Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The Idea of History by R. G. Collingwood

Revised edition 1993 with van der Dussen introduction
In the spring of 1973, I took a course in the Philosophy of History through the Philosophy Department at the University of Iowa from Professor Laird Addis. As a text, he assigned Patrick Gardiner's Theories of History (1959) (The field does not move quickly.)  Included in that book were readings from R.G. Collingwood's The Idea of History. Professor Addis also listed Collingwood's book in the syllabus as a work to read in its entirety if we wanted to write about it. I have no recollection of reading any of it. I have no idea of what Collingwood argued. This could be in part the fault of Professor Addis, who was working in his own book with a neo-positivist perspective on history and the social sciences. (The Logic of Society: A Philosophical Study (1975).) Then again, it was probably because I was a dumb kid. Curious, but still behind the curve.

Since then, reading E.H. Carr, John Lukacs, John Lewis Gaddis, Niall Ferguson, Owen Barfield and others writing about history as a way of knowing, Collingwood's name kept popping up. So, in Jaipur, seeing an inexpensive copy (of the revised edition), I popped for it. It made the trip back to China from the U.S. this year, and now I've completed it.

It is a great book. I kick myself for waiting so long to read it.

As a historian-archeologist and as a philosopher, Collingwood knows his stuff. He treats various issues in detail, constructing sophisticated and subtle arguments with appealing, workman-like prose. While the book changes the way we think, it does so without over-taxing our patience or resolve. Indeed, this work, first published after his death in 1943 through the efforts of his former pupil, T.M. Knox, is composed in some part from lectures given by Collingwood as well as from completed essays. But whether a particular part of the book is based on lectures or on written essays, it makes no difference. While reading Collingwood at any juncture, I had the feeling of listening to someone wise discoursing on a topic that he knows deeply by heart.

Collingwood means to bring to history that same questioning attitude that marked the development of the natural sciences from the 17th century on. But he doesn't suggest that history is a weak sibling to natural science; instead, he sees history as the gateway to self-knowledge and to understanding our world. Collingwood stakes out his territory very thoroughly.  For instance, he discusses the nature of evidence for historians, and he draws upon the English detective novel tradition of the 1920s and 1930s--Christie and Sayers pop to mind--to illustrate how the historian proceeds. To bookend this practical concern, he deals with the failings of realist and empirical theories of history. He prefaces all of this with a history of the philosophy of history (not a term coined until Voltaire), taking the reader from Herodotus and Thucydides to his own peers, such as Croce and Oakshott.

I could go on at some length about this book, picking almost any page at random to showcase some profound insight, but I'll stop here with the intention of a deeper exploration in the future.

Do I go too far? The Times Literary Supplement named The Idea of History one of the 100 most influential books in western culture since WWII. Whether  that is correct, I know not, but it should be!