A Few Home Truths
- 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.’
Vol. 36 No. 14 · 17 July 2014
Jonathan Rée is right to characterise Collingwood’s Oxford realist opponents as ‘a pugnacious band of dons’ (LRB, 19 June). The philosopher J.O. Urmson, reflecting on the Oxford philosophical scene of 1935, commented: ‘It was, with some exaggeration, held to be impossible to gain an Oxford doctorate in philosophy in those days since the statutes of the university required … an original contribution to knowledge. But what was presented by a candidate was either already known to [H.A.] Prichard and therefore not original, or else mere opinion and therefore not knowledge.’ In the case of Prichard, this dogmatism was of a piece with his philosophy. The Oxford realists held that knowledge was a basic mental state, different in kind from belief and opinion. And whereas opinion could be supported on the basis of evidence, knowledge was a basic apprehension of truths. Someone who disagreed with you, then, couldn’t be argued out of his position by appealing to evidence. Rather, any disagreement could only be the result of one or other party to the dispute – most likely one’s opponent – failing to apprehend what was true clearly and rationally.
Trinity College, Oxford