Monday, February 2, 2015

The Principles of History & Other Writings in the Philosophy of History by R.G. Collingwood

Hardcover image but read on Kindle
Sometimes awe and modesty compel us to brevity where otherwise we’d feel need to blather on at length. This will be a short post, not because the subject doesn’t merit a lengthier treatment. To the contrary, it merits so much more. So I hope that this post is just in the way of a trailer or preview of what I hope in time to consider at more length.

R.G. Collingwood is a late arrival on my radar. In fact, he was probably a part of my undergraduate syllabus in my Philosophy of History course, but he didn’t stick. Now, I’m learning about him, as he keeps popping up, as it were. Last year in India, I bought a copy of The Idea of History, his masterwork, which The Times Literary Supplement selected as one of the most influential books published since the Second World War. But I haven’t read that book yet. So why this book, less famous and published much later?

First, it’s on Kindle, which means that it is accessible to me know (unlike my copies--yes, copies--of The Idea of History now in storage). But perhaps an even better reason—or excuse—for reading this first book comes from the history of the writings themselves.

Collingwood in his prime
By the late 1930s, Collingwood, then in his early forties, knew that his health was failing. He went on a writing and publication flurry. He’d lectured at Oxford on various occasions in the 1930s about his philosophy of history and historiography. In 1939, during a long cruise intended to bolster his health, he began writing The Principles of History, a companion of sorts to his book The Principles of Art. However, because of his failing health, the advent of WWII, and two other writing projects he wanted to complete, he set the project aside. Death took him in early 1943, with his work about history unpublished in book form. After his death, literary executor, T.M. Knox, brought together several of Collingwood’s writings, including lecture notes, and published them through Oxford University Press as The Idea of History. And as I mentioned, it proved quite a success (at least according the standards of its peer group.) Knox left out some papers, but the source was considered exhausted. Except it wasn’t.

In 1995, archivists at Oxford University Press discovered the (uncompleted) manuscript of The Principles of History that Collingwood has written during his 1939 cruise to Indonesia. They also discovered some papers on other topics as well. The new materials didn’t reveal any startling new positions or arguments made by Collingwood, but they helped to complete his positions and to reveal his overall plan. He'd intended to publish two volumes on the subject of history. The Idea of History covered much of this area, but not all of it, nor in the manner that Collingwood had intended. The Principles of History helps to fill the gaps. Given the depth and significance of Collingwood’s thought, this book provides us with even deeper insights into his unique and compelling ways of thinking about history.

I hope to explore the topic of history and knowledge in depth in a project that I’ve dubbed “history as a way of knowing” (or perhaps history as the way of knowing), which will trace the ideas of Collingwood, Owen Barfield, and John Lukacs and show how their thoughts can inform our thinking. In the meantime, if you’ve any interest in how we think about history and how we judge its fruits, you must read this book.

P.S. I will also post this review on my Persuasive Life blog with some additional comments there about evidence, imagination, detection, and the like that Collingwood addresses and that have a lot to do with courtroom issues.