Robin George Collingwood

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Robin George Collingwood

The English historian and philosopher Robin George Collingwood (1889-1943) did important historical research on Roman Britain and made original contributions to esthetics, the philosophy of history, and the philosophy of mind.

Born at Coniston, Lancashire, R.G. Collingwood received his early education from his father, a painter and a friend and biographer of John Ruskin. Under Ruskin's precepts Collingwood was trained in the arts and crafts in addition to the classical languages. At the age of 14 he went to Rugby to prepare for college. He did brilliant work at Oxford and was elected to a fellowship at Pembroke College in 1912. During World War I he worked in the Admiralty Intelligence Division in London; after the armistice he returned to teaching at Oxford and was elected Waynfleete professor of metaphysical philosophy in 1934.

Throughout his teaching career Collingwood spent his summers working on archeological digs in Britain. He regarded this work as a laboratory in which he could test his philosophical theories about the logic of inquiry and about the relationship between history and philosophy. His many publications in this field culminated in his contribution to the Oxford History of England.

Collingwood's philosophical work falls into three periods. There was first a youthful period in which he sought to free himself from the realist doctrines of his Oxford teachers. This culminated in his Speculum mentis, a comparative study of five forms of experience arranged in an ascending order of truth: art, religion, science, history, and philosophy.

In the middle period of his writing Collingwood produced Essay on Philosophical Method. He expanded the insights of this work in The Idea of Nature and The Idea of History. His overall conclusion was that it is the task of philosophy to explore the presuppositions by which earlier cultures produced their characteristic views on nature and life. The implication is that once the historical part of this task is done, one can raise philosophical questions about the adequacy or truth value of the varying presuppositions. In his last period Collingwood seemed to deny philosophy any independent role—it is absorbed into the history of thought.

Collingwood's work in the last 5 years of his life shows defects and inconsistencies that can be traced in some measure to his rapidly declining health. In 1938 he suffered the first of a series of strokes which finally incapacitated him. He died on Jan. 9, 1943, leaving a number of manuscripts and incompleted works, some of which were published by his literary executors.

Further Reading

Collingwood's An Autobiography (1939) follows his maxim that "all history is the history of thought" and describes the development of his ideas with only scattered biographical details. Alan Donagan, The Later Philosophy of R. G. Collingwood (1962), is the best critical work on Collingwood and also contains a bibliography.

Additional Sources

Collingwood, R. G. (Robin George), An autobiography, Oxford etc.: Oxford University Press, 1978. □

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Robin George Collingwood