In February 1938, R. G. Collingwood, then Waynflete Professor of Metaphysical Philosophy at Oxford and aged only 48, suffered a small stroke. It was the first of a series, each one more serious than the last, that would kill him within five years. The usual treatment in the 1930s was less effective than modern medical intervention but rather more enjoyable. His doctors recommended a prolonged period of leave from his job, lengthy walks and sea cruises. He was also encouraged to continue writing: even if teaching was deemed bad for the blood vessels, research was supposed to be good for them.
Signing off from Oxford for a year, he immediately bought a small yacht in which he planned to sail, single-handed, across the Channel and around Europe (hardly a leisured cruise perhaps, but relying on the same basic principle that sea air was restorative). Disaster struck. Just a few days into the voyage, he was rescued from a terrible storm by the Deal lifeboat and towed to shore. He set off again but soon suffered another stroke, which he seems to have weathered by anchoring the yacht far out to sea and lying in his bunk until the headache eased and his normal movement returned. By the time he reached dry land again, he had already started writing his autobiography.
After a few months convalescing in his family home in the Lake District, he had finished the autobiography: an outspoken, sometimes boastful little volume, which ended with an unguarded attack on some of the Oxford philosophers ‘of my youth’ as ‘propagandists of a coming Fascism’. The University Press had to overcome a few qualms, and insisted on some revisions, before publishing it the following year. In the meantime, Collingwood had embarked on another journey, this time on a Dutch vessel bound for the Far East. It was onboard this ship, where the captain rigged up an open-air study for him on the bridge, that he began his Essay on Metaphysics, finishing the first draft in a hotel in Jakarta. On the way home, he edited out some of the most offensive passages of the autobiography, while also writing substantial chunks of what he called his ‘masterpiece’: a book that was to be known as The Principles of History.
He stayed in Oxford barely a couple of months after his return. According to his own scarcely credible story, he was accosted by an unknown American student outside Thornton’s bookshop on Broad Street and invited to sail with him and his student crew to Greece. He agreed; they left in June and Collingwood came back only shortly before war was declared. In 1940, his account of the journey, The First Mate’s Log, appeared from OUP.
This frenetic activity was not typical of Collingwood’s life up to that point. True, he was always an insomniac workaholic, but he had lived undemonstratively, and at a decidedly more gentlemanly, donnish pace. If his career had been at all unusual, it was because of his two parallel, but at first sight quite distinct, research and teaching interests: on the one hand, philosophy; on the other, Roman history and archaeology – especially the archaeology of Roman Britain. In fact, before he was elected to the Waynflete chair in 1935, he had held a curious hybrid post, as university lecturer in philosophy and Roman history. Much of his time was spent working on his own peculiar brand of idealist philosophy – increasingly old-fashioned as it must have seemed by the mid-1930s to those who were starting to listen to A. J. Ayer and J. L. Austin. The summers he devoted to digging, and to transcribing, recording and drawing Roman inscriptions (from tombstones to milestones), in preparation for a complete collection of the Roman Inscriptions of Britain – a project on which he worked for almost all his academic life. Before 1938, he had published some important studies in Romano-British archaeology and had made one or two notable contributions to academic philosophy. But as Stefan Collini observes in his chapter on Collingwood in Absent Minds, if he had died in 1938 from his first stroke, his work would probably have earned ‘only a small footnote in the more conscientious surveys of 20th-century British philosophy and academic scholarship’ (and, one might add, he would have been thought rather lucky to win the Waynflete chair). It is the work that appeared after the stroke that made his name.
In fact, the pace of his activity – in both his personal and his professional life – increased yet further when in 1941 he became convinced, rightly, that he had very little time left to live. In January he finally resigned from his university chair. Then, with the recklessness of the dying, he divorced his wife and married his mistress, Kate, a former student turned actress, twenty years younger than himself (Fred Inglis in his biography of Collingwood reasonably wonders whether all his foreign travel in the late 1930s was driven less by a spirit of adventure and a confidence in the healthy properties of sea air, more by a desire to escape from his complicated domestic affairs). Kate gave birth to their child in December 1941, and Collingwood died in the Lake District in early 1943, increasingly paralysed by further severe strokes. But that was not before he had finished another book, The New Leviathan; or Man, Society, Civilisation and Barbarism, which appeared in 1942. As the title more than hints, it was an uncompromising, sometimes truculent attempt to muster Hobbesian political philosophy in the fight against Fascism – ‘his contribution to the war’, as Inglis sees it. It also included some frankly ‘batty’ attacks, as even his admirers concede, on some of his increasingly favoured targets – among them, the educational system whose great beneficiary he had been. Late Collingwood was a passionate advocate of home-schooling, and believed that one of Plato’s biggest crimes was to have ‘planted on the European world the crazy idea that education ought to be professionalized’.
Apart from the Autobiography, with its sometimes tactless, sometimes engaging assertions of the relevance of philosophy to modern politics, his most influential works weren’t published in these final few years but later, after his death, and in some cases long after. His most famous book of all, The Idea of History, with its now familiar attacks on what he called the ‘scissors and paste’ method of historical inquiry, and its defence of history as always a ‘history of the mind’, was published in 1946, compiled posthumously from various surviving manuscript sources by his ex-pupil and literary executor, Malcolm Knox. It has only recently become clear quite how partial Knox’s compilation was – omitting, for example, or toning down much of Collingwood’s critique of Hegel.
There was even more to come over the next half-century. His most lasting contribution to Romano-British studies was the 800-page compendium of the Roman Inscriptions of Britain. This project had been inaugurated by Francis Haverfield (p. 203) before the First World War. After the first chosen editor fell in action in the Dardanelles in 1915 Collingwood was selected as his successor and worked on the book, on and off, mostly during the summer vacations, until 1941 – when he passed the material over to his junior editor, R. P. Wright. It finally appeared in 1965, with Collingwood and Wright as joint authors (the latter admitting, plaintively or accusingly, in the preface that ‘the writing of the text took longer than I had been led to expect’). Thirty years after that, The Principles of History, the ‘masterpiece’ that Collingwood started on the trip to the Far East but never finished, finally saw the light of day. It had been believed lost, possibly destroyed after Knox had gutted it in preparing The Idea. But in 1995 two sharp-eyed archivists found the manuscript, hidden away at OUP. It was published in 1999, more than fifty years after his death.
Inglis’s History Man is an enthusiastic appreciation. Unusually for the biography of an academic, it is particularly revealing about Collingwood’s childhood in the Lake District, where his father, W. G. Collingwood, was secretary to the elderly Ruskin, where the sons and grandsons of William Wordsworth were still prominent in the local community, and where Arthur Ransome was a frequent visitor to the Collingwood family home. Inglis, in fact, hazards a guess that R.G. was the inspiration for the elder brother, John Walker, in Ransome’s We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea. True or not, it reminds us that when Collingwood set out, single-handed, on his ill-fated voyage into the English Channel in 1938, he had a lifetime of risky sailing experiences behind him. Inglis is rather less surefooted on Collingwood’s life and experiences at Oxford, and trots out many popular clichés about the eccentrically conservative world of the ancient universities between the wars, from the Brideshead circle of the upper-class undergraduates to the buttoned-up, waspish and for the most part bachelor dons. It is impossible not to suspect that Collingwood was getting rather more out of the intellectual air of 1920s and 1930s Oxford than Inglis is prepared to concede. As well as the revolutions in philosophy that were underway, it was the time that Roman history was being rethought (and re-politicised) by Ronald Syme, whose famous Roman Revolution appeared in 1939.
For all the engaging enthusiasm of the book, two important questions about Collingwood’s achievements and his academic profile remain only half convincingly answered. First, how important is The Idea of History, the posthumous book which remains his most famous work? Second, what was the connection, if any, between the two academic sides of his career, the Romano-British archaeology and the philosophy? What, in other words, does the Roman Inscriptions of Britain have to do with The Idea of History, let alone the Essay on Metaphysics?
The Idea of History has had some very distinguished supporters. By his own account, it was the book that inspired Quentin Skinner at the start of his own historical career – and Skinner of course went on to give his own distinctive spin to Collingwood’s slogan about all history being a ‘history of the mind’. And, if only in the absence of much competition (it is a classic, as Collini has observed, ‘in a field not over-supplied with classics written in English’), it used to be the theoretical standby of undergraduates reading history at university, or of sixth-formers wanting to do so. It still appears on general bibliographies and is warmly recommended to their pupils by ambitious schoolteachers (though when, a few years ago, I asked a group of about 50 third-year students studying History in Cambridge whether any of them had read it, not a single one put up their hand). The problem in judging it now is that its big claims seem fairly uncontentious. In part, no doubt, that is a tribute to the book’s popular success. But in part also those claims were never particularly original in the first place, and were expounded in such a way that it would be difficult to disagree. After all, who could possibly claim, in Collingwood’s terms, to prefer ‘scissors and paste’ history to the ‘question and answer’ style of history that he advocated? Could anyone object to the idea that part of the point of studying history was to help us see (as Inglis puts it) ‘how we might think and feel otherwise than as we do’?
Re-reading The Idea of History after some thirty years or so, I found myself less impressed than I had been as a student, or at least more counter-suggestible. His image of the mindless, unquestioning narration of ‘scissors and paste’ history, and of generations of historians being content merely to stick one source after another, now seems very largely a self-serving myth. It did not require the birth of narratology or the return to fashion of ‘grand narrative’, to realise that historical narration is always selective and always posing questions about the evidence. No history – not even the most austere chronicle – has ever been as unquestioning as Collingwood paints his imaginary methodological enemy. Maybe also his ‘question and answer’ method is not as self-evidently productive as he claimed, and certainly not in that practical branch of history known as archaeology. In the Autobiography he is vitriolic about those antiquarians, following in the tradition of Pitt-Rivers, who excavated sites out of mere curiosity (the excavations at the Roman town of Silchester were his particular target). The best archaeologists, by contrast, ‘never dug a trench without knowing exactly what information they were looking for’. But this is to ignore the equally important fact that some questions blind the investigator to the wider potential, to the surprises, of their material. Some of the best history, no less than the best archaeology, is curiosity-driven and opportunistic – rather than outcome-driven, as Collingwood and his unlikely descendants in the Arts and Humanities Research Council and other government funding bodies like to imagine.
What finally are we to make of the relationship between the two sides of Collingwood’s academic career, the philosophy and archaeology-cum-history? Collingwood himself recognised the problem, with his constant calls for a ‘rapprochement’ between the two. Where he explicitly ranks his different activities, he puts the philosophy first, characterising the archaeological activity more as a practical application of his ideas about the philosophy of history. After all, despite his hybrid lectureship, he went on to become the Waynflete Professor of Metaphysical Philosophy, not the Camden Professor of Roman History. Most studies of his career have followed this ranking, giving much more weight to his philosophical activity and sometimes relegating the archaeology to a summer hobby. But this must partly be because the writers in question have been philosophers and cultural historians, whose grip on the ancient world and on Collingwood’s importance in the study of antiquity has been fragile to say the least. Inglis is a particularly woeful culprit here. He does not seem aware of the importance of the Roman Inscriptions of Britain; he confuses Virgil’s Eclogues with his Georgics; he imagines that Res Gestae (the Latin for ‘achievements’) has something to do with ‘gesture’; and he claims that Alcinous, after whom the boat on which Collingwood sailed to the Far East was named, was the ‘mother of Ulysses’ lover Nausicaa’ (wrong on two counts: Alcinous was Nausicaa’s father and she and Ulysses were not lovers, at least not in Homer’s version). Even Collini manages to stumble over the title of the journal in which many of Collingwood’s major archaeological articles appeared: it was (and still is) the Journal of Roman Studies, not the Journal of Roman History.
As so often, things look rather different if you approach them from a classical standpoint. Collingwood himself may have chosen not to reflect on the influence of his formal education; he became more concerned to attack the whole history of professional pedagogy as far back as Plato. But it is surely crucial that he was a product of the old Oxford ‘Greats’ (that is, Classics) course, which focused the last two and a half years of a student’s work on the parallel study of ancient history on the one hand, and ancient and modern philosophy on the other. Most students were much better at one side than the other, and most stories tell of the desperate attempts by would-be ancient historians to cram enough Plato, Descartes and Hume to get their highflying pass in the final exams (or alternatively of desperate attempts by would-be philosophers to remember enough of the Peloponnesian War or Agricola’s campaigns in Britain to do the same). In the context of Greats, Collingwood was not a maverick with two incompatible interests. Given the educational aims of the course, he was a rare success, even if something of a quirky overachiever; his combination of interests was exactly what Greats was designed to promote.
To put that another way, Collingwood was not simply – as Inglis and others would imply – a philosopher with an archaeological hobby. We might better see him as an unusually successful product of a distinctive Oxford version of Classics that is now no more (Greats was ‘reformed’ decades ago). It should come as no surprise that the last voyage he made, with that group of students, was a trip to Greece, and that he went – as he put it in The First Mate’s Log – ‘not so much a tourist as a pilgrim’ to Delphi, where Socrates had travelled two and a half thousand years earlier. ‘If a man looks to Socrates as his prophet,’ he wrote, ‘the journey to Delphi is the journey to his Mecca.’ That is the credo of a Greats-man.
Review of Fred Inglis, History Man: The Life of R.G. Collingwood (Princeton University Press, 2009)