Learning from strangers on planes

COLLINGWOOD_ROBIN_GEORGE_mareR. G. Collingwood’s principles of history:

  1. “All history is history of thought.”
  2. “Historical knowledge is the re-enactment in the historian’s mind of the thought whose history he is studying.”
  3. “Historical knowledge is the re-enactment of a past thought incapsulated in a context of present thoughts which, by contradicting it, confine it to a plane different from theirs.”

 I must admit to knowing very little about Collingwood’s philosophy of history. A bright and motivated student and I are planning to read through his Idea of History after plunging through some Hegel this semester. So I hope to know more in a few months. Meanwhile, the principles above come from RGC’s Autobiography, which is very short, witty, and interesting. He traces his own course through schools, academic politics, intellectual interests, and world events.

 I have been thinking about RGC’s principles with reference to the history of philosophy, of course. (It probably fits better there anyway; many friends of mine are professional historians and I think they would place severe qualifications upon the claim that history is first and foremost about ideas.) There has been a lot of discussion among historians of philosophy about the nature of what they do, and there has emerged something of a divide between the “philosophy” historians of philosophy and the “history” historians of philosophy. (Please, bear with me.) Those in the “philosophy” camp read historical philosophical texts as attempts to get at the philosophical truth, just as contemporary articles in metaphysics or ethics or epistemology are attempts to get at the truth. Those in the “history” camp set this concern aside, and are more interested in getting at what the historical author had in mind, given the author’s historical circumstance – more like what RCG says history is all about.

 There is something to be said for each camp. Jonathan Bennett has been the most forceful proponent of the “philosophy” camp. He reported that he found wrestling with texts of Leibniz, Descartes, Locke, and Spinoza is the best way for him to think through the underlying philosophical issues. He never spared the Great Dead from his extremely analytical mind, calling spades spades and flagging every lapse. He would lend whatever aid he could to help get a philosopher’s system working, and he found several of the old systems to be not only salvageable but powerfully right in some of their claims. He couldn’t see why any philosopher (qua philosopher!) would read old philosophical texts in any other way.

 (I am writing about Bennett in the past tense, but only because he has retired from active academic publication. He is very much alive, though recently suffered the loss of his wife Gillian, whose death was itself a testament to her nobility, her integrity, and her concern for enlightened social policy. The story can be read here.)

 The “history” camp has greater interest in placing philosophical texts in their historical context, though very often the “historical context” comes to mean other philosophy texts from the same period. Seldom is any attention paid to the wars being waged or the political disturbances and factions of the day, let alone the actual living and working circumstances of the authors. That’s just historical “noise.” The thinkers are treated as if they live in bubbles of cogitation, insulated from the contingencies of existence.

 RGC would have us employ historical knowledge and imagination to draw closer to the thinkers as they think their thoughts. This would require us to not just closely read the works of Hobbes and Spinoza – even in Latin! – and pay close analytical attention to every jot and tittle in the texts. We would have to start thinking about the issues of their days, the audiences they were writing to, and perhaps even their own political ambitions for status and readership. They weren’t interested solely in philosophical truth – indeed, no one is. They were interested in controversies and careers, and many of them lived in times where misplaced publications would have very dire consequences. “Re-enacting” the philosopher’s thoughts in our own mind requires knowing quite a bit more about the philosopher’s lived reality.

 But why would a philosopher (qua philosopher!) be interested in this? I think the answer can emerge by thinking through RGC’s third principle. As we strive to understand historical thought, we can’t do so without underscoring the relevant differences between our circumstance and theirs. We “incapsulate” the thoughts within our own times, which just means: we know we are doing history, and not contemporary philosophy. We pay attention to the differences. But this also means paying attention to the sameness. We don’t live in those historical times, but some of the concerns those thinkers had should be familiar to us. We know death, sickness, and the comfort of friendship. We are familiar with the fear of mobs and the ideals of a well-functioning state. Many things change, but these do not. When we see how thoughtful human beings responded to their times, we see human beings responding to time; and that is relevant to us. RGC is right that, by doing history, we in a sense “contradict” the historical thoughts with present thoughts, and so put them on a different plane. But we find familiar human beings on every such plane. And from them, we learn.

About Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.
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