|A generic cover. Not a generic philosopher|
After reading Collingwood's Autobiography, I started and am in the midst of James Hillman’s The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character about Hillman’s acorn theory of individuals. (To be reviewed after I finish it.) One of the first items he considers in his review of biographical material from a variety of individuals, is this quote from Collingwood’s An Autobiography.
My father had plenty of books, and … one day when I was eight years old curiosity moved me to take down a little black book lettered on its spine “Kant’s Theory of Ethics.” … as I began reading it, my small form wedged between the bookcase and the table, I was attacked by a strange succession of emotions. First came an intense excitement. I felt that things of the highest importance were being said about matters of the utmost urgency: things which at all costs I must understand. Then, with a wave of indignation, came the discovery that I could not understand them. Disgraceful to confess, here was a book whose words were English and whose sentences were grammatical, but whose meaning baffled me. Then, third and last, came the strangest emotion of all. I felt that the contents of this book, although I could not understand it, were somehow my business: a matter personal to myself, or rather to some future self of my own.… there was no desire in it; I did not, in any natural sense of the word, “want” to master the Kantian ethics when I should be old enough; but I felt as if a veil had been lifted and my destiny revealed. There came upon me by degrees, after this, a sense of being burdened with a task whose nature I could not define except by saying, “I must think.” What I was to think about I did not know; and when, obeying this command, I fell silent and absent-minded.
Hillman, James (2013-02-06). The Soul's Code: In Search of Character and Calling (Kindle Locations 270-280). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition, quoting Collingwood, An Autobiography, 3-4
Hillman uses this quote to illustrate his contention that each of has a daimon or genius to which we are called. But it serves as well to locate the subject of the autobiography and the path he will take. This nerdy, precocious, and rather quiet kid became a man who looks as if he could have been a chartered accountant during the inter-war period, or at best, a model for Hercule Poirot—not at all a demeaning model if you’ve read The Idea of History. But his appearance belies the power of his thinking. Collingwood was, by his own admission, a lone wolf even as he arose to the prominence of an endowed chair in philosophy at Oxford. He had no fellow combatants as he challenged the ‘realist’ philosophers that ruled in British philosophy, men like Moore, Russell, Wittgenstein, and their acolytes. And, as Collingwood laments in his book, although his thinking is quite different from the British Idealists who preceded him, because he’d rejected the contemporary realist camp, having tried it and found it wanting, he was dubbed an ‘Idealist’ and shunted aside. One of the interesting aspects of this book, which is really a history—would Collingwood approve of my use of the word ‘history’ here?—of Collingwood’s intellectual development. He writes very respectfully and without any personal venom (Russell perhaps excepted) about forbearers and contemporaries of all stripes, and then he cuts them to intellectual ribbons. This unassuming appearing man wielded an intellectual switchblade.
What makes this book compelling is not just the intellectual firepower, the incisive prose, or the pithy aphorisms, but the fact that this was a man on fire. He was on fire with profound new ideas. And he was on fire because he knew that death was chasing him, threatening to cut him down before he made his ideas known. The history of this book tells us a good deal. It was “written at top speed in the late summer of 1938” according to biographer Fred Inglis. (Inglis, Fred (2009-07-06). History Man: The Life of R. G. Collingwood (p. 217). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.) Collingwood had already suffered minor strokes and he’d realized that he was headed to an early death, which he suffered in January 1943, just short of age 54. Collingwood wanted to get his ideas out, and he disliked the idea of leaving the problems of publication to an executor, as he writes in his Autobiography. In fact, Collingwood’s best-known work, The Idea of History, was published posthumously under the direction of his literary executor, his former student T.M. Knox, and this effort proved problematic, as Collingwood suspected it would. Some of Knox’s choices are hard to defend now, including his undervaluation of Collingwood’s late works, like An Autobiography and The New Leviathan.
Under these time constraints, Collingwood also wanted to make sure that he contributed to the struggle in the wider world, especially against fascism. As his autobiography makes clear, Collingwood wanted not only to think about the world and history, he wanted to change the world and the way that we consider and use history. While some of his ideas about the nature of fascism seem dated now, and his failure to address the ravages of totalitarian communism seems naïve or negligent, the reader does perceive that this is someone who knows that the world has gone badly astray. He is deeply critical of some fellow philosophers, many of whom spin theories more and more abstracted from the outside world. He also lays into the politicians that created the Treaty of Versailles that made such a mess of the post war world. When this seemingly mild-mannered, mild-looking man looks askance at a person or practice, he can take on the visage of a fire-breathing dragon.
If you’re a Collingwood fan, or want to read more about how one man saw the world and philosophy from about 1910 to 1938 and how he grew within that period, then this is an excellent book. And if you want to see an A+ philosopher at work, one who bucked the trends and got a great deal right, then this book is for you.
As I intend to write more about Collingwood in the future, I won’t write more here, but I’ll share a selection of quotes from his book. There’s so much here to ponder: applaud, question, and build upon, but that’s for a later time. Read a bit here and there, and I think that you’ll get a sense of this underappreciated man.
All quotes from of Collingwood, R. G. An Autobiography. Read Books Ltd.. Kindle Edition. Following each quote is its Kindle location: