Collingwood, Robin George (1889–1943)

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Robin George Collingwood, the English philosopher and historian, was born in Coniston, Lancashire. His father, W. G. Collingwood, friend and biographer of John Ruskin, educated him at home until he was old enough to enter Rugby and imbued him with a Ruskinian devotion to craftsmanship and art and an adult attitude toward scholarship. Although Collingwood later wrote contemptuously of most of his teachers at Rugby and praised Oxford chiefly for leaving him to himself, his undergraduate work in Greek and Latin was excellent and in literae humaniores (philosophy and history from Greek and Latin texts), brilliant. He was elected to a fellowship at Pembroke College in 1912, and to the Waynflete professorship in 1934. Except for a period of service with the admiralty intelligence during World War I, he remained at Oxford throughout his career, until in 1941 illness compelled him to retire.

Although he always considered philosophy his chief vocation, Collingwood was a pupil of the great Romano-British archaeologist F. J. Haverfield. Since he alone of Haverfield's pupils both survived the war and remained at Oxford, Collingwood considered it his duty to transmit Haverfield's teachings to others. Although he was a competent excavator, most of Collingwood's work was theoretical. Both in suggesting questions that excavation might answer and in drawing together and interpreting the results of others' excavations, he was brilliant. The final monuments to his historical labors are his sections on Roman Britain in the first volume of the Oxford History of England (1936; 2nd ed., 1937) and in Tenney Frank's An Economic Survey of Ancient Rome (5 vols., New York, 19331940). To these must be added his extensive contributions to the revised edition of the British section of Theodor Mommsen's Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum, begun by Haverfield, for which Collingwood drew each inscription from his own accurate rubbings.

The consensus of present-day archaeologists appears to be that Collingwood's "imperishably accurate" work on inscriptions will prove more valuable than his works of synthesis and interpretation. Collingwood himself expected that his interpretations would be superseded, but he was convinced that first-rate thinking in history, as in natural science, remains valuable even if further evidence requires that its conclusions be revised. In most of his work his willingness to propose hypotheses was fruitful. He knew something that cautious historians often forgetthat nothing is evidence except for or against some hypothesis.

Collingwood's philosophical work falls roughly into three periods: (1) 19121927, his acceptance of idealism; (2) 19271937, his mature philosophy of the special sciences, conceived as resting on an idealist foundation; and (3) 19371943, his rejection of idealism. His ethical and political views will be discussed separately.

Acceptance of Idealism

In his first book, Religion and Philosophy (London, 1916), Collingwood maintained three doctrines familiar to readers of his later work: (1) that creations of the human mind, no matter how primitive, must be studied historically, not psychologically; (2) that historical knowledge is attainable; and (3) that history and philosophy are identical. What he meant by this third doctrine depends on what he meant by "history" and by "philosophy"; in subsequent years he changed his mind about both.

In his Autobiography (London, 1939) Collingwood related that in 1917 a publisher rejected a manuscript, Truth and Contradiction, in which he had reached conclusions about truth and about the relation between history and philosophy that are characteristic of his thought at a much later period. Those conclusions are that truth or falsity does not belong to propositions but to complexes of questions and answers; that all such complexes rest on "absolute presuppositions" that are neither true nor false; and that since the business of philosophy is to elicit the absolute presuppositions held by different people at different times, philosophy is really a branch of history.

Since Collingwood destroyed the manuscript of Truth and Contradiction after writing his Autobiography, it is impossible to ascertain how closely the earlier work anticipated the later. However, in Ruskin's Philosophy (London, 1920), a lecture delivered in 1919, he asserted that a man's philosophy is "the [set of] principles which he assumes in all his thinking and acting"; and he went on to maintain that since most men do not know what their philosophy is, "it is the attempt to discover what people's philosophy is that marks the philosopher." At least until 1919, therefore, Collingwood conceived of philosophy as a historical investigation of humankind's ultimate and largely unacknowledged principles, but it may be doubted whether Collingwood at that time denied that ultimate principles are either true or false. In Ruskin's Philosophy he sympathized with G. W. F. Hegel's refusal to accept as ultimate any dualism, whether of reason and understanding or of theory and practice. And two years later, in an essay, "Croce's Philosophy of History" (Hibbert Journal 19 [1921]: 263278), he attacked Benedetto Croce for holding that philosophy was being "absorbed" into history, so that it is "cancelled out entirely as already provided for" by history. Collingwood did not then think that either history or philosophy in the ordinary sense could absorb the other but rather that each, if seriously pursued, leads to the other. He agreed with the "idealistic" Giovanni Gentile that they are "poised in equilibrium."

publication of speculum mentis

Speculum Mentis (Oxford, 1924) was Collingwood's first attempt to construct a philosophical system. In it he critically reviewed five "forms of experience," ordered according to the degree of truth each attains.


Art, the lowest form of experience, Collingwood defined after Croce as pure imagination, which he distinguished from sensation, on the one hand, assertion, on the other. Unlike sensation, imagination is active and has its own guiding principle, Beauty. "Beauty," however, must be defined in terms of imagination and not vice versa. As a form of experience, the deficiency of art is that while in itself a work of art is neither true nor false, it inevitably suggests assertions: It is expressive. Despite Croce's definition, then, imagination in art is in conflict with expression in art, and their conflict shows that art alone cannot satisfy the human spirit.


Art gives rise to religion, in which something imagined is affirmed as real. Like art, religion has its own guiding principle, holiness. The artistic consciousness does not affirm that what it imagines is real; but religion, even Christianity, which Collingwood considered its highest form, affirms something imagineda Father in heaven, the Real Presence in the sacrament, the resurrection of the deadas real. These affirmations, Collingwood held, symbolize something true; but religion requires that they be affirmed in their symbolic form: "A philosopher would not be regarded as a Christian for subscribing to a statement which he declared to be a mere paraphrase of the Apostles' Creed in philosophic terms."

Christianity, by affirming the incarnation and atoning death of God, symbolizes the overcoming of the opposition between man and God. This unity of man with God symbolizes man's capacity to attain nonsymbolic, direct knowledge.


Theoretical science is the first form of experience in which man tries by reason to grasp truth. But theoretical science, whether a priori as in mathematics or empirical as in natural science, is abstract. Natural science is the application of mathematics to the empirical world, conceived as subject to laws (mechanism) and composed of an ultimate undifferentiated stuff (materialism). But the world, as we experience it, is not merely mathematical, mechanical, and material. Theoretical science is therefore only supposition: Its truths are hypothetical. It can say truly, "If there were an S, there would be P," where S and P are events in a material world specified in mechanistic terms; but mechanistic terms are not unconditionally applicable to the world of experience. They are abstract; and to abstract is to falsify.


History appears to offer a way of escape from the abstractness of theoretical science; for it treats of the world of experience as a concrete temporal process. In their highest development, all theoretical sciencesphysics and biology no less than the social sciencesassume a historical form. But history, too, has its characteristic deficiency. At bottom it is an extension of the historian's perception; and a perceived world is alien to its perceiver: a spectacle. Perception can never be knowledge because it can never grasp the whole historical process, and what is beyond the perceiver's ken may have implications for what is within it. Every specialist in a period is ignorant of a large part of what came before it, and his ignorance "introduces a coefficient of error into his work of whose magnitude he can never be aware." Even if this were not true, he could not escape the limitation of all attempts at knowledge in which subject and object are distinct. Since what is merely object is alien, it is falsified by the very process of appropriating it.


But one form of experience, philosophy, yields truth. Philosophy is self-knowledge. In it the distinction between knowing subject and known object vanishes. The self that is known is that which has attained all the subordinate forms of experienceart, religion, science, and historyand corrected their distortions. Philosophy has no positive content of its own: It is the awareness of what is true in those subordinate forms. In knowing their limitations it transcends them. Hence the absolute mind exists in the life of each individual mind to the extent that the individual mind raises and solves problems in any form of experience; as long as this process goes on, each mind is infinite. "The truth is not some perfect system of philosophy: It is simply the way in which all systems, however perfect, collapse into nothingness on the discovery that they are only systems."

Mature Philosophy

philosophy of religion

From 1924 to 1930, Collingwood further explored the positions of Speculum Mentis, especially those in aesthetics and religion. For the most part he remained content with his earlier theory of art, but in an essay, "Reason Is Faith Cultivating Itself" (Hibbert Journal 26 [1927]: 314), and a pamphlet, Faith and Reason (London, 1928), he abandoned the doctrine of Speculum Mentis that religion is essentially symbolic. Religion, he argued, can rid itself of superstition. Christianity correctly insists that there is a sphere of faith that transcends reason and is its basis. Neither the belief that the universe is rational nor that life is worth living can be established by scientific or ethical inquiry, yet they un-derlie natural science and rational ethics. Popular Chris-tianity expresses those beliefs symbolically; but symbolizations are not essential to it. The ignorant believer who denounces philosophical or scientific paraphrases of Christian dogmas has no right to speak for Christianity.

philosophy of history

In his Autobiography Collingwood recorded that during the summer of 1928 he finally perceived the flaw that had vitiated his philosophy of history in Speculum Mentis. He presented his revised views in a pamphlet, The Philosophy of History (London, 1930). In 1936 he wrote the lectures that are the fullest statement of these views and that make up the greater part of his Idea of History (Oxford, 1946). The error he detected in Speculum Mentis was that the historical past is a spectacle, an object alien to the historian's mind. It has two roots: the realist error that knowing is fundamentally like perceiving; and the idealist error that the same thought cannot exist in different contexts. Against the realists, Collingwood maintained that every thought is an act that may be performed at different times and by different minds. A historian can know that Caesar enacted a certain thought if he can reconstruct that thought in his own mind (so reenacting it) and demonstrate by evidence that his reconstruction is true of Caesar. Against the idealists, he maintained that, while some contexts change the character of a thought, others do not. The fact that, with my knowledge of modern geometry, I rethink one of Euclid's thoughts, for instance, the forty-fifth proposition of his first book, does not entail that my thought is different from Euclid's.

The key to Collingwood's conception of historical verification is his repeated declaration that historical method is "Baconian," a matter of putting evidence to the question. Given any piece of evidence, more than one reconstruction can be made of the action of which it is a relic. But each reconstruction, taken together with other knowledge, will entail consequences different from those of its fellows. A given reconstruction is established if no consequence that can be drawn from it conflicts with the evidence and if every other reconstruction has some consequence that does conflict with it. If a historian cannot show that one reconstruction, and only one, can be reconciled with the evidence, he must suspend judgment.

Historians must not only show what happened but also explain it. Collingwood proved that the two tasks are accomplished together. The past happenings that historians are concerned to discover are acts; and an act is a physical event that expresses a thought. To discover that an act took place includes discovering the thought expressed in it; and discovering that thought explains the act.

natural science

Just as in The Idea of History and in the writings that preceded it Collingwood had demolished the historical skepticism of Speculum Mentis, so in a set of lectures written in 19331934, which became The Idea of Nature (Oxford, 1945), he renounced his earlier skepticism about natural science and confessed that since "the knowledge acquired for mankind by Galileo and Newton and their successors is genuine knowledge," philosophy must ask "not whether this quantitative material world can be known but why it can be known." His answer to that question, however, was equivocal. Collingwood named three constructive periods in European cosmological thought: the Greek, the Renaissance, and the modern, each with its characteristic view of nature. But he said curiously little about the question, "Why is one view of nature replaced by another?" In his introduction to The Idea of Nature he declared that "natural science must come first in order that philosophy may have something to reflect on," which suggests that views of nature change only as scientific thought changes; but in his exposition of the change from the Renaissance to the modern view of nature and in his criticisms of modern views, he often wrote as though philosophy might decide what is or is not a tenable view of nature without referring to natural science at all.


Abandoning his earlier view that philosophy is no more than awareness of the limitations of subordinate forms of experience, Collingwood, in his Essay on Philosophical Method (Oxford, 1933), assigned philosophy the task of "thinking out the idea of an object that shall completely satisfy the demands of reason." He no longer rejected natural science and history as offering false accounts of such an object. Instead, he described each as limited in its aims. Natural science attempts to find true universal hypothetical propositions; history seeks true categorical propositions, but only about individuals in the world. The propositions of philosophy must be both categorical (about something existent) and universal (about everything existent). Hence, its object can only be the ens realissimum, the being that comprehends all being, of which all finite beings are appearances.

Although distinct from history, philosophy is nevertheless closely allied to it. Just as the various definitions that have been proposed for any philosophical concept constitute a scale of forms, of which the lower are appearances of the higher, so do the various metaphysical systems that purport to give an account of the ens realissimum. The way to knowledge in metaphysics is through critical reflection on its history.

Rejection of Idealism

aesthetics as theory of language

In 1937 Collingwood was invited to revise or to replace his Outlines of Philosophy of Art (London, 1925), in which he had largely followed the theory of art in Speculum Mentis. He chose to replace it; and his new book, The Principles of Art (Oxford, 1938), moved closer to Croce, whose article "Aesthetic" Collingwood had translated for the 1929 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Collingwood began by assuming that an aesthetic usage of the word art has been established in the modern European critical tradition and that it is the business of aesthetics to define what art so used means. The classical definition of art as representation (mimesis ), in all its varieties, confounded art with craft (techne, ars ), that is, with the production of something preconceived. Analysis shows that none of the classical definitions state either a necessary or a sufficient condition of art. Works of art may be, and commonly are, also works of craft. But what makes something a work of art and determines whether it is a good or a bad one is not what makes it a work of craft.

A work of art is an imaginative creation; the function of imagination is to raise what is preconscious (for instance, mere feeling) to consciousness by giving it definite form. Since this activity is expression, Collingwood repudiated his earlier stand and accepted Croce's doctrine that imagination and expression are identical. He also accepted Croce's view that all expression, in any medium, is linguistic; for any form by which the preconscious is raised to consciousness is linguistic. Language thus begins in the cradle. Children speak before they learn their mother tongues.

The primitive language of the cradle is too narrow in range to serve the purposes of any but infants; it must be enriched by "intellectualizing" it so that it can express thoughts as well as feelings. An intellectualized language is one containing "conceptual" terms, and all conceptual thinking is abstract.

An intellectualized language does not cease to be expressive; rather its range of expressiveness is increased. Art is, therefore, not an activity cut off from, say, science. Every fresh linguistic utterance is imaginative and can be considered a work of art. Hence Croce was right when he said that there is poetry without prose, but no prose without poetry. And since it is the nature of art to be expressive, good art is successful expression. Bad art is the malperformance of the act of bringing preconscious thoughts and feelings to consciousness, a malperformance that misrepresents what is thought and felt. It can arise only in a corrupt consciousness. Critics can detect bad art, works of corrupt consciousness, by comparing them with successful works.

philosophy of mind

In his last book, The New Leviathan (Oxford, 1942), Collingwood amplified and corrected the philosophy of mind he had outlined in The Principles of Art. Mind is consciousness, and while every act of consciousness has an object, no act of consciousness involves consciousness of itself. The various functions of consciousness are stratified into orders. The most primitive of them is consciousness of feeling. An act involving consciousness of a primitive act belongs to a higher order. Collingwood distinguished five such orders: primitive consciousness, appetite, desire, free choice, and reason. In principle, there is no upper limit to the orders of consciousness; for in reasoning about an act of reason a higher-order act is brought into being.

Holding that feeling (that is, sensation with its emotional charge) is not an act of consciousness, Collingwood denied that one can become conscious of an act of consciousness by introspection or inner sense. All actsof consciousness are linguistic; mind is the child oflanguage. In analyzing the various forms of language, Collingwood reiterated his conclusion in The Principles of Art that conceptual thinking is abstract, and he expressly repudiated the idealist doctrine that to abstract is to falsify.

All theories of the relation between body and mind betray a philosophical misconception. Body and mind are not two related substances: They are man as investigated in two different ways, physiologically and historically. There is no conflict between physiology and history. To hold that Brutus's movement in stabbing Caesar can be investigated and explained physiologically does not imply that Brutus's act cannot be investigated historically nor does it detract from the value of a historical explanation of that act. Here Collingwood strikingly anticipated Gilbert Ryle's view as expressed in The Concept of Mind (New York, 1950).

later metaphysics

In his Autobiography Collingwood reaffirmed his adherence to the conception of metaphysics as a historical science of absolute presuppositions which he claimed to have reached in Truth and Contradiction. In the Essay on Metaphysics (Oxford, 1940) he amplified this position. Every science, whether theoretical or practical, consists in asking and answering questions; and every sequence of questions rests ultimately on absolute presuppositions that are not answers to questions. Since truth or falsity belongs only to answers to questions, absolute presuppositions are neither true nor false. The task of metaphysics is to ascertain what is absolutely presupposed in a given society and how one set of absolute presuppositions has come to be replaced by another. Metaphysicians, however, must not criticize the absolute presuppositions they discover; for criticism presupposes that they are either true or false. A society does not consciously change its absolute presuppositions. Since most men are quite unconscious of their absolute presuppositions, any change in them is unconscious too and comes about because of internal strains.

Collingwood did not acknowledge what must have been obvious to his readers, that in the Autobiography and in the Essay on Metaphysics he had jettisoned the metaphysics of the Essay on Philosophical Method. His views in the Essay on Metaphysics are so incoherent that some sympathetic critics have ascribed his change of mind to illness. (Both the Autobiography and the Essay on Metaphysics were written while he was recovering from a series of strokes.) However, his conception of metaphysics in the Essay on Philosophical Method, no less than his earlier conception in Speculum Mentis, rested on idealist doctrines from which he had been gradually freeing himself. He still believed that philosophical concepts are not abstract. The doctrine that philosophical propositions are both categorical and universal cannot be detached from the idealist theory of the concrete universal. But both in The Principles of Art (written before his illness) and in The New Leviathan Collingwood explicitly declared that all concepts are abstract.

Although in his Autobiography Collingwood repudiated his earlier idealist conception of philosophy, his views about religion, natural science, and history remained virtually intact. Nor were his views on art altered by his later historicism in metaphysics. This suggests that his change of mind in 1938 may be less fundamental than has been thought. After 1924 the main direction of Collingwood's thought was opposed to skepticism in the special sciences. His earlier skepticism had sprung from his idealistic rejection of abstract thinking and his conviction that philosophical thought is not abstract. By 1938 his work on the philosophy of art and the special sciences had overthrown both these errors, and it became clear that he could no longer hold the idealistic metaphysics of the Essay on Philosophical Method. It is natural that in seeking something to put in its place he reverted to his youthful historicism, and that it in turn proved inadequate. His inability to find a substitute for idealism does not show that he was mistaken in rejecting it; nor does it prejudice his achievements in aesthetics, philosophy of history, and philosophy of mind.

Ethics and Politics

In Speculum Mentis Collingwood recognized three forms of ethics: utilitarian, in which action is conceived as a means to an end; duty or concrete ethics, in which action is conceived as determined by the will to act in accordance with the moral order of the objective world; and absolute ethics, in which the distinction between the individual and society, and with it the sense of abstract law, disappears. The first form was held to be characteristic of science, the second of history, and the third of philosophy. Both in Speculum Mentis and in the Essay on Philosophical Method he represented the forms of ethics on a scale in which the higher forms complete and correct the lower.

Collingwood never renounced this triadic scheme, although in The New Leviathan he proposed a new view of the connection between morality and theoretical science, namely, that theoretical science reflects moral practice. Teleological science reflects utilitarian morality; "regularian" science reflects a morality of law; and history reflects the concrete morality of "duty."

In The New Leviathan Collingwood set out to bring the "classical politics" of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke up to date. He accepted the classical conception of politics as bringing men out of a state of nature into a state of civil society. Essentially, political life is a process in which a nonsocial community (i.e., the state of nature) is transformed into a social one. This cannot happen unless the rulers understand that social life is a life in which people freely engage in joint enterprises. Civilization is "a process whereby a community undergoes a change from a condition of relative barbarity to one of civility." Barbarism is hostility to civilization; but although barbarous communities always strive to destroy civilized ones, in the long run the defeat of barbarism is certain.

See also Aesthetics, History of; Art, Expression in; Croce, Benedetto; Determinism in History; Galileo Galilei; Gentile, Giovanni; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Historicism; Hobbes, Thomas; Idealism; Imagination; Locke, John; Newton, Isaac; Philosophy of History; Presupposing; Renaissance; Ruskin, John; Utilitarianism.


The obituary essays by R. B. McCallum, T. M. Knox, and I. A. Richmond in Proceedings of the British Academy 29 (1943): 463480, together with T. M. Knox's editorial preface to Collingwood's The Idea of History, are indispensable and contain full bibliographies. E. W. F. Tomlin, R. G. Collingwood (London: Longmans Green, 1953) is useful but elementary. Alan Donagan, The Later Philosophy of R. G. Collingwood (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962) treats of Collingwood's work after 1933.

other recommeded works

Collingwood, R. G. Roman Britain. Rev. ed. Oxford: Clarendon, 1966.

Collingwood, R. G. Essays in the Philosophy of Art. Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1966.

Collingwood, R. G. Faith & Reason; Essays in the Philosophy of Religion. Edited by Lionel Rubinoff. Chicago, Quadrangle Books, 1968.

Collingwood, R. G. Essays in Political Philosophy. Edited by David Boucher. Oxford: Clarendon, 1989.

Alan Donagan (1967)

Bibliography updated by Michael J. Farmer (2005)