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The Significance of R. G. Collingwood's Principles of History

From: Journal of the History of Ideas
Volume 58, Number 2, April 1997
pp. 309-330 | 10.1353/jhi.1997.0013

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Journal of the History of Ideas 58.2 (1997) 309-330 ;

The Principles of History is the work that Collingwood saw as his principal philosophical enterprise, the book for which his whole intellectual life had been a preparation. It was to have been a work divided into three books. In the first there was to be a discussion of the characteristics that make the special science of history distinctive. In the second history was to be compared with other sciences. Third, he intended to investigate the relationship between history and practical life. He thought of beginning his project by giving a brief account of the different senses of the concept of history. Book one was divided into four chapters. The first was to concentrate on evidence and testimony relating them to scissors-and-paste history. Chapter two was to present a theory of action, res gestae, or action expressive of thought, in contrast with the idea of process, or change, associated with pseudo-history. In chapter three reenactment was to be discussed and contrasted with the idea of a dead past. Chapter four was to argue that history in contrast with other purported pretenders to the title can justifiably claim to be the science of the mind. Book two was divided into three chapters. Chapter one was to discuss history and natural science, showing that neither could be reduced to each other. He also wanted to contend that the natural sciences are themselves historical achievements in that they depend upon the historical facts of observation and thought. Chapter two was to deal with history and the human sciences, such as economics, which he describes as crypto-histories. In the third chapter Collingwood intended to explore the relation between history and philosophy. In book three, which is described less precisely, he wanted to argue that history overcomes the distinction between theory and practice, and that reenactment overcomes the dualism between mind and its objects. This, he thought, would enable him to give a characterization of historical morality and historical civilization in contrast with their utilitarian counterparts.

He began writing the book on 15 February 1939 and had finished the first three chapters by 23 February. Over a month later, on 26 and 27 March, he began chapter four but was unable to formulate his thoughts on the past, and the relation between history and philosophy. At this point he stopped, never to return to the manuscript again. What we have left of The Principles of History deviates considerably from the original plan. Only three chapters were written, the third of which does not contain the crucial discussion of re-enactment. In addition, uncompleted fragments of the beginnings of a fourth chapter remain.

In this paper I intend to look at why Collingwood's explicit authorization to publish the Principles of History was disregarded by Knox and Oxford University Press. In addition, I want to look at three aspects of the rediscovered manuscript. In the second and third sections, on the method and subject matter of history respectively, I examine the extent to which Knox's suppression of the Principles of History contributed to a good deal of the confusion surrounding the interpretation of Collingwood's key ideas. What emerges from the pages of the Principles of History is how integral The Principles of Art and An Essay on Metaphysics are to understanding Collingwood's later philosophy of history, a connection that is distorted by the patchwork nature of The Idea of History.

In the fourth section of the paper I suggest that the most significant omission to which Collingwood never returned was the theory of reenactment. Reenactment more than any other aspect of his writings has been placed by interpreters at the centre of Collingwood's philosophy of history. W. H. Dray's new book is wholly focused upon this theme. Dray did not, however, see The Principles of History in time to incorporate the implications for reenactment theory of Collingwood's broadening of the subject matter of history to include the emotions. The theory of reenactment could no longer be sustained by the earlier argument found in The Idea of History, because Collingwood, in The Principles of History, presupposed the...


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