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HISTORICAL UNDERSTANDING AS RE-THINKING w. H. Dray The theory of historical understanding set forth in R. G. Collingwood's Idea oj Historyl has produced some sharp divisions of opinion among philosophers of history. While the "nays" have usually been written off by their opponents as insensitive positivists, obsessed by a model of inquiry derived from the natural sciences, the "ayes" have been considered, in their tum, as woolly-minded idealists, unable to distinguish between the essential logical structure of an enquiry and its psychological and methodological frills. Even those who have accepted Collingwood's doctrine, however, have often found it difficult to say exactly what they think it commits them to. For The Idea oj History is an irritating, as well as an exciting, book. It is full of paradoxes and apparent contradictions, which in some cases appear to be not entirely unconnected with a certain contempt which Collingwood from time to time displayed towards his philosophical opponents (indeed, his readers do not always escape) : a contempt well exemplified by his remark, at one point, in response to the objections of an imaginary opponent: "I am not arguing; I am telling him" (p. 263). In many cases, no doubt, a kinder explanation might be sought; for the book was left unfinished at its author's death, and some parts of it apparently record the results of fairly raw, if vigorous and stimulating, reflection. Since some of the papers incorporated into The Idea oj History were published by Collingwood during his lifetime, however, it seems reasonable to regard them as especially authoritative on points in his general thesis which have been disputed. The best short summary of his theory of understanding is, in fact, to be found in one of these: a lecture entitled "Human Nature and Human History," which Collingwood delivered before the British Academy in 1936. The theory which he 200 HiSTORICAL UNDERSTANDING 201 there elaborates, in the space of a few pages (pp. 213-15), could be reduced to the following three propositions: first, that human action, which is the proper concern of history, cannot be described as action at all, without mentioning the thought which it expresses-it has, in Collingwood 's terms, a "thought-side"; second, that once the thought in question has been grasped by the historian, the action is understood in the sense appropriate to actions, so that it is unnecessary to go on to ask for the cause which produced it, or the law which it instantiates; third, that the understanding of action in terms of thought requires the rethinking of the thought in question by the historian, so that, in essence, all history is "the re-enactment of past thought in the historian's own mind." No doubt there is much more to Collingwood's account than can be stated in such a condensed, schematic way. But the propositions stated do seem to contain the core of the theory. In what follows, I propose to discuss each of Collingwood's three propositions in turn, clarifying it where that is possible, amending it where that seems necessary. The discussion cannot, of course, hope to deal with more than a few of the many objections which have been advanced against his theory in recent years. But it may perhaps serve to clear the ground a little for a sympathetic consideration of what he had to say. I That history is concerned with human actions, perhaps few would want to dispute; but that actions necessarily have what Collingwood calls a "thought-side" may not pass qnite so easily without challenge. For exactly what is meant here by "thought"? And how is the relation between such thought and the action itself to be conceived? It must be admitted that Collingwood's treatment of these questions is often puzzling. In the paper entitled "The Subject Matter of History," for example, it seems to be his view that the thought-side of an action is an activity of reflection2-as if, in order to act, an agent must first consider what to do, and then act in accordance with his reflection. If history is said to be concerned exclusively with human actions, its field of study, on...


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pp. 200-215
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