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The Idea of History
R. G. Collingwood
Published by Oxford University Press in 1956

Book Review by Bobby Matherne ©2002


"History as it exists today," Collingwood says, "has come into existence in the last four thousand years in western Asia and Europe". How did this happen? By what stages has the thing called history come into existence?" The answer is given in Parts I-IV of this book, and in the last part Collingwood describes his view of modern history.

How can history come into existence or evolve? one might ask. The answer is that the processes that existed in the past are not the processes that exist today. Tiberius broke down under the strain of governing the Roman Empire - that we clearly understand today. Tacitus, the major historian of that time, reports the breakdown, not as a change in character, but as a revelation of features previously hypocritically concealed. The idea of a change in character was to Tacitus inconceivable, a metaphysical impossibility.

We take for granted that the biography of an individual will show character development and Collingwood says that he expects just so that the general course of history will show a similar development in mankind. "All history is the history of thought," Collingwood says on page 215 and again on page 317. It is this quote repeated by Owen Barfield several times that first led me to Collingwood's works. This book brings this quote to life, and in the process generated in me a deep respect and excitement about history in its wake. History is not the bland re-telling of dead stories, but the vivid re-living of thoughts in the present so that the latest and greatest creation of the evolution of consciousness, me, may re-experience the events of the past in the present, and think thoughts never before possible thereby.

There is no better cure for the brain deadening dullness of the "scissors and paste" school of history than to read Collingwood. By the magic of consciousness the individual scraps of paper spring into action and dance in front of your eyes a tableau produced and directed by your individual imagination, the ideas of the past re-vivified by the ideas of today. Thanks, R. G.

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