- History as Thought and Action: The Philosophies of Croce, Gentile, de Ruggiero and Collingwood by Rik Peters
This is a book about the personal and philosophical relationships between three Italian philosophers and their intersection with the life and thought of the English polymath R. G. Collingwood. It is well known that many of the most controversial ideas of the Italians were developed in direct engagement with each other through published encounters and private correspondence. The connection between Collingwood and the Italians, although vaguely familiar to English and Italian readers, is far less well known in its details, perhaps because Collingwood himself played down his debt to them in his An Autobiography. He simply alludes to the Fascist Giovanni Gentile, and ignores Croce. Collingwood makes a passing reference in An Autobiography to de Ruggierro as the recipient of an early copy of Libellus de Generatione, written in 1920, the manuscript of which Collingwood mistakenly claimed to have destroyed. The mention is deceptively important, especially in the context of the book under review. The Libellus was where Collingwood developed many of his thoughts on the living past, and ideas connected to it. The four philosophers whose lives touched in significant ways did not comprise a movement or school of thought. They are connected in sharing the belief that the past is not dead. It is a living past, knowledge of which is a prerequisite of rational action in the present.
For all four philosophers, history was necessarily political; it combined theory and practice, and thought and action. It was these ideas that united them, and the conclusions to which they led that eventually drove them apart. The course of Italian politics, the succession of Croce by Gentile as minister of education, the rise of Fascism, and political [End Page 514] surveillance of Croce precipitated their estrangement, culminating in 1938 with a scathing criticism by Croce of totalitarian thought (la storia come pensiero e come azione, History as Thought and Action). De Ruggerio, a friend of both Gentile and Croce, became increasingly agitated by the crisis of liberalism in Italy during the 1920s and travelled to England to study parliamentary democracy. There he met Collingwood, who had already translated his Modern Philosophy (1921), and was to translate his European Liberalism (1927), and become a lifelong friend. Ruggiero became active in the resistance movement and was imprisoned in 1943 for publishing a revised edition of European Liberalism.
In a meticulously researched and scholarly adventure into the philosophical complexities of intellectual interactions, Rik Peters contends that the views often attributed to Collingwood, and blamed on Croce, namely, that Collingwood underwent a radical conversion to historicism, or relativism, is a serious misunderstanding of both Collingwood and Croce. Anglophone experts on Gentile and Croce have tended to ignore the Collingwood connection completely and, on the whole, up until recently, so have Italians. Despite the equal billing of the four philosophers, the principal aim of the book is to bring into focus the crucial role, not influence, that the Italians had in the development of Collingwood’s thought, such as the logic of question and answer, history as the re-enactment of past thought, and the idea of a living past. The originality and value of the enterprise is that Peters demonstrates, with strong, evidentially based arguments, not at what points the thinkers agree, but instead how the conclusions that each reached gave rise to new problems for the others. The argument is philosophically sophisticated and thoroughly grounded in published material, marginalia, and extensive correspondence.
Collingwood differentiates himself from the Italians in that they could not conceive of a past outside thought, whereas as he believed that the past continues to live on, even though we may be unaware of it (400). This raises the issue of Collingwood’s commitment to philosophical idealism. At first glance, an obvious link among all four thinkers is that they are commonly described as philosophical idealists of one type or another. Collingwood certainly identified himself as...