Posts Tagged ‘The Idea of History’

     I am the moderator (or “list-owner”) of a long standing online discussion list on medieval history (MEDIEV-L).   One prominent participant on that list is Bernard Bachrach, of the University of Minnesota, an authority on the early Middle Ages, particularly the Merovingian and Carolingian periods.   Almost any time that a discussion touches on the theory or philosophy of history, Professor Bachrach is known to advise people to read R. G. Collingwood.   After many years of this this, I was finally compelled to do so.   R. G. Collingwood (1889-1943), like Benedetto Croce (who influenced him), was both a historian and a philosopher, and his works on the philosophy of history can be found in a reedition of his The Idea of History, revised edition, with Lectures 1926-1928, edited with an introduction by Jan Van der Dussen (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993).   The Idea of History was first published posthumously in 1946. Here are some quotations from his writings, and a few of my own observations in response.


Collingwood describes history as “a kind of research or inquiry … [into] res gestae, actions of human beings that have been done in the past.” (p. 9)   But his is no Rankean idea of history. He is not interested in history “as it actually happened”, for even if we could know that, it is not really very interesting. For Collingwood, history is not simply an account of what people did, which is mere chronicle. “For the historian there is no difference between discovering what happened and discovering why it happened.” (p. 177)   “What the historian is looking for is … processes of thought. All history is the history of thought.” (p. 215)


Collingwood takes this to an extreme, as for him, “all history is the re-enactment of past thought in the historian’s own mind.” (p. 215)   The historian is not interested in events in themselves, nor even in their causes but in the thought that lies behind the events. “The cause of the event, for him, means the thought in the mind of the person by whose agency the event came about: and this is not something other than the event, it is the inside of the event itself.” (p. 214-215)   History, for Collingwood, is quite a subjective endeavor. “What particular parts and aspects of the past we now recall by historical thought depends on our present interests and attitudes towards life…” (p. 203)


Much of the scholarship of history, Collingwood rejects as what “Croce calls philological history. As thus misconceived, history consists in accepting and preserving testimony, and the writing of history consists in transcribing, translating, and compiling. Such work is useful, but it is not history; there is no criticism, no interpretation, no reliving of past experience in one’s own mind!” (p. 204)   Surely these actions that Collingwood describes as transcribing, translating, and compiling are more than useful – they are essential to the work of history, but I would agree that they are not the object of history. I would agree with Collingwood that we are trying not simply to know what happened in the past. History is more than a list of facts and events. We want to understand what happened, and for Collingwood that means getting inside the head of the actors. “Unlike the natural scientist, the historian is not concerned with events as such at all. he is only concerned with those events which are the outward expression of thoughts…” (p. 217)


It is interesting to see how Collingwood treats historical sources. In his Lectures, he makes a statement with which almost any historian would agree: “We depend in history, on sources, we do not depend on authorities: that is, we are not at the mercy of our informants’ knowledge and veracity.” (p. 392) But in The Idea, he goes much farther: “… far from relying on an authority other than himself, to whose statements his thought must conform, the historian is his own authority and his thought autonomous, self-authorizing, possessed of a criterion to which his so-called authorities must conform and by reference to which they are criticized.” (p. 236)   Now, I would certainly agree with him on the rethinking of authorities as sources, and on the need to be critical in our use of them. But it seems to me to go a little too far to say that the historian’s own mind must be the authority. Rather, we need to compare the sources against each other, and against our own critical thought, bringing to bear any other knowledge that we might have. Yet I would agree with his final result of his reasoning, which is that “ … every new generation must rewrite history in its own way; every new historian, not content with giving new answers to old questions, must revise those questions themselves.” (p. 248)   The mere compilation of “authorities” he describes as “scissors and paste history”, and credits Vico with putting forward the notion that “the important question about any statement contained in a source is not whether is is true or false, but what it means.” (p. 260)


Collingwood’s notion of what history is has implications for the proper subject of history. The subject of history is “that which can be re-enacted in the historian’s mind.” (p. 302) It is not nature, not experience, not “even thought itself”.   Biography is not history, nor is autobiography. This might seem somewhat inconsistent with his philosophy, as he says “the record of immediate experience with its flow of sensation and feelings faithfully preserved in a diary or recalled in a memoir, is not history.” (p. 304)   He does not fully explain why not (perhaps because it is too subjective), but it would certainly seem to be an aid to getting into the thought of an actor. He is also somewhat inconsistent in saying that “even thought itself, in its immediacy as the unique act of thought with its unique context in the life of an individual thinker, is not the object of historical knowledge.” (p. 303) But later he writes: “Historical knowledge, then, has for its proper object thought: not things thought about, but the act of thought itself.” (p. 305)   He also concludes: “This amount to asking whether there can be a history of memory or perception. And it is clear that there cannot.” (p. 305)   This would come as a surprise to many historians today who work on those very topics.


What does Collingwood have to say about some common issues in historical thought? Progress: “The idea of history as a progress from primative times to the present day was, to those who believed in it, a simple consequence that their historical outlook was limited to the recent past.” (p. 328).   Human nature: “It is the task of the historian to discover what principles guided the persons whose action he is studying, and not to assume that these have always been the same.” (p. 475) (Compare to the idea of Ortega y Gasset, mentioned in my earlier post.) Judgment and history: Here again, he is inconsistent. In one place, he writes: “True history must be absolutely passionless, absolutely devoid of all judgments of value of whatever kind.” (p. 402) His rationale for this is that those events are past and gone and to pass judgment on them is futile. We cannot change them by judging them. Yet, elsewhere he writes: “All history is tendentious, and if it were not tendentious nobody would write it. At least nobody except bloodless pedants, who mistake the materials of history for history itself, and think they are historians when they are only scholars.” (p. 398)


Now it may not be fair to expect Collingwood to be completely consistent in his philosophy of history, since all of these writings were compiled over a period of time, and only published after his death. He did not have the opportunity to reconcile them.   Overall, I find these writings to be a very thoughtful encounter with the idea of historical knowledge, and well worth reading and thinking about for those of us who do historical research, and even for those who just like to read history. In the end, I think his greatest idea is that the object of history is not simply to discover what happened, but also why it happened, by getting into the thoughts of the actors. That is the true goal. And it is really for one purpose: to help us to understand the present. “The purpose of history is to enable us to know (and therefore to act relatively to) the present.” (p. 406)   For this reason, present concerns must drive our study of history. “All history is contemporary history.” (p. 202)

Yet, probably the most interesting idea he puts forth is that the historian must “reenact” history in his own mind. That is what brings true understanding.   This is an idea that merits more discussion.   My thanks to Professor Bachrach for inspiring me to read this.


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