Monthly Archives: February 2015

Philosophy of History for Lawyers & All via Collingwood

Below is a review of the Principles of History that I wrote for my personal blog. So why include it here? Because Collingwood’s work in the philosophy of history (and historiography) offers insights and reflections on how we make decisions about the past–that is, about almost everything! For instance, a trial is an inquiry into past events. Following is a brief dicussion about what I think Collingwood writes that applies  to persuasion, argument, and judgment.

For Collingwood, historians don’t just blithely accept the testimony (most often written) of witnesses, but they must inquire of it. They must test it. Sound familiar, lawyers? Indeed, Collingwood provides an extended analogy of a detective mystery that might have served as a plot for his contemporary, Agatha Christie. Various witnesses make various statements that they claim are true, but some (or all, to some extent) are lying, mistaken, hiding something, and so on. One must build a case whether one is a historian (going to the time before memory can serve directly to provide information), a lawyer, or a detective. Collingwood argues that the historian should use a question-and-answer template for accessing the evidence. Of course, you don’t have live witnesses (at least not in front of you under oath), but the historian or lawyer does have multiple sources of evidence  to compare and contrast.

Collingwood also emphasizes the role of imagination in formulating a historical narrative. We can’t retrieve all of the facts, sometimes because we simply don’t have the evidence, or sometimes the evidence may prove too voluminous. But we can fill in details–for instance, we can be confident that the underside of a table exists although we cannot see it. (Okay, we could get off our cans and look, but you get the point). So with narratives in litigation: we must fill in blanks, and we test the proposed narratives through the adversarial structure of a trial. A judge or a jury determines, in effect, who has the best story according the criteria of which side provides the most compelling account of what happened in the past as considered in the context of the existing law (including, quite importantly, the standard of proof.

The sampler above gives you some taste of how I believe the Collingwood’s perspectives apply to litigation and persuasion. It’s more than a matter of my long-standing infatuation with history. Collingwood’s well-written and very accessible arguments provide us reasons to think about how we prove (or disprove) a perspective on the past, which is the stuff of litigation and a lot of ordinary life.

My review:

Taking Readings: SNG Thoughts

A reader’s journal sharing the insights of various authors and my take on a variety of topics, most often philosophy, religion & spirituality, politics, history, economics, and works of literature. Come to think of it, diet and health, too!

Monday, February 2, 2015

The Principles of History & Other Writings in the Philosophy of History by R.G. Collingwood

Principles of History cover

Sometimes awe and modesty compel us to brevity where otherwise we’d feel need to blather on at length. This will be a short post, not because the subject doesn’t merit a lengthier treatment. To the contrary, it merits so much more. So I hope that this post is just in the way of a trailer or preview of what I hope in time to consider at more length.

R.G. Collingwood is a late arrival on my radar. In fact, he was probably a part of my undergraduate syllabus in my Philosophy of History course, but he didn’t stick. Now, I’m learning about him, as he keeps popping up, as it were. Last year in India, I bought a copy of The Idea of History, his masterwork, which The Times Literary Supplement selected as one of the most influential books published since the Second World War. But I haven’t read that book yet. So why this book, less famous and published much later?

First, it’s on Kindle, which means that it is accessible to me know (unlike my copies–yes, copies–of The Idea of History now in storage). But perhaps an even better reason—or excuse—for reading this first book comes from the history of the writings themselves.

R.G. Collingwood image

By the late 1930s, Collingwood, then in his early forties, knew that his health was failing. He went on a writing and publication flurry. He’d lectured at Oxford on various occasions in the 1930s about his philosophy of history and historiography. In 1939, during a long cruise intended to bolster his health, he began writing The Principles of History, a companion of sorts to his book The Principles of Art. However, because of his failing health, the advent of WWII, and two other writing projects he wanted to complete, he set the project aside. Death took him in early 1943, with his work about history unpublished in book form. After his death, literary executor, T.M. Knox, brought together several of Collingwood’s writings, including lecture notes, and published them through Oxford University Press as The Idea of History. And as I mentioned, it proved quite a success (at least according the standards of its peer group.) Knox left out some papers, but the source was considered exhausted. Except it wasn’t.

In 1995, archivists at Oxford University Press discovered the (uncompleted) manuscript of The Principles of History that Collingwood has written during his 1939 cruise to Indonesia. They also discovered some papers on other topics as well. The new materials didn’t reveal any startling new positions or arguments made by Collingwood, but they helped to complete his positions and to reveal his overall plan. He’d intended to publish two volumes on the subject of history. The Idea of History covered much of this area, but not all of it, nor in the manner that Collingwood had intended. The Principles of History helps to fill the gaps. Given the depth and significance of Collingwood’s thought, this book provides us with even deeper insights into his unique and compelling ways of thinking about history.

I hope to explore the topic of history and knowledge in depth in a project that I’ve dubbed “history as a way of knowing” (or perhaps history as the way of knowing), which will trace the ideas of Collingwood, Owen Barfield, and John Lukacs and show how their thoughts can inform our thinking. In the meantime, if you’ve any interest in how we think about history and how we judge its fruits, you must read this book