R. G. Collingwood

Robin George Collingwood
Born 22 February 1889
Gillhead, Cartmel Fell, Lancashire
Died 9 January 1943(1943-01-09) (aged 53)
Coniston, Lancashire
Education Rugby School
Alma mater University College, Oxford
Notable work The Principles of Art (1938)
The Idea of History (1946)
Era 20th-century philosophy
Region Western philosophy
School British idealism
Institutions Pembroke College, Oxford
Main interests
Philosophy of history
Notable ideas
Historical imagination
Coining the English term "historicism"[1][2]
Aesthetic expressivism

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


Collingwood was born in Cartmel, Grange-over-Sands, in Lancashire, the son of the artist and archaeologist W. G. Collingwood, who had acted as John Ruskin's private secretary in the final years of Ruskin's life. Collingwood's mother was also an artist and a talented pianist. He was educated at Rugby School, and at University College, Oxford, where he gained a First in Classical Moderations (Greek and Latin) in 1910 and a congratulatory First in Greats (Ancient History and Philosophy) in 1912.[4] Prior to graduation he was elected a fellow of Pembroke College, Oxford.

Collingwood was a fellow of Pembroke College, Oxford, for some 15 years until becoming the Waynflete Professor of Metaphysical Philosophy at Magdalen College, Oxford. He was taught by the historian and archaeologist F. J. Haverfield, at the time Camden Professor of Ancient History. Important influences on Collingwood were the Italian Idealists Benedetto Croce, Giovanni Gentile and Guido de Ruggiero, the last of whom was also a close friend. Other important influences were Hegel, Kant, Giambattista Vico, F. H. Bradley and J. A. Smith.

After several years of increasingly debilitating strokes Collingwood died at Coniston, Lancashire, in 1943. He was a practising Anglican throughout his life.


Philosophy of history

Collingwood is widely noted for The Idea of History (1946), which was collated from various sources soon after his death by a student, T. M. Knox. It came to be a major inspiration for philosophy of history in the English-speaking world and is extensively cited, leading to an ironic remark by commentator Louis Mink that Collingwood is coming to be "the best known neglected thinker of our time".[5]

Collingwood thought that history cannot be studied in the same way as natural science because the internal thought processes of historical persons cannot be perceived with the physical senses, and past historical events cannot be directly observed. He suggested that a historian must "reconstruct" history by using "historical imagination" to "re-enact" the thought processes of historical persons based on information and evidence from historical sources.

Collingwood pointed out a fundamental difference between knowing things in the present (or in the natural sciences) and knowing history. To come to know things in the present or about things in the natural sciences, "real" things can be observed, as they are in existence or that have substance right now.

Philosophy of art

The Principles of Art (1938) comprises Collingwood's most developed treatment of aesthetic questions. Collingwood held (following Croce) that works of art are essentially expressions of emotion. For Collingwood, an important social role for artists is to clarify and articulate emotions from their community.

Collingwood developed a position later known as aesthetic expressivism, a thesis first developed by Benedetto Croce.[6]

Political philosophy

In politics Collingwood defended the ideals of what he called liberalism "in its Continental sense":

The essence of this conception is... the idea of a community as governing itself by fostering the free expression of all political opinions that take shape within it, and finding some means of reducing this multiplicity of opinions to a unity.[7]

In his Autobiography, Collingwood confessed that his politics had always been "democratic" and "liberal", and shared Guido de Ruggiero's opinion that socialism had rendered a great service to liberalism by pointing out the shortcomings of laissez-faire economics.[8]


Collingwood was not just a philosopher of history but also a practising historian and archaeologist. He was, during his time, a leading authority on Roman Britain: he spent his term time at Oxford teaching philosophy but devoted his long vacations to archaeology.

He began work along Hadrian's Wall. The family home was at Coniston in the Lake District and his father was a leading figure in the Cumberland and Westmorland Archaeological Society. Collingwood was drawn in on a number of excavations and put forward the theory that Hadrian’s Wall was not so much a fighting platform but an elevated sentry walk.[9] He also put forward the suggestion that Hadrian's defensive system also included a number of forts along the Cumberland coast.

He was very active in the 1930 Wall Pilgrimage for which he prepared the ninth edition of Bruce's Handbook.

His final and most controversial excavation in Cumbria was that of a circular ring ditch near Penrith known as King Arthur's Round Table (henge) in 1937. It appeared to be a Neolithic henge monument, and Collingwood’s excavations, failing to find conclusive evidence of Neolithic activity, nevertheless found the base of two stone pillars, a possible cremation trench and some post holes. Sadly, his subsequent ill health prevented him undertaking a second season so the work was handed over to the German prehistorian Gerhard Bersu, who queried some of Collingwood’s findings. However, recently, Grace Simpson, the daughter of the excavator F.G. Simpson, has queried Bersu's work and largely rehabilitated Collingwood as an excavator.[10]

He also began what was to be the major work of his archaeological career, preparing a corpus of the Roman Inscriptions of Britain, which involved travelling all over Britain to see the inscriptions and draw them; he eventually prepared drawings of nearly 900 inscriptions. It was finally published in 1965 by his student R.P. Wright.

He also published two major archaeological works. The first, somewhat surprisingly for a philosopher was The Archaeology of Roman Britain, a handbook in sixteen chapters covering first the archaeological sites (fortresses, towns and temples and portable antiquities) inscriptions, coins, pottery and brooches. Mortimer Wheeler in a review,[11] remarked that "it seemed at first a trifle off beat that he should immerse himself in so much museum-like detail… but I felt sure that this was incidental to his primary mission to organise his own thinking".

However, his most important work was his contribution to the first volume of the Oxford History of England, Roman Britain and the English Settlements, of which he wrote the major part, Nowell Myres adding the second smaller part on English settlements. The book was in many ways revolutionary for it set out to write the story of Roman Britain from an archaeological rather than a historical viewpoint, putting into practice his own belief in 'Question and Answer' archaeology.

The result was alluring and influential. However, as Ian Richmond wrote, 'The general reader may discover too late that it has one major defect. It does not sufficiently distinguish between objective and subjective and combines both in a subtle and apparently objective presentation'.[12]

The most notorious passage is that on Romano-British art: "The impression that constantly haunts the archaeologist, like a bad smell, is that of an ugliness that plagues the place like a London fog".[13]

Collingwood’s most important contribution to British archaeology was his insistence on Question and Answer archaeology: excavations should not take place unless there is a question to be answered. It is a philosophy which, as Anthony Birley points out,[14] has been incorporated by English Heritage into the conditions for Scheduled Monuments Consent. Still, it has always been surprising that the proponents of the "new" archaeology in the 1960s and the 70s have entirely ignored the work of Collingwood, the one major archaeologist who was also a major professional philosopher. He has been described as and early proponent of archaeological theory.[15]


Outside archaeology and philosophy, he also published the travel book The First Mate's Log of a Voyage to Greece (1940), an account of a yachting voyage in the Mediterranean, in the company of several of his students.

Arthur Ransome was a family friend, and learned to sail in their boat, subsequently teaching his sibling's children to sail. Ransome loosely based the Swallows in Swallows and Amazons series on his sibling's children.


Main works published in his lifetime

  • Religion and Philosophy (1916) ISBN 1-85506-317-4[16]
  • Roman Britain (1923; 2nd ed., 1932) ISBN 0-8196-1160-3[17][18]
  • Speculum Mentis; or The Map of Knowledge (1924) ISBN 978-1-897406-42-7[19]
  • Outlines of a Philosophy of Art (1925)[20]
  • The Archaeology of Roman Britain (1930) ISBN 978-0-09-185045-6[21]
  • An Essay on Philosophical Method (1933, rev. ed. 2005). ISBN 1-85506-392-1[22]
  • Roman Britain and the English Settlements (with J. N. L. Myres, 1936, 2nd ed. 1937)[23]
  • The Principles of Art (1938) ISBN 0-19-500209-1[24]
  • An Autobiography (1939) ISBN 0-19-824694-3[25]
  • The First Mate's Log (1940)[26]
  • An Essay on Metaphysics (1940, revised edition 1998). ISBN 0-8191-3315-9[27]
  • The New Leviathan (1942, rev. ed. 1992) ISBN 0-19-823880-0[28]

Main articles published in his lifetime

  • 'A Philosophy of Progress', The Realist, 1:1, April 1929, 64-77

Published posthumously

  • The Idea of Nature (1945) ISBN 0-19-500217-2[29]
  • The Idea of History (1946, revised edition 1993). ISBN 0-19-285306-6[30]
  • Essays in the Philosophy of Art (1964)[31]
  • Essays in the Philosophy of History (1965) ISBN 0-8240-6355-4[32]
  • Essays in Political Philosophy (with David Boucher) (1989) ISBN 0-19-823566-6[33]
  • The Principles of History and Other Writings in Philosophy of History (ed. William H. Dray and W. J. van der Dussen) (2001) ISBN 0-19-924315-8[34]
  • The Philosophy of Enchantment: Studies in Folktale, Cultural Criticism, and Anthropology (2005) ISBN 0-19-926253-5[35]

All 'revised' editions comprise the original text plus a new introduction and extensive additional material.


  1. 1 2 Collingwood himself used the term "historicism", a term that he apparently coined, to describe his approach (for example, in his lecture " Ruskin's Philosophy" lecture, delivered to the Ruskin Centenary Conference Exhibition, Coniston, Cumbria (see Jan van der Dussen, History as a Science: The Philosophy of R.G. Collingwood, Springer, 2012, p. 49)), but some later historiographers describe him as a proponent of "historism" in accordance with the current English meaning of the term (F. R. Ankersmit, Sublime Historical Experience, Stanford University Press, 2005, p. 404).
  2. A translation of the German Historismus first coined by Karl Wilhelm Friedrich Schlegel (see Brian Leiter, Michael Rosen (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Continental Philosophy, Oxford University Press, 2007, p. 175: "[The word 'historicism'] appears as early as the late eighteenth century in the writings of the German romantics, who used it in a neutral sense. In 1797 Friedrich Schlegel used 'historicism' to refer to a philosophy that stresses the importance of history...").
  3. David Naugle, "R. G. Collingwood and the Hermeneutic Tradition", 1993.
  4. Oxford University Calendar 1913, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1913, pp. 196, 222
  5. Mink, Louis O. (1969). Mind, History, and Dialectic. Indiana University Press, 1.
  6. Berys Gaut and Dominic McIver Lopes, The Routledge Companion to Aesthetics, Routledge, 2002, ch. 11: "Expressivism: Croce and Collingwood."
  7. R. G. Collingwood (2005). "Man Goes Mad" in The Philosophy of Enchantment. Oxford University Press, 318.
  8. Boucher, David (2003). The Social and Political Thought of R. G. Collingwood. Cambridge University Press. p. 152.
  9. The Vasculum 8:4–9.
  10. Collingwood Studies 5, 1998, 109-119
  11. Antiquity 43
  12. I. A. Richmond, Proceedings of the British Academy 29:478
  13. Collingwood 1937, p. 250
  14. Introductory essay in R. G. Collingwood, An Autobiography, Oxford University Press.
  15. Leach, S. (2012). "R.G. Collingwood – An Early Archaeological Theorist?". In Duggan, M.; McIntosh, F.; Rohl, D. J. TRAC 2011: Proceedings of the Twenty First Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference, Newcastle 2011. Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference & Oxbow Books. pp. 1018.
  16. archive.org
  17. books.google.com
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  21. books.google.com
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  30. books.google.com
  31. books.google.com
  32. books.google.com
  33. books.google.com
  34. books.google.com
  35. philpapers.org


  • William M. Johnston, The Formative Years of R. G. Collingwood (Harvard University Archives, 1965)
  • Jan van der Dussen: History as a Science: The Philosophy of R. G. Collingwood. Springer, 2012. ISBN 978-94-007-4311-3 [Print]; ISBN 978-94-007-4312-0 [eBook]
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