Thursday, September 7, 2017

Collingwood's "Man Goes Mad" with comments Pt. 11

The gorgeous English countryside; but now we must be grounded in place and planet

At this point in the essay, which Collingwood labeled as Part Three, the argument takes an unexpected turn into humankind's deepest roots and the (relatively) recent history of liberalism. 

At bottom, European civilization, with all its offshoots in America and elsewhere, is an agricultural civilization.
            As a matter of economics, this is a commonplace. Everyone knows that . . . our daily meals come from the soil; and that, if eating is the basis of life, agriculture is the basis of our civilization.
 A civilization, in order to be real, must have, as we might say, three dimensions. It must have complexity, or an elaborate system of responses to various situations, such as the need for nourishment, the need for human intimacies, the need for protection against enemies. It must have continuity, or identify with itself in its own past: each element in its structure must have grown out of something that was previously there. And it must have vitality: those to whom it belongs must believe in it, and refuse to part with it except in exchange for some new civilization which they can recognize as its legitimate continuation and heir.
            To these three dimensions of civilization correspond three dimensions of mental life. Its complexity is a function of intelligence, the wit or skill by which man, like other animals, invents his responses to new situations. Its continuity is a function of memory, the self-conscious knowledge of one’s own present as the outgrowth of one’s past. Its vitality is a function of emotion. If any of these failed, civilization would perish.

. . . .
 The question I am raising in this chapter is whether these emotions are in health or not. Of course, our civilization is not merely agricultural; it is much else besides; it is commercial, industrial, scientific, and so forth; and in order that we should possess it in its fullness we must feel strongly concerning all these developments of it. But that from which we have developed is not something past and dead, which we can now afford to ignore; it is the living root on whose life their life depends; and to care for them, a without any longer caring for it, would be like caring for our furniture and clothes while easing to care for our own bodies, or caring for victory in a scientific debate without caring for the truth. 


  1. Collingwood grew-up in the Lake District, not far from John Ruskin. Collingwood's father was a disciple of Ruskin's, and Collingwood was deeply steeped in that tradition and that of the ancient English countryside. In short, Collingwood's feel for the land and its ancient history was not gained through books; expanded and expressed by books, but known first at an experiential level. 
  2. Although not recounted in the quotes above, Collingwood notes some of the changes wrought by modernity; for instance, how beginning in the seventeenth century, Europeans began turning their primary interest from God to Nature, and the natural sciences that could help tame Nature. Of course, commerce and industry also grew more prominent. 
  3. Although he does not state it expressly (at least thus far in his essay), Collingwood seems to be adopting the perspective of those who identify a certain rootlessness and disconnection in modern life, with its cities and the increasingly hidden rhythms of Nature and an agricultural world. 
  4. As someone who advocates for "the garden" as a fundamental metaphor by which we should continue to live, I'm very sympathetic of Collingwood's train of thought here. Indeed, we're realizing more and more of the damage that human actions have done to "this best garden" in which we live. In Shakespeare's Henry V, the cardinal decries the spoiling of this "best garden" France by war and plunder. But now we realize (or should realize) that this "best garden" is no longer limited a certain nation or locale, but it is our entire Planet Earth.