RG Collingwood philosphy
© Nation Portrait Gallery, London. Painting Cortesy Teresa Smith
Robin George Collingwood, philosopher (1889 - 1943)
In the 20th century an unfortunate gulf opened up in philosophy between the "continental" and "analytic" schools. Even if you've never studied the subject, you might well have heard of this one split. But as the British moral philosopher Bernard Williams once pointed out, the very characterisation of this gulf is odd — one school being characterised by its qualities, the other geographically, like dividing cars between four-wheel drive models and those made in Japan.

Unsurprisingly, no one has come up with a satisfactory way of drawing the line between them. Broadly speaking, however, one can say that the continental school has its roots in the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl, and encompasses a range of diverse traditions, including the existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre, the structuralism of Ferdinand de Saussure, the postmodernism of Jean-François Lyotard and the deconstructionism of Jacques Derrida. The analytic school, meanwhile, has its roots in the work of Gottlob Frege, Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein and has been until fairly recently much more narrowly focused, concentrating mainly on logic and language.

The divide is certainly strange and arguably arbitrary, but it none the less cut deep. For decades, it was possible to do a degree in philosophy at a major university in the UK or the US without once encountering any of the continental philosophers mentioned.

This splintering of the discipline would have appalled many philosophical greats from earlier ages. And — just possibly — the great schism would never have set in at all, had RG Collingwood, one of the most remarkable, open and eclectic minds of the 20th century, not died prematurely in 1943. But as it was, his Oxford chair was filled by Gilbert Ryle, a man in whose image British philosophy was soon remade. And a man who did more than his fair share to entrench the gulf.

The Generalissimo

Before the Second World War Ryle had been sympathetic to continental streams of thought, delivering a measured account of Husserl's work to the Aristotelian Society in 1932, and reviewing Heidegger's Being and Time with respect (even if with robust dissent) in 1928. He even gave what he later called "an unwanted course of lectures" at Oxford on the work of Bolzano, Brentano, Husserl and Meinong. But after the war, dissent hardened into hostility, and, in place of respect he offered derision. Things came to a head in 1958, at Royaumont in France. A conference had been held here to connect a group of continental philosophers (mostly French phenomenologists) and their Oxford counterparts, with the aim of bridging the gap between their two schools.
But, as if determined instead to reinforce it, Ryle gave a paper called "Phenomenology versus 'The Concept of Mind,'" the latter being the title of his most famous book. That "versus" captured his pugnacious mood. In this paper, Ryle outlined what he regarded as the superiority of British ("Anglo-Saxon," as he put it) analytic philosophers over their continental counterparts, and dismissed Husserl's phenomenology as an attempt to "puff philosophy up into the Science of the sciences." British philosophers were not tempted to such delusions of grandeur, he suggested, because of the Oxbridge rituals of High Table: "I guess that our thinkers have been immunised against the idea of philosophy as the Mistress Science by the fact that their daily lives in Cambridge and Oxford colleges have kept them in personal contact with real scientists. Claims to Führership vanish when postprandial joking begins. Husserl wrote as if he had never met a scientist — or a joke."

To invoke the old cliché about Germans lacking a sense of humour was bad enough, but talking about "Führership" at a time when memories of the Nazi regime were still raw was crass in the extreme. And yet, in this paper, Ryle did it, not once, but twice: British philosophers, his second "quip" ran, "have not worried our heads over the question 'Which philosopher ought to be Führer?'" Unlike the Germans, he seemed to suggest, the British trusted in logic rather than leadership: "At least the main lines of our philosophical thinking during this century can be fully understood only by someone who has studied the massive developments of our logical theory."

Awkwardly for Ryle, two out of the three founders of what he called "our logical theory," namely Frege and Wittgenstein, were continentals. However, as Russell and Wittgenstein had both worked at Cambridge, he was able, at a stretch, to characterise it as "The Cambridge Transformation of the Theory of Concepts."

gilbert ryle english philosopher oxford

Gilbert Ryle, English philospher
The jingoism of one scholar would, ordinarily, have been something the world of philosophy could have laughed off with a shrug. But unfortunately there was nothing ordinary about Ryle. He was Waynflete Professor of Metaphysics, the oldest and most prestigious chair of philosophy at Oxford, by far the largest British philosophy department — and this deep but curiously narrow thinker used this lofty position to remake the British discipline in his own image. If there was any 20th-century philosopher who might have merited Führer jokes, it was not a continental: it was Ryle himself.

Indeed, Michael Dummett, who was until his death in 2011 Ryle's successor as the most eminent philosopher in Britain, called Ryle "the Generalissimo of Oxford philosophy." British philosophy in the mid-20th century was extraordinarily monolithic, and Ryle dominated it. As the editor of Mind, then as now the British discipline's most prestigious journal, from 1947 to 1971, Ryle could strongly influence, and sometimes dictate, what subjects British philosophers discussed and how they discussed them. Moreover, as the accepted leader of philosophy at Oxford, he was able to exert a personal influence on a good proportion of the philosophers who staffed the philosophy departments in the fast-growing number of post-war universities. Most of these young philosophers had been graduate students at Oxford, many supervised by Ryle himself and then "placed" by him. I remember, soon after I was appointed at Southampton in 1992, attending the inaugural professorial lecture of my colleague Tony Palmer. An older colleague was reminiscing about when Tony was first hired as a junior lecturer, 20 or so years earlier. "We had a vacancy," he told me, "so I called Gilbert and asked him who he could recommend." That is how the philosophy departments at British universities came to be staffed by what Jonathan Rée has called "Ryle's lieutenants."

Throughout those departments, British philosophers propagated Ryle's sense that he and his colleagues were doing philosophy in a way that broke sharply both with philosophers of the past, and with those from other countries. Their way was the better way, and philosophy from earlier times and other places wasn't really worth bothering with. Ryle's long-lasting dominance of British philosophy — and his contempt for that undertaken elsewhere — had many far-reaching consequences. But one was the unfortunate neglect of his immediate predecessor in the Waynflete chair, Robin George Collingwood.
rg collingwood sailboat philosopher
© TeresaSmith/Hulton-Deutsch Collection
In command: Collingwood piloting a yacht in the Mediterranean in 1939
A great what if?

Unless you're a professional philosopher or a scholar of Roman Britain, you may never have heard of Collingwood. And yet he was one of the most interesting British philosophers of the last century. Unlike Ryle and his disciples in the analytic school, Collingwood took a deep interest in both the history of his subject and the work of philosophers from the European continent, being especially influenced by two Italians, Benedetto Croce and Giambattista Vico.

His intellectual range was astonishing. In philosophy itself, Collingwood made important contributions to aesthetics, the philosophy of history, metaphysics, the philosophy of language, and the understanding of philosophical method. He had important things to say about how each of these contributes to our understanding of ourselves. There was some commonality in his philosophical interests, and in the spirit in which he pursued them, with the incomparably more famous Wittgenstein (one of my biographical subjects). Outside philosophy, he did important work in archaeology and history, and was recognised as one of the country's leading authorities on Roman Britain, writing the volume devoted to it in the Oxford History of England. In addition, he was an extremely accomplished musician, a talented painter and a gifted linguist, able to read scholarship in French, Spanish, German, Italian, Latin and Greek. He also wrote one of the most fascinating (if decidedly odd) autobiographies ever published. Thanks to Sartre and Derrida, an artistic and literary bent is common enough among philosophers of the continent, but much less evident among the analytic school.

Astonishingly, Collingwood achieved everything he did despite dying at the age of just 53 in 1943. Given just how different he was from Ryle — deeply cultured, curious about everything, eclectic in his interests — the question of what course post-war philosophy in Britain might have taken if Collingwood had not succumbed to a series of strokes at this relatively early age must rank as one of the great "what ifs" of intellectual history. Might British philosophy have avoided becoming as narrow as it at one time did, and might it have engaged much more fruitfully with continental thinking?

We will never know for sure, but in many respects, Collingwood's personality, attitudes and approach to philosophy can be best understood as the opposite of Ryle's. Bernard Williams described Ryle as "a man of genially military appearance, rather soldierly in speech and manner," who "affected an amiable Philistinism, which to some degree was also genuine: 'No ear for tunes,' he was disposed to say, if music was mentioned." The contrast with Collingwood could not be sharper. There was nothing military, soldierly or philistine about him, and, whereas Ryle's voice was the bark of a general (it can be heard on YouTube), Collingwood had what one friend described as "high-pitched, incisive tones." He had the bearing of an artist, a writer and a scholar, rather than that of a military man. As for an "ear for tunes," he was such an accomplished violinist that he thought seriously for a while of becoming a professional musician.

Laying the groundwork

Collingwood's artistic abilities and wide-ranging intellectual interests were acquired from his parents, William Gershom and Edith May ("Dorrie") Collingwood. Both were professional painters, and both had gifts and interests that went way beyond the world of commissions and exhibitions. Dorrie was an exceptional pianist, who began every day by playing an hour of Beethoven, Mozart or Chopin. Gershom was an archaeologist, historian and novelist. He had studied philosophy at Oxford, where his tutor was the renowned Idealist Bernard Bosanquet. While there, he became a close friend of John Ruskin, and after leaving Oxford, he travelled with Ruskin to the Alps. He wrote several works on Ruskin, including The Art Teaching of John Ruskin and The Life and Work of John Ruskin. At the time of Robin's birth, Gershom was acting as Ruskin's secretary, and the family was living in the Lake District.

When Robin was two, the Collingwoods moved into Lanehead, a large house on the shores of Coniston Water, close to Ruskin's home, Brantwood. Lanehead still exists and is advertised online as an activity centre that can be hired to sleep up 35 people, at a weekly rate of £3,349. When the Collingwoods lived there from the 1890s onwards, it housed Gershom and Dorrie, together with Robin, his three sisters, and, one supposes, several servants, and they paid £100 annually.
rg collingwood young portrait

Golden boy: RG Collingwood painted by his mother in 1912
At Lanehead, Collingwood enjoyed an idyllic childhood amid glorious countryside, with the support of a loving family and the stimulation provided not only by his talented parents but also their many remarkable friends. In addition to the towering figure of Ruskin, there was the famous painter, Edward Burne-Jones, whose picture Two Angels hung on their morning room wall. There was also the writer Arthur Ransome, who came to call Dorrie "aunt" and to regard her as his surrogate mother. Ransome's most famous book, Swallows and Amazons, was inspired by the boating trips around Coniston Water he took with various members of the Collingwood family. Robin, in fact, who was an expert sailor, taught Ransome how to sail in the family's boat, Swallow, and the children in the story are based on members of the Collingwood clan.

Collingwood did not attend school until he was 13. Until then, he was taught Latin (from the age of four) and Greek (from six) by his father, but in his autobiography says such lessons took only two or three hours a day: "otherwise he left me to my own devices." In all that free time, the youngster read "everything I could find about the natural sciences, especially geology, astronomy, and physics; [and learned] to recognise rocks, to know the stars, and to understand the working of pumps and locks and other mechanical appliances up and down the house." He says that he "wrote incessantly, in verse and prose, lyrics and fragments of epics, stories of adventure and romance, descriptions of imaginary countries and bogus scientific treatises."

There were, of course, plenty of books around the house, including those Gershom had bought for his studies in philosophy at Oxford. At the age of eight, Collingwood picked up his father's copy of Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals by Immanuel Kant, perhaps the last name in the history of philosophy to be of equal interest to both the analytic and continental schools, and the genius that some have pointed to as the grandfather of the latter.

Reading this book was to be a turning point in Collingwood's life. "I felt that things of the utmost importance were being said about matters of the utmost urgency: things which at all costs I must understand." Then came the discovery that he could not understand them. "Disgraceful to confess, here was a book whose words were English and whose sentences were grammatical, but whose meaning baffled me." Then, finally,
"came the strongest emotion of all. I felt that the contents of this book, although I could not understand it, were somehow my business: a matter personal to myself, or rather to some future self of my own... I felt as if a veil had been lifted and my destiny revealed."
It was not that he decided there and then that he wanted to be a philosopher, but rather that it had been revealed to him that he was a philosopher.

Memoirs and memorials

After a year at a prep school, Collingwood went to Rugby, where he had won a scholarship. His time there was not entirely wasted. It was at Rugby, for example, that he learned to play the violin, studied harmony and orchestration, and taught himself Italian in order to read Dante. But, in later life, his most vivid recollections of the school were of "the pigsty conditions of our daily life and the smell of filth constantly in our nostrils," together with "the frightful boredom of being taught things by weary, absent-minded or incompetent masters."

After Rugby, "going up to Oxford was like being let out of prison." In his room in the Garden Quad of University College, he "read all day and most of the night." He studied "Greats," a mixture of philosophy and ancient history, and acquired a deep understanding of both. During the summer vacations, he would join archaeological digs, excavating Roman sites. Even before he graduated (with a First, of course), Collingwood was offered a Fellowship at Pembroke College, and he began tutoring philosophy there in 1912.

During the First World War, Collingwood worked for the Intelligence Division of the Admiralty, which was based in Kensington. One of the oddest and most intriguing parts of his autobiography concerns this period. Written towards the end of his life, it is a masterpiece, and unlike any other autobiography I know, it is relentlessly internal. "The autobiography of a man whose business is thinking," he says in the preface, "should be the story of his thought. I have written this book to tell what I think worth telling about the story of mine." And so, there is very little in the book about the places he has lived or the people he has known. He says almost nothing about his parents, his sisters, his wife, or about the Lake District. What it offers, rather, is an account of how his thinking developed.

This might sound off-puttingly solipsistic, but, partly because it is so well written and partly also because his thoughts are so profound, the story he tells about their development is utterly fascinating. Consider his approach to the logic of "question and answer," which is central to his thinking about metaphysics, history, aesthetics and philosophical method. He describes how thoughts on that developed during his daily wartime walk to work along Kensington Gardens and past the Albert Memorial, designed by George Gilbert Scott, the noted Victorian architect and — as it happens — the great-uncle of Gilbert Ryle.
albert memorial
© Hazel Blanchard/Flickr
Gilbert Scott's memorial monstrosity: what question could he possibly have been trying to answer?
"The Albert Memorial began by degrees to obsess me," he writes. "Everything about it was visibly mis-shapen, corrupt, crawling, verminous; for a time I could not bear to look at it, and passed with averted eyes; recovering from this weakness, I forced myself to look, and to face day by day the question: a thing so obviously, so incontrovertibly, so indefensibly bad, why had Scott done it?"

These thoughts became connected in Collingwood's mind to thoughts he already had concerning his archaeological work. One does not, he reflected, approach a dig by saying, "Let's see what we can find here." One formulates ever more specific questions: "Was there a Flavian occupation on this site?" "Are these Flavian sherds and coins mere strays, or were they deposited in the period to which they belong?" And so on. In this way, what one learned on a dig, "depended not merely on what turned up in one's trenches but also on what questions one was asking."

Similarly, when faced with something as monstrous as the Albert Memorial, one was forced to ask questions like: what relation was there between what Scott had done and what he had tried to do? Collingwood had approached art in this distinctive and questioning spirit ever since his youth when, while watching his mother and father at work, he "learned to think of a picture not as a finished product exposed for the admiration... [but] as the visible record... of an attempt to solve a definite problem in painting." In the case of Scott, if the architect had tried to produce something beautiful, then he had clearly failed. But, perhaps, one might arrive at the conclusion that he had succeeded if only one could identify what problem, exactly, this monument was supposed to solve.

Disappointingly, Collingwood does not pursue this line of thought to the end, and we are left wondering whether he ever found a way of thinking about the Albert Memorial that did not entail regarding it as a failure.

A questioning mind

However, what is clear is the importance to him of replacing the traditional logic of "statements," "judgments" or "propositions" with that of "question and answer." Traditional logic treats an individual proposition as the "bearer of truth." Most philosophers of the analytic school would follow Frege in regarding the proposition also as the bearer of meaning. The word "chair" on its own means nothing, but the English sentence "the book is on the chair" has a meaning: it expresses the proposition that the book is on the chair (the German sentence, Das Buch liegt auf dem Stuhl expresses the same proposition), and that proposition is either true or false.

All this is abandoned by Collingwood. For him, you could never hope to understand what a person means simply by studying or analysing the sentences that they utter. Instead, you have to know something about the context in which those sentences are uttered. In particular, you need to know what the question was to which those sentences were intended to provide the answer. This changes the way logical relations like consistency and contradiction are understood. In Collingwood's view, "no two propositions can contradict one another unless they are answers to the same question."

Every question contains a presupposition — the question, "where is my hat?" for example contains the presupposition that I have a hat. Collingwood distinguishes "relative" from "absolute" presuppositions. Many everyday presuppositions are relative: they can themselves be the answer to a question, and can therefore be shown to be either or true or false (relative to that question). In the example above, "I have a hat" is a presupposition of the question, "Where is my hat?" but it is also the answer to the question, "Do you have a hat?"

An absolute presupposition, by contrast, cannot be questioned, not because it is certainly true, but rather because, within the framework of question and answer to which it belongs, it does not make sense to question it. This is because its assumption is part of what gives the whole framework its meaning, so it cannot be questioned without collapsing into meaninglessness.

An example that Collingwood gives of this concerns the frameworks (he calls them "constellations") provided by the Newtonian, the Kantian and the Einsteinian modes of scientific enquiry. Each of these assumes a peculiar notion of causation, and within any one of them, this notion cannot be questioned. It is not thought of as true; it is simply taken for granted. It is an absolute presupposition. As he puts it: "any question involving the presupposition that an absolute presupposition is a proposition such as the questions 'Is it true?' 'What evidence is there for it?' 'How can it be demonstrated?' 'What right have we to presuppose it if it can't?' is a nonsense question."

His general claims here seem closely allied to the famous notion of a "paradigm" in Thomas Kuhn's 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. After a scientific revolution takes place, according to Kuhn, the new theory will be "incommensurable" with the one it has replaced, so that it is impossible to understand one in the terms of the other. What Newton's theory has to say about gravity, for example, cannot be understood as true or false within Einstein's theory because the two use radically different "paradigms." Collingwood, however, was less interested in the application of his "question and answer" logic to science than in its application to religion, philosophy, history and aesthetics.

To understand a work of art, a person, a historical epoch or a religion is, so to speak, to "get inside its mind," to see the world through the eyes of people using a different set of presuppositions to our own. If we try to understand others using only our own presuppositions, we will always fail. Historical understanding, for example, "is the attempt to discover the corresponding presuppositions of other peoples and other times." Again, if we insist on regarding Christianity as "false," we will never understand it.

For Collingwood then, unlike philosophers in the Ryle mould, imagination and empathy play a crucial role in understanding. And here, perhaps, we have a tantalising glimpse of how British philosophy might have developed differently had Collingwood not died so early and if he had had the sort of influence that Ryle acquired. Certainly, it is impossible to imagine such an open and restlessly questioning mind giving the sort of dismissive paper that Ryle did at Royaumont.

Collingwood was an almost exact contemporary of Wittgenstein. They were born within three months of each other, and yet they hardly ever mentioned one another. They probably never met, but the closest they came to contact, as far as I know, was in 1939, when Collingwood was appointed one of the electors to consider Wittgenstein's application to the Chair of Philosophy at Cambridge. Wittgenstein told a friend that he was worried that Collingwood would be opposed to his application, but, as it turned out, this concern was misplaced. It is possible, I think, that Collingwood saw in Wittgenstein a kindred spirit, for the connections between his thinking and that of the later Wittgenstein, the Wittgenstein of Philosophical Investigations, are very striking.

Consider this statement from Collingwood's Principles of Art: "One does not first acquire a language and then use it. To possess it and to use it are the same. We only come to possess it by repeatedly and progressively attempting to use it." Ask any philosopher who wrote that and they would almost certainly guess Wittgenstein. And Collingwood's notion of an absolute presupposition bears an obvious and striking similarity to the things Wittgenstein says in On Certainty, things like: "the questions that we raise and our doubts depend on the fact that some propositions are exempt from doubt, are as it were like hinges on which those turn."

Ludwig Wittgenstein

Ludwig Wittgenstein, philosopher
Their similarity is not confined to what they say, but extends also to the spirit in which they thought and wrote. "People nowadays," wrote Wittgenstein in a remark published in the collection Culture and Value, "think that scientists exist to instruct them, poets, musicians, etc. to give them pleasure. The idea that these have something to teach them — that does not occur to them." One finds similar sentiments in Collingwood's work on aesthetics.

It took a long time for English-speaking philosophers to realise how wide the gulf was between the spirit that guided Wittgenstein's work, and that which informed the analytic movement in philosophy during Ryle's reign. In the last few decades, however, British philosophy has finally come out from under the shadow of Ryle and his "lieutenants." Areas of the discipline that were disdained by Ryle's generation of analytic philosophers — ethics, aesthetics, metaphysics, political philosophy, and indeed the history of philosophy — are growing and blossoming once again, and thinkers ignored by the Rylean tradition, such as Kierkegaard, Schopenhauer and Nietszche, have now resumed their rightful place in the canon. This can only engender a richer philosophy. Collingwood would be cheered by that thought. He, too, should now be afforded his own rightful place in that canon.