Collingwood, Robin George (1889–1943)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DD014-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 21, 2021, from

3. Other works and topics

If one thinks of British philosophy of the 1920s and 1930s as mainly concerned with Russellian and Moorean approaches to mind and matter, or as easing itself into some kind of relationship to logical positivism, then Collingwood’s interests will seem unusual. His first attempt at a system of his own is Speculum Mentis (1924), which reviews five forms of experience as modes of discovering the truth. These are art, religion, science, history and philosophy. Art and religion stand at the bottom, since neither aims at expressed knowledge, although religion aims at symbolizing our relationship with the world. Science aims at truth, but its categories are inadequate to capture human experience. History suffers because historians can be seen as spectators of the events that they write down, and their own perspectives are distorting influences. Only in philosophy does the possibility of transcending these partial perspectives arise, and with it an understanding of the relative place of the four inferior modes of experience. The hierarchy of different modes of knowledge is an example of what he later explored as a ‘scale of forms’ or dialectically related set of categories whereby the essence of a phenomenon becomes more perfectly instanced. There are echoes here of the idealism to which Collingwood was not formally committed. His later reaction to this work was that it misunderstood the nature of history: historians are not spectators, but by reliving past thought become one with the histories they are writing (see Oakeshott, M. §2).

The theme of artistic experience is the topic of his justly famous The Principles of Art (1938). Collingwood considers, and rejects, several views about the nature of art: that it is craft, representation or imitation, magic or amusement. He finds its essence in expression and imagination, which gives definite form to what is hitherto unconscious. Arguably the least successful part of the work is the attempt to examine what is involved in expression, which leads to the paradoxical doctrine that successful artists achieve their success in their own imagination, while externalizing or expressing what has been imagined is mere craft. This separation of thought and expression seems to witness a surprising and naive separation of mind and body, and his full view may be more complex. He certainly held, for instance, that there is no such thing as an unexpressed emotion (1938: 238), which is hardly consistent with a simple-minded dualism.

Throughout his life Collingwood wanted to put his theoretical concerns into close relationship with practical, moral and political activity. His deep hostility to utilitarianism, especially visible in his Essays in Political Philosophy (1989) and The New Leviathan (1942), probably originated in the work of the ‘school of Green’ although it is also fertilized by continental moral philosophy. Proper living, for Collingwood, is not the repeated satisfaction of a stream of arbitrary desires or caprices, but an exercise of rational, free agency, in conformity with duty. Rationality and freedom are equated with knowledge. Collingwood here sympathized not only with Kant, but with the tradition of European liberalism of such writers as Giovanni Gentile and Guido de Ruggiero. For such thinkers the conditions for freedom include an especial sort of community, whose members acknowledge the same freedom in each other, and in which the institutions are organized so as to promote this mutual recognition (see Freedom and liberty §2). Like Benedetto Croce, Collingwood believed that, properly understood, liberalism tempers democracy with aristocracy. In any body politic there will be rulers and ruled; the rulers will be objects of emulation, and therefore under an obligation to comport themselves aristocratically, in the sense of possessing full awareness of the dignity due to their station. In a liberal society the ranks of the rulers would be replenished from those of the ruled, and systems of education and freedom of ideas would be the devices for ensuring the ongoing quality of the intake.

Collingwood’s writing is undoubtedly infuriating. Along with passages and doctrines of great depth and interest there are casual formulations of argument and a rather donnish delight in pugnacious overstatement and paradox that have left him easy prey to unsympathetic critics. Nevertheless the depth and range of his thought have seldom been equalled, and the years since his death have only slowly revealed the central importance of his problems, and the interest of his discussions of them.

Citing this article:
Blackburn, Simon. Other works and topics. Collingwood, Robin George (1889–1943), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DD014-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2021 Routledge.

Related Searches