Collingwood, R. G. (1889–1943)

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COLLINGWOOD, R. G. (1889–1943)


English philosopher, archaeologist, and historian.

Born in the English Lake District, Robin George Collingwood was until the age of thirteen educated by his parents. His father was a scholar, archaeologist, and artist and his mother was an artist as well. Collingwood's early education laid the foundation for his later career. After attending Rugby School, he studied classics at University College in Oxford. From 1912 until 1935 he was tutor of philosophy at Pembroke College, and from 1927 until 1935 university lecturer in philosophy and Roman history. In 1935 he was appointed Waynflete Professor of Metaphysical Philosophy at Magdalen College. He had to resign this position in 1941 because of ill health and died in 1943 at Coniston.

Collingwood's scholarly reputation is as curious as it is unique, in that in his own lifetime he was primarily esteemed as an archaeologist and main expert on Roman Britain, whereas after his death he is especially known as a philosopher. His most important contribution to archaeology was a complete edition of the Roman inscriptions of Britain, on which he worked for many years, posthumously edited by R. P. Wright and published as Inscriptions on Stone (1965), volume 1 of The Roman Inscriptions of Britain. But he also wrote The Archaeology of Roman Britain (1930), the first handbook in the field. On the history of Roman Britain he wrote Roman Britain (1923; rev. eds. 1932 and 1934) and, with J. N. L. Myres, Roman Britain and the English Settlements (1936).

Collingwood's reputation as a philosopher started after World War II with the posthumous publication of The Idea of History (1946; rev. ed. 1993), edited by his pupil T. M. Knox. This book, a collection of lectures, essays, and part of an unfinished book, has attracted the attention of both historians and philosophers and has had a lasting influence on discussions of the philosophy of history. The relevance of Collingwood's philosophy is much wider, however. The scope of the subjects he dealt with is unparalleled and includes, besides the philosophy of history, studies on the philosophy of religion, art, nature, politics, metaphysics, and philosophical method. Since 1978 more than four thousand pages of manuscripts have been deposited at the Bodleian Library in Oxford. They show new dimensions of the wide-ranging philosophical interests of Collingwood, including extensive lectures on ethics and studies on cosmology and anthropology. Parts of the manuscripts have meanwhile been published, both separately and as additions to revised editions of Collingwood's philosophical books.

A predominant theme in Collingwood's philosophy is the idea of the unity of mind in opposition to its progressive fragmentation. This subject is worked out in Speculum Mentis (1924), in which a distinction is made between four "forms of experience" (art, religion, science, history), with philosophy playing a specific role in their assessment and interrelation. Collingwood believed that mind should be studied on its own terms, which led him to disparage the pretensions of psychology. The study of mind should be aimed at self-knowledge, which can only be accomplished by the study of history and philosophy. In opposition to positivism, Collingwood championed dialectical thinking in dealing with these subjects, influenced by Hegel and more in particular by his Italian contemporaries Benedetto Croce, Giovanni Gentile, and Guido de Ruggiero.

Collingwood worked out some interesting philosophical theories. An antirealist in epistemology, he developed a "logic of question and answer," implying that knowledge is conceived as an interaction between a subject and his or her "reality." In An Essay on Philosophical Method (1933; rev. ed. 2005), he expounded a theory on the nature of philosophical concepts, explaining that, in contrast with scientific concepts, they exhibit a "scale of forms" in which their generic essence is realized in varying degrees. Of special interest is his theory of "absolute presuppositions," as worked out in An Essay on Metaphysics (1940; rev. ed. 1998). The nature of these presuppositions is conceived as the bedrock of all "relative" presuppositions. They are unverifiable and operate as the mostly unconscious frameworks of one's thoughts and actions. Collingwood's lasting involvement with art culminated in The Principles of Art (1938), in which an expressionist theory of "art proper" is developed against instrumental modes of art as "craft." In his final book, The New Leviathan (1942; rev. ed. 1992), he deals with the concept of civilization. Collingwood considered it his "war effort" and as a defense against the barbarism of fascism and Nazism.

Though initially underestimated as a philosopher, Collingwood's contributions to philosophy are increasingly acknowledged as of great significance. The growing interest in his philosophy is enhanced by the remarkable correspondence of some of his views with certain well-known philosophical theories. Collingwood's theory of absolute presuppositions, for instance, can be seen as an anticipation of Thomas Kuhn's theory of paradigms (though Collingwood's theory is of a wider scope), and there is a noticeable similarity between Collingwood's views and those of Ludwig Wittgenstein on mind and language.

See alsoCroce, Benedetto; Wittgenstein, Ludwig.


Boucher, David. The Social and Political Thought of R. G. Collingwood. Cambridge, U.K., 1989.

Donagan, Alan. The Later Philosophy of R. G. Collingwood. Oxford, U.K., 1962.

Dray, William H. History as Re-enactment: R. G. Collingwood's Idea of History. Oxford, U.K., 1995.

Dussen, W. J. van der. History as a Science: The Philosophy of R. G. Collingwood. The Hague, Netherlands, 1981.

Johnston, William M. The Formative Years of R. G. Collingwood. The Hague, Netherlands, 1967.

Mink, Louis O. Mind, History, and Dialectic: The Philosophy of R. G. Collingwood. Bloomington, Ind., 1969.

Rubinoff, Lionel. Collingwood and the Reform of Metaphysics: A Study in the Philosophy of Mind. Toronto, 1970.

W. J. van der Dussen

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Collingwood, R. G. (1889–1943)

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