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Culture War Roundup for the week of December 26, 2022

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R.G. Collingwood and the Idea of Historical Progress

Every so often a discussion about the nature of progress, why society seems to trend ‘leftwards’ or similar teleologically related questions. In the past I have given my own answer to such a question. However, I recently came across the book the Idea of History by historian and philosopher of history R.G. Collingwood, one of the more interesting philosophies and theories of history and what it means or if it is even possible for society to ‘progress’. But first, some context.

R.G. Collingwood was a British historian and philosopher of history during the early 20th century (I will admittedly simplifying his ideas here for brevity). Collingwood was a major and influential figure in neo-idealist or British idealist movement. The neo-idealists, as idealists, believe that human actions and events, and therefore history, is driven by human thought, ideas, or reason. This is contrasted with materialist or naturalists who aim to explain human action and history through laws or law-like processes, the classic example being Marxist historiography. Collingwood believes the analogy between human history and natural processes is wrong. For this reason, Collingwood history proper is the study of human thought, ideas or reason over time. Natural history (e.g. geological history) is not true history, because it is driven by natural processes and laws. It is no more history than a mathematical equation or scientific theory is history.

The neo-idealists could broadly be described Hegelian but deviate or disagree with Hegel’s philosophy of history in several ways. Collingwood, like Hegel, was a historicist – that all human culture or nature is contingent on its historical period, and therefore all historical events are unique. This lends itself towards a kind of historical moral subjectivism, though I would argue in Collingwood’s case it is a weak form of subjectivism. According to Collingwood, as part of truly understanding history, one must attempt to inhabit or relive the experience of historical figures to understand them. To understand Caesar and crossing of the Rubicon, we must put ourselves in Caesar’s shoes. But we can still understand empathise and reason as those figures did (at least to some degree) and make judgements about their behaviour relative to their context, hence ‘weak’ subjectivism.

Collingwood’s best-known work is The Idea of History in which the majority is dedicated to how the idea of history has developed across time, from Thucydides to Collingwood’s fellow neo-idealist contemporaries like Croce and Oakeshott. Essentially, a history of history. However, I admit I have not read much of this part of the book. It is the final third of the book (the “Epilegomena”) which I found most interesting, in which Collingwood explains his philosophy and theory of history, including in which he addresses “Progress as created by Historical Thinking”.

Collingwood denies the existence of historical progress, primarily by his argument that historical progress is not a natural process. He argues that the belief in historical progress arose out of this false analogy to natural progress (particularly natural evolution). It is here where Collingwood deviates from and contradicts Hegel and earlier idealists the strongest. Collingwood does not believe in a teleology of human history - that human history is leading or progressing towards something. However, human thought still changes and develops (and thus history occurs) over time. Collingwood believes it improper to conceptualize history as a whole as progressing because it is impossible to evaluate a historical period as a whole. This is for both practical and philosophical reasons – the historian can never have complete data to truly recreate (relive) the entire historical period, and even if the historian did have enough data, he will be unable to truly grasp the historical period as a whole. Collingwood provides the example of Christianity being ‘progress’ on Roman paganism – such an evaluation would require us to understand the entire internal religious experience of the Romans, which is inaccessible to us, even if we have a robust understanding of their rites and myths.

Collingwood does believe that progress can occur, however. For Collingwood, progress can only ever occur within a limited field or scope. Progress occurs when a change occurs to solve a problem with no loss of the essence of the original. As Collingwood puts it:

If thought in its first phase, after solving the initial problems of that phase, is then, through solving these, brought up against others which defeat it; and if the second solves these further problems without losing its hold on the solution of the first, so that there is gain without any corresponding loss, then there is progress.

This is essentially a form of the Hegelian dialectic. A thought is formed – thesis. It has problems – antithesis. The problems are solved while preserving the essence of the original thought – synthesis. An example of where Collingwood believes progress can occur is progress in science. We can say Einstein is progress on Newton because Einstein is able to solve the problems of Newtonian mechanics while retaining its essence. It is appropriate to say that Aristotle provides progress on Plato so far as Aristotle resolves problems within Platonic philosophy, but it would be inappropriate to say that it is progress when Aristotle rejects Platonic philosophy. We can apply this idea of progress to other fields, e.g. economics, law, morality etc. - A new precedent in common law for a previously unresolved issue is progress, but we cannot say whether the idea of common law itself represents progress from other systems of law.

What does this mean for us online who constantly argue about the nature of progress? I’m not really sure but I think it might be wise to keep this dual notion of progress in mind. That progress can and will occur within a certain part of history and society but it cannot progress (or be said to progress) as a whole. That Cthulhu does indeed swim leftwards, but only within a given scope. A Liberal society will continue to solve problems within its society and progressively become ‘more liberal’ until the liberal period ends, after which we cannot tell which way he swims from our perspective.

If you want to hear some more about Collingwood’s philosophy of history and clarify my butchered attempt to summarize it, I recommend this video lecture which got me to read Collingwood in the first place. The Idea of History is also available on the Internet Archive to read.

Wish this got more discussion. I’m far more interested in this topic than everyday CW stuff!

For my part I tend to agree that we are too hasty to rebuke the past as backward. Especially the internal experience bit. I’d imagine we are far more stressed today than our counterparts in many eras.

Thank you, this looks very interesting.

Ive always thought that historical incomparability cant apply to civilised peoples, precisely because they think about history. That enables them to disagree with you and your theory of history that you put them into. You cant "input sanitise" them when you put them in there, without denying that they were talking about the history that they themselves are in. And yet, here is someone who wrote a whole book about what people thought of history, asserting that incomparability. I wonder how he tries to square that.

I agree with your application of this version of progress to the Cthulhu swim, if "problem" is understood correctly: In the version I believe, what counts as a "problem" for the sake of progress in a field is determined by the field itself. Not us, or an "objective observer", looking at the state if the field and thinking something is bad, but the internal criteria that are already present in the field. I would guess that is what Collingwood means as well, but your comment doesnt make it clear to an unfamiliar reader, and it could lead to very different takeaways.

I agree with your application of this version of progress to the Cthulhu swim, if "problem" is understood correctly: In the version I believe, what counts as a "problem" for the sake of progress in a field is determined by the field itself. Not us, or an "objective observer", looking at the state if the field and thinking something is bad, but the internal criteria that are already present in the field.

Yes, this is more or less the case, but you're right I could have clarified it, though I hope my examples were sufficient to get the point across.

One related issue is that's not exactly clear how define when one thought or historical period ends and another begins and thus when it is appropriate judge progress and when it is not. For some divisions it may be pretty clear cut (e.g. French Revolution) but it's not always the case. I guess you can just make a spectrum argument where the further away from our thought and society the harder it is to evaluate.

I guess you can just make a spectrum argument where the further away from our thought and society the harder it is to evaluate.

I think this is clearer than it may seem. The field itself tells you what is an improvement, and an improvement is within the field. It may look very different afterwards, much like the output of a programm may look very different after youve corrected an off-by-one error. This can be difficult to judge, in that it requires deep understanding of the field, but its not unclear. Of course, minor drifts which are not improvements happen all the time, but while a tradition is alive and well, they are eventually corrected and do not accumulate into larger drifts the way a random walk would. When it no longer does this there is simply no capital-H Historical period for a while. They dont need to be everywhere, just like not all of nature is alive.

So this is really good and takes after some of the ideas that have been floating around in my head lately about how people perceive history.

But one thing though, I think you accidentally a phrase:

he may be unable to truly grasp the Collingwood provides the example

And this was a key part of your post, too, so I really want to know what Collingwood had to say about the historian's ability to grasp...

My apologies, I wrote this pretty fast and I have a bad habit of dropping words as I jump from idea to idea! Edited.