A Few Home Truths

Jonathan Rée

  • R.G. Collingwood: ‘An Autobiography’ and Other Writings, with Essays on Collingwood’s Life and Work edited by David Boucher and Teresa Smith
    Oxford, 581 pp, £65.00, December 2013, ISBN 978 0 19 958603 5

‘An Autobiography’ by R.G. Collingwood must be one of the most popular philosophical books in the English language, but when it was published in 1939, it was not expected to do well. Collingwood warned Oxford University Press that it was ‘destitute of all that makes autobiography saleable’. It was going to be a ‘dead loss’, he said, and in a preface he offered a pre-emptive apology: he was a philosopher by vocation – had been as long as he could remember – so the story of his life could not be anything more than a compendium of abstract ideas. But the remark was not as self-deprecating as it looks. It was among other things an allusion to John Stuart Mill, who had opened his own very celebrated Autobiography with a similar disclaimer: he had nothing to offer, he said, apart from an account of the origin and growth of his philosophical convictions, and ‘the reader whom these things do not interest, has only himself to blame if he reads further.’

Having given fair warning, Mill proceeded to a matter-of-fact description of a London childhood at the beginning of the 19th century, watched over by a ‘most impatient’ father who ignored his wife and ‘vigorously acted up to the principle of losing no time’. As a friend and admirer of Jeremy Bentham, Mill senior was determined to instruct his son in the rigours of Benthamite radicalism before he could be corrupted by religion, sentimentality or frivolity of any kind. The boy started Greek at the age of three, and was soon studying Plato’s dialogues in the original, along with arithmetic and ancient history, before moving on to Latin and logic and spending a year in Montpellier as a student of natural science. By that time he had started calling himself a utilitarian – apparently the first person to do so – and making active propaganda for the cause. At 16 he embarked on a career as a clerk at the East India Company and started compiling several large volumes of legal theory from Bentham’s chaotic manuscripts. Many years later, as he looked back on his extraordinary output in philosophy, logic and radical polemic, he attributed all his achievements to the early training provided by his revered father.

In outline the story sounds insipid, but when it was published – shortly after Mill’s death in 1873 – it revealed its extraordinary emotional power. ‘Everyone talks of Mill’s Autobiography,’ George Eliot noted, and marvelled at the ‘delight’ the book was giving her. Mill had managed to translate a life of relentless philosophising into an engrossing narrative of doubts, hopes and discouragements – a tale of passion and persistence rather than a catalogue raisonné of doctrines and theories. The logical perfection of Mill’s prose betrayed an enormous simple grief, and readers had the pleasure of guessing that filial loyalty cost him more dearly than he knew, and feeling sorry for him as he had never felt sorry for himself.

It would not be an easy act to follow, but Collingwood began An Autobiography with an account of precocious home-schooling to rival Mill’s: he recalled being introduced to Latin at the age of four and Greek two years later, before becoming fluent in French and German, immersing himself in history, science and philosophy and starting to read Kant when he was eight. If he was not quite such a prodigy as Mill, he certainly had the advantage in terms of happiness. His childhood was spent in a kind of bohemian paradise garden in the Lake District in the last decade of the 19th century, with parents who loved their life and their children and each other. Both were professional painters, and like their friend and near neighbour John Ruskin they regarded art not as a quest for aesthetic perfection but a joyful inquiry into the inexhaustible variety of the world, closely allied with history, natural science and the arguments of everyday life.

The children picked up the family habit of sketching and painting, and learned music by listening to their mother at the piano before breakfast. They would then get a lesson or two from their father, carefully structured but not especially cerebral: history and geography, for example, involved boiling up old newspapers to make relief maps out of papier-mâché. For the rest of the day they were ‘left to their own devices’, doing the sorts of thing that would later be re-created by their friend Arthur Ransome in Swallows and Amazons. Collingwood remembered exploring the countryside on foot or by bike or in a little boat called Swallow, learning to recognise plants, rocks, wildlife and stars. He would also accompany his father on increasingly ambitious excavations of nearby Roman settlements, and back home he might pick up one of the books he found lying around – Kant for example – or join in adult discussions of paintings in progress. Or he could settle to playing the piano, or write illustrated tales of imaginary countries for the family’s monthly manuscript magazine.

If the experiences of Collingwood and Mill are anything to go by, Ruskinians make much better parents than Benthamites, or at least more indulgent ones. And the differences in parental attitude reflected differences in intellectual ideals. Mill was brought up to believe in the supremacy of intellectual progress, which was destined to continue in a straight line for ever. He was convinced that, as far as moral theory was concerned, Bentham’s principle of ‘greatest happiness’ had inaugurated a ‘new era in thought’ in which ‘all previous moralists were superseded,’ and he had no doubt that similar reasoning was going to resolve every other problem in due course. Collingwood, on the other hand, grew up believing in endless enigmas and the abiding necessity of art.

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