April 26, 2023

Robin George Collingwood

R. G. Collingwood's works include "The Idea of History" and "The New Leviathan; Or, Man, Society, Civilization and Barbarism."


Robin George Collingwood FBA (22 February 1889 – 9 January 1943) was an English philosopher, historian and archaeologist. He is best known for his philosophical works, including The Principles of Art (1938) and the posthumously published The Idea of History (1946).

An excerpt from, "How the untimely death of RG Collingwood changed the course of philosophy forever" By Ray Monk, Prospect Magazine, September 5, 2019:

In the 20th century an unfortunate gulf opened up in philosophy between the “continental” and “analytic” schools. Even if you’ve never studied the subject, you might well have heard of this one split. But as the British moral philosopher Bernard Williams once pointed out, the very characterisation of this gulf is odd—one school being characterised by its qualities, the other geographically, like dividing cars between four-wheel drive models and those made in Japan. Unsurprisingly, no one has come up with a satisfactory way of drawing the line between them. Broadly speaking, however, one can say that the continental school has its roots in the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl, and encompasses a range of diverse traditions, including the existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre, the structuralism of Ferdinand de Saussure, the postmodernism of Jean-François Lyotard and the deconstructionism of Jacques Derrida. The analytic school, meanwhile, has its roots in the work of Gottlob Frege, Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein and has been until fairly recently much more narrowly focused, concentrating mainly on logic and language. The divide is certainly strange and arguably arbitrary, but it none the less cut deep. For decades, it was possible to do a degree in philosophy at a major university in the UK or the US without once encountering any of the continental philosophers mentioned. This splintering of the discipline would have appalled many philosophical greats from earlier ages. And—just possibly—the great schism would never have set in at all, had RG Collingwood, one of the most remarkable, open and eclectic minds of the 20th century, not died prematurely in 1943. But as it was, his Oxford chair was filled by Gilbert Ryle, a man in whose image British philosophy was soon remade. And a man who did more than his fair share to entrench the gulf.

Before the Second World War Ryle had been sympathetic to continental streams of thought, delivering a measured account of Husserl’s work to the Aristotelian Society in 1932, and reviewing Heidegger’s Being and Time with respect (even if with robust dissent) in 1928. He even gave what he later called “an unwanted course of lectures” at Oxford on the work of Bolzano, Brentano, Husserl and Meinong. But after the war, dissent hardened into hostility, and, in place of respect he offered derision. Things came to a head in 1958, at Royaumont in France. A conference had been held here to connect a group of continental philosophers (mostly French phenomenologists) and their Oxford counterparts, with the aim of bridging the gap between their two schools.

But, as if determined instead to reinforce it, Ryle gave a paper called “Phenomenology versus ‘The Concept of Mind,’” the latter being the title of his most famous book. That “versus” captured his pugnacious mood. In this paper, Ryle outlined what he regarded as the superiority of British (“Anglo-Saxon,” as he put it) analytic philosophers over their continental counterparts, and dismissed Husserl’s phenomenology as an attempt to “puff philosophy up into the Science of the sciences.” British philosophers were not tempted to such delusions of grandeur, he suggested, because of the Oxbridge rituals of High Table: “I guess that our thinkers have been immunised against the idea of philosophy as the Mistress Science by the fact that their daily lives in Cambridge and Oxford colleges have kept them in personal contact with real scientists. Claims to Führership vanish when postprandial joking begins. Husserl wrote as if he had never met a scientist—or a joke.” To invoke the old cliché about Germans lacking a sense of humour was bad enough, but talking about “Führership” at a time when memories of the Nazi regime were still raw was crass in the extreme. And yet, in this paper, Ryle did it, not once, but twice: British philosophers, his second “quip” ran, “have not worried our heads over the question ‘Which philosopher ought to be Führer?’” Unlike the Germans, he seemed to suggest, the British trusted in logic rather than leadership: “At least the main lines of our philosophical thinking during this century can be fully understood only by someone who has studied the massive developments of our logical theory.” Awkwardly for Ryle, two out of the three founders of what he called “our logical theory,” namely Frege and Wittgenstein, were continentals. 

However, as Russell and Wittgenstein had both worked at Cambridge, he was able, at a stretch, to characterise it as “The Cambridge Transformation of the Theory of Concepts.” The jingoism of one scholar would, ordinarily, have been something the world of philosophy could have laughed off with a shrug. But unfortunately there was nothing ordinary about Ryle. He was Waynflete Professor of Metaphysics, the oldest and most prestigious chair of philosophy at Oxford, by far the largest British philosophy department—and this deep but curiously narrow thinker used this lofty position to remake the British discipline in his own image. If there was any 20th-century philosopher who might have merited Führer jokes, it was not a continental: it was Ryle himself. Indeed, Michael Dummett, who was until his death in 2011 Ryle’s successor as the most eminent philosopher in Britain, called Ryle “the Generalissimo of Oxford philosophy.” British philosophy in the mid-20th century was extraordinarily monolithic, and Ryle dominated it. As the editor of Mind, then as now the British discipline’s most prestigious journal, from 1947 to 1971, Ryle could strongly influence, and sometimes dictate, what subjects British philosophers discussed and how they discussed them. Moreover, as the accepted leader of philosophy at Oxford, he was able to exert a personal influence on a good proportion of the philosophers who staffed the philosophy departments in the fast-growing number of post-war universities. Most of these young philosophers had been graduate students at Oxford, many supervised by Ryle himself and then “placed” by him. I remember, soon after I was appointed at Southampton in 1992, attending the inaugural professorial lecture of my colleague Tony Palmer. An older colleague was reminiscing about when Tony was first hired as a junior lecturer, 20 or so years earlier. “We had a vacancy,” he told me, “so I called Gilbert and asked him who he could recommend.” That is how the philosophy departments at British universities came to be staffed by what Jonathan Rée has called “Ryle’s lieutenants.” Throughout those departments, British philosophers propagated Ryle’s sense that he and his colleagues were doing philosophy in a way that broke sharply both with philosophers of the past, and with those from other countries. Their way was the better way, and philosophy from earlier times and other places wasn’t really worth bothering with. Ryle’s long-lasting dominance of British philosophy—and his contempt for that undertaken elsewhere—had many far-reaching consequences. But one was the unfortunate neglect of his immediate predecessor in the Waynflete chair, Robin George Collingwood.

Video Title: Discussing R.G. Collingwood's philosophy and legacy with L.P. Koch. Source: MindMatters. Date Published: February 12, 2022.