*  ESSAY *

R G Collingwood

In his first book Speculum Mentis 1924 Collingwood described philosophy as 'a critical review of the chief forms of human experience'. This is a very different approach from the empiricists who regarded sensations as the raw materials of knowledge. Collingwood, in contrast, was concerned with the lived experiences of the artist, the religious believer, the scientist, "the toil of art, the agony of religion, the relentless labour of science".  He increasingly focussed his attention on the way that our experiences
are mediated by assumptions (presuppositions) which shape and form our perceptions and

Ten years later in An Essay on Philosophical Method (1933) Collingwood had moved on to the idea that philosophy is a special kind of activity, with definition and classification the chief components of the task. John Passmore wrote in A Hundred Years of Western Philosophy.

"For philosophy, according to Collingwood, seeks to place a concept in a scale of forms, working in a manner which is neither deductive nor inductive - since it neither begins from nor ends in generalizations - but nevertheless has its own kind of rigorous logic."

By the end of the decade in An Autobiography 1939 he had moved to a thorough-going historical approach and his "logic of question and answer". So a proposition is an answer to a question and it is true when it is the 'right' answer within the question-answer complex. In other words, it is true when it is the answer which helps inquiry to proceed. In this thorougly "historicised" account neither the proposition nor its truth exists independently of the process of inquiry.

In An Essay on Metaphysics he applied the logic of question and answer to metaphysics, rejecting
the vacuous notion that metaphysics is a theory of "pure being" in favour of the search for 'ultimate presuppositions" which provide the foundation or the framework of  thought and investigation. Answers only have meaning in relation to a question, however the question only has meaning in relation to presuppositions which determine what is problematic, and what has to be explained. For example the scientific search for causes only makes sense in relation to the presupposition that there are causes. As Passmore put it "At a certain historical period, a constellation of presuppositions governs this or that form of inquiry. (The presuppositions of  biology may be different from from the presuppostions of physics.) ". It must be possible to hold those different sets of presuppositions at the same time, however there may be some strain between them and presupposions may be changed so they make a better fit.

"They are not rejected on the ground that they are false - the notions of truth and falsehood do not apply to them, since they are not propositions, not answers to questions; they are merely dropped."  Passmore p 307

It has to be signalled that the radical defect in Collingwood's account of these matters is the way that the matter of dropping or modifying presuppositions is left hanging in mid air. He provides no method or insight into the way that the process of moving towards better presuppositions can be accelerated by critical discussion. It seems that the tasks of  the metaphysician are discovery and explication, not criticism, invention and improvement.

According to Passmore many people before Collingwood were concerned with ultimate presuppositions but they were concerned with demonstraing the truth of  various presuppositions, or finding a place for them in a deductive system.  In Collingwood's view their quest is misplaced and the notion of prooof is not applicable, instead they should proceed in a historical investigation to identify the presuppositions in various fields of inquiry at particular times.  So, for example, Aristotle's great achievement as a metaphysician was to clarify the presuppositions of Greek science, and Kant
did the same for Newtonian physics.

The first chapter of An Autobiography.

A review of selected essays on politics.

Reading notes on An Essay on Metaphysics.

Full Index