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An Autobiography
R. G. Collingwood

Published by Oxford University Press/NY in 1939
A Book Review by Bobby Matherne ©2002


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This author I have been acquainted with for some time as the man who said, "All history is the history of thought." I have often misquoted him as saying that "all history is the history of ideas." Probably I did so because it seemed to make more sense to me that way, once I had lost track of the original quotation of Collingwood, probably in some work of Owen Barfield. As I consider the situation today, it does seem to me that ideas are like the wealth of which thought is but the visible currency. A man who is wealthy can only be known to be so when he flashes some currency or evidence of previously spent currency in a manner that is visible to others. History as a repository of ideas can only become visible when one examines the thoughts or evidence of previous thoughts.

Collingwood was taught by his father who allowed him to read any of his large supply of books. One day when he was eight, he took down "Kant's Theory of Ethics" and his life changed, maybe not so much changed, but it took on a new meaning. That meaning was "I must think." His "I" the name one can only use in reference to one's inner self had understood what its goal was for this lifetime: to think. For a man who maintained his aversion to things occult, and who expressed it several times in this book, here was a most occult thing an expression of a lifetime plan that he likely came into the world with. Some would call it a karmic plan for his new lifetime. Notice how his description of reading the Kant book follows the progression one would expect for someone who had a life's plan laid out for him, but for whom amnesia had clouded the plan's existence, then suddenly a shaft of light rayed down through a gap in the cloud. Without any conscious, cognitive memory for his life's plan, he would only be able to feel that something of great importance was happening to him he was receiving his life's plan.

[page 3] ". . . and as I began reading it, my small form wedged between the bookcase and the table, I was attacked by a strange succession of emotions. First came an intense excitement. I felt that things of the highest importance were being said about matters of the utmost urgency: things which at all costs I must understand. Then, with a wave of indignation, came the discovery that I could not understand them. Disgraceful to confess, here was a book whose words were English and whose sentences were grammatical, but whose meaning baffled me. Then, third and last, came the strangest emotion of all. I felt that the contents of this book, although I could not understand it, were somehow my business: a matter personal to myself, or rather to some future self of my own. . . . There came upon me by degrees, after this, a sense of being burdened with a task whose nature I could not define except by saying, 'I must think.'

His public school experiences found him with little in common with his friends who "saw that any exhibition of interest in their studies was a sure way to get themselves disliked by the masters." His teachers, he said, were "like the schoolmaster in the Dunciad" who had this motto:

[page 8]
Plac'd at the door of learning, youth to guide,
We never suffer it to stand too wide.

Thus it came that "going up to Oxford was like being let out of prison" to him. The doors of learning were left wide open for him to enter. He was expected to read Homer, Virgil, Demosthenes, and the speeches of Cicero, and he added to these Lucretius, Theocritus, and Agamemnon. Of this wealth of reading, undoubtedly all in the original languages of Latin and Greek, he says:

[page 12] This was not only leading the horse to the water, but (hardly less important) leaving him there. The happy beast could swill and booze Homer until the world contained no Homer that he had not read. After long years on a ration of twenty drops a day, nicely medicated from a form-master's fad-bottle, I drank with open throat.

In Chapter III "Minute Philosophers" he never makes clear whether he meant "Sixty Second Wonders" or "Small Minded Thinkers". I suspect one could take either meaning from the content of the chapter. But John Cook Wilson, professor of logic, had an enthusiasm for philosophical thought that Collingwood much admired. There was in Wilson certainly no "foolish consistency" that Emerson called the hobgoblin of minute minds.

[page 19] He, too, refrained from publication; and he once explained to me his reasons. 'I rewrite, on average, one third of my logic lectures every year', said he. 'That means I'm constantly changing my mind about every point in the subject. If I published, every book I wrote would betray a change of mind since writing the last. Now, if you let the public know that you change your mind, they will never take you seriously. Therefore it is best never to publish at all.'

Wilson, he also credits for saying that there are two kinds of damn fool. This helps clarify for me why the world seems to have more damn silly fools than damn clever ones. And I do like the damn silly ones better by far. For one thing, damn silly fools rarely ever end up in prison.

[page 20] "There are damn silly fools like X, and damn clever fools like Y; and if you're going to be a damn fool you'd much better be a damn silly one."

One of things that stand out for me, when I read a text that is over fifty years old such as this book, is changes in usage of words. A word will be used in a manner that is consistent with its dictionary meaning, but used in a context that speakers today would never consider using it. Here is one example below in which he uses the transitive verb convict whose dictionary meaning is to prove guilty.

[page 22] At forty, I should not have hesitated for a moment, if I had been attached to a school of thought whose leaders I had convicted of errors so gross on matters of fact so important, to break the attachment.

Collingwood spent his summers serving on the staff of large archaeological excavations, an avocation one would consider had nothing to do with his primary occupation as philosopher and thinker, but one would be very wrong. He learned that if one dug without a question in one's mind, and one described what one found, the excavation was rather useless. He learned that the questions one held while digging, those unanswered questions that one wanted answers to, acted as a beacon to discovery and enlightenment. He was later to apply this view of the urgency and importance of questions to his philosophical endeavors. One learnt nothing unless one had a question. In his words, he learned:

[page 24] That what one learnt depended not merely on what turned up in one's trenches but also on what questions one was asking: so that a man who was asking questions of one kind learnt one kind of thing from a piece of digging which to another man revealed something different, to a third something illusory, and to a fourth nothing at all.

Through his excavation work he found confirmation of the truth stated by Bacon and Descartes "that knowledge comes only by answering questions." He says that he had often read their works in which they said that, but he needed to discover the truth of their words first in his own life before they took on meaning to him. This deep insight led him to recognize that a historian must be able to come up with the questions that the historical figure being studied was holding in order to be able understand the events surrounding and involving that figure.

He acquired a tutor in the form of an historical figure, Prince Albert; not the actual Prince, but his memorial in Kensington Gardens, by which he walked each day. He found the memorial most unappealing, "Everything about it was visibly mis-shapen, corrupt, crawling, verminous; for a time I could not bear to look at it. . ." The Albert Memorial became an unanswered question which he mused about and pondered upon daily till finally his question was answered in a paradoxical way: he came to understand the value of questions to the task he was about that of being a historian, in particular a philosopher of history. When you were confronted with a man's work, whether Scott's Albert Memorial design, or Bacon's Novuum Organum, you needed to understand the questions that drove him to that work.

[page 31] In order to find out his meaning you must also know what the question was (a question in his own mind, and presumed by him to be in yours) to which the thing he has said or written was meant as an answer.

While writing the review at this point, I stopped to check emails and received this from my daughter about a mural she had painted on the gym wall for the high school at which she is an art teacher. "Click on the basketball link to see the team photo. There is one of the old mural that I painted over underneath the new one." What in the world did she mean? What question was in her mind that she presumed was in my mind that caused her to say these curious words about the old and new murals? I thought for awhile, using the process that Collingwood suggested above, until I gathered that she was answering my unspoken question, "What did the mural look like before you painted over it?" I went to the site and found this year and last year's team photos. This year the team photo was taken in front of her new mural, and underneath that photo was the one of last year's team in front of the old mural, the one that she had painted over.

Why is this important? Collingwood tells us:

[page 33] No two propositions are answers to the same question. It is therefore impossible to say of a man, 'I do not know what the question is that he is trying to answer, but I can see that he is contradicting himself'.

In my undergraduate philosophy course I was taught that the Logical Positivists held that the "meaning of a proposition is in its method of verification." Plainly said, if you cannot even propose a method of verification, a Positivist will hold your proposition meaningless. What Collingwood proposes is distinctly different, namely, that the "meaning of a proposition is in the question it presupposes and answers."

[page 33] If the meaning of a proposition is relative to the question it answers, its truth must be relative to the same thing. Meaning, agreement and contradiction, truth and falsehood, none of these belonged to propositions in their own right, propositions by themselves; they belonged only to propositions as the answers to questions: each proposition answering a question strictly correlative to itself.

How does any of this apply to history? Collingwood's answer indicates his deep insight into what I call the evolution of consciousness, although I doubt he would have approved of that label for his insight into the use of a 'question and answer' approach to understand the writings of historical figures. He is very clear on this point: one cannot argue coherently about the logic of an ancient writer unless one knows how to think like that writer. To think like means really to enter into the consciousness of that writer. If our way of thinking, therefore our consciousness, has changed since that writer's time, to think like him is to remove an encrustation of consciousness that would else skew our results beyond meaningfulness. In other words, if we cannot undo the evolution of consciousness and restore our thinking temporarily to an earlier stage of evolution, we cannot get at the question that the writer of that time was holding, and thus our answers will not be worth the dust that accumulated on the book containing his writings.

While I said that Collingwood would not have approved of my use of the phrase evolution of consciousness, I must add that he would have pondered over what question I was holding that led me to use that phrase, and once he came up with my question he would have certainly approved. It is much more difficult for us to understand a question held by someone in our future, such as I am to Collingwood, who died in 1943, but I suspect that he would come rather close. In this next passage, he clearly shows that he understands the problem.

[page 39] Now, the question 'To what question did So-and-so intend this proposition for an answer?' is an historical question, and therefore cannot be settled except by historical methods. When So-and-so wrote in a distant past, it is generally a very difficult one, because writers (at any rate good writers) always write for their contemporaries, and in particular for those who are 'likely to be interested', which means those who are already asking the question to which an answer is being offered; and consequently a writer very seldom explains what the question is that he is trying to answer.

As time passes, some remnant of the questions held by people in the past remain inside of us and those traces allow us to understand what they seem to be saying. There is also, however, new questions that we have learned to hold about those same issues that may have come on the scene after the writer in question has died, and one must be very knowledgeable about humankind's evolution of consciousness in order to tell the difference between questions that pre-date a writer and those that post-date a writer. Always the date of the writing is extremely important. Anyone who reads very far into a book without determining the date of the original writing contained within is skating on an icy pond that may collapse unexpectedly at any turn.

If you hear a fox preaching about the virtues of taillessness, you can be sure that fox is tailless. This is a simple metaphor for how to know the question that a person holds: you discern the things they hold dear as they speak or write. Said another way: the tailless fox knows what questions to ask to make taillessness sound good! Collingwood used the metaphor to great effect in describing the futile, trifling nature of the philosophical doctrine of realism.

[page 46] I have already said of 'realism' that its positive doctrine was nugatory, its critical technique deadly: all the deadlier because its effectiveness did not depend on errors native to the doctrines criticized, but on a kind of disintegration produced by itself in whatever it touched.

The realists systematically destroyed moral, religious, and political theory wherever they found it. They were certain that their form of taillessness was the right way to strut about the world and they applied their mental decaudation to anyone who slowed down as they happened by.

[page 49] In this process, by which anything that could be recognized as a philosophical doctrine was stuck up and shot to pieces by the 'realistic' criticism, the 'realists' little by little destroyed everything in the way of positive doctrine that they had ever possessed.

This passage reminds me of a quatrain from The Complete Poetry of Samuel Hoffenstein which I memorized as a freshman at college, whose effect upon me was very much like of Kant upon Collingwood as a young man:

Little by little we subtract
Faith and Fallacy from Fact,
The Illusory from the True,
And starve upon the Residue.

What is the ultimate end to such a philosophy? And why is it even important? Surely there are few 'realists' about these days who go about cutting others' tails off? Well, there is a new breed of ruthless philosophers among whom one would do well to keep one's tail well hidden between one's legs. These are the Materialist Monists, which is quite a mouthful to describe a philosophy that can be simply put this way: "all of the world proceeds from matter". It is the ultimate end, the syllogistic cul-de-sac into which modern science has driven and from which it refuses to admit its mistake and turn around and drive away from, up until now. Below is a more complete description of the term monism by Don Cruse, who with Robert Zimmer, has written a book on the subject entitled, "Evolution and the New Gnosis: Anti-establishment Essays on Knowledge, Science, Religion and Causal Logic." (I have yet to read the book, but from my discussion with the authors, I see them standing on the shoulders of Collingwood as they tackle this century's equivalent of the 'realists' of the past century. RJM Note: I have since read the book and reviewed it at the link under the title above.)

Don Cruse: "[Monism] means that everything in the universe has a single source, that matter has the same source as mind. If you choose a monism of matter (materialism) the matter is that source, and mind merely a derivative; if you choose a monism of Mind, then Mind (i.e. Universal Consciousness) is the source, and matter is an derivative (an epiphenomenon)."

What brought Cruse and Zimmer's work to mind while reading Collingwood is that I have witnessed Monists of Matter taking them to task and trying to lop off their tails and force them into giving up their enchantment with their new found tails, much as the realists attempted to do to Collingwood almost a century ago. So, it is indeed proper and fitting that we allow Collingwood's words to be applied to the school of the Monists of Matter today:

[page 52] After what I have said about propositional logic, I need not pause to explain why I think that this school, with all its ingenuity and pertinacity, is only building card-houses out of a pack of lies. . . . Mostly it was a propositional logic; but in part it was a logic of question and answer. I would rather its successors had chosen to eradicate the error and develop the truth; but they have decided to do the opposite, and I am not ungrateful. In logic I am a revolutionary; and like other revolutionaries I can thank God for the reactionaries. They clarify the issue.

If I may hazard a translation of Collingwood's fine words into current day English: he said about the Realists that they chose to eradicate the truth and develop the error which gave him great incentive to clarify the issue they obfuscated.

Since so many of his Oxford colleagues were Realists, one can assume they were the subject of this excoriating description he gives of the meetings of the Oxford Philosophical Society. It sounds much like meetings of the average social, civic, or political club of today.

[page 54] One of the company reads a paper, and the rest discuss it with a fluency directly proportional to their ignorance. To shine on such occasions one should have a rather obtuse, insensitive mind and a ready tongue. Whatever may be true of parrots, philosophers who cannot talk probably think the more, and those who think a lot certainly talk the less.

Like with Realists who accosted Collingwood in his day, the Monists who accost Cruse today do not make the necessary effort to understand the questions that Cruse's doctrine is intended to answer. Collingwood explains that should not be a hindrance if one makes the proper effort.

[page 55] Those questions need not be his own; they may belong to a thought-complex very different from any that is spontaneously going on in his own mind; but this ought not to prevent him from understanding them and judging whether the persons interested in them are answering them rightly or wrongly.

But Collingwood, like anyone of his time who was trained as a 'realist', was "automatically classified as an 'idealist'." Thus, his own work was often characterized as "the usual idealistic nonsense." (Page 56) One suspects that Cruse and Zimmer's work has been characterized equally derisively and inaccurately, up until now. One can hope that those who wish to criticize their work will take the trouble to first get inside Cruse and Zimmer's heads. Those critics will need to learn to think historically if their criticisms of another's philosophy is to achieve more than a venting of their spleen.

[page 58] To think about philosophies not your own, as I have hinted, is to think about them historically. . . . History did not mean knowing what events followed what. It meant getting inside other people's heads, looking at their situation through their eyes, and thinking for yourself whether the way which they tackled [the battle] was the right way. Unless you can see the battle through the eyes of a man brought up in sailing-ships armed with broad-sides of short-range muzzle-loading guns, you are not even a beginner in naval history, you are right outside it.

How does an evolution of consciousness reveal itself in everyday life? Again the process of the 'realists' provides Collingwood a foil to help describe how one errs greatly if one ignores the evolution of consciousness when reading old texts. It would be like mistranslating 'trireme' into 'steamer', he says, and then accusing the ancient peoples of being "terribly muddle-headed" and getting "their theory of steamers all wrong." A steamer is boat powered by a steam boiler and a trireme a boat powered by three stacked sets of manned oars. (Page 64)

[page 65] The 'realists' knew that different peoples, and the same peoples at different times, held different views, and were quite entitled to hold different views, about how a man ought to behave; but they thought that the phrase 'ought to behave' had a meaning which was one, unchanging, and eternal. They were wrong. The literature of European moral philosophy, from the Greeks onwards, was in their hands and on their shelves to tell them so; but they evaded the lesson by systematically mistranslating the passages from which they might have learnt it.

And now a telling passage that speaks to Cruse and Zimmer's attack on Monists of Matter and the presuppositions that underlie their premises.

[page 66] The question what presuppositions underlie the 'physics' or natural science of a certain people at a certain time is as purely historical a question as what kind of clothes they wear.

If the evolution of consciousness was being ignored or negated by the Realists, then we should be able to find some evidence of that. What we find is that philosophical problems are presupposed to be permanent - that one could ask Kant, Leibniz, or Berkeley the same question, "What you do think about P?" and get three valid answers. Collingwood tells us this is not possible. Here's his argument to that effect:

[page 68] I turned to another aspect of the same conception: namely the 'realists' ' distinction between the 'historical' question 'what was So-and-so's theory on such and such a matter?' and the 'philosophical' question 'was he right?'

[page 69] I will rather point out that the alleged distinction between the historical question and the philosophical must be false, because it presupposes the permanence of philosophical problems.

To Collingwood, there were not two sets of questions, historical and philosophical, but only one: historical. To understand Collingwood is to understand, among other things, that a study of Descartes' is an historical study not a philosophical one. He felt it was useless to try to talk to his colleagues at Oxford about these ideas of his. Why? Remember as you read this next passage that his colleagues were Realists.

[page 72,, 73] The 'realists', whose critical technique was flawless and whose mastery of it was perfect, would have demolished them in no time. That would have made me give them up; for I had already analysed the principles of 'realist' criticism and knew that what it so admirably demolished was not (or not necessarily) the views it ostensibly attacked, but the critic's own perversion of these views; although the 'realist' could never distinguish between the perversion and the reality, because the perversion was simply the reality as seen through his distorting spectacles. If I had stated these ideas to the leaders of the 'realist' school, they would have said, as I have heard them say a hundred times, 'you don't mean that; what you mean is . . .' and then would have followed a caricature of my ideas in terms of 'realist' principles, with sandbags for arms and legs; all so beautifully done that I could hardly have restrained my impulse to cheer.

"Nothing is history that can be memorized." Collingwood said. He waged constant warfare against the dogmas of "that putrefying corpse of historical thought, the 'information' to be found in text-books." To him, history is an open subject to which each historian, who is not of the antiquated "scissors-and-paste" school of pre-nineteenth century historians, can bring fresh insights to by developing new questions to be asked and answered. Here is a précis of one preemptive strike:

[page 76] And if anybody had objected that in what I call 'open' history one couldn't see the wood for the trees, I should have answered, who wants to? A tree is a thing to look at; but a wood is not a thing to look at, it is a thing to live in.

This passage suggested a brief poetic rendition to me, which I call
"A Wood Is To Live In":

Is this a thought to please
'One never sees
the forest for the trees'?

To such temptation I would never give in
A tree is but to look upon
A forest is to live in.

Collingwood's point is that what happened to Natural Science in the centuries since Bacon was happening to history in the twentieth century. His description of how scientists made progress in their new Baconian physics is a gem. He uses the metaphor of the Sphinx and reverses it.

[page 78] What was called Nature, they saw, had henceforth no secretes from man; only riddles which he had learnt the trick of answering. Or, more accurately, Nature was no longer a Sphinx asking man riddles; it was man that did the asking, and Nature, now, that he put to the torture until she gave him the answer to his questions.

Well, dear Reader, if you have followed me thus far, perhaps you are wondering why my interest in such an obscure subject as this? Collingwood says that knowledge does not proceed from the 'known to the unknown' as my physics teachers seemed to be saying to me in college, but rather it proceeds from the 'unknown to the known.'

[page 86] Obscure subjects, by forcing us to think harder and more systematically, sharpen our wits and thus enable us to dispel the fog of prejudice and superstition in which our minds are often wrapped when we think about what is familiar to us.

In recent years, when I read Collingwood's books, The Idea of History, The Principles of Art , and The Idea of Nature, I found myself understanding history in a new light and the feeling came over me that this would be a worthy activity to spend one's lifetime doing. This thought was far from anything I ever considered while I was in college. I wanted to learn physics, how the world really worked, and the history courses were speed bumps on my way to the real science of the world. Nowadays I find myself in the position where the building stone I rejected has become my cornerstone under Collingwood's tutelage. Paradoxically, I have begun to see that, as important as natural science has been for us since Bacon, so will history be for us from now on.


Any questions about this review, Contact: Bobby Matherne


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