‘An Autobiography ’ by R.G. Collingwood must be one of the most popular philosophical books in the English language, but when it was published in 1939, it was not expected to do well. Collingwood warned Oxford University Press that it was ‘destitute of all that makes autobiography saleable’. It was going to be a ‘dead loss’, he said, and in a preface he offered a pre-emptive apology: he was a philosopher by vocation – had been as long as he could remember – so the story of his life could not be anything more than a compendium of abstract ideas. But the remark was not as self-deprecating as it looks. It was among other things an allusion to John Stuart Mill, who had opened his own very celebrated Autobiography with a similar disclaimer: he had nothing to offer, he said, apart from an account of the origin and growth of his philosophical convictions, and ‘the reader whom these things do not interest, has only himself to blame if he reads further.’
Having given fair warning, Mill proceeded to a matter-of-fact description of a London childhood at the beginning of the 19th century, watched over by a ‘most impatient’ father who ignored his wife and ‘vigorously acted up to the principle of losing no time’. As a friend and admirer of Jeremy Bentham, Mill senior was determined to instruct his son in the rigours of Benthamite radicalism before he could be corrupted by religion, sentimentality or frivolity of any kind. The boy started Greek at the age of three, and was soon studying Plato’s dialogues in the original, along with arithmetic and ancient history, before moving on to Latin and logic and spending a year in Montpellier as a student of natural science. By that time he had started calling himself a utilitarian – apparently the first person to do so – and making active propaganda for the cause. At 16 he embarked on a career as a clerk at the East India Company and started compiling several large volumes of legal theory from Bentham’s chaotic manuscripts. Many years later, as he looked back on his extraordinary output in philosophy, logic and radical polemic, he attributed all his achievements to the early training provided by his revered father.
In outline the story sounds insipid, but when it was published – shortly after Mill’s death in 1873 – it revealed its extraordinary emotional power. ‘Everyone talks of Mill’s Autobiography,’ George Eliot noted, and marvelled at the ‘delight’ the book was giving her. Mill had managed to translate a life of relentless philosophising into an engrossing narrative of doubts, hopes and discouragements – a tale of passion and persistence rather than a catalogue raisonné of doctrines and theories. The logical perfection of Mill’s prose betrayed an enormous simple grief, and readers had the pleasure of guessing that filial loyalty cost him more dearly than he knew, and feeling sorry for him as he had never felt sorry for himself.
It would not be an easy act to follow, but Collingwood began An Autobiography with an account of precocious home-schooling to rival Mill’s: he recalled being introduced to Latin at the age of four and Greek two years later, before becoming fluent in French and German, immersing himself in history, science and philosophy and starting to read Kant when he was eight. If he was not quite such a prodigy as Mill, he certainly had the advantage in terms of happiness. His childhood was spent in a kind of bohemian paradise garden in the Lake District in the last decade of the 19th century, with parents who loved their life and their children and each other. Both were professional painters, and like their friend and near neighbour John Ruskin they regarded art not as a quest for aesthetic perfection but a joyful inquiry into the inexhaustible variety of the world, closely allied with history, natural science and the arguments of everyday life.
The children picked up the family habit of sketching and painting, and learned music by listening to their mother at the piano before breakfast. They would then get a lesson or two from their father, carefully structured but not especially cerebral: history and geography, for example, involved boiling up old newspapers to make relief maps out of papier-mâché. For the rest of the day they were ‘left to their own devices’, doing the sorts of thing that would later be re-created by their friend Arthur Ransome in Swallows and Amazons. Collingwood remembered exploring the countryside on foot or by bike or in a little boat called Swallow, learning to recognise plants, rocks, wildlife and stars. He would also accompany his father on increasingly ambitious excavations of nearby Roman settlements, and back home he might pick up one of the books he found lying around – Kant for example – or join in adult discussions of paintings in progress. Or he could settle to playing the piano, or write illustrated tales of imaginary countries for the family’s monthly manuscript magazine.
If the experiences of Collingwood and Mill are anything to go by, Ruskinians make much better parents than Benthamites, or at least more indulgent ones. And the differences in parental attitude reflected differences in intellectual ideals. Mill was brought up to believe in the supremacy of intellectual progress, which was destined to continue in a straight line for ever. He was convinced that, as far as moral theory was concerned, Bentham’s principle of ‘greatest happiness’ had inaugurated a ‘new era in thought’ in which ‘all previous moralists were superseded,’ and he had no doubt that similar reasoning was going to resolve every other problem in due course. Collingwood, on the other hand, grew up believing in endless enigmas and the abiding necessity of art.
I learned 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, so far as the attempt had gone. I learned what some critics and aestheticians never know to the end of their lives, that no ‘work of art’ is ever finished, so that in that sense of the phrase there is no such thing as a ‘work of art’ at all. Work ceases upon the picture or manuscript, not because it is finished, but because sending-in day is at hand, or because the printer is clamorous for copy, or because ‘I am sick of working at this thing’ or ‘I can’t see what more I can do to it.’
At around the age of nine he came across a battered old physics textbook whose pre-Newtonian explanations of gravity made him realise that what he had learned about the exemplary imperfection of works of art might apply to works of science as well.
It let me into the secret which modern books had been keeping from me, that the natural sciences have a history of their own, and that the doctrines they teach on any given subject, at any given time, have been reached not by some discoverer penetrating to the truth after ages of error, but by the gradual modification of doctrines previously held; and will at some future date, unless thinking stops, be themselves no less modified.
He had started on a train of thought that he would come to regard as ‘my life’s work’ – the attempt, as he put it, to ‘bring about a rapprochement between philosophy and history’, and thus revive and transform them both.
Collingwood’s reflections on philosophy and history were shaped by his early experiences of archaeology. He was a few weeks old when he was first put into a carpenter’s bag to accompany his father on a dig, and he grew up to have an eye for traces of ancient camps and cultivations, and a knack for marking out a site and identifying relics of human activity. From the age of 15 he acted as an assistant to his father in directing large excavations, making drawings of their finds, and writing up the results. By that time he was beginning to realise that archaeology did not get interesting until it went beyond describing the objects that had been uncovered and started asking why they had been made, what purposes they served and how well they would have worked. Take Hadrian’s wall: historians had casually assumed that it functioned like the wall of a medieval town, providing a barrier against incursions and a platform for fighting off attacks, but Collingwood noted that it was rather low for such purposes, and suggested that it had in fact been used as an extended look-out post or ‘elevated-sentry walk’. The conjecture was supported by further excavations, and the young man found himself acknowledged as a leading authority on British archaeology. He would maintain his eminence throughout his life, continuing to organise excavations and compile reports, making tens of thousands of meticulous drawings, and in the 1930s publishing two classic books on Roman Britain. But he always regarded his archaeological labours as subsidiary to his work in philosophy.
Archaeology taught him that if you wanted to be a good historian you could not content yourself with collecting established facts and arranging them in chronological order. You had to put away your ‘scissors and paste’, as he put it, and start using your imagination – ‘getting inside other people’s heads, looking at their situation through their eyes, and thinking for yourself whether the way in which they tackled it was the right way’. And if, as often happens, you found yourself tempted to dismiss their notions as primitive, irrational or bizarre, you should reflect that the fault may lie not in them but in you. The chances are that the problems that bothered them were nothing like the ones that strike you as obvious or inevitable, and that they were offering sensible answers to their own questions rather than foolish answers to yours. That was where history began to hold up a light to the problems of philosophy: it suggested that knowledge develops not through the accumulation of separate facts, but through the transformation of one set of problems into another. Problems were constantly being solved, of course, but every solution opened up a new field of problems, and so on without end. The only truth we could be sure of was that the growth of knowledge is unpredictable, and that no truth, however good its credentials, can be expected to satisfy us for ever.
In 1902, with the support of a wealthy benefactor, Collingwood left home to attend a proper school. He was 13 at the time, and well advanced in his studies, but quite unprepared for the ignorance, laziness and incompetence of his teachers, and ‘that pose of boredom towards learning and everything connected with it’ that appeared to be expected of the ‘English public school man’. He was also oppressed by the timetable that cut his days into ‘snippets of occupation in such a manner that no one could get down to a job of work and make something of it’. When he went up to Oxford six years later he felt as if he had been ‘let out of prison’. Apart from an hour or two with a tutor each week, and afternoons on the river, or evenings playing music with friends, he was able to ‘swill and booze Homer until the world contained no Homer that he had not read’– and the same went for Plato, Lucretius, Virgil, Cicero and Dante, as well as the main authorities in modern and contemporary philosophy. He earned a reputation for prickliness and eccentricity, but his talents were unmistakable and in 1912, before he had even taken his degree, he was appointed to a college fellowship in philosophy. Apart from a spell with Admiralty Intelligence in London during the war he carried on teaching at Oxford for the rest of his life.
He was always a misfit, however. From the time he arrived there, philosophy in Oxford was dominated by a pugnacious band of dons who described themselves as ‘realists’ because – in opposition to those they called ‘idealists’, principally Kant and Hegel – they held that the objects of knowledge must have a ‘reality’ of their own, independent of the processes through which they are known. The realists drew inspiration from G.E. Moore, who had argued around the turn of the century that genuine knowledge lifts our minds above the historical hurly-burly of words, impressions and emotions and puts us in touch with an impersonal and unchangeable world of ‘concepts’ and ‘propositions’. Bertrand Russell extended the realist argument to mathematics and logic, and – so the story went – showed that philosophy could be practised with a degree of dispassionate scientific rigour that had never been dreamed of before.
As an undergraduate, Collingwood was almost won over by the triumphant assertiveness of the realists, but he allowed himself some doubts about their self-promoting polemics. For one thing, they were not quite the innovators they took themselves to be: their dogged analytical methods resembled those of Bentham and Mill, and many of their arguments looked like recapitulations of Mill’s tirades against the supposedly Kantian doctrine of ‘the relativity of human knowledge’. Their use of the label ‘idealist’ was misleading and disingenuous: they wanted to portray their enemies as intellectual equivalents of Little Johnny Head-in-Air, whereas anyone who read their books would know that the so-called idealists had in fact tried to vindicate objective knowledge by explaining how it could be attained even by foolish, finite, passionate entities like us. If idealism meant what most people took it to mean – a belief in a supernatural realm beyond the vicissitudes of ordinary earth-bound existence – then Moore and Russell were the true idealists, while Kant and Hegel were good old down-in-the-dirt realists.
The self-styled realists were obsessed, according to Collingwood, with the political philosopher T.H. Green, whom they took to be the supreme leader of British idealism. They were not entirely wrong: Green could certainly be described as an idealist, and his lectures had turned heads in Oxford in the 1870s. But philosophy as he conceived it was not so much a body of theory as a practical creed: a rational faith, a vision to live by, and a secular surrogate for Christianity. Philosophy, for Green, was essentially the articulation of an innate human yearning for a better future – for a world of economic harmony, comprehensive education and intelligent active citizenship within an all-embracing state. This line of thought had inspired a generation of social reformers, but it had never won much support among professional philosophers, and the tales told by realists about their victory over a ‘school of Green’ were no more than Falstaffian bravado. Collingwood admired Green, and to him the realists were not valiant warriors in a progressive cause but deluded reactionaries tethered to ‘the old academic tradition’.
Back in Oxford after the war, Collingwood settled down to a sustained campaign of resistance to the realist ascendancy, conducted through lectures, talks, essays, and a series of spirited books. The realists liked to see themselves as friends of scientific knowledge, he said, but they contrived to ignore the science of history, which was one of the most exciting sciences of the age. They went on repeating unhistorical calumnies about the philosophers of the past, and they refused to entertain the idea that knowledge itself might have a history – that it might be a set of open-ended social processes rather than a self-contained state of mind. They realised, of course, that some truths would never have been discovered without laborious research, but they assumed that once the process of inquiry was over, the facts simply emerged from their hiding place and handed themselves over to a faculty of ‘apprehension’, ‘acquaintance’ or ‘intuition’ – to an unhistorical act of knowledge, in short, in which ‘there are no complexities or diversities, nothing except just the knowing.’
Collingwood ’s arguments were so far out of line with prevailing orthodoxies that none of his colleagues considered them worth rebutting. But his lectures were popular with students, and in the early 1930s the young Isaiah Berlin singled him out as ‘the only philosophy tutor in Oxford who is also a man of genuine culture’ –‘a very sly lively Continental sort of philosopher … very exciting and risky … even sensational’. Collingwood was never aware of Berlin’s admiration, and in any case he preferred to cast himself as an intellectual lone ranger: he was irreproachably efficient as a teacher and administrator, but he did not spend longer on university duties than he had to, and always put a large distance between himself and the herd mentalities that pervade the academic world.
The only contemporary with whom he felt thorough intellectual fellowship was Benedetto Croce, the free-spirited Italian journalist, philosopher and politician whose works he began to read while still a student. Croce had published lucid and sympathetic studies of Marx and Hegel, but above all he was striving to restore the reputation of the Neapolitan philosopher Giambattista Vico. As long ago as the beginning of the 18th century, Vico had sought to promote history as a ‘new science’ – not the kind of science that deals in abstract truths and mathematical laws, but one in which the human mind struggles to recollect and reanimate the forms of its own past. As far as Croce was concerned, Vico was the first philosopher to move beyond the absolutism of traditional metaphysics, the first to see that truth is ‘not static but dynamic, not a discovery but a product’, and to recognise that the world is essentially a ‘human world’. Collingwood was enchanted by this argument, and his first philosophical publication, soon after graduating, was a translation of Croce’s Philosophy of Giambattista Vico.
Like Collingwood, Croce believed that philosophy was suffering from a defective sense of history. A dose of history, he said, should ‘put an end to the spectacle, half comical and half disgusting, of the condemnation and abuse of philosophers by critics who have not read them, and who wage a foolish war with ridiculous puppets created by their own imaginations’. But more important than that, it should also discredit the perennial dream of constructing a philosophy to end all philosophies – a disastrous ambition, he thought, which could only lead to ‘pedantry without wisdom and argument without truth’. If you were going to be any good at philosophy, you needed to accept that your labours were part of a historical process whose significance you would never entirely comprehend. You would always be indebted to your predecessors in more ways than you could tell, and if you were lucky enough to contribute anything new you could be sure it would be transformed by your successors in ways you could not imagine and might never approve. The one thing necessary was to accept your limitations and try to lead as thoughtful a life as you could, dreaming of intellectual perfection perhaps, but also engaging practically with the ambiguous world around you: a commitment that Croce was ready to make, accepting appointment to the Italian Senate in 1910, drafting the ‘Manifesto of the Anti-Fascist Intellectuals’ in 1925, and becoming a courageous leader of opposition to Mussolini.
Long before the rise of fascism, Croce summed up his approach to philosophy in a brief intellectual autobiography, written on the occasion of his fiftieth birthday in 1916. He began with his Catholic education, his loss of faith, and his youthful infatuation with Marxism, before describing his deepening engagement with history. He started to suspect that truth is always elusive, and ‘will not let itself be tied fast for ever’, and he learned some salutary lessons about the ethics of philosophical thinking – ‘a sense of piety towards thinkers of the past’, as he put it, and ‘modesty towards my present thoughts, which tomorrow will appear deficient and in need of correction’. He came to realise that every life, however solitary, is a ‘collaboration’ of some kind, and that its meaning could never be completely clear, least of all in a time of ‘gigantic war’, when the future was even more inscrutable than usual. In writing about himself, therefore, he was not claiming any special authority, but simply offering an impression of ‘the contribution which, like every other man, I have made to the common stock of work done’. His essay in autobiography was a ‘contribution to the critique of myself’, a gathering of materials that might enable others, if they should choose to think about him, to do so ‘with better knowledge and more truth, and even with a more enlightened severity of judgment’.
When Croce’s autobiography appeared in English in 1927 – in a fine version by Collingwood himself – it was inevitably compared with Mill’s. Croce’s hesitant irony made a striking contrast with the earnest urgency of Mill: Croce’s memoir was clearly intended as a provisional report from the middle of his life’s journey, addressed primarily to a small circle of friends, whereas Mill’s was intended as a public statement and a philosophical last testament. He drafted it in his late forties when he had reason to think he was dying of TB, hoping to summarise his basic beliefs and commend them to posterity; and although he recovered and lived another twenty years, making extensive revisions to his manuscript, the book never lost its tone of passionate intensity. When Collingwood came to write his own Autobiography – in the summer of 1938, on a solo sailing trip in the English Channel – he wished to pay tribute to Croce, but as it happened his motivation was the same as Mill’s. He too was in his late forties, and he had just suffered a serious stroke: his purpose in telling the story of his life was simply to set down ‘a few home truths’, as he put it, before it was too late.
So he launched into a final assault on philosophical realism, arguing that – apart from being theoretically flawed – it has disastrous practical consequences. The realists, with their principle that ‘nothing is affected by being known,’ seemed to believe that every dilemma must have a correct solution, though they might not have discovered it yet, and they were committed to the idea that morals and politics rest on unchangeable principles that are open to inspection by all those with clear minds, even if they remain obscure to everyone else. The professor of moral philosophy at Oxford, an acerbic realist called H.A. Prichard, had written a famous article on the question ‘Does Moral Philosophy Rest on a Mistake?’ – and his answer was that it did. Moral philosophy was a waste of time, as Prichard saw it, because values are objects of intuition rather than matters for discussion. Collingwood, in contrast, saw morals and politics as perpetual works in progress, brought into being through conversations and debates whose conclusion no one could know in advance. Prichard and his friends might make common cause with religious fundamentalists in denouncing something called ‘relativism’ but, as far as Collingwood was concerned, the real threat to civilisation was the absolutism that sees no point in public deliberation. Oxford’s ‘minute philosophers’ were providing intellectual cover for the raucous dogmatism that was invading public life: for the populism of the Daily Mail as it pursued the lucrative business of ‘corrupting the public mind’, for the appeasement of Hitler by the British political establishment, and indeed for fascism itself. Despite their pretence of ‘a purely scientific detachment from practical affairs’, Collingwood said, the realists were ‘propagandists of a coming fascism’ even if they did not know it.
The accusation of fascism was not so insulting in 1939 as it would later become, and, though the editors at Oxford University Press required Collingwood to ‘tone down’ some of his criticisms, they allowed that one to stand. In the event the book was well received: the reviewers were kinder than anyone could have expected, and so was the book-buying public. Collingwood seemed to have succeeded in being concise without appearing hurried, serious without being obscure, and inspiring without being vapid – rare things in a philosopher. He lived on, though diminished by illness, for almost four years – he died in the Lake District in 1943, at the age of 53 – and had the pleasure of seeing his little book blessed with success.
The new edition includes a facsimile of the first printing (though the preface has unaccountably gone missing), followed by various maps and illustrations, and a mass of supplementary essays, some enriching the record of Collingwood’s early life and his achievements as an archaeologist, others pointing out, less usefully, that in the Autobiography he sometimes opted for vividness and verve rather than his customary precision of argument. The main effect of the additional materials is to demonstrate that the book is perfectly capable of looking after itself: Collingwood’s rage against the conformism of professional philosophy remains as exhilarating as ever, and it does not need explanations, commendations or apologies. It also leaves you thinking that the literary form best suited to philosophy is not the treatise, the commentary or even the all-conquering academic paper, but the memoir of a seriously thoughtful life.