Collingwood's Idea of History & Speculum Mentis


The Living Force
FOTCM Member
Awhile back I finished R.G. Collingwood's political treatise, which he write just a couple years before his passing, called The New Leviathan: Man, Society, Civilization, and Barbarism (so subtitled after the four sections of the book). Similar to Speculum Mentis and The Idea of History it had an interesting perspective on humanity, society, civilization, and barbarism that I think overlaps very strongly with our understanding of the Networking, the Gurdjieffian school, criminal thinking, even some Stoic and (in limited contexts) Pauline ideas. The predominant line of force is pro-freedom (in both the Stoic and liberal sense) and anti-Fascism and Nazism (which Britain was fighting against at the time).

A synopsis from GoodReads:

The New Leviathan, originally published in 1942, a few months before the author's death, is the book which R. G. Collingwood chose to write in preference to completing his life's work on the philosophy of history. It was a reaction to the Second World War and the threat which Nazism and Fascism constituted to civilization. The book draws upon many years of work in moral and political philosophy and attempts to establish the multiple and complex connections between the levels of consciousness, society, civilization, and barbarism. Collingwood argues that traditional social contract theory has failed to account for the continuing existence of the non-social community and its relation to the social community in the body politic. He is also critical of the tendency within ethics to confound right and duty. The publication of additional manuscript material in this revised edition demonstrates in more detail how Collingwood was determined to show that right and duty occupy different levels of rational practical consciousness. The additional material also contains Collingwood's unequivocal rejection of relativism.

What I found most edifying about the book was how it built a bridge directly between levels of a person's being, awareness, and cognition, and the types and degrees of social organization he or she was capable of. Admittedly how he uses terms like rulers, civilization, etc. are quite different from how we use the terms colloquially. I though it was a different and refreshing perspective in a number of ways.

Below I go through each section and summarize key points.


In the first section Collingwood lays out the foundations for studying the mind itself epistemically, and he does so by contrasting it with behaviorism and reductionism to physicalist definitions. He claims that a scientific understanding of what humanity is physically and mentally cannot contradict one another, and although the body and mind are connected the relationship (as so far as it can be studied) is indirect because there are two ways we may know ourselves; the first is by seeing our own mind and human relationships from the inside out through self-observation and reflection; the second means studying humans physiologically from the outside. An example of this is the concept of free will; that we make decisions is a first-order object of consciousness, and cannot be argued about any more than the statement "I see blue" can be a matter of dispute. Collingwood calls ignoring this the Fallacy of Misplaced Argument.

One of the fruits of this line of thought was learning to study the body itself not as a physical machine the sensation as such of a mind having a body. From this he discusses the concept of feeling, and the vagaries how feelings can be nonspecific and be close or far until they become a first-order object of consciousness (i.e. perceived by conscious awareness).

When I attend to a red patch in my here-and-now, my act of attention really makes the edges of that patch. Edges nowhere exist in the here-and-now as actually ‘given’. They have to be made by the various acts of attention that cut it up in various ways.

4. 29. People often say ‘I am conscious of’ or ‘I am conscious that’ when they mean ‘I know’. ‘I am conscious of an impending change in the weather’ is a short way of saying ‘I am conscious of a peculiar pain in my shoulder: I recognize that as rheumatism; I know by experience that I get rheumatism when the weather is going to change’, or something like that. What is important is that nobody should suppose the man to be seriously implying that a future change of weather is an object of consciousness. 4. 3. Consciousness is the root of knowledge, but it is not knowledge. Knowledge is a highly specialized form of consciousness containing many elements which are not present in simple consciousness. 4. 31. In order to know anything I must not only be conscious, I must reflect on that consciousness. This reflection on simple consciousness I call second-order consciousness. Until consciousness is made an object of reflection there can be no knowledge, because there is no knowledge without, first, the performance of certain specialized operations of thought and, secondly, consciousness of these operations as having been actually

While some of the handling of information in this section would benefit from being informed more by neurology, the lines of force in this section overlap strongly with the ideas of The Work, and that we have progressive gradations in the development of our second- or third-order consciousness.

One essential aspect of this development is what he called the Law of Primitive Survivals: "When [a more primitive aspect of the psyche] is modified into [a more advanced form] there survives in any example of [the advanced form], side by side with [it] an element of... its primitive or unmodified state." The types of states he places in graduation in increasingly consciousness and self-reflection are as follows, for which he devotes at least a chapter to:
  • Feeling
  • Appetite
  • Passion
  • Desire
  • Choice
  • Reason
  • Utility
  • Right
  • Duty
These were an interesting exercise, and although people may quibble about the nature of some of these mental functions and how they're ordered of thinking. (For example he considers Love in the sphere of Appetite to be a subclass of the appetite Hunger, although how he defines hunger at this level is quite different from its colloquial use.) Collingwood states the devleopment of these things can be highly irregular, given what I would describe as the fallen state of humanity. The development of the mind through these stages it neither guaranteed nor predictable, and in certain situations or conflicts a mind may "fall" from a higher state to a lower one. Collingwood defines the following as the Law of Contingency: the earlier terms in a series of mental functions do not determine the later.

While there are stages above and beyond choice and reason, in essence it's only once people have graduated to the ability to make choices and maintain decisions in light of other feelings, appetites, passions, and desires that Collingwood considers a person to have reached a level of mental maturity, which allows them to participate in Society proper.


In this section Collingwood first must create a distinction in the reader's mind about what a society is and isn't. To do this he divides the word society as it is used in English into two separate concepts: society and community.

A community is essentially a class of people who share an attribute. There is a community of Americans, for example, or Japanese-Americans, or people who enjoy a particular park or fruit. People in this community are joined by resemblance, and there are many, many communities.

A society proper is a subclass of community. A society is a community of free agents who decide to act collectively to fulfill an Aim. A person cannot be born into a society; they may only join it after acquiring freedom and agreeing to the Aims set forth by the society. A society rules itself by the activity of its member's collective will; a society is a self-ruling community.

A non-social community, contrasting a society, has its existence ruled by something other than itself. A society may rule a community, but a community may never rule a society because there is no unified agency which is capable of ruling. A community is ruled or controlled effectively by what keeps it a community and what maintains it. A human village contains a broad community of adults, children, incompetents, and criminals, but only those adults who have have attained freedom and self-determination and collectively endeavor (perhaps to look after the interests of the village itself) can be said to be in society.

The simplest form of society is two people coming together to trade items. But sometimes these societies break down because of the inability of either party to negotiate sufficiently to create a common agreement. Perhaps an agreement is reached but one member fails to realize as he is he would not be able to fulfill its obligations. This may either be a deficiency of the thinking necessary to complete and fulfill the aim; otherwise it may be the result of interference of baser mental functions that may cause a person to forget themselves and the obligations they are to discharge as a member of the society of two. In either case a person "falls" out of that society because the ability to execute the act according to common understanding is compromised.

A society may remain wherein there is still a conscious attempt from both parties to reach understanding, which is a first installment of understanding and society in itself. But it is also possible an agreement is entered into on false pretexts, where an individual has no intention of fulfilling their end of an agreement. This properly defined according to Collingwood is not a society, but the understanding is not shared that this is a con job. It instead is merely a community (which exists by virtue of the two belonging to the same class that permits the fraudulent interaction to exist).

To me there is a lot of overlap between Collingwood's concept of a society and what Gurdjieff would term a school, and what we here would term a colinear network. Mandatory is a common aim and common understanding. There is also overlap with some of Lobaczewski's work on ponerogenesis, which in the words of Collingwood describes the long-term decomposition of higher, freer forms of human minds into lower, baser forms, and also the decomposition of societies into non-social communities (more on that in the section on Barbarism). The western network of oligarchs could be said to be "in society" together because they have a common aim and understanding, but they and the more low-level civil servants would be less in society because the bureaucrats and everyday clerks aren't really in on the actual agenda. The rulers are in no society with the common people, whom they regard as cattle.

22. 1. A FAMILY is what I call a mixed community; that is to say, one part of it is a society (I shall call this the family-society): the other part, which I call the nursery, is a non-social community. 22. 11. Most communities, if not all, are mixed communities; as the reader will see if he thinks for himself.

22. 43. Once children are born they have to be looked after. They need an ordered or regular life, and cannot of their own initiative either provide or demand it. 22. 44. To do either, they would have to have a will, and a child needs a regular life long before it has a will.

24. 71. The world of politics is a dialectical world in which non-social communities (communities of men in what Hobbes called the state of nature) turn into societies.

The distinction between dialectical and eristic conflict is essential to Collingwood's understanding how how individuals, societies, and communities interact. He imports these concepts from Plato; he describes eristical argument as an attempt to prove oneself right and one's opponent wrong, and dialectical argument as one in which both opponents attempt to show that they really do agree with one another about fundamentals, in spite of one or both of the initial understandings seeing differently. An eristic process is about winning the conflict, and defeating the other (in whatever guise that conflict manifests), and a dialectical process moves participants from non non-agreement to agreement, and thereby builds common understanding and lays the groundwork for joint action (i.e. society).

Collingwood's description of what a body politic is quite concise:

25. 1. POLITICAL life is the life characteristic of a body politic. 25. 11. A body politic is a non-social community which, by a dialectical process also present in the family, changes into a society. 25. 12. At a relatively early stage in this process (there is no stage at which it has not yet begun to operate) the body politic is a mixed community (22. 1) consisting of a social nucleus and a non-social circumnuclear body. The first are called the rulers; the second the ruled.
25. 26. These three problems (the problem of determining a way of life for the council; of determining a way of life for the nursery; and of determining the relation between the two) have all to be solved by the. council, and are the main part of what is called the constitutional problem.
25. 34. As long as there is a body politic there must be a ‘state’. It cannot ‘wither away’, though it may so change as to be unrecognized by short-sighted observers; because there will always be work for it to do. The birth of new babies into the body politic, and the time-lag between their birth and the attainment of mental maturity which releases them from the necessity of being ruled by others and others from the necessity of ruling them, forbid a final solution of the constitutional problem.

Hierarchies in a society mixed with a non-social community consist of those with greater knowledge, awareness, and wills dealing with the most straining and difficult problems, whereas those lower down are also independent persons but whose wills are weaker and are set on solving easier problems. This society and principle of rule affects members of the non-social community via a concept similar to magnetic induction, where the higher through sympathetic resonance inspire the lower to rise. Similar to the notion of early students in the work hand their wills over to a teacher who provides structure and a surrogate will, those in society may influence by induction those in the non-social community to act with greater purpose and objective reason. Thus a body politic is a complex of a society and non-social community where people attempt to put others on the step behind them to continue to fulfill the social mission.

Describing societies as an exercise in shared understanding and action places it in a very mental plane. The author flatly rejects any comparisons between civilizations or societies and living organisms, which all move through phases of growth, aging, and dying. This was a prevalent view in at the time, and Spengler's book The Decline of the West was a product of its thought. Living things may grow and die, but there is nothing which guarantees a similar outcome to a society and civilization (more on the latter later). This is a view in part of his that not only overlaps with his concepts of history, but also of a reaction to Fascism, which is a reactionary appeal to a stage of history that has in Collingwood's view come and gone.

Modes of Political Action

Utility, right, duty, are all concepts describing types of actions in an ascending grade that society may develop or employ.

28. 5. Political action in its utilitarian form is called policy. A policy is a political end pursued by political means, or political means used in pursuit of a political end. The end is an object of will pursued by a ruling class: the means is an object of will pursued by a ruling class in order thereby to realize the end.

28. 6. The second rational form of political action, the third form altogether, is law. Law is the political form of right; it is regularian action in its political form.

28. 61. We know that regularian action in general involves two ‘actions’ or decisions (16. 33), distinguishable parts of a single complex action (16. 3), one a generalized decision to do many things of a specific kind on occasions of a specific kind (16. 32), the other an individualized decision to do one act of the specified kind now, an occasion of the specified kind having arisen. The first decision is called making a rule, the second is called obeying it.

....Promulgating a law in that case is a step towards training the ruled to co-operate with the rulers, and is therefore an article of political wisdom.

28. 8. The third form of rational action is duty.

28. 81. Doing your duty (17. 8) means doing (i.e. deciding by an act of free will) the only thing you can do (decide by an act of free will).

28. 82. A man’s duty is a thing which for him in his present position, both internally or with respect to his ‘character’ and externally or with respect to his ‘circumstances’, is both possible and necessary: something he can freely decide to do, and the only thing he can freely decide to do.

The development of utilitarian action into rightful action, and finally into dutiful action represents a development of reason such that all the elements of a decision left to caprice and irrational thinking have been purged. In this state society functions the most meticulously because the various minds that constitute it have sufficient understanding of the aims and rights that everyone would act the same in the same situation with the same knowledge and awareness, which allows for much greater and sophisticated coordination. This is of course an abstract ideal, one which all civilizations pursue (defined as a mix of a society and non-social community that strives to increase civility and reduce force and fraud).

Collingwood devotes two chapters to external politics (or “foreign relations”), in which the nature of relations between different societies are investigated.

29. 5. The dialectic of external politics is a process whereby problems arising out of relations between different bodies politic, about which they do not agree at first, are converted from matters of non-agreement into matters of agreement....

29. 63. War is a state of mind. It does not consist in the actual employment of military force. It consists in believing that differences between bodies politic have to be settled by one giving way to the other and the second triumphing over the first.

29. 64. War is the eristic of external politics: the practical attitude towards a problem in external politics which consists in assuming that it cannot be settled dialectically by agreement but must be settled eristically by the victory of one party over the other.
30. 99. War serves the cause of peace, and is therefore politically justified, when it is the only available method of discouraging a people who are individually the victims of their own emotions, and collectively a prey to the tyrannous but popular ‘rule’ of a sub-man whom they hail as a superman, from pursuing abroad an aggressively belligerent policy, the natural extension of the tyranny to which they are accustomed at home, and forcing them to realize that the only way to prosperity at home is through peace abroad.

Collingwood's view on how a society should handle the matter of force with another society is thrown in an interesting light when you consider the following:

29. 88. If A attacks B because he is afraid of B and is convinced that he must hit first, the blame is shared. A is acting, admittedly, like a criminal lunatic; but B is to blame for having been so foolish as to frighten him into a fit of aggressiveness.

This places external consideration front and center when it comes to dealing with external parties to a shared network, just as much as is important as when there is merely one individual encountering and dealing with others in everyday life. It is a wholesale hostility to any emotional notion of blame or entitlement, due to its caustic effect on the minds and freedom and autonomy of individuals who may be assailed by emotional thinking but (if the society is to survive) must not succumb to it.

Collingwood blames the instigation of unnecessary war and conflict on three potential sources, which dovetail together:
1. Men charged with the conduct of external politics are confronted by a problem they cannot solve. To solve it would be to solve it peaceably, that is dialectically. They would solve it in that way if they could; but they fail.
2. The internal condition of the body politic is unsound. Because law and order have not been well enough established, to maintain it requires conflict via force or fraud to exact compliance from the non-social community.
3. Because the rulers are in dispute or disagreement. Being in disagreement they risk falling out of society, factionalizing, and resorting to force or fraud or deception against one another. This paves the way for ill government and therefore increased conflict with other societies.


Collingwood generally defines civilization (noun) as a society whose aim seeks the increased enfranchisement of the non-social community into common understanding and to increase the power of the society over the natural world. The noun civility is particularly important for this process. Civilize can also be a verb describing the process of a community becoming more civil and social.

35. 4. If the civilization of a community means the process of bringing it into a condition of civility (34. 72), and if the first constituent of civilization concerns the relation between any one member of that community and any other (35. 38), the first constituent is the process of bringing members of the community to behave ‘civilly’ to one another.

35. 41. Behaving ‘civilly’ to a man means respecting his feelings: abstaining from shocking him, annoying him, frightening him, or (briefly) arousing in him any passion or desire which might diminish his self-respect (13. 31); that is, threaten his consciousness of freedom by making him feel that his power of choice is in danger of breaking down and the passion or desire likely to take charge (13. 67).

Civility as understood by Collingwood describes behavior that calls people to act with greater self-respect, free choice, and objectivity. It is fundamentally about appealing to the best in people and their potential to create ever wider spheres of mutual understanding and intent. Treating someone in the opposite fashion is cultivating an attitude of Servility:

35. 43. To behave towards a man in such a way as to arouse in him uncontrollable passions or desires, with the resulting breakdown of his will, is to exercise force over him (20.5 seqq.). 35. 44. The ideal of civil behavior in one’s dealings with one’s fellow-men, therefore, is the ideal of refraining from the use of force towards them.

What's also essential in the definition of civilization is its description of how it circumscribes the relationship of individuals with the natural world:

35. 5. A community that is ‘civil’ in relation to the natural world is one which (a) gets from the world of nature what it needs in the way of food, clothing, and satisfactions for the other demands it makes upon that world; (b) not merely gets these things but gets them as the fruit of its own industry; not receiving them as gifts but earning them by its own efforts; (c) gets them not merely by labour but by intelligent labour: a labour directed and controlled by scientific understanding of that natural world which it aims at converting into a source of supply for man’s demands.

What's also essential to the definition of civilization is the preservation of knowledge and discovery. As an example Collingwood uses knot-tying. One time someone learned how to make a bowline or overhand knot, and this knowledge was remembered and spread from person to person for millennia. The author is always careful to emphasize the immanently practical aspect of knowledge and ability, which at its root is what serves the essence of joint action that composes a society and larger civilization.

36. 46. The mainspring of the whole process is the spirit of agreement. So vast a body of knowledge (I call it knowledge, but it is not the kind of thing logicians call knowledge; it is all practical knowledge, knowing how to tie a bowline, knowing how to swim, knowing how to help a lambing ewe, how to tickle a trout, where to pitch a tent, when to plough and when to sow and when to harvest your crop) can only be brought together in a community (for it is too vast for the mind of one man) whose custom is that everybody who has anything to teach to anyone else who wants to know it shall teach it; and that everybody who does not know a thing that may be useful for the betterment of living shall go frankly to one who knows it, and listen while he explains it or watch while he shows it, confident by custom of a civil answer to a civil question.

The growth of society and civilization begins with struggle with the self and one’s appetites and passions:

36. 81. It is true, but it does not so terribly matter, that our feelings and appetites and passions and desires are inextricably confused and hopelessly contradictory; because, within limits, we can ignore them and make decisions.

36. 82. We cannot prevent ourselves from having these confused emotions of friendliness and unfriendliness to our fellow-men. We cannot prevent them from impelling us towards an ‘eristical’ life in which we try to hurt and crush and destroy other men, glutting our lust for power on the death and blows we distribute among them, and towards a ‘dialectical’ life in which we try to live at peace with all men, forming ourselves with them into societies for the prosecution of common purposes arrived at by dint of discussing the situation in which from time to time we find ourselves and the possible methods of dealing with it.

Aside from the general call to meritocracy in society and politics, Collingwood's view on the body politic and civilization does inform his opinions on more specific issues. These include wealth accumulation, law and order, and education.

Civilization and Wealth

Collingwood defines wealth as a relative term to contrast communities, which have different abilities to extract resources from nature due to different levels of knowledge and as a consequence have different levels of demands. The author insists that, generally speaking, the more resources a community can extract from nature the more uses they find for those resources and so the greater their demand becomes for those resources. Contrariwise if a community can no longer access a resource it soon ceases to demand it unless it is obtained again. I can think of some exceptions to this but it seems true to me. Wealth is essentially something that belongs to a community; an analogous term to compare individuals may be the term riches.

Differences in wealth and richness between communities and individuals respectively create power differences (i.e. differences in the ability to exercise force) in human relationships. For people to be in society there must be joint understanding and action. Each trade ideally is a formation in which people come together and exchange over a fair price, which Collingwood defines as "the price for which I am willing buy or sell something when no force or fraud is exercised upon me." This means in essence a civil exchange.

There are many instances where people can be forced under duress to engage in exchanges whereby they do not feel as better off as their objective reason says they ought to. Economic forces such as supply and demand can work against such a person, or forces such as negotiation tactics or other types of pressure or deception, etc.; these are all ways of arousing emotions that can threaten a more balanced and objective decision to buy or sell something (including one's labour). Collingwood characterizes this economic power difference as an affront to civility, and by implication says all relations between rich and poor have an element of barbarity and servility to them, which must be examined by the society or rulers to deem how necessary this is to their ends. The question of wealth inequality is a dialectical one, with more wealth and servility on one end and less wealth/greater civility on the other.

While it has some progressive elements, this view lies in contrast with ideas such as Marxism, where as per historical results a forecasted eristic victory of the proletariat over the bougeoise ultimately produces neither equality nor civility. This also differs from the libertarian view that sees people as disinterested rational calculators. That is a model of a pure society in Collingwood's terms, where people share common understanding and undertake all things voluntarily with free will and reason. Its Achilles Heel is that it lacks a model of how such a society is to interact with less social aspects of the community, where things like emotion do interfere with a person's freedom. That people can trigger one another to get emotional and act against their enlightened self-interest is not recognized as a form of force/fraud by libertarians; whereas it understood as so by Collingwood. As to who's right, type a reply below and share your thoughts.

Law and Order

Collingwood staunchly defends the rule of law in society. This seems like a no-brainer, but keep in mind this was written amidst WW2 in Europe, where regimes openly hostile to it existed.

39. 3. Law and Order is a name for a feature in the life of any civilized community, otherwise called the rule of law. According to European standards a community that does not exhibit the rule of law is not civilized at all; it is barbarous; but barbarity itself is a sort of civilization, though a low sort; and civilization of a sort may be enjoyed without a rule of law, though too low a sort for Europeans to call it civilization: for example, the sort that is enjoyed under the rough justice of a barbarian despot, who may be an admirable fellow in his way.

Law and Order has four requirements:

39. 31. The rule of law means, first, that there is a law; not necessarily that there is legislation, for there may be a rule of law either where the law is only customary; or where the law is merely what a despot decides from time to time that it shall be; but even so there may be a rule of law on condition that the law he makes to-day shall remain law until he abrogates it.

39. 32. Secondly, the rule of law implies that those who are under the law can find out what it is. How this is done will differ in different cases; perhaps by consulting the repositories of an oral tradition; perhaps by reading books; perhaps by bringing a test case in the courts; but unless the thing can be done somehow there is no rule of law.

39. 33. Thirdly, there must be courts where judgements are given according to the law. For a law that is not applied to individual cases is not a law but a dead letter. 39. 34.

Fourthly, there must be equality before the law. What differentiates a law from an executive action or decree (28. 28) is its universality: the fact of its applying to every one of an undetermined number of defined cases. Anyone who comes under the definition comes under the law, whatever characteristics he may otherwise possess.

In this section Collingwood defends lawsuit and legal dispute, saying that it is essentially a dialectical process where two people go in disagreement and come out reconciled as having placed their trust in the court. The court may use force to enforce itself, but it is done so in the intent of forcing agreement. The alternative to this is leaving people unreconciled, and therefore resorting to feuds or vendettas. A civilized society does its best to head off and neutralize all potential sources of disagreement that could lead to servility and barbarism.

(It is worth noting that Collingwood draws a distinction between non-agreement and disagreement. Non-agreement means 2+ people have not yet come to agreement, whereas disagreement means the same people have attempted to come to agreement but have failed, and so failed to establish a society common among them with respect to the issue of interest.

I liked this section:

39. 92. Let us get this clear, for it is the most important thing in the book. Law and order mean strength. Men who respect the rule of law are by daily exercise building up the strength of their own wills; becoming more and more capable of mastering themselves and other men and the world of nature. They are becoming daily more and more able to control their own desires and passions and to crush all opposition to the carrying-out of their intentions. They are becoming day by day less liable to be bullied or threatened or cajoled or frightened into courses they would not adopt of their own free will by men who would drive them into doing things in the only way in which men can drive others into doing things: by arousing in them passions or desires or appetites they cannot control.

This hearkens back in some elements to Paul's rhetorical use of the law in training and guiding the undeveloped minds (what Collingwood would call the non-social community which lacks free will). I think this section was largely written to answer back to Fascism and Nazism's contempt for rule of law and fetishization of the executive action of a Great Leader (i.e. prizing utility over right).

The King's Peace and Private Peace

Peace is often seen superficially as a passive or inactive state, whereas nothing could be further from the truth. It is a highly demanding state of affairs, where people actively work on themselves to develop the problem-solving abilities and dispassion to act with free will, and to dialogue with others dialectically to create increasing overlaps in consciousness and awareness of reality. It is very much The Work when we speak of a society which attempts to better humanity and in this process of waking others up recruit them as willing participants in the same cause.

40. 24. Peace is a dynamic thing; a strenuous thing; the detection, even the forestalling, of occasions for quarrels; the checking of the process by which the non-agreements thus constantly generated harden into disagreements (29. 53); the promotion of a counter-process by which disagreements (not without the use of force, are softened into non-agreements; and the dialectical labour whereby occasions of non-agreement are converted into occasions of agreement.
40. 39. In a community with a vigorous political life, where the Third Law of Politics operates directly, aggrieved persons to some extent rise above the status of a ruled class into one of co-operation with their rulers, and show this new status by becoming able and being encouraged to formulate their grievances and propose remedies. (OP's note: the third law of politics is that the community is conditioned by the rulers/society to be accustomed to his ways of governance, and the rulers/society adapt also to the habits of the community and its levels of obedience).

40. 4. The gangsters (40. 35) hate and despise this sort of co-operation, as they hate and despise everything symptomatic of a vigorous political life. 40. 41. They do not want redress of grievances; they want civil war, because they feel themselves unequal (40. 35) to the mental strain of a civilized life.

Those who are not up to this strenuous task are to an extent free not to participate without interference by the society up to a point. To the extent to which the person could be persuaded through understanding not to interfere, he or she can be said to be in a sort of society with the larger society; on the other hand he or she will be subject to the society's force or fraud if they threaten it or its mission in some way and the society cannot reach agreement from non-agreement. If a society is well-run it will attempt to solve the issue in the most civil way possible.

I thought this part was particularly prescient for our time:

40. 45. Just as war means a breakdown of policy where men encounter a problem in external politics which they have not the political ability to solve (30. 47) and retreat from the arduous business of keeping the peace into the easier job of fighting, so gangsterism means a breakdown of mental maturity when men are psychologically unable to go on be having in a grown-up manner and collapse into the easier business of behaving childishly. 40. 46. They are likely to ‘camouflage’ this collapse either by disguising themselves in the sheep’s clothing of the ‘grievance’ type (40. 37), pretending to have a grievance when they have none, or by using the ‘grievance’ type as a stalking-horse and posing as defenders of the oppressed.

It is important to know how these disguises can be tested. The question to ask is: ‘How do they stand toward attempts to redress grievances dialectically, by mutual agreement between the parties concerned?’ 40. 48. If favorably the sheep’s clothing is genuine. If unfavorably it conceals a wolf: an enemy of peace and plenty, an enemy of law and order, an enemy of the people whose friend he claims to be.

I don't need to explain to anyone on this forum just how toxic this culture of political grievance is on a community-wide scale, especially the variety that "play for keeps" and see no danger in sabotaging the dialectical process.

Collingwood felt whimsical in one portion and came up with an aphorism:
40. 58. So much so that there ought to have been, if there never was, a sage who advised the proverbial young ruler, his pupil, to investigate the nursery life of a people on whom he thought of making war: ‘If they allow their children to quarrel, they will be unable to resist you; if they keep the peace in their nurseries beware of them.’

His reasoning for this is simple. How a society manages its nursery (the community from which members are recruited based on their level of development) and trains its successors tells a lot about the quality of the rule and the rulers already involved (short of drastic social changes). If they cannot stop fights and solve the easiest disputes among a community's weakest members, odds are they probably aren't able to solve harder problems within more competent parts of the hierarchy; nor would they be as able to fend off against an enemy, which involves complex problem solving abilities.

People, wherever they are on the ladder between the non-social community and the society, need to take it upon themselves to be reconciled with their neighbors and reach agreement instead of disagreement, instead of relying on the authority and mental force of someone of greater knowledge or being.


Short section, but it's analogous to peace. A society that ensures plenty cultivates thrift and prudence in all of its members, in whatever limited capacity they are able to serve. A society that perpetuates itself must live by example and cultivate prudence and freedom in its mixed community. The less they train or condition the non-social community to act prudently the more that non-social community depends on the society itself for that economic action, making it less efficient overall.

Civilization and Education

Collingwood's views the education and rearing of children as the vital issue of politics, and his views on how a society should handle education are very simple. The parents and other adults and older children in the community teach the children. He strongly denounces the development of public education and teaching as a professional discipline, where specialization inhibits the ability to pass on information.

37. 39. It is more than pitiable, it is ghastly (if you can think a thing ghastly that happened so long ago) to see Plato, after his long and heroic struggle against the professional educators or ‘sophists’, enthusiastically giving in to them on what he knew to be the vital issue of all politics, the care of children: taking children out of their parents’ hands and turning them over to state-employed professionals, as pleased as Punch because the idea was a nasty knock for ‘democracy’.

37. 4. Plato is the man who planted on the European world the crazy idea that education ought to be professionalized; and, as if that were not enough, the crazier idea that the profession ought to be a public service.

37. 41. The first idea has come true. The loss of power and efficiency it has brought about is beyond my calculating; I will only suggest that this is what is wrong with European civilization.

37. 42. It has entrusted the conservation of its own traditions to a class of persons who, owing to their position, have not the power to conserve them. By doing this it has put itself as much at a disadvantage, as compared with peoples it calls barbarous, as if it were a tribe which threw away the paddles of its war-canoes, set sail, and employed crews of professional medicine-men to whistle for a wind.

Children learn best when parents and close adults join in a child's daily life and encourage him or her to join in their own.

37. 55. But in a world of office-drudges and factory-drudges to ask for even a little of [the homeschooling method] is to ask for the moon. 37. 56. That is, no doubt, a good reason for smashing a world of office-drudges and factory-drudges. Not simply that it is a world unfit for men to live in; but it is a world consuming its own capital of civilization through having wantonly thrown away the power of educating its young, and is heading straight for bankruptcy.

37.57 And what are we to have instead? Not the world of Fascist or Nazi dreams; that is simply our present world with bankruptcy brought nearer. 37. 58. Not the world of Marxian socialism; that is a world committed not only to the first Platonic error of professional education but to the second Platonic error of bureaucratizing the educators. Any relics of efficiency left intact by the first error will inevitably be dissipated by the second. 37. 59. Nor do I advocate standing bogged in the world of capitalism bolstered up by what they call cold socialism; a world infested by the Juggernauts of big business preserved from the bankruptcy fairly earned through their own incompetence by subsidies paid for out of taxation.
37. 62. The future of the world lies with peoples among whom there are no professional educators and every man educates his own children.

37. 63. And if I were Mr. H. G. Wells or one of these highly-paid Utopia-mongers I should draw up a list of the Rights of Man beginning with the right to educate one’s own children.
A civilized community does not liquidate its oppressors; it finds them an occupation in which they can use their talents to the common advantage.... 37. 68. The professional educator is certainly the caterpillar of civilization; but he may prove, properly handled, its silk-worm.
Their power is an illusion to which we are unhappily subject, fostered by parental dislike of responsibility for the care of their children: the wish that they shall be educationally efficient is father to the thought. Once parents take the step (a bold one, I admit) of deciding to enjoy their children’s company, the illusion will vanish like a dream at waking.
The professional educator having been rendered harmless, how can we render him useful? By keeping him as a pet; when you will find him to possess many engaging and even profitable accomplishments.

37. 97. These will be in the main, of two kinds. First, let him go on teaching. There may be things a child wants to know that its parents cannot teach. Let it be sent to learn them from a professional teacher. And the parent, if it wants, can go too. Every professional teacher in the country will jump at the chance of getting quit, once for all, of pupils who do not want to learn and getting pupils who do.
37. 98. Secondly, let him go on researching. Every community that is to any degree civilized needs that research in a vast diversity of sciences and branches of learning shall go on. Let us keep our educational institutions or as many of them as are needed for the purpose, partly as teaching institutions where specialized teaching is on tap for all comers who want it, and partly as institutions of research where science and learning shall be kept alive instead of being, as they too often are in our educational institutions of to-day, dead.

37. 99. Such a distribution of functions as between the amateur and the professional is already customary for the medical profession, where nobody has ever demanded its abolition; why should it not work as well in the educational profession? Children do not leave their homes for medical reasons to reside for half the year in a doctor’s house or in a clinic. They live at home, and if they have a cold or bark their shins their parents give them first aid. If they want more, they go to a doctor.

Because of how centrally critical it is for education to function well as the heart of civilization, it is absolutely imperative that anyone who CAN teach, DOES. This needs to be an automatic action embedded deeply in the psyche of the body politic. Any deviation from this in the long term detracts from the competence and development of the society and rulers of the community. This is why in The Work putting someone on the step behind you is so important.


At the start of this section Collingwood distinguishes two states of non-civilization: savagery and barbarism. Savagery to Collingwood simply means a community far from civilization, where there is a lot of force/fraud being committed. No community can be either completely savage or completely civilized (discounting hyperdimensional soul communities and what not for the latter for now). Barbarism means a hostility to civilization and civility in and of itself, an intention to become less civil in one's actions, and a tendency to spread incivility to others in the community or society.
On the distinction between the will to civilization and the will to barbarism:

36. 93. The will to civilization is just will. The members of any non-social community who, awaking to free will, decide no longer to drift with their emotions, but to take charge of the situation in which they corporately find themselves and do something with it, whatever in particular they decide to do, have embarked on the process of civilizing themselves. 36. 94. The will to barbarism is a will, for otherwise it would not, as it does, break down the non-social community from which it begins; but it is a will to do nothing, a will to acquiesce in the chaotic rule of emotion which it began by destroying. All it does is to assert itself as will and then deny itself as will....

Collingwood asserts that, since a community may start out savage but end up civilized, many of the baser states or stages in a person's mental development can pave the way or bias a person toward making decisions that increase his or her awareness, freedom, and civility. Something may start with an instinct for caring (say, for infants or family), and end up organization an endeavor to eradicate smallpox, landmines, et cetera. Any sentiment that concerns itself with others can act as a foundation for societies, like a flag under which people may gather. A good number of the moral taste-buds laid out by Haidt in The Righteous Mind may serve this purpose. They may function either unconsciously (in a non-social community) or consciously (in a society) but either way usually ends in increasing civilization.

Contrasting this, barbarism has no equivalent ability to influence a person unconsciously, since in essence barbarity is at root the idea that your aims cannot be solved jointly by agreement with others and by cooperating and compromising. Your aims may only be fulfilled outside of society, and as such make force and fraud a habit of action to reduce the quantity and quality of society in a community. That the barbarian has non-agreement with others is seen as evidence that any engagement can only lead to disagreement, thereby necessitating force and fraud to control the behavior of others. In laymen's terms the barbarian always thinks he or she is smarter than everyone else. They also feel entitled to using the energy and efforts of others without their consent as free individuals. Anyone who's read Inside the Criminal Mind knows exactly this type of attitude.

While it's easy to see how base instincts and emotional responses to socially deficient home environments (think Healing Developmental Trauma) can percolate and cause barbarism in an individual, I think Collingwood's response to this would be that such are examples of malformation of the preconscious elements of a person's psyche. Negative emotion was understood by Gurdjieff to be a disease -- a malformation and outgrowth of the instinctive center that usurps the role of proper emotions (such as love or the moral taste-buds).

One of the many weaknesses of barbarism is that it has a paradoxical relationship with thought and with thinking. Barbarians cannot think too much. On one hand one person alone cannot oppose civilization effectively (the exception being extreme cases in which isolation of civilized members of a society plays a decisive role -- eg with serial killers hunting people who are alone in remote areas). The majority of the time a barbarian operates in a society which works against civilization. In order to do this effectively they need to come to agreements with others and be of one mind. The usefulness and importance of coming together and helping one another and achieving colinearity in one context is completely ignored when applied to a different domain.

Say for example a group of marauders who pillage and burn villages around them. They see the benefits of cooperation, otherwise there would merely be isolated thugs. But they cannot (or choose not to) extend that logic to the villagers themselves, and see how everyone stands to gain from coming to agreement). Perhaps they are simply quite savage, foreign and strange to the village lifestyle, and haven't considered the idea. Or perhaps they are the genuinely barbaric article, and though raised in such villages and dependent on their fruits for survival turn around and destroy what makes their lifestyle possible.

This inherent contradiction in the operation of a barbaric society or body politic means that they are destined to die out in the long term. The cultivation of servility in the non-social community makes it far less likely to produce members with the mental development, free will, and awareness necessary to carry out the tasks the barbarian society's joint actions. Over time as the original barbarians die out they get replaced by less capable members from the nursery, causing the barbarian society to degenerate into less and less social and competent forms; these degenerate barbarian societies are increasingly unable to use force and fraud effectively against civilized societies, which encourage the highest development of knowledge, awareness, and freedom in their members and the members of the nursery out of which they recruit new members.

The barbarian's only advantage is the element of surprise, wherein they betray and take a civilized society by surprise. But the longer a conflict goes on, the more societies catch on and study the barbarian society, and the more they work around it or against it to continue to accomplish their aims. A great example of this Athens after the Persian War, which used all its newfound social and infrastructural capital to bully smaller Greek city-states and exact tribute. After the Peloponnesian War Athens was a shadow of its former self, shattered and friendless until it was conquered by the Macedonians.

Collingwood devotes the last three chapters to discussing the (in his opinion) four major waves of barbarism that Europe faced. The first were the Saracens (i.e. Islam), the Albigensian Heretics (i.e. Cathars), the Turks, and the Germans. There is a lot of English and Apostolic Christian Chauvinism in there, buttressed by a much outdated repertoire of historical facts and misinformation (for example the idea that Apostolic Christianity abandoned its patristic doctrine of non-persecution out of self-defense against the Cathars, whose mores were too Manichean and therefore incompatible with Christianity). The section on the Turks and Germans were pretty good, but again it is a product of his time, and some phrasings in parts of the book seem to be pot-shots at German political awareness or lack-thereof). Not that they don't deserve it, having elected Hitler and all. At any rate, Collingwood is coming from the perspective of the body politic of the British Commonwealth, which he thought he was in society in but in fact wasn't, due to the secrecy with which the western oligarchs actually operate. Maybe in society with most British at the time, but not so much with those who actually wielded the force and fraud that truly governed.


On the whole I found Collingwood's language of societies, communities, civilization, civility, barbarism, dialectics, peace, plenty, and the like to be quite useful to describing more generally human interactions and the complicating factor that we are not always free and rational beings, and in spite of this need to work together to build something. It retains the classical Greek concept of liberty; namely, that freedom meant self-control over one's passions, such that you are able to participate and contribute actively to the civic health of the society.

This view sets him against the more modern interpretations of the political doctrine of liberalism, where freedom simply means never being subject to force or fraud of any kind (no matter how horrendously low your level of self-awareness and -control and being are, and how much that makes you a danger to yourself or others around you). This idea has been soundly debunked in my opinion by Collingwood, who shows that not only isn't it possible to totally eschew force and fraud with people with whom you're not in agreement, but that it's also not even preferable if you care at all about the aims of your society. For example the way FOTCM practices and encourages strategic enclosure, stalking the predator(s) visible and invisible, and always having the law on your side, etc. Some new-agey types may see these as bad things or conflict with "love-and-light", but such a view is naive at best and gets stamped out quickly if they're actually paying attention to reality left, right, and center. Prior to this they only half-understand reality.

In spite of this I still feel like Collingwood could learn some things from Lobaczewski, since nowhere was there any sort of acknowledgement of there being any type of historical cycle, instead seeing everything purely as a product of mind which is free to create its own future. Technically true, but that's a circle that still needs to be squared with the observed history and patterns. I haven't put much more thought into the notion of 4D STS and STO groups as societies with limited spheres of action in 3D reality, were we are a sort of community out of which candidates may be recruited for their respective hierarchies and ladders. Could be fertile, who knows.


The Living Force
FOTCM Member
I found an article talking about R.G. Collingwood, and how the division between "Analytical" (i.e. British and American) philosophy and "Continental" Philosophy occurred due largely to the influence of one man named Gilbert Ryle, who top-down had a strongman influence over what subject matter was taught and how it was taught.

Unsurprisingly, no one has come up with a satisfactory way of drawing the line between [Analytical and Continental Philosophy]. 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.
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.
His intellectual range was astonishing. In philosophy itself, Collingwood made important contributions to aesthetics, the philosophy of history, metaphysics, the philosophy of language, and the understanding of philosophical method. He had important things to say about how each of these contributes to our understanding of ourselves. There was some commonality in his philosophical interests, and in the spirit in which he pursued them, with the incomparably more famous Wittgenstein (one of my biographical subjects). Outside philosophy, he did important work in archaeology and history, and was recognised as one of the country’s leading authorities on Roman Britain, writing the volume devoted to it in the Oxford History of England. In addition, he was an extremely accomplished musician, a talented painter and a gifted linguist, able to read scholarship in French, Spanish, German, Italian, Latin and Greek. He also wrote one of the most fascinating (if decidedly odd) autobiographies ever published. Thanks to Sartre and Derrida, an artistic and literary bent is common enough among philosophers of the continent, but much less evident among the analytic school.

Astonishingly, Collingwood achieved everything he did despite dying at the age of just 53 in 1943. Given just how different he was from Ryle—deeply cultured, curious about everything, eclectic in his interests—the question of what course post-war philosophy in Britain might have taken if Collingwood had not succumbed to a series of strokes at this relatively early age must rank as one of the great “what ifs” of intellectual history. Might British philosophy have avoided becoming as narrow as it at one time did, and might it have engaged much more fruitfully with continental thinking?

Having only Read Idea of History, Speculum Mentis, and The New Leviathan, I enjoyed the crash-course presented by the author of his philosophy of logic and truth-values in statements:

A questioning mind​

[W]hat is clear is the importance to him of replacing the traditional logic of “statements,” “judgments” or “propositions” with that of “question and answer.” Traditional logic treats an individual proposition as the “bearer of truth.” Most philosophers of the analytic school would follow Frege in regarding the proposition also as the bearer of meaning. The word “chair” on its own means nothing, but the English sentence “the book is on the chair” has a meaning: it expresses the proposition that the book is on the chair (the German sentence, “Das Buch liegt auf dem Stuhl” expresses the same proposition), and that proposition is either true or false.

All this is abandoned by Collingwood. For him, you could never hope to understand what a person means simply by studying or analysing the sentences that they utter. Instead, you have to know something about the context in which those sentences are uttered. In particular, you need to know what the question was to which those sentences were intended to provide the answer. This changes the way logical relations like consistency and contradiction are understood. In Collingwood’s view, “no two propositions can contradict one another unless they are answers to the same question.”

Every question contains a presupposition—the question, “where is my hat?” for example contains the presupposition that I have a hat. Collingwood distinguishes “relative” from “absolute” presuppositions. Many everyday presuppositions are relative: they can themselves be the answer to a question, and can therefore be shown to be either or true or false (relative to that question). In the example above, “I have a hat” is a presupposition of the question, “Where is my hat?” but it is also the answer to the question, “Do you have a hat?”

An absolute presupposition, by contrast, cannot be questioned, not because it is certainly true, but rather because, within the framework of question and answer to which it belongs, it does not make sense to question it. This is because its assumption is part of what gives the whole framework its meaning, so it cannot be questioned without collapsing into meaninglessness.

An example that Collingwood gives of this concerns the frameworks (he calls them “constellations”) provided by the Newtonian, the Kantian and the Einsteinian modes of scientific enquiry. Each of these assumes a peculiar notion of causation, and within any one of them, this notion cannot be questioned. It is not thought of as true; it is simply taken for granted. It is an absolute presupposition. As he puts it: “any question involving the presupposition that an absolute presupposition is a proposition such as the questions ‘Is it true?’ ‘What evidence is there for it?’ ‘How can it be demonstrated?’ ‘What right have we to presuppose it if it can’t?’ is a nonsense question.”

His general claims here seem closely allied to the famous notion of a “paradigm” in Thomas Kuhn’s 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. After a scientific revolution takes place, according to Kuhn, the new theory will be “incommensurable” with the one it has replaced, so that it is impossible to understand one in the terms of the other. What Newton’s theory has to say about gravity, for example, cannot be understood as true or false within Einstein’s theory because the two use radically different “paradigms.” Collingwood, however, was less interested in the application of his “question and answer” logic to science than in its application to religion, philosophy, history and aesthetics.

To understand a work of art, a person, a historical epoch or a religion is, so to speak, to “get inside its mind,” to see the world through the eyes of people using a different set of presuppositions to our own. If we try to understand others using only our own presuppositions, we will always fail. Historical understanding, for example, “is the attempt to discover the corresponding presuppositions of other peoples and other times.” Again, if we insist on regarding Christianity as “false,” we will never understand it.

For Collingwood then, unlike philosophers in the Ryle mould, imagination and empathy play a crucial role in understanding. And here, perhaps, we have a tantalising glimpse of how British philosophy might have developed differently had Collingwood not died so early and if he had had the sort of influence that Ryle acquired. Certainly, it is impossible to imagine such an open and restlessly questioning mind giving the sort of dismissive paper that Ryle did at Royaumont.

Collingwood was an almost exact contemporary of Wittgenstein. They were born within three months of each other, and yet they hardly ever mentioned one another. They probably never met, but the closest they came to contact, as far as I know, was in 1939, when Collingwood was appointed one of the electors to consider Wittgenstein’s application to the Chair of Philosophy at Cambridge. Wittgenstein told a friend that he was worried that Collingwood would be opposed to his application, but, as it turned out, this concern was misplaced. It is possible, I think, that Collingwood saw in Wittgenstein a kindred spirit, for the connections between his thinking and that of the later Wittgenstein, the Wittgenstein of Philosophical Investigations, are very striking.

Consider this statement from Collingwood’s Principles of Art: “One does not first acquire a language and then use it. To possess it and to use it are the same. We only come to possess it by repeatedly and progressively attempting to use it.” Ask any philosopher who wrote that and they would almost certainly guess Wittgenstein. And Collingwood’s notion of an absolute presupposition bears an obvious and striking similarity to the things Wittgenstein says in On Certainty, things like: “the questions that we raise and our doubts depend on the fact that some propositions are exempt from doubt, are as it were like hinges on which those turn.”

Their similarity is not confined to what they say, but extends also to the spirit in which they thought and wrote. “People nowadays,” wrote Wittgenstein in a remark published in the collection Culture and Value, “think that scientists exist to instruct them, poets, musicians, etc. to give them pleasure. The idea that these have something to teach them—that does not occur to them.” One finds similar sentiments in Collingwood’s work on aesthetics.

The fact that such a simple statement as "you could never hope to understand what a person means simply by studying or analysing the sentences that they utter. Instead, you have to know something about the context in which those sentences are uttered" could be overlooked by philosophy departments all over the Anglosphere really speaks volumes, and I think in some ways it ties in with the "doltification" of the west that Werner Heisenberg recounted in his autobiography (mentioned in this thread):

One interesting bit of information concerns Wolfgang Pauli, Heisenberg's old buddy, who, after the war, was apparently super-enthousiastic in his endeavor to work on Unified Field Theory. He was literally on fire and thought he was onto something just ready to bear fruits. But then he went to the US for a while, and Heisenberg even told him before that he's not sure that the "pragmatic Americans" will do him and his work any good at this stage, but he went nonetheless. When he returned, he was a different person, with no energy and very resigned, and he died shortly after. It could have all kinds of reasons, but still it makes me wonder what role certain institutes in the US have played in the field? Just speculation of course.


FOTCM Member
I thought the article posted above by WC was brilliant and really makes you wonder about Collingwood's untimely demise, especially given that his successor was such a narrow-minded authoritarian. Not that everything in continental philosophy is great and that analytical philosophy is entirely bad, but I know enough about the development of thought in the 19th and 20th century to get the distinct feeling that philosophy had to be vectored and dealt with and maneuvered into a dead end. An honest, deep and soulful kind of philosophy as represented by Collingwood would certainly have stood up against the onslaught of sophistery in the social sciences and humanities as well as the worst of the postmodern and positivist tradition. Speaking of which, reading Collingwood really makes you deeply understand how positivism and postmodernism, often considered arch-ennemies, are really only two sides of the same stupid coin.

I can see that I have more reading of Collingwood to do. It's always a pleasure, but also labor, because his thought is so dense.

I can highly recommend "The Idea of Nature" and "An Essay on Metaphysics". They are less dense IMO than Idea of History and Speculum Mentis, and full of brilliant insights.

"An Essay on Metaphysics" is also at times delightfully polemic, a bit like David Stove, and it seems Collingwood had that side too which apparently comes out in other writings of his I haven't read yet.

Heck, in his Essay, there is one stunning passage that, written in the early 30ies, is more than prophetic. Here is just a short excerpt I found on the web, the whole thing is even better - it is his attack on "irrationalism" that in his view is about to grip civilization:

‘Religion would be predominantly a worship of truth … . Philosophy would be predominantly an exposition not merely of the nature of thought, action & etc. but of scientific thought and orderly (principled, thought-out) action, with special attention to method and to the problem of establishing standards by which on reflection truth can be distinguished from falsehood. Politics would be predominantly the attempt to build up a common life by the methods of reason (free discussion, public criticism). Education would be predominantly a method for inducing habits of orderly and systematic thinking’. And so on.

‘And suppose that now within this same civilisation a movement grew up hostile to these fundamental principles … an epidemic disease: a kind of epidemic withering of belief in the importance of truth and in the obligation to think and act in a systematic and methodical way. Such an irrationalist epidemic infecting religion would turn it from a worship of truth to a worship of emotion and a cultivation of certain emotional states … Infecting politics it would substitute for the ideal of orderly thinking in that field the ideal of tangled, immediate, emotional thinking; for the idea of a political thinker as a political leader the idea of a leader focussing and personifying the mass emotions of his community’.

This movement of thought would need to proceed by stealth because the healthy tissues of thought would strongly resist any open attack on the springs of rationality and scientific thinking.

‘Let a sufficient number of men whose intellectual respectability is vouched for by their academic position pay sufficient lip-service to the ideals of scientific method, and they will be allowed to teach by example whatever kind of anti-science they like, even if this involves a hardly disguised breach with all the accepted canons of scientific method.’

‘The ease with which this can be done will be much greater if it is done in an academic society where scientific specialisation is so taken for granted that no one dare criticise the work of a man in another faculty. In that case all that is necessary to ensure immunity for the irrationalist agents is that they should put forward their propaganda under the pretence that it is itself a special science, which therefore other scientists will understand that they must not criticise’.


FOTCM Member
I thought the article posted above by WC was brilliant and really makes you wonder about Collingwood's untimely demise, especially given that his successor was such a narrow-minded authoritarian. Not that everything in continental philosophy is great and that analytical philosophy is entirely bad, but I know enough about the development of thought in the 19th and 20th century to get the distinct feeling that philosophy had to be vectored and dealt with and maneuvered into a dead end. An honest, deep and soulful kind of philosophy as represented by Collingwood would certainly have stood up against the onslaught of sophistery in the social sciences and humanities as well as the worst of the postmodern and positivist tradition. Speaking of which, reading Collingwood really makes you deeply understand how positivism and postmodernism, often considered arch-ennemies, are really only two sides of the same stupid coin.

I can highly recommend "The Idea of Nature" and "An Essay on Metaphysics". They are less dense IMO than Idea of History and Speculum Mentis, and full of brilliant insights.

"An Essay on Metaphysics" is also at times delightfully polemic, a bit like David Stove, and it seems Collingwood had that side too which apparently comes out in other writings of his I haven't read yet.

Heck, in his Essay, there is one stunning passage that, written in the early 30ies, is more than prophetic. Here is just a short excerpt I found on the web, the whole thing is even better - it is his attack on "irrationalism" that in his view is about to grip civilization:

Prophetic indeed. And, like you, I thought about how convenient it was for the Lords of Entropy that Collingwood left us all too soon.

What an amazing thinker he was!!!


FOTCM Member
Just finished the Essay on Metaphysics and boy, that was great!!! Felt like the penny dropped on so many fronts and I experienced some serious “debugging” and cleansing of 150 years of accumulated sophistry! There are way too many things in the book to get into here, but here are just a few thoughts:

One great thing about the book is that Collingwood teaches us how to think properly, both explicitly and by example. Not only that, he explains why what he calls “orderly thinking” is so valuable and powerful: unlike psychology, which Collingwood believes is (or rather should be) only concerned with the study of feelings and which goes spectacularly wrong when it tries to be a science about thought, proper thought can uncover our deepest hidden assumptions, how they play out logically, and correct our thinking errors. In other words, psychology has a point when it uncovers how feelings can jumble our minds and that there are unconscious thought processes and so on, but unconscious thoughts are still thoughts, and their underlying logic can therefore be made explicit and corrected.

For this reason he also believes, and makes clear, how always present and deeply entrenched metaphysical thought makes and breaks entire civilizations, and is at the root not only of our perception, but our very ability to do science (in a very broad sense), and determine what kind of science we are able to do. He really opens up one’s mind about the many things we take so for granted that we don’t notice them, but that are by no means fixed. This opens up a whole new way of understanding history, and gives us the tools to properly track the historical development of thought (instead of fantazising about imaginary evolutionary reasons for why we think the way we think, one might add).

I cannot help but think that his concept of “absolute presuppositions”, by which he means deeply entrenched unconscious assumptions, is highly relevant for understanding different epochs, including possible epochs we know nothing about, and including a possible “quantum jump” to a new (4D?) reality. What he says is basically that Kant’s principles (causality and so on) are not necessary features of human nature and not all-valid, and that Kant simply took the dominant presuppositions of the physics of his time and thought they are eternal; in reality, these dominant presuppositions do change over time in certain ways: in the development of civilizations, they become “strained” at some point, and then give way to new ones. But thinking that we can prove or refute these presuppositions is an illusion, for they are logically prior to any inquiry. We also cannot change them by an act of will (at least not alone), though we can (and have to) use will to keep them going and prevent them from breaking down, which often is the job of religious institutions (although they might not even be aware of it). They cannot be "uncovered", they cannot be derived from nature, they cannot be proven, and they are never fixed, although it is very hard for us to see this.

So if these “absolute presuppositions” can, and do, change and can never be “fixed” or “proven”, and are the very basis of the reality we find ourselves in – what does that mean? Mind you, we are talking about things such as causality, the unity of nature, the very idea of nature as something independent of human action, our concept of natural laws, and so on…

Lastly, what I find fascinating about Collingwood’s work is how he shows (or at least offers a theory about) the development of human thought. Looking back from today, this also means something went seriously wrong at some point: once people started to entertain ideas about evolution (broadly speaking, not Neo-Darwinism), what should have happened (and actually did happen to a large extent), is that we got rid of the old mechanistic “machine model” of the universe: a machine obviously cannot evolve; it just runs down. That’s the end of the argument, period. Then, when Quantum Mechanics came to the scene, this should have put serious “strain” on some of our absolute presuppositions, to say the least, such as on our ideas about matter, causality, and so on. And again, this did happen to some extent – it was the beginning of a rethinking process, a sort of natural development in our thinking based on all our previous concepts and the realization that indeed, it IS possible to think differently about the world, based on different fundamental assumptions, when previously we thought them to be eternal features of reality.

Strangely enough though, this development was completely halted and reversed, probably somewhere in the 1930ies. Curiously, we went back to the old mechanistic machine model of the universe, based on Newton-Galileo, with our “absolute presuppositions” in that regard still Kantian. Then we eradicated “God the watchmaker”, which in and of itself renders the machine model nonsensical, and then went on to try to marry that already nonsensical model with evolution, which cannot be done even with a watchmaker God, much less without. And then we wondered why we went into all those conundrums about Free Will, Consciousness, “random” evolution and all the rest… Sadly, this malaise also affects the Intelligent Design community – Stephen Meyer for example, in terms of his “absolute presuppositions”, is completely Newtonian, even explicitly so. Maybe it’s a bit unfair, but many of the ID people seem to have fallen back to a “God the watchmaker + materialistic universe” kind of thinking. Strange!

The reasons for this halt and even reversal in the development of thought are not so clear to me, but I suspect that it has something to do with what Collingwood has called the “epidemic of irrationalism”, by which he chiefly had in mind psychology and logical positivism. Psychology went on to become postmodernism, while logical positivism went on to become Analytic Philosophy, and both movements led to the death of metaphysics, which can only lead to irrationalism because if you deny metaphysical "presuppositions", you deny the very foundation for logical thinking and science itself. Perhaps the invention of the computer also played a role, because it confused us about the nature of machines, organic life, intelligence, consciousness and so on and allowed false analogies to being played out… Curious!


FOTCM Member
Just finished Collingwood's An Autobiography, another total eye-opener. IMHO, this is an absolute must-read for understanding our situation. It is also very short and accessible, and condenses much of Collingwood's life work into an incredible wisdom-punch. I wish I had read that book years ago!

It is also a first-hand account of the destruction of philosophy from within, so to speak. Very broadly speaking, the whole 20th century could be seen as a consequence of the shift in thought Collingwood describes and so eloquently criticizes. This may seem a strange thing to say given the obscurantism and almost complete irrelevancy of much of today's academic philosophy, but what Collingwood describes is nothing less than a surgical strike on the very roots of our civilization, at our ability to think straight, at the turn of the century. It goes so much deeper than just "dumbing down" education. Relativism, postmodernism, evolutionary psychology, Dawkins, even the political developments including current events and this whole idiocracy we are witnessing have a basis in the "realist" movement that took over during Collingwood's time.

Again, his teaching about how to think properly is absolutely priceless, and he demonstrates it by outlining the development of his own thought. Just as an example among many: when he describes his thought processes that led to his criticism of propositional logic, it was so sound and well-reasoned that I couldn't believe nobody has seen this before, and explained why so much of modern philosophy seems so dead and stale and pointless. It also relegates much of the analytic tradition to the trash bin, and rightly so. (Except that Collingwood says that he always enjoyed engaging with other thinkers with whom he disagreed and even helped them to figure things out within their own framework, realizing that other thinkers pose different questions and work out different answers as a consequence; he was too wise to "trash" or battle other schools...)

His insights about history and how to go about it (laid out much plainer and easier to grasp than in Idea of History) are highly relevant and practical. And the proof is in the pudding so to speak: he really did succeed in working out the problems he tackled by applying his methods and mode of thinking. Not only did he solve historical riddles and philosophical problems, he also saw and predicted the dawn of the age of irrationalism, media sensationalism, political propaganda and the importance of free speech and was very prophetic in that regard, again by using his method and way of thinking.

There is so much more in this short book, and while there are a few dense passages, most of it is very straight-forward and should be understandable even for those who don't like reading philosophy. Highly recommended.
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