The motor vessel Aclinous left Birkenhead on 22 October 1938. It was an ordinary Dutch cargo ship making a routine journey to what was then the Dutch East Indies, and on this occasion it was also carrying a sick and lonely passenger: an experienced amateur sailor who was hoping that a sea voyage and a few months sailing around the Malay Archipelago would help restore his health and peace of mind. For as well as being trapped in ‘complicated private and professional entanglements’, as one acquaintance put it, he had recently suffered two severe strokes. The first, as he explained in a letter to a friend, deprived him of the use of his left arm and left leg, and the second took away his speech as well, though within a few months he felt able to speak again, ‘well enough for the purpose of my profession’.
It was a profession he did not like. He was a philosopher by trade, but despite having a covetable job as Waynflete Professor of Metaphysical Philosophy at Oxford, Robin Collingwood disliked college life and despised academic forms of thought and writing, especially in philosophy. If the responsibilities attached to his job were performed expeditiously, it was only because he refused to give them a moment’s more attention than they needed. Even the more trusted among his philosophical colleagues complained that he ‘had little time for attending discussion clubs or fulfilling social engagements’, and when he bothered to discuss philosophy with them, ‘one was nearly always defeated but very often not convinced.’ There were also mutterings about an excessive ‘fondness for the society of young women’, and allegations that he had foresaken Oxfordian conservatism and turned ‘sharply to the left’.
Just before leaving for his curative sea voyage Collingwood had submitted his Autobiography to the Oxford University Press. He had always got on well with Press staff, who knew him as a prompt and reliable assessor of manuscripts and an exemplary author, whose books sold rather well and who invariably submitted his work in perfect order and immaculately prepared for the printer. But Collingwood knew that the brief narrative of his own intellectual life was going to cause them problems, for it set out to annoy almost everyone in Oxford and in the British philosophical world. He must have had a thrill of mischievous glee every time he thought of the gyp he would be giving the pettifogging Delegates of the Press while he was off adventuring in the South China Sea.
The first parts of the Autobiography were harmless enough, indeed serene. They described a bohemian childhood in the Lake District in the closing years of the 19th century, financially constrained but glowing with artistic and ethical significance. Collingwood’s mother was an accomplished pianist, his father an archaeologist and Ruskin’s secretary and biographer; and both of them were painters and friends of painters. (‘So that I learned,’ Collingwood wrote, ‘to think of a picture not as a finished product exposed for the admiration of virtuosi, but as the visible record, lying about the house, of an attempt to solve a definite problem in painting’.) Most mornings his father gave him lessons in Latin and Greek for an hour or two, but otherwise the boy was left to himself: he could read whatever he liked in his father’s library, go away with him on archaeological digs, work at drawing and carpentry (‘I was a neat-fingered boy’), or simply wander off on his own, cycling round the lakes, climbing the fells, or rowing and sailing on Coniston Water.
He was 13 when he first went to school, his place at Rugby paid for by a would-be benefactor. When he got there he was baffled to discover that he knew and understood far more than those who had had the benefit of an expensive formal education. And he was appalled to find most of the masters incapable of teaching anything except ‘that pose of boredom towards learning and everything connected with it which is notoriously part of the English public school man’s character’.
The Autobiography showed that Collingwood had never learned the meaning of academic fear. When he went to study philosophy at Oxford, he at first tried to follow the example of his masters, grimly obsessed with burying the corpse of something they called Idealism or Hegelianism, and then digging it up again, sniffing it all over, and burying it once more. But he found himself drawn to the supposedly obsolete social liberalism of T.H. Green, which he associated with Ruskinian political radicalism in its idealisation of active ‘citizenship’ within a comprehensively caring State, and he had the nerve to suspect that there was more life in the old Idealist corpse than in all its ‘realist’ grave-diggers.
Collingwood’s careless confidence, untainted by vanity, carried him through his undergraduate years at Oxford to a fellowship in philosophy before he had taken his BA. Then, prompted by a sense of his own mortality while working for Admiralty Intelligence in London during the war, he published his first book in 1916. Religion and Philosophy was a highly accomplished but not unpompous work which boldly declared that historical and philosophical knowledge both refer to ‘the one real world’ and that ‘history and philosophy are therefore the same thing.’ The doctrine was anathema to the coming generation of philosophers in Britain, but Collingwood discovered a formidable ally in the Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce, who was to become his friend and – after his own father and Ruskin – his greatest intellectual hero.
Back in Oxford after the war, Collingwood published a deeply un-Oxfordian treatise on the ‘philosophy of the forms of experience’, Speculum Mentis, in which he defended medieval thought against the glib condescensions of the 18th century, denounced the superficiality of the notion of ‘negative freedom’, and judged the project of constructing a comprehensive and definitive ‘map of knowledge’ to be noble but unachievable. He showed an edge of aggression when he accused his colleagues of reducing philosophy ‘to a game, one of the most tedious and stupid of games’, but hoped they would realise that he wrote only with ‘the arrogance of humility’. In retrospect he was to consider Speculum Mentis ‘a bad book in many ways’, but it showed tremendous verve and narrative control, and began to win him some non-academic admirers. (Kipling found it ‘tremendously interesting’.) Its only serious blemish is that it perpetuated the fatuous tradition of trying to ennoble books in English – especially philosophy books or books by Ruskin – by giving them Latin titles.
It was the same unaffected self-confidence, combined with chronic insomnia and an incapacity for lazing around, that enabled Collingwood to sustain a part-time career as an archaeologist. He found it a relief from the idiocies of philosophy, and his publications, both popular and scientific, made him for a time the world’s foremost authority on Roman Britain, working from a vast corpus of inscriptions, drawn by his skilled hand from his own careful rubbings.
The closing pages of the Autobiography revealed Collingwood in a less buoyant mood as he turned back to his philosophical colleagues. He regarded their attempts to make philosophy an academic plaything for the exclusive use of ‘professional thinkers safe behind their college gates’ as a betrayal, not only of science and culture, but of society, too. Just as the new journalists on the Daily Mail and elsewhere were turning politics into a gaudy spectacle for the public to jeer at or occasionally cheer, the new philosophers were emptying it of serious intellectual content by arguing that practical questions were a matter of emotion and personal opinion rather than collective knowledge and intelligence. By breaking the link between politics and open-minded public deliberation, the ‘antlike’ realists were eating away the rational fabric of democracy. They were making the world safe for political irrationalism, for Fascists and Nazis in particular. ‘All my life I have been engaged unawares in a political struggle,’ Collingwood concluded; but ‘henceforth I shall fight in the daylight.’
In Oxford in 1938, the idea that there was something deeply wrong with Fascism and Nazism was not quite the polite commonplace it has since become, and some of the Delegates of the Oxford University Press wanted Collingwood to cool his rhetoric down, while his friends must have feared for the figure he would cut by announcing his determination to ‘fight in the daylight’ just before departing for six months’ rest and recreation on the other side of the globe. But they did not stand in his way. Collingwood received the proofs of the Autobiography in Java on 22 February 1939, and found little that needed to be changed. It was his 50th birthday.
All autobiographies are premised on the prospect of death, and Collingwood, after his strokes, must have been more than usually aware that in writing the story of his life he was also drafting his obituary. In the event the journey to Java revived him: it seemed there was going to be a life after the Life, and he punctiliously recorded his gratitude ‘to Mijnheer C. Koningstein of the Blue Funnel Line, master of the motor vessel Alcinous, who rigged me up an open-air study on his own Captain’s Bridge where I could work all day without interruption’. It was there that he began to commit himself to a whole new cycle of philosophical work. He had brought nothing with him to read except the latest book by Croce and the works of Racine, and under these ‘perfect conditions’ he wrote an entire treatise on metaphysics in three weeks. Later in the trip he began planning a study of ‘the principles of history’, much of which was drafted as he sailed back to Europe in the early months of 1939. After a few weeks in Oxford he submitted the first book to the Press, and then took a strenuous seven-week break as first mate on a yacht travelling from Antibes and round the Greek Islands. It must have been then that he decided to try and produce a systematic analysis of politics, philosophy, and the threat of barbarism – a kind of 20th-century sequel to Hobbes’s Leviathan – on which he started work once he was back at Oxford and the war had just begun.
The first part of Collingwood’s post-Autobiography project was published in 1940 as An Essay on Metaphysics. Metaphysics was out of fashion, and in some ways Collingwood thought it deserved its unpopularity. He accepted that the old Aristotelian dream of a ‘science of pure being’ was preposterous and self-contradictory, and agreed with A.J. Ayer’s argument, in Language Truth and Logic, that so-called ‘metaphysical propositions’ are unverifiable and literally meaningless. But Ayer’s inference that metaphysics should be ‘eliminated’ and replaced with logic and science struck him as sinister and absurd.
Metaphysics, Collingwood said, did not consist of propositions which aimed to describe invariant structures of reality or the human mind. Metaphysical principles – such as the notion that all events happen according to laws of nature, or that total quantities of matter are always conserved, or that every event has a cause, or that the natural sciences aspire to the condition of mathematics – were not propositions, but ‘presuppositions’. And all such presuppositions were ‘absolute’, according to Collingwood. They were the catalysts that converted experience into rational proof, so they could not be criticised either by reason or by experience. They were beyond truth and falsehood, and any attempt to justify them would be circular, since it would depend on presuppositions of its own. But even though they were entirely contingent and historical, arbitrary and alterable, metaphysical presuppositions were indispensable to all kinds of inquiry, and especially to the progress of the sciences.
The only conceivable way such presuppositions could be evaluated was ‘pragmatically’, or in terms of their effectiveness in supplying ‘what you want’. But this, as Collingwood pointed out, was not a very rigorous test. If ‘all you want is to congratulate yourself on having the kind of science that you have’, you would always be quickly satisfied; but if you wanted to be assured that you were in possession of ‘the best of all possible kinds of science’, it would not be so easy.
The kind of historicised metaphysics that Collingwood advocated would confine itself to describing the various absolute presuppositions made by different sciences at different stages of their development. It would not try to tell scientists which presuppositions they ought to make, but it would provide us all with reminders that presuppositions which once served our purposes can quickly turn into obstacles to further progress (the law of cause in physics, for example, or the ‘principle of nationality’ in politics). The historical study of metaphysics was the antidote to the kind of intellectual paralysis which, in the name of ‘realism’ and ‘loyalty to natural science’, keeps its victims permanently frozen in the attitudes of yesterday’s common sense.
The argument of the Essay on Metaphysics is not perfect, since it depends on a general idea of scientific progress which it is quite incapable of justifying. But Collingwood could candidly acknowledge the flaw. He had already explained in the Autobiography that he regarded truth as belonging not to propositions or theories but to constellations of ‘questions and answers’. A good answer to a question was simply one which ‘enables us to get ahead with the process of questioning and answering’; and Collingwood was entitled to hope that his historicist vindication of metaphysics would do just that.
Sluggish writers can only envy the fact that the Essay on Metaphysics, despite being written in less than a month, is one of the glories of English philosophical prose – lucid and stern, but also lithe and ironic; and will be relieved to find that Collingwood’s second philosophical book after the Autobiography bears ugly marks of carelessness and haste. The New Leviathan, which came out in 1942, contains an unusual variety of intelligent political observations: that the overall goal of politics is the promotion of ‘civility’, or respect for self and others; that there will always be ‘conflicts between one way of life and another’; that pacifism may promote war rather than prevent it, because it is more interested in giving the pacifist a clear conscience than in navigating the rough seas of actually existing hostilities; that deceit may sometimes be a political duty; that education should be provided on the same basis as medicine – always available when needed, but never forced down anyone’s throat; and that the professionalisation of teaching is the enemy of the efficient education of children. (‘What is all this about professionalism, anyhow?’ Collingwood demands. ‘Does anyone think that if a man marries he should marry no one but a whore, or that if sleeping or eating is done it should be entrusted to professional sleepers or skilled prize-winners in eating competitions?’)
The only thing tying these observations together, apart from their panicky vehemence, was Collingwood’s general idea that ‘classical politics’ had failed because of its refusal to ‘think dialectically’: to recognise, that is, that in politics we should care not so much for our own rectitude as for the overall soundness and fairness of the games of unintended consequences in which we are always and inevitably caught up. But this broad theme is not enough to prevent The New Leviathan from meandering and marking time, and Collingwood’s decision to cast himself as a second Hobbes, together with his hideous method of numbering all his propositions, only showed up his loss of literary self-control. The book was indulgently reviewed when it appeared, but by that time it was widely known that further strokes had forced Collingwood to resign his professorship, that his marriage had just been dissolved on his wife’s petition, and that he had completed the book in a desperate flight from death, which caught up with him at the beginning of 1943, when he was 53.
The last of his three post-Autobiography projects, on ‘the principles of history’, was far from finished when Collingwood died, but he was especially anxious to have it published posthumously, with a prefatory note ‘explaining that it is a fragment of what I had, for twenty-five years at least, looked forward to writing as my chief work’.
Collingwood left his literary estate in the hands of Malcolm Knox, a Tory Hegelian from St Andrews, who disliked the manuscript on history and thought the notion of publishing it must have been conceived ‘when R.G.C. was unusually ill’. Indeed, Knox disapproved of the later work in its entirety: he thought (improbably) that Collingwood had once been a stalwart defender of the autonomy of philosophy, but that around 1938, weakened by illness, he had caved in to the forces of scepticism and ‘historical relativism’. The Autobiography, the Essay on Metaphysics, and The New Leviathan were all symptoms of the decline, and the fragment on history was a final confirmation of it. ‘I think it would be a mistake,’ he told the OUP, ‘to publish The Principles of History as it stands.’
Knox blew the dust off a well-prepared manuscript on the history and theory of the natural sciences, written before Collingwood’s supposed apostasy, and published it as The Idea of Nature in 1945. He also discovered some early lectures on the history of historiography which Collingwood had earmarked for publication, and issued them, along with some selections from the later work, in 1946. The book was called The Idea of History, and enjoyed considerable success. Despite occasional slackness, Collingwood’s tale of the development of European historical knowledge from Herodotus and Thucydides to Croce is impressively clear. And his description of history as the ‘re-enactment of past experience’ provided a crisp formulation of the historian’s dilemmas in applying present forms of understanding to a past which may have known nothing of them. But the most valuable and influential part was the thirty pages on ‘Historical Evidence’ – which Knox excerpted from the later manuscripts with ‘some misgivings’ – where Collingwood analysed the logical development of the historian’s craft, from uncritical ‘scissors and paste’ dependence on testimonies, through mechanistic ‘pigeonholing’, to a kind of scientific sleuthing comparable to the work of the great fictional detectives.
Collingwood’s sharp but homely explanations of history as ‘a science, but a science of a special kind’ won a loyal readership for The Idea of History during the Fifties and Sixties, at least among historians. And as the tetchy Oxford philosophers began to run out of things to say, even to each other, they scratched their heads and thought again of their unclubbable old professor. Gilbert Ryle – Collingwood’s successor in the Chair of Metaphysical Philosophy – wrote in 1970 of his rueful realisation ‘that my generation was at fault in not trying to cultivate our remote senior’. (Collingwood was 11 years older than him.) Even Ayer unbent a little, devoting a sympathetic chapter of Philosophy in the 20th Century to Collingwood in 1981.
But the real labour of reparation has been done outside Oxford, first by William Dray in Ottawa, and then by the group of enthusiasts who have formed the Swansea-based R.G. Collingwood Society under the leadership of David Boucher. As well as issuing a substantial academic fanzine called Collingwood Studies, now in its fifth year, the Society’s members have produced excellent new editions of the Essay on Metaphysics and New Leviathan, as well as the Idea of History, all of them enhanced by informative introductions and generous selections from Collingwood’s unpublished papers.
The Collingwoodians searched high and low for the notes on ‘the principles of history’ that Collingwood had hoped to work up into his ‘masterpiece’, but it seemed that Knox must have discarded them after selecting those passages he thought worth preserving. In 1995, however, they turned up in the archives of the OUP. They have now been expertly edited and are published at last as The Principles of History, sixty years after they were written. Those famous comments on scissors and paste, pigeon-holing, and the scientific historian as criminal detective can now be read in their original context, alongside Collingwood’s pungent remarks on the kind of professional philosophers who get ‘a very pleasant feeling of superiority’ from setting themselves up as ‘consulting scientists’ and trying to criticise the intellectual work of others without having any experience of it themselves. While the publication reveals nothing very new, it does justice to one of Collingwood’s dying wishes as well as reminding us, yet again, that he is one of the classiest philosophical writers in the English language.
In An Essay on Philosophical Method – perhaps the most polished of all his works, first published in 1933 – Collingwood investigated the peculiarities of ‘philosophy as a branch of literature’. Philosophy, he thought, was the art of picking on one’s own submerged intellectual difficulties, hauling them to the surface and examining them in the plainest prose possible. It followed that philosophical authors must always write primarily for themselves, without giving a thought to flattering their readers, still less to impressing them with displays of learning or ingenuity. ‘The philosopher must go to school with the poets in order to learn the use of language,’ he wrote. And philosophy, like poetry, required not only a rigorously honest author, but a ‘good reader’ as well: a reader committed to ‘living through the same experience’ as the writer went through, and skilled in sustaining a ‘peculiar intimacy’ in the act of reading. Let’s hope these fine new editions will give Collingwood the good readers he abundantly deserves.