HST287: 16-Sept-2004 Reading Notes
Collingwood, Idea of History
Parts I-IV
Collingwood’s construction of historical thought
“One of the main theses of Collingwood’s philosophy of history is the close relation between history a parte objecti, the historical process, and history a parte subjecti, the thought of the historian. . . The first states that all history should be seen as the history of thought and the second that history is essentially the re-enactment of past thought.” (p.
 - defining philosophy of history: philosophy – thinking about an object (first degree) and thinking about thinking about an object (second degree)
“In the Middle Ages the central problems of thought were concerned with theology…the relations of God and man. From the 16th to the 19th centuries the main effort of thought was concerned with laying the foundations of natural science, and philosophy took as its main theme the relation of the human mind as subject to the natural world of things around it in space as object.” (p.5)
Historical thought has an object with peculiarities of its own
- cannot be measured mathematically because the events are no longer happening
- cannot be apprehended theologically because they are finite and plural, not infinite
 - not by science, which uses observations and experiment (duplication) (p. 5-6)
In the 19th cent. realized that these would not apply to historical thought
His plan: 1) build up an independent (of other philosophies) demonstration of how history is possible
2) work out the connections between this new branch of philosophy and old traditional doctrines
He says the book: “is a philosophical inquiry into the nature of history regarded as a special type or form of knowledge with a special type of object.”
Prime duty of the historian: “a willingness to bestow infinite pains on discovering what actually happened.” (p. 55)
2. History’s nature, object, method and value

To “do” history you must be qualified: more than a superficial knowledge, more than outdated textbook knowledge. Also, must have “reflected” on experience of historical thinking (hence historiography courses!)
a) definition of history: history is a science in that it is interesting in finding things out
b) object of history: to answer questions about human actions of the past
c) how does history proceed: by interpreting documentary evidence
d) what is history for: self-knowledge – knowing yourself and your possibilities
PING! c: who wrote the documents?
PING! d: individualism as reflected by this statement
Occam’s razor: entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem. plurality should not be assumed without necessity (KISS)
Part I: Greco-Roman Historiography
The Summerian example is not history because it is not an answer to a question, are not the fruits of research,  are assertions of what the writer already knows, and do not treat with human actions but godly. It is theocratic history.
Greeks: research into human actions in a dated past (moving right along)
Herodotus (5th century) coined the name history: to find out the deeds of man, what and why
Thucydides expands on this by saying explicitly that human inquiry rests on evidence (p. 20)
Herodotus was “a genius who was not repeated” Thucydides used Herodotus’ line of reasoning only to squash it… (p. 30)
Greeks in general: history is impossible because it deals with perceptions and things that change, not permanence (impact of environment on thought—they lived in a geologically and politically changing world)
History was useful as a way of determining the likelihood of future events so you could guard against them. (p. 24)
Their reliance on eyewitness and cross-examination meant that only accounts of recent past are reliable. Also, limited to that which he knows around him—can’t go investigate something from time or spatial distance. And, no all embracing history.
- barbarians can become Greek
 - Alexander pulled many societies into one
 - a world history could not be written from eyewitnesses, hence compilation
Polybius: “like all real historians [he] has a definite theme; he has a story to tell, …but he begins that story more than 150 years before the time of writing.” (p. 33)
He thinks of himself as the first person to “conceive of history as such as a form of thought having universal value.” (p. 35)
Man is no longer master of his fate: don’t learn history to outwit fate, learn it to stand up to fate’s lashings. (p. 36)
(Romans: history means continuity with the past)
Livy: let’s write a complete history of Rome from day one. And only of Rome, because Rome is the world and the only good thing in it. He doesn’t make claims of good research (though he claims to be a good writer). He emphasizes his moral purpose, and humanism: history is the doings of man. He tries to be critical.
Tacitus is pragmatic, history is between good and evil, his goal to make a point
Greco-Roman history was humanistic, yes, but defect is substantialism “events are important chiefly for the light they throw on eternal or substantial entities of which they are mere accidents.” (p. 43)
Greco-Roman/pagan/ancient man: “controlling his actions and creating his destiny by the work of his intellect” (p. 57)
For Polybius, Rome springs into life already formed
For Livy, Rome’s institutions and people don’t evolve or change, they are either good or bad
For Tacitus, a person is good or bad. If a bad person does good deeds it is only hypocrisy – they are conceling their true nature
So, for the Romans, history is only pragmatic, it does not show evolution or change, not what people are, only what they do.
Part II: The Influence of Christianity
4th-5th centuries: Christianity jettisons optimistic idea of human nature and substantialistic idea of eternal entities
Big ideas:
1) human nature means acting on blind desire and not knowing outcome (original sin)
2) God creates, thus things have a beginning, not “eternal substance”
Thus, the effect on historiograohy
1) history is working out of God’s processes, not man’s
2) God created something from nothing, thus “historical process creates its own vehicles”
3) God created all equal, thus there is no local history, only world history
History will describe providence, describe a universal history, will look for patterns, and will sub-divide into epochs.
Eusebius of Caesarea, 3rd/early4th, a Chronicle of world history showing birth of Christ in the center. A pattern of apocalyptic thinking: “The Day the World Changed”
Method: still based on uncritical reliance on tradition. The task is to discover the divine plan. The risk is to cast discoveries forward to try and foretell the future.
Return to humanistic view. “History thus became the history of human passions, regarded as necessary manifestations of human nature.”
Bacon: not divine plan, not foreknowledge: history for its own sake, an accurate look at the past.
Descartes: we can’t know what really happened. History is escapist, not trustworthy, anti-utilitarian (they can’t really help us know ourselves) and fantasy-building (glorify the past).
Cartesian: latter half of 1600s – take Descartes’ ideas as a challenge - Systematic skepticism and critical thought conclusion – history is undoable
Bollandists: rewrite lives of the saints and dissect the traditions; compare documentary evidence to archaeological evidence
Vico – early 18th – formulating the principles of historical method
1) periods of history have a general character
2) similar periods recur in order (pendulum)
3) not a circle – a spiral – not always exactly the same recurrences, so can’t foretell future
He defines 5 sources of error:
1) exaggeration
2) conceit of nations
3) conceit of learned (‘movers and shakers must have been historians and scholars’)
4) fallacy of sources, “when two nations have a similar idea or institution one must have learned it from the other” Not!
5) ancients knew more about times near their own than do we
Some methods:
1) linguistics can throw light on history
2) so can mythology
3) traditions are true, just fractured
4) study savages now to learn about savages then
1) knowledge comes through experience
2) knowledge “is concerned not with a reality distinct from our ideas but with the agreement and disagreement of our ideas themselves” (p. 72)
3) all ideas are concrete
4) human knowledge may not reach absolute truth but its “good enough for gov’t woik”
Hume: yes, history is a legitimate and valid type of knowledge. Those who recorded it meant what we mean today (Caesar, ides of March) and those who handed it down did so in good faith, so we can trust it sort of.
Enlightenment: secularizing everything. Very apocalyptic-type history. (Ex: the renaissance happened because scholars were expelled from Constantinople, i.e., no systematic look at evolution of history)
motive: polemical and anti-historical: down with religion, only the moderns are interesting, institutions were created to oppress the masses
But at least they wrote from a position of asking for tolerance and view from the masses, not just a top-down approach. (p. 81)
Montesquieu: man is a part of nature, thus nature determines how society will develop. Human nature is a constant altered by his environment
Gibbon: golden age replaced by triumph of barbarism and religion
All of them assume that human nature is forever and always the same, thus they could not think of historical process changing people (or producing different people, eg east/west) and it made Utopias seem possible – learn to get rid of all problems and true human nature will shine through.
Part III: Romanticism
see positive value in other cultures BUT believes in evolution
On the past:
humanists despised Greco-Roman but accepted there were some classics
romanticists see past as worthy of study but less evolved
Herder (1784): organisms develop higher organisms: universe – earth, earth – continents, vegetable life – animal life, animals – human. Man is the culmination. Man has race, thus human nature is not uniform. (father of anthropology: distinguishes different physical types, studies different customs as psychological expression of that physical difference)
 So, still seeing a fixed character of man, just of several different kinds of man.
Kant (1784 – “reply” to Herder, who was his student):
law of nature = plan of history, i.e. history proceeds as if it were governed by immutable phenomena
a) treats nature as if it was some spiritual reality
b) does not take into account effect of viewer on history (viewer is spectator only, not participant)
But he saw the study of history as the education of the human race to become more free and aware. Man is rational and so can profit from the knowledge of others. History is a progress towards rationality.
What force drives man to progress? pride, ambition, greed Kant: “Man desires concord; but nature knows better what is good for his species.”
Improves on Kant – doesn’t place goal of progress in future but shows how aim of history is to explain present. Also, expands beyond political history to include art, religion, economics, etc.
agrees with Schiller: understand the present. Every period of history has a peculiar character of its own.
thesis – antithese – synthesis
blind freedom – authority – revolution so governors are the governed
individual has authority over self – objective truth of science – freedom of art
Collingwood thinks he got some things right:
1) We are people of our own place and cannot see the future. We have a point of view.
The Absolute – history is the self-realization of the Absolute
1822-3. Philosophy of History
history is not just empirical – understand why the facts happened
Nature and history are different. Nature is cyclical and is a system of higher and lower organisms. History is spiral – there are similar repetitions but they are always different in some way. He does not believe in evolution (Collingwood faults him on this.)
History only applies to humans, that is, beings that can act. Also, all history is the history of thought. (Collingwood says: “Hegel was certainly right; it is not knowing what people did but understanding what they thought that is the proper definition of history.” p. 115) Man is both rational and passionate and both contribute to his actions (the cunning of reason is to make men passionate for its own ends). And it is logical—it always works out to its own ends.
Dialectical – thing, opposite, synthesis (Greece, Rome, Christianity) Croce says No! no opposites, just differences
Ideas exist and people can think them because they are there.
It’s the economics, stupid!
He said: I turned Hegel on his head
Hegel: thought – nature – mind (logic determines the pattern on which nature works, nature only determines the environment in which it works)
He meant: nature is more than the environment, it is the source from which patterns are derived (primitive communism, capitalism, socialism). Historical events have natural causes (like the 18th cent. guys thought)
“philosophy acting in the service of natural science” (p. 126)
Positivists definition of natural science; ascertain facts, frame laws
Comte demands sociologists: historians get the facts, sociologists think about them scientifically
Darwin: it’s not evolution that is the new idea, but natural selection
Before: history was progressive, science static (exploring fixed things)
Now, both were progressive: exploring things that change(d)
Early 19th cent. historians were careful to test evidence in two ways:
1) distinguish between early and later bits of documents
2) show how author’s point of view effected statement of facts
Rules of method:
1) each fact can be ascertained on its own
2) each fact is objective—the historian point of view must be (can be?) eliminated
1) too much minutiae – no overall view
2) “just the facts” means no thinking about how the facts effected historical people (“What did the ancients think about slavery?” (p. 132)
because in history there is no “just the facts” like in science
Part IV: Scientific History
End of 19th cent: “revolt against the philosophy that which claimed that science was the only kind of knowledge that existed or ever could exist…on the positive side this new movement of thought was an attempt…to vindicate history as a form of knowledge distinct from natural science and yet valid in its own right.” (p. 134)
Bradley also raises the question of the subjectivity of the historian on the observations he makes of history
experience includes sensation and judgement, intuition and cognition (primary and secondary?)
History is a whole, not isolated events (but the question of history has no answer, he says history is either dead past or only present)
life of a society is merely biological, history is mere spectacle
Windelband: let historians alone!
“fails to see that the peculiarity of historical thought is the way in which the historian’s mind, as the mind of the present day, apprehends the process by which this mind itself has come into existence through the mental development of the past. He fails to see that what gives valueto past facts is the fact that they are not mere past facts, they are not a dead past but a living past, a heritage of past thoughts which by the work of his historical consciousness the historian makes his own” (p. 169)
preserving the unknowable reverbrations of the past into the present
Art is the intuitive vision of individuality. History is only to narrate facts. It is the intuition and representation of the indivisual.
Logic 1909: universal truth is true only as realized in a particular instance.
Natural science is action
Autonomy of history, necessity of history:
history is the self-knowledge fo the living mind.
history is not just collecting/transcribing: it must include criticism, interpretation, and reliving the past experience in one’s own mind.
Questions - Observations - Musings
1) The work is deceptively lucid. Collingwood describes a progression (indeed he sometimes faults past historians for not seeing history as a progression) through various periods of historical thought. However, in the section on ‘Scientific History’ he says “…the early sponsors of these new ideas did their work under the shadow of positivism, and…had great difficulty in disentangling themselves from the positivist point of view. If they succeeded in overcoming this difficulty at certain points of their thought, they relapsed into positivism at others.” (p. 134) This ‘confusion’ and overlapping of historical ideas, events, thoughts, and periods seems a more realistic (or rather, a more recent) view of an idea of history than Collingwood’s tidy categories. However, it is probably unfair to fault his work on what is, probably, a post-modernist, thus historically prejudiced itself, judgment.
(Actually, the work resonates with themes and ideas that have been carried through and developed later in the century, after the usual anti-immediate-past skipping of a generation. Has it been republished and referred to so often because it resonates, or does it resonate because it has been republished? hmmm…the old dilemma…)
2) Collingwood makes several direct statements about what history “is.” For example, : “Hegel was certainly right; it is not knowing what people did but understanding what they thought that is the proper definition of history” (p. 115) He also condemns past writers of history for failing to exhibit the characteristics that he describes in the section ‘History’s nature, object, method and value’: history is a science in that it is interesting in finding things out, its object is to answer questions about human actions of the past, it is done by interpreting documentary evidence, and its purpose is for self-knowledge – knowing yourself and your possibilities. And “Genuine history has no room for the merely probable or the merely possible; all it permits the historian to assert is what evidence before him obliges him to assert.” (p. 204) Unfortunately, it would seem that he is postulating a historiography of exclusion. Obviously a theory of history that included everything would be unwieldy to the point of uselessness, but one is left to wonder how (or if) inclusion of other historical writers would alter his definitions, and how the historian’s choice of evidence directly effects what he is ‘obliged to assert.’
3) Not only does he construct a clear view of what he believes history is, he suggests certain characteristics of the Historian (a very 19th/20th century individual-centric one at that). For example, he calls the prime duty of the historian “a willingness to bestow infinite pains on discovering what actually happened.” (p. 55) and says of Polybius “like all real historians [he] has a definite theme; he has a story to tell” (p. 33) Also, to “do” history he states that you must be qualified: that is, have more than a superficial knowledge, more than outdated textbook knowledge. And you must have “reflected” on the experience of historical thinking. (p. 9-10) His Historian seems firmly grounded in the academic world. While this is probably a Good Thing in that it does set a certain standard for the work of historians, it does automatically limit what could be a rich mine of other writing that could be called historical (or people who pursue history) but that would not necessarily have made its way into the academic world. I’m thinking specifically here about Nina Baym’s recovery of the work of women writers who wrote about history during the American antebellum period. Again, it’s about recognizing and accounting for exclusion…
And an observation with no particular purpose beyond amusement…
At the risk of falling victim to a “Vico-ism” by positing that history repeats itself in spiral form (that is, similar events recur, though in forms changed by their new historical setting) it is hard not to recognize some of his historical categories in works published today. Specifically, I’m reminded of the favorite apocalyptic form of history that results in books with titles like “The Day the World Changed,” “Ten Events that Shook the World” etc. (Indeed, anticipating and defining apocalyptic moments has become something of an industry in the technology world where people race to claim “the next killer app” or “the year of the blog, the year of wireless networking…”!)
"History as Re-Enactment: R.G. Collingwood's Idea of History." (Letters in Canada 2000)_(book review) Michael Stack.  University of Toronto Quarterly Winter 2001 v71 i1 p321(3)
Canadian Journal of History, April 1997 v32 n1 p145(3)
History as Re-Enactment: R.G. Collingwood's Idea of History. (book reviews) Joseph M. Levine.
"Better for philosopher’s than historians” Collingwood believed that the doctrine of reenactment could not readily be understood by anyone who had not done it” p. 146
History as Re-Enactment. (Review)_(book reviews) Lionel Rubinoff.
      Dialogue: Canadian Philosophical Review Summer 1999 v38 i3 p679(5)
On History and Philosophers of History. (book reviews) Alan Donagan.
      History and Theory Feb 1991 v30 n1 p90(6)

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hope.greenberg@uvm.edu, created/updated: 9-Sept-2004
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