This volume contributes to the movement to revive the reputation of the English historian and philosopher R. G. Collingwood (1889-1943).  He is probably best known for An Autobiography, one of the classics of the genre, for his views on historical method (the logic of question and answer) and for his  research on Roman Britain. His political philosophy was  expounded in his last and least-known book The New Leviathan (1943). This collection supplements that work because half of the papers have not been in print before and their publication called for extensive negotiations with Collingood's literary executors. 

The essays in the first part of this volume are concerned with political activity and the forms of practical reason.  These include three pieces on politics and political action, two on punishment, two on duty and goodness, one on 'monks and morals' and a paper on economics which notes the absurdity of various conceptions of a 'just price' independent of market forces. The arguments in these essays are  somewhat technical and many are  directed at philosophical targets which have long since quit the scene. For example Collingwood strongly criticised G. E. Moore's views on the rationality of action  which in Collingwood's opinion reduced all decision-making to mere caprice.

"Professor Moore has not so much denied the existence of rational action as assumed its non-existence...Professor Moore has publicly described his own life's work as "A Defence of Common Sense", and "Common Sense" by long-established usage is the accepted name for low-grade thinking, thinking below the level of reason, below the level of science...the kind of thinking which is content to think "this is so", and when asked for a reason replied "this is so because it is so"."

In "Political Action" he pursues  a subtle line of argument asserting that politics is concerned with the principles required promote the "good life" , that is, "a life which is lived under good laws well administered". This can be read as an anticipation of Hayek's thoughts on the "extended order of rules" and Collingwood defends it against two rival tendencies, on the one hand  to see the state as the creator and arbiter of these rules; on the other to see political rules as merely one set among many others that operate in society.

A recurring motif in Collingwood's later writing is the presence of sinister and destructive forces beneath the surface of civilised life.  In his autobiography he sketched a theory of 'encapsulation' to explain the persistence of undesirable attitudes (such as the glorification of violence) despite vigorous attempts to eliminate them. He argued that attempts at censorship or repression are likely to induce in children a fascination with the 'unacceptable' impulses and so they survive in a particularly dangerous subconscious form. In An Essay on Metaphysics he described the corruption of the life of the mind by various influences, including the war against metaphysics waged by the positivists and  the misguided aim of the psychologists to capture philosophy as a part of their own territory. One of his central propositions concerns the overwhelming importance of Christianity as the cradle of Western civilisation. In his opinion the mainstream of Christianity provided the framework of metaphysical ideas which made possible the emergence of modern science and liberal democracy as well.

During the 1930s Collingwood turned to explore political and moral first principles due to his alarm at the collapse of civilisation that he perceived on the Continent.  Some apparent changes in his thinking and the tone of strident urgency in his writing gave rise to a 'brain tumor' theory to account for the disjunction between the 'early' and the 'later' Collingwood.  There is  also to some confusion about his ideological orientation and Boucher carefully examined this matter, concluding that Collingwood's passionate hatred of communism did not preclude support for extensive action by the state along socialist lines. One can only speculate about the possible trajectory of Collingwood's thought and his attitude towards the postwar welfare state. It is quite likely that he would have emulated Bertrand Russell who described himself as a socialist for most of his life, though the more he saw of the welfare state the less he liked it. 

The second part of the book contains several tantalisingly short essays exploring various aspects of the modern attack on civilisation, and the way that our categories of thought have been contaminated by dangerous and damaging influences, among them the ‘Baconian heresy’ and the ‘Prussian philosophy’. The Baconian heresy is the notion that the pursuit of knowledge should primarily serve the purpose of power and control. In the political domain this obsession is expressed as 'the Prussian philosophy' of domination which Collingwood  regarded  as the guiding principle of both communism and fascism. This concern may be similar to that expressed by Duhem in his criticism of 'German science', (a phenomenon which he recognised was not restricted to Germany), that is, the mechanistic application of scientific advances for technical use. Parallel with the rise of the 'Prussian philosophy' has been the loss of what Collingwood calls the 'punch' of liberal humanism. In 1940 he wrote

'All over the world liberal or democratic principles, having lost their 'punch' and having become mere matters of habit, have lost their initiative and have been thrown on the defensive.'

This repeats the mournful commentary by Yeats in his poem "The Second Coming":

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world...
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity...

In his essay on "The Utilitarian Civilisation" he defends certain forms of Christian magic and mystery because they nurture the spiritual and emotional vitality that is required to defeat the barbarians. Secular humanists may regard this as a reactionary stance but this need not be the case because Collingwood does not consider that reason and science should go out the window, merely that we recognise the limits of our knowledge and our rationality. His views tend to support much that Hayek has written subsequently in criticism of the hubris and folly of the "constructivist rationalists" who subvert all respect for tradition and the delicate system of myths and practices that sustain civilised life.

The book is primarily a work for scholars though there is much of value for general readers, especially in  the commentary supplied by David Boucher of the History of Ideas Unit at the Australian National University. It may be that the time is ripe for a more wide ranging overview of Collingwood's achievement across the range of disciplines which his tireless and versatile mind encompassed. John Passmore has provided a good introduction to this study with his commentary on Collingwood in A Hundred Years of Philosophy.

Rafe Champion

Review published in Quadrant circa 1993

Essays in Political Philosophy: R. G. Collingwood.

Edited with an Introduction by David Boucher, Oxford University Press. 
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