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Journal of the History of Philosophy 38.1 (2000) 87-101

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Collingwood on Re-Enactment and The Identity of Thought

University of Keele

Collingwood's The Idea of History is often discussed in the context of the issue of the reducibility/non-reducibility of explanations in the social sciences to explanations in the natural sciences. In the 1950s and 60s, following the publication of Hempel's influential article, "The Function of General Laws in History,"1 many looked at Collingwood's defence of the autonomy of history as providing the appropriate conceptual resources to counter Hempel's claim that explanations in history and in the natural sciences share the same logical structure. Collingwood was recruited as an ally in a number of debates in analytical philosophy of history with a view to clarifying the nature of appropriately historical explanations and the proper subject matter of historical science. In this paper, I wish to consider Collingwood's account of historical understanding from a related but distinct perspective, that is, I wish to consider re-enactment from the perspective of Collingwood's (controversial) claim that thought stands outside time, and that it is because thought stands outside time that it is possible to understand the thoughts of other agents, including those of agents who lived in a distant past. Although Collingwood's account of re-enactment is developed in the context of his philosophy of history, it addresses some very general issues within the philosophy of mind. It is with Collingwood's approach to these general issues that the present paper is concerned: First, I explicate Collingwood's account of re-enactment against the background of his philosophy of mind and, second, attempt to show that one important goal of Collingwood's account of re-enactment is to undermine a certain type of scepticism about the possibility of sharing the thoughts of others, rather than provide a straightforward refutation of this sceptical position. While I believe Collingwood's claim that thought stands outside time to have important repercussions on how to understand [End Page 87] issues more closely related to the philosophy of history, I will not attempt, for reasons of space, to cash out these implications here.

In The Idea of History2 the concept of re-enactment is expounded largely via an engagement with an imaginary objector. The position that Collingwood attributes to the imaginary objector can be preliminarily summarized as saying that the objector identifies thoughts with token acts of thinking which can be spatio-temporally located, rather than with the propositional content expressed by those token acts. It is because the objector holds thoughts to be token acts which can be spatio-temporally located that s/he denies that two agents can have or share one and the same thought. Collingwood's reply to the imaginary objector relies on a philosophy of mind that is developed elsewhere3 but whose key elements are presupposed by his discussion of re-enactment in The Idea of History, and essential to an understanding of Collingwood's position.4

An important aspect of Collingwood's philosophy of mind concerns his understanding of what is meant by an 'object of thought':

When I call a thing subjective I mean that it is or pertains to a subject or conscious mind. When I call it objective I mean that it is or pertains to the object of which such a mind is conscious. I do not call a real rose objective and an imaginary one subjective, or the molecules in it objective and the beauty of it subjective. A real rose I call real and an imaginary rose I call imaginary; and I call them both objective because they are the objects of a perceiving and imagining mind respectively.
(SM, 11)5

For the sake of clarity I shall refer to the subjective/objective distinction as used by Collingwood as subjective2 and objective2 and to the subjective/objective distinction against which it is contrasted as subjective1 and objective1. Objective1 means existing in...


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pp. 87-101
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