Saturday, June 20, 2020

Comparing the Thought of Hannah Arendt with That of R.G. Collingwood: Some Surprising Similarities--Part 1

[N.B. This is a work in progress, shared at this point to focus my thinking and, I hope, to elicit suggestions and criticisms. When circumstances allow (I hope no later than mid-July), I plan to return to this essay and continue the exploration in more depth.]
Hannah Arendt (`906-1975)

R.G. Collingwood (1889-1943) 

The focus of this blog post is to explore the similarities and differences (to a lesser extent) between the thinking of Hannah Arendt and R.G. Collingwood. Collingwood died before Arendt gained her fame as a political thinker and before she'd published anything of significance in English (if anything at all). In all likelihood, Collingwood had no acquaintance whatever with Arendt, and he didn't engage directly with her mentors Heidegger and Jaspars. Neither have I found Arendt engaging Collingwood, although I'd be surprised if she was not aware of his posthumously published work The Idea of History (1946), which became the most important work about the philosophy of history in her lifetime. Her peers, such as Leo Strauss, reviewed Collingwood's The Idea of History. But as yet I've found no reference by Arendt to Collingwood's work. But despite their lack of direct engagement, I contend that these two thinkers, informed and prompted by the Great War, the Crisis Years (1919-1939), and the Second World War, share a great deal in common, especially in their understanding of politics and related matters, such as the importance of thinking, freedom, action, speech and other topics within the sphere of politics and life. It's my intention in this post to begin this exploration and then in later posts drill down into their similarities---and note differences as they become apparent. This initial blog includes some background about both thinkers that readers may already know.

I offer this summary of points of similarities between these two thinkers that I intend to explore in this post and one or more later posts:
  1. Background
    1. Both report an early interest in Kant that led to an interest in philosophy in general.
    2. Both exhibited a deep desire to understand from an early age.
    3. Both pursued an early interest and aptitude for learning Greek and Latin that resulted in profound knowledge of classical culture.
    4. Both displayed an early interest and commitment to thinking.
    5. Both thinkers report that they were prompted to action in response to the political turmoil caused by the rise of fascism in the 1930s,
    6. Both shared deep and perceptive readings of Marx, although neither was a Marxist.
    7. Both thinkers were deeply steeped in the Western philosophical tradition.
  2. Mature thinking 
    1. Both thinkers placed an emphasis on action.
    2. Both thinkers placed an emphasis on freedom, especially freedom as exhibited in thought and action.  Collingwood often refers to action as res gestae
    3. Both thinkers placed an emphasis on the importance of speech.
    4. Both thinkers placed an emphasis on the political community (Collingwood preferred the term "society" but he uses it in a sense quite distinct from Arendt's formulation of the term).
    5. Both thinkers placed a premium on thinking.
    6. Both thinkers placed an emphasis on practice informing theory.
    7. Both were critical of traditional Western metaphysics.
    8. Both opposed illiberalism (with liberalism understood in its original sense of emphasizing individual liberty and dignity, the rule of law, etc.).
    9. Both acknowledged the importance of the state.
    10. Both were outspoken in their profound critiques of fascism. 
  3. Miscellaneous topics
    1. Both were critical of psychology as a field of study and of psychoanalysis in particular.
    2. Both wanted to separate "economics" from politics, although Arendt seems much more strict in her desire for separation while Collingwood seems to want only to emphasize the distinctness of the two fields. 
    3. Both often sprinkled their texts with ancient Greek and Latin words and phrases, which can prove daunting for the reader. (Query: why doesn't Kindle have a translator function at least for Latin?)
    4. Both were wary and at times downright dismissive of academia and academic discourse. 
    5. Neither of these thinkers founded a school of thought in any traditional sense, although both had (and have) those who've hailed and extolled their work. Neither thinker seems to have desired to found or foster any unique school of thought, nor did either of them adhere to any particular school. In short, both thinkers are unique. But neither founded a school, unlike some of their illustrious processors, like Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Kant, Hegel, or their peers, who promoted schools of thought like phenomenology, logical positivism, pragmatism, and such. 
[N.B. You can skip the next two paragraphs if you choose, these simply recount my path to these two thinkers and how I now see each in light of the other. In other words, it's a "how I got here" narrative. I (sometimes) appreciate a writer's personal narrative about how she or he came to a topic and the path of the writer's inquiry, but you may not.]

As an undergraduate student in political theory, I developed an intellectual crush on Hannah Arendt. I become quite enamored of her thought, even to the point that in a class in which her work was only one of many considered, the instructor had to remark on my final evaluation that he'd have preferred that I'd not focused my interest to markedly on Arendt. And while you might say that I outgrew my intellectual crush, her thought continues to inform my thinking about politics (and law) over the years. The advent of Trump and his despotic, authoritarian bent--perhaps we might even say his fascism--sent me back to thinking about Arendt and referencing her insights. 

Also while an undergraduate, I was exposed to the thought of R.G. Collingwood in a philosophy of history class. That exposure didn't take. I'm believe that I read the assigned piece taken from Collingwood's  The Idea of History, but it didn't sink in, and I came away with only a name in the back of my head. Now fast-forward from my undergraduate days at the University of Iowa in 1974 to 2012, when I took up residence for about a year in Jaipur, India. Not far from where we lived in Jaipur was an Oxford University Press bookstore with relatively cheap "South Asia" editions of many titles, including Collingwood's The Idea of History (rev. ed.). I bought it, knowing that it was a classic in the field of thinking about history. Politics and history are two topics that had intrigued me since I was a kid (the law came later). I bought a copy. I didn't really dig into the book until we were living in China in 2014-2015, but when I (finally!) read IH for the first time, I was quite taken with both the book and with Collingwood. I've been reading and re-reading Collingwood since then, delving into his work not only about history, but also his work in moral theory, politics, art, religion, anthropology, and metaphysics. (He published widely in Roman history and archeology as well, but the prior topics are quite enough for me.) If Arendt was a youthful crush, Collingwood has proved a late summer romance. (I don't want to admit to autumn just yet.)

This spring, under the cover of the pandemic, I returned to Arendt via a Virtual Reading Group sponsored by the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College. Thus, I've been reading Arendt along with Collingwood (primarily his The New Leviathan, his volume dedicated to thinking deeply about politics), and I've been struck by the many similarities in their thinking. Thus I propose in the remainder of this post to explore some of the similarities (and differences) that I've noticed. I'll start on the surface and then work my way down into some of the particulars of the intersections of their thought.

R.G. Collingwood was born in the Lake Country in northern England near Connistan Lake in 1889. He was "home-schooled" until he shipped at age 13 to Rugby School. Collingwood describes his schooling in his Autobiography:
UNTIL I was thirteen years old I lived at home and was taught by my father. Lessons occupied only two or three hours each morning; otherwise he left me to my own devices, sometimes helping me with what I chose to do, more often leaving me to work it out for myself. It was his doing that I began Latin at four and Greek at six; but my own that I began, about the same time, to read everything I could find about the natural sciences, especially geology, astronomy, and physics; to recognize rocks, to know the stars, and to understand the working of pumps and locks and other mechanical appliances up and down the house. 
Collingwood, R. G.. An Autobiography. Read Books Ltd.. Kindle Edition. 
Here is one particular event that struck young Collingwood and that stuck with him. He reports the incident and reflects upon its effect upon him:
My father had plenty of books, and allowed me to read in them as I pleased. Among others, he had kept the books of classical scholarship, ancient history, and philosophy which he had used at Oxford. As a rule I left these alone; but 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’. It was Abbott’s translation of the Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten; and 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. It was not like the common boyish intention to ‘be an engine-driver when I grow up’, for 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 in company, or sought solitude in order to think without interruption, I could not have said, and still cannot say, what it was that I actually thought. There were no particular questions that I asked myself; there were no special objects upon which I directed my mind; there was only a formless and aimless intellectual disturbance, as if I were wrestling with a fog. [Emphasis added.]
Collingwood, R. G.. An Autobiography. Read Books Ltd.. Kindle Edition. 
In this extended quote, make a mental note of Kant, understanding, thinking, and solitude.

Collingwood went on to Oxford before The War and then to the Admiralty during The War (because of a bad knee). Collingwood completed his undergraduate work (before the War) with flying colors. Classicist Mary Beard describes Collingwood's educational experience at Oxford:
 But it is surely crucial that [Collingwood] was a product of the old Oxford ‘Greats’ (that is, classics) course, which focused the last two and a half years of a student’s work on the parallel study of ancient history on the one hand, and ancient and modern philosophy on the other. Most students were much better at one side than the other, and most stories tell of the desperate attempts by would-be ancient historians to cram enough Plato, Descartes and Hume to get their high-flying pass in the final exams (or alternatively of desperate attempts by would-be philosophers to remember enough of the Peloponnesian War or Agricola’s campaigns in Britain to do the same). In the context of Greats, Collingwood was not a maverick with two incompatible interests. Given the educational aims of the course, he was a rare success, even if something of a quirky overachiever; his combination of interests was exactly what Greats was designed to promote.
Later, Collingwood would hold not only the Waynflete Chair in Metaphysical Philosophy but also positions in Roman history and archeology. Collingwood spent many summers working at archeological sites around Britain.  The takeaway here: Collingwood was extremely well versed and active in classical studies.

Let us now turn to the background of Hannah Arendt. Arendt was born in 1906 in Hanover, Germany, making her almost a generation younger than Collingwood. Arendt lost her father at a young age, and she was raised in Konigsberg, Germany, the lifelong residence of Immanuel Kant. She was raised in an assimilated Jewish family, although she reports "I did not know from my family that I was Jewish. My mother was completely a-religious." (Arendt, Hannah. Essays in Understanding, 1930-1954 (p. 6). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition). Yet she became aware from an early age--because of anti-Semitic comments made at school--that her Jewish background made her "special" in some ways. As to her education and interests, Arendt reported the following in an interview on German television with Gunter Gauss broadcast in 1964:
GAUS: You studied in Marburg, Heidelberg, and Freiberg with professors Heidegger, Bultmann, and Jaspers; with a major in philosophy and minors in theology and Greek. How did you come to choose these subjects?
ARENDT: You know, I have often thought about that. I can only say that I always knew I would study philosophy. Ever since I was fourteen years old.
GAUS: Why?
ARENDT: I read Kant. You can ask, Why did you read Kant? For me the question was somehow: I can either study philosophy or I can drown myself, so to speak. But not because I didn’t love life! No! As I said before—I had this need to understand.The need to understand was there very early. You see, all the books were in the library at home; one simply took them from the shelves. [Emahasis added.]
Arendt, Hannah. Essays in Understanding, 1930-1954 (pp. 8-9). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. 
Later, to complete her graduate studies under Karl Jaspars, Arendt wrote her dissertation about the concept of love (caritas) in St. Augustine, which she continued to revise even after her emigration to the United States. (This book was translated and published in English in 2014 as Love and Saint Augustine.)

Finally, I should note that Arendt reported that "I have always loved Greek poetry. And poetry has played a large role in my life. So I chose Greek [as a topic of study] in addition [to philosophy and theology]. It was the easiest thing to do, since I read it anyway!" Id. (p. 9).

Collingwood's education at Oxford in the pre-war period, in addition to his work in "the Greats," was overseen by professors who came to be labeled the "Oxford realists," who had displaced the British idealist tradition of Green, Bosanquet, and Bradley from the summit of British philosophy. Collingwood later came to sharply criticize the Oxford realist school of philosophical thinking. Collingwood taught himself Italian to read Dante in the original, and his fluency in Italian allowed him to be greatly influenced in his early years by the contemporary Italian philosophers Benedetto Croce (whom he translated), Guido De Ruggiero, and Giovanni Gentile (although Collingwood came to distance himself from Gentile's work, which turned overtly fascist after The Great War and the rise of Mussolini). After the War, Collingwood took up teaching at Oxford, and he eventually ascended to the Waynflete professorship in 1935. But despite his long tenure at Oxford and the prominence to which he rose there, he issued some sharp criticisms of academia. And also despite his pleasant demeanor and popularity as a lecturer, Collingwood remained a philosophical lone wolf. Starting in the 1920s and growing in the 1930s, British philosophy was marked by the rise of logical positivism and linguistic analysis with the likes of Bertrand Russell, G.E. Moore, Wittgenstein (early and late), J.L. Austin, A.J. Ayer, and Gilbert Ryle starting to come to the fore and establish schools of thought that took the main stage. And the philosophy of history, one of Collingwood's long-running topics of investigation, was shunted to the side by followers of the new mainstream of thought. Collingwood had many readers and admirers, but no followers or successors in the sense that there is a Collingwoodian tradition in philosophy.

While Collingwood was establishing himself in Oxford in the 1920s, Hannah Arendt was beginning her collegiate education. Her education included studying with some of the biggest names in German thinking at the time: Heidegger, Jaspars, Bultman, and Husserl, along with a cohort of exceptional peers. She was matriculating through the German academic system until the Depression arrived in 1929 when a new round of anti-Semitism wouldn't allow a young Jewish woman to gain an academic position. The 1933 Reichstag fire sealed her fate. She was arrested but released after eight days. She fled Germany and went to Paris. There she became active in a Zionist organization, although she herself was not a Zionist. With the successful invasion of France by Germany in 1940, Arendt escaped France and proceeded to the U.S., where she lived and worked the remainder of her life. Upon settling in the U.S., she turned her attention to the politics and realities of totalitarianism and published The Origins of Totalitarianism in 1950, which brought her into the limelight. After the events in Germany in 1929 and the early 1930s, she abjured the label "philosopher," and she came to call herself a "political theorist," although her last work, The Life of the Mind, which was published after her death in December 1975, seems to have marked a return to philosophy. At no time in her life did she hold a tenure track professorship, keeping her distance from the formalities and practicalities-- and what she believed to be the pitfalls--of academia.

The final surface similarity that I want to touch upon is perhaps the key one; that is, the impingement of events upon these two individuals from the rise of fascism in Europe in the 1930s and the outbreak of war. In Arendt's case, the effect upon her is obvious and easily understood: a young Jewish woman fled the Nazi regime in 1933 after her arrest, becoming a refugee in France before fleeing (one may say in a nick of time) to the U.S.  Arendt's young life was totally upended and altered by the course of political events in Europe in the 1930s and 1940s. That she should turn to political action (especially in France before the war) and then to political theory to understand what happened is not surprising.

Collingwood's case, however, is more complicated. Through most of the 1930s, Collingwood was deeply engaged in his work as a philosopher at Oxford. Like Britain as a whole, many in the community at Oxford were not keen to become involved in international affairs or to push Britain into a more active role in opposing the rise of Hitler. But by 1937 both the affairs of the world and Collingwood's health were declining. Collingwood suffered from uncontrolled high blood pressure, and the only recognized treatment at the time was "the rest cure," which Collingwood undertook by sailing and also taking a long voyage to Indonesia. Despite these steps, he began to suffer a series of increasingly serious strokes. Collingwood traveled in addition to his seafaring, visiting Catalonia and the Mediterranean in the 30s and seeing first-hand the effects of the civil war in Spain and the rise of fascism in Italy. But the public didn't learn of his thoughts about the crisis in Europe until he published his An Autobiography in 1939 (written in 1938). In that remarkable work, Collingwood wrote about his upbringing and education and his thoughts about philosophy and philosophers. He also revealed his newfound political ardor. In his Autobiography, he frames his new political consciousness as a part of his effort to reconcile theory and practice. He writes:
I can now see that I had three different attitudes towards this survival   [of the medieval distinction between contemplation and action]. There was a first R. G. C. who knew in his philosophy that the division was false, and that ‘theory’ and ‘practice’, being mutually dependent, must both alike suffer frustration if segregated into the specialized functions of different classes.  
There was a second R. G. C. who in the habits of his daily life behaved as if it had been sound; living as a professional thinker whose college gate symbolized his aloofness from the affairs of practical life. My philosophy and my habits were thus in conflict; I lived as if I disbelieved my own philosophy, and philosophized as if I had not  been the professional thinker that in fact I was. My wife used to tell me so; and I used to be a good deal annoyed.
 But underneath this conflict there was a third R. G. C., for whom the gown of the professional thinker was a disguise alternately comical and disgusting in its inappropriateness. This third R. G. C. was a man of action, or rather he was something in which the difference between thinker and man of action disappeared. He never left me alone for very long. He turned over in his sleep, and the fabric of my habitual life began to crack. He dreamed, and his dreams crystallized into my philosophy. When he would not lie quiet and let me play at being a don, I would appease him by throwing off my academic associations and going back to my own part of the country to address the local antiquarian society. It may seem an odd form of ‘release’ for a suppressed man of action; but it was a very effective one. The enthusiasm for historical studies, and for myself as their leader in those studies, which I never failed to arouse in my audiences, was not in principle different from the enthusiasm for his person and his policy which is aroused by a successful political speaker.
 Collingwood, R. G.. An Autobiography. Read Books Ltd.. Kindle Edition. 
Collingwood continued his reflection by noting his enthusiasm when reading Marx:

The third R. G. C. used to stand up and cheer, in a sleepy voice, whenever I began reading Marx. I was never at all convinced either by Marx’s metaphysics or by his economics; but the man was a fighter, and a grand one; and no mere fighter, but a fighting philosopher. His philosophy might be unconvincing; but to whom was it unconvincing? Any philosophy, I knew, would be not only unconvincing but nonsensical to a person who misunderstood the problem it was meant to solve. Marx’s was meant to solve a ‘practical’ problem; its business, as he said himself, was to ‘make the world better’. Marx’s philosophy would necessarily, therefore, appear nonsensical except to a person who, I will not say shared his desire to make the world better by means of a philosophy, but at least regarded that desire as a reasonable one. According to my own principles of philosophical criticism, it was inevitable that Marx’s philosophy should appear nonsensical to gloves-on philosophers like the ‘realists’, with their sharp division between theory and practice, or the ‘liberals’, such as John Stuart Mill, who argued that people ought to be allowed to think whatever they liked because it didn’t really matter what they thought. In order to criticize a gloves-off philosophy like that of Marx, you must be at least enough of a gloves-off philosopher to think gloves-off philosophizing legitimate. 
Collingwood interrupted the recounting of his newfound creed by reporting that
My attitude towards politics had always been what in England is called democratic and on the Continent liberal. . . . I thought that no authoritarian government, however strong, could be so strong as one which rested on a politically educated public opinion. As a form of government, I thought its essence lay in the fact that it was a nursery-garden where policies were brought to maturity in the open air, not a post office for distributing ready-made policies to a passively receptive country. .  . . I did not think that our constitution was free from faults. But the discovery and correction of these faults was the function of governments, not of individual voters. For the system was a self-correcting one, charged with amending its own faults by legislation. . . . . 
The whole system, however, would break down if a majority of the electorate should become either ill informed on public questions or corrupt in their attitude towards them: by which I mean, capable of adopting towards them a policy directed not to the good of the nation as a whole, but to the good of their own class or section or of themselves.
Collingwood continued his account by discussing changes in British politics during his lifetime and the rise of socialism and fascism on the continent. Collingwood looked favorably upon socialism in its striving for the "collective good," but he disdained fascism:
The great exponents of Fascism have been specialists in arousing mass-emotion; its minor adherents, tacticians and plotters.
He moved to a discussion of the Spanish Civil War and arrived at the conclusion that
The Spanish civil war was a straight fight between Fascist dictatorship and parliamentary democracy. The British government, behind all its disguises, had declared itself a partisan of Fascist dictatorship. 
Collingwood concluded his work with these words:
Fascism. I know that Fascism means the end of clear thinking and the triumph of irrationalism. I know that all my life I have been engaged unawares in a political struggle, fighting against these things in the dark. Henceforth I shall fight in the daylight.  
More of the same attitude and an even deeper look at politics came from Collingwood's The New Leviathan: Or Man, Society, Civilization and Barbarism (1942), the last work published during his lifetime. (Collingwood died in January 1943.) The New Leviathan furthers the intent laid down in the Autobiography to gain a greater understanding of political life. In the preface to The New Leviathan Collingwood states:
My own book [in distinction from Hobbes's work] is best to be understood as an attempt to bring the Leviathan up to date, in the light of the advances made since it was written, in history, psychology, and anthropology. The attempt was undertaken, and the writing of the book begun, almost immediately after the outbreak of the present war; when first it became evident that we did not know what we were fighting for, and that our leaders were unable or unwilling to tell us. 
Collingwood, R. G.. The New Leviathan. Read Books Ltd.. Kindle Edition. 
I will not go into further detail about that book here except to say that it lays out a very complete statement about non-social and social (political) life. (If you're worried about his selection of Hobbes as a role model, please take a look at my recent review, where I quote Collingwood about his selection of a role model, which he addresses in his Preface.)

[End of Part 1. Because of my commitments over the next couple of weeks or more, it will probably be a week or more into July before I can return for another post that will drill down in the particulars of each thinker's ideas about politics in general and particulars such as thinking, understanding, freedom, and so on.]

1 comment:

David Pierce said...

Hi Steve, I hesitate to say much about Arendt before finishing *The Human Condition,* but when she says for example

> the Greeks in their classical period declared the whole field of the arts and crafts, where men work with instruments and do something not for its own sake but in order to produce something else, to be *banausic,*

I wonder if she recognizes what I think I learn from *The Principles of Art* of Collingwood, that before there can be "arts and crafts," there must be something---call it just "art" or "expression"---that we do not do for the sake of anything else, because we don't really know yet what it is that we are doing, and *that* is why we are doing it!