beatrix Potter would soon take up residence to immortalize a naughty rabbit named Peter. The natural beauty of the Lake District provided the backdrop for this life with opportunities for sailing and walking. Immersion in the archaeological and folklore pursuits of his father rounded out a full engagement with the past, present, and future of England.

Through Inglis' lens on the life of the Collingwoods we can see the advantages of Collingwood's upbringing against an emerging re-cognition in our own time of the family as the first and most important school of youth. Matthew Crawford, in Shop Class as Soulcraft, has recently lamented also that modern education has too divorced our heads from the work of our hands and the mastery of our tools.[1] Crawford's observation that our technologies seem to master us rather than we, them—when was the last time you actually fixed a household appliance rather than replaced it?—resonates with Collingwood's exposure of modern man's pretense that we have mastered science well enough to use it to master men.

In 1903, Collingwood took a scholarship place at Rugby School, where he was inducted into the formalities of England's academic and ruling classes. It is here, in Chapter 2, that Inglis hits his stride as biographer-historian. He not only walks us through the landscape of Collingwood's life at Rugby but also enlightens our historical imagination with a mini-discourse on the history and "moral point" of English public schools. He leaves us with a glimpse of how the social roles of English public schools have changed—and how, both for better and for worse, the sort of experience Collingwood gained at Rugby is no longer replicable.

Inglis continues this pattern of blending biography and history throughout the book, exploring "how certain key threads of narrative in the tapestry of a national tradition were taken up, recoloured, and extended by this one man's life." He proposes to depict for us how Collingwood took up and battled to integrate a "complex, contradictory inheritance of roles … scholar-genius, sportsman, intellectual, Lakelander-'stateman,' gentlemanly Oxonian, public professor, local figure, lover, parent, sailor, mortal invalid, and a dozen more."

This historical attention to settings and social roles serves the biographer well, especially when he deals with Oxford, the environment in which Collingwood completed his education and took up his professorial life. Inglis situates Collingwood in the Oxford immortalized by Evelyn Waugh in Brideshead Revisited. Instead of deconstructing the novel's nostalgia for the place and time, Inglis uses our familiarity with it not only to illuminate Collingwood's serious writings on the philosophy of art but also to help us better understand that work of fiction. He shows us that for Waugh's Charles Ryder, the "love of art and of Oxford are interchangeable" and reminds us that Ryder takes up a mature place in the world as "a serious architectural painter of the noble houses of England." Collingwood, who took his early tutelage on such questions in the presence of Ruskin, would likewise become a serious practitioner and philosopher of art.

Inglis explains Collingwood's distinction between the arts and the crafts, the former being an open-ended act of discovery and the latter, a purposeful pursuit of a pre-determined end. The more important distinction, however, may be Collingwood's differentiation of "amusement art" from "magical art" in his 1937 book The Principles of Art. For Collingwood, the amusement arts (he names football, radio, cinema, pornography) provide for "the discharge of emotions in such a way that they shall not interfere with the concerns of practical life." By contrast, magical arts are those that harness the emotions for the business of living. Magical arts encompass the formal arts—literature, painting, music, sculpture, theater, and the like—but also include propaganda, necessary as a motive social force, but corruptible, as the Nazi's grand theater in Nuremberg was already demonstrating.

This is to get ahead of ourselves, however. Collingwood's meditations on art during his early years at Oxford (he matriculated in 1908) were enveloped in his studies of history and philosophy. Neither discipline at the time much lent itself to Collingwood's way of encountering the world. The emerging realism of the philosophers engaged the world as something outside men and distanced man from his past. Logical positivism joined the fray, divorcing "is" from "ought." Collingwood, the artistic creator and the archaeological investigator, ultimately took up the cause of the fading side, supported by a Christian faith that could not lightly confine mind to mere materialism and the parlor games of logic that seemed to diminish any relationship between morality and metaphysics.

Inglis reports on Collingwood's turn to Anglicanism at Rugby School. This conversion and baptism came as something of a shock to the family, whose father "was lapsed from the Brethren." Collingwood seems to have taken his baptism seriously, writing in Religion and Philosophy (1916) that "the self-dedication of the will to God is not the end of the individual life, but the beginning of a new and indeed of a more active life." Inglis suggests that Collingwood was in fact exercised by the same sorts of questions T. S. Eliot was posing about the prospects for Christianity in Western culture, and that Collingwood's defense of historical knowledge was a more pugilistic effort against the imperialism of positivism, which left no room for faith.

Inglis nevertheless underestimates the potential for Collingwood's continuing relevance in these matters, supposing that Collingwood's fervor is "likely to stick in the gorge of his unchurched admirers." This moment is likely the weakest for the biographer, who has declared an intention to "take from the bequests of the past lines of force for transformation" (italics in the original). The revelation that Collingwood received and enacted in his own mind and heart the Christian faith casts another line of access to Collingwood's thought and weaves more strongly the lines of force for transmission to our present age, so hungry for a thinking and feeling Christian witness. More important, the connection between Collingwood's reflections on faith and his reflections on history might be more fruitfully explored.

It was Collingwood's pronouncements on the philosophy of history that would ultimately establish his philosophical legacy. Inglis shows how Collingwood's archaeological investigations—he collected around five thousand Roman inscriptions, which were still being catalogued and published long after his death—helped inform his distinctive question-and-answer approach. Delving into the remains of Roman Britain, Collingwood recognized the ruins and inscriptions as the artifacts of men who were engaged in purposeful action. Inglis persuasively draws the connections between the work of the archaeologist and the philosopher who presents a five-part "invention" consisting of the elevation of history above all other sciences, the development of question-and-answer logic, the theory of the re-enactment of past thoughts, the insight that thought depends upon metaphysically grounded "absolute presuppositions," and the unification of theory and practice.

This was the set of ideas that Collingwood would work on for most of his tenure as Waynflete Professor of Metaphysical Philosophy at Oxford between 1935 and 1941. Inglis gracefully takes us more deeply into each of these themes and sets each against a backdrop of academic discourse, teaching, publication, politics, family life, and finally the chronic illness (high blood pressure and strokes) to which Collingwood succumbed in 1943, only 53 years old.

We consider this today to be a life cut short, and if Inglis the biographer has a pervasive weakness, it is to have written a book haunted from the earliest pages by the foreshadowing of Collingwood's untimely demise. By the end of the first chapter we have already been confronted with Collingwood as "tragic hero," and Inglis, clearly out of deep admiration and affection for his subject, continues to hint that we will be asked to mourn for Collingwood sooner than we would like. The sensibility of tragedy, however, seems slightly out of context when recounting a life lived through a century when so many lives were wasted so prematurely on the battlefields and in the concentration camps and killing fields. Inglis' theme of tragedy at times detracts from his effort to recover the tour de force that was Collingwood's philosophical production. To characterize Collingwood's early death as tragedy rings true, but the appellation of tragic hero does not fit well the man or his legacy. Inglis works too hard to recover Collingwood's life and legacy to leave us looking across the distance at a tragic figure.

When the forces of fascism—aided and abetted, even if only passively, by positiv-ism—threatened the entire world, Collingwood came out swinging. He would not hide his disdain for the irrelevance of the English academy in the present crisis and his government's appease-ment of fascism "over there." Collingwood saw the threats to freedom clearly and named them. Returning to his assessment of the Treaty of Versailles, we can see better the continuity with his life's work. In 1939, Collingwood was asking Englishmen to revisit their presuppositions and assess where they were in history. The confidence they had placed in science to lead them toward progress was misplaced. History was the mode of thought most suitable to enable men to unite moral and material progress as a whole. Inglis quotes from Collingwood's notes for the posthumously published The Principles of History:

A scientific morality will start from the idea of human nature as a thing to be conquered or obeyed: a historical one will deny that there is such a thing, and will resolve what we are into what we do. A scientific society will turn on the idea of mastering people (by money or war or the like) or alternatively serving them (philanthropy). A historical society will turn on the idea of understanding them.

There is perhaps tragedy that Collingwood was not around after 1945 to help the Anglo-American victors navigate the treacherous waters of the Cold War, but his insistence that human action is and must be purposeful, thoughtful, and moral may still have something to say to us. The self-knowledge we can glean from history may help us be clear-headed about whether our projections of economic and military and humanitarian might are merely grasping endeavors borne of idiotic passions or honorable enterprises that will in fact advance freedom and peaceful cooperation.

Lenore T. Ealy is executive director of The Philanthropic Enterprise, a research and educational institute that seeks to strengthen our understanding of how philanthropy and voluntary social cooperation promote human flourishing. She is also founding editor of Conversations on Philanthropy and holds a PhD in the history of moral and political thought from Johns Hopkins University.

1.Matthew Crawford, Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work (Penguin, 2009).

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