Homage to Education

Colin McGinn

  • Essays in political Philosophy by R.G. Collingwood, edited by David Boucher
    Oxford, 237 pp, £25.00, November 1989, ISBN 0 19 824823 7
  • The Social and Political Thought of R.G. Collingwood by David Boucher
    Cambridge, 300 pp, £27.50, November 1989, ISBN 0 521 36384 5

Robin Collingwood (1889-1943) was born 17 years after Bertrand Russell and died 27 years before him. Given the style and content of Collingwood’s philosophical work, this fact ought to seem surprising. For there is no apparent mark of Russell’s influence, nor of those who influenced him, upon Collingwood’s own philosophical corpus. For better or worse, he stands apart – even aloof – from the British analytical tradition exemplified by Russell. Or perhaps for better and worse: better, because he thereby created a distinctive style of philosophy, in which history, not science (or formal logic), was the model and focus of interest; worse, because his own thought lacks some of the clarity and rigour and analytical depth of the ‘school’ he opposed, or ignored. Not for him the dry deductions of Russell’s Principia Mathematica: consciousness in history was what excited his interest.

Yet there exists a certain affinity between the political and social writings of the two men. Both seem to have been drawn to political writing more by extra-mural convulsions (i.e. wars) than by theoretical inclination, feeling it to be their duty to set the world straight on how it should run itself. Both display the same belief in the civilising role of dispassionate reason, the importance of education, the dangers of submission to authority. There is the same tone of pained rebuke in their political admonitions, as if they cannot quite believe what they are witnessing – civilisation confronted by barbarity. They are men of the ivory tower compelled to look incredulously down on the swarming hordes below, and plead for order. Oddly enough, however, they seem reluctant to hail each other and join voices in the Battle against Confusion: there is no mention of Russell in either of the books here reviewed, and I do not recall Russell having a good word to say for Collingwood. Philosophically, each was on the wrong side, so far as the other was concerned; politically, they would have got on famously.

Like the boy Bertie, young Robin was educated at home, where he showed remarkable precocity. His father, who was John Ruskin’s secretary, undertook the task of educating his son himself; Robin received from him a very wide and thorough education – in ancient and modern languages, history, science, music, art. In his Autobiography Collingwood reports having had a certain amount of trouble, at the age of eight, with understanding Kant’s ethics, but this only determined him to become a philosopher when he grew up. (Russell had a similar experience with Euclid when he was a lad.) These halcyon days were abruptly put a stop to when Collingwood minor reached 14, at which time he was sent to Rugby School. He loathed it there. ‘I went to Rugby,’ he said, ‘where we thought winter a time for playing football – and summer a time for thinking about playing football.’ Liberation came in 1908 when he gained a Classical scholarship to University College, Oxford. Four years later he was elected to a philosophy fellowship at Pembroke College.

He spent the rest of his professional life in Oxford, ascending to the Waynflete Chair in 1935, which lifted the teaching burden of thirty to forty hours a week which he had hitherto endured. But he was, David Boucher tells us, as intellectually isolated within his own university as he was from the broader philosophical currents represented by Russell. His chief influences came from quite elsewhere – notably, from the Italian idealists, Croce, Gentile and de Ruggiero. Neither did Collingwood much care for the company of his Oxford colleagues, who included Bosanquet and Bradley; he even went so far as to remove himself to Didcot. He was pretty much ignored by the philosophical establishment during his lifetime, and in his obituary in the New York Times was noted more for his work in Roman archaeology than for any philosophical innovation. Nevertheless, he was a popular and effective teacher in Oxford, renowned for his clarity of presentation and for his exceptional speaking voice, which he had trained especially for the purpose of lecturing.

What distinguishes Collingwood from the run of philosophers is the breadth of his interests, and his desire to develop a philosophy which will find a place for all of them. Multilingual, polymathic, hydratalented, omniskilled – he didn’t want to be tied down to one way of looking at things. In particular, he didn’t want to be confined to the present: historical knowledge had to be integral to philosophy, as it was for Hegel. And he liked his influences to come from a different time or place, preferably filtered through an alien medium, made perspicuous by learning. The Italian philosophers of history fulfilled his archaeological predilections perfectly.

In Essays in Political Philosophy, a somewhat mixed collection of Collingwood’s published and unpublished writings, we find discussions of economics, moral action, punishment, religion, liberalism, fascism, communism, education, war, sex, Plato, Marx, Freud. Some of these essays are dated, others slight, but there is plenty of interest here for readers other than the dedicated Collingwoodian. I found ‘Economics as a Philosophical Science’ and ‘Punishment and Forgiveness’ especially fresh and insightful, both essays demonstrating the benefits to be derived from patient and seemingly pedantic conceptual inquiry. Collingwood’s relaxed incisiveness and moral acuity are here displayed in their sharpest and most engaging form.

Focusing on the essence of economic action, he brings out the conflict of interest inherent in any economic exchange, and argues that the idea of a just wage or a just price is incoherent, a confusion of the moral and the economic. ‘Indeed,’ he remarks, ‘a renunciation of purely economic aims is the essence, negatively defined, of the moral life.’ An economic action is defined as one person using another as the means to his own ends by permitting the other to use him as a means to the ends of that other.

Punishment is argued to be a binding moral duty which is not merely consistent with forgiveness but ultimately indistinguishable from it. This is because both attitudes or acts are directed, if they are properly conceived, at reforming the moral consciousness of the wrongdoer; they are intended to bring him back into the moral community. Characteristically, Collingwood observes that ‘the most perfect punishments involve no “incidental” pains at all. The condemnation is expressed simply and quietly in words, and goes straight home.’ Theorists of punishment are advised to study this subtle essay.

An abiding concern of Collingwood’s, stressed in David Boucher’s sympathetic and thorough study, is that of education and its relation to politics. Education is held to be the province of both parent and politician, and it is defined as the process that creates and sustains civilisation. Without proper education, Collingwood contends, liberal democracy cannot function or even survive. In an essay unsparingly entitled ‘Man goes mad’, written circa 1936, he fulminates as follows: ‘the conception of political life as permeating the whole community, of government as the political education of the people, is the only alternative to anarchy on the one hand and the rule of brute force on the other. The work of government is difficult enough in any case; it is only rendered possible if rulers can appeal, over the heads of criminals, to a body of public opinion sufficiently educated in politics to understand the wisdom of their acts. Authoritarian government, scorning the dialectic of political life in the name of efficiency, and imposing ready-made solutions on a passive people, is deliberately cutting off the branch on which it sits by de-educating its own subjects, creating round itself an atmosphere of ignorance and stupidity which ultimately will make its own work impossible, and make impossible even the rise of a better form of political life.’ Contained in this passage is an important thesis of what Collingwood aptly calls philosophical politics: the thesis that there is an internal relation between liberal democracy and educational attainment. Let me spell out in my own way what I think Collingwood is getting at here.

Democratic states are constitutively committed to ensuring and furthering the intellectual health of the citizens who compose them: indeed, they are only possible at all if people reach a certain cognitive level. The reason is simple: rational government by the majority presupposes that the majority are rational – that they know what needs to be known, that they can think effectively, that they are not blinded by prejudice and confusion. This presupposition is, of course, built into the electoral laws of democratic states: children may not vote, nor may retarded people, nor may animals. Modern democracies are ruled, in effect, by an educational or intellectual élite – consisting of sane adult human beings who have gone to school. It is only a contingent fact that this élite constitutes the numerical majority: it would be possible in principle for the children in a society to outnumber the adults or for most adults to suffer serious mental retardation as a result of pollution. In such possible cases the minority of democratic rulers would be obliged, as they are now, to respect the interests of the politically disenfranchised majority of citizens, but the vote would belong only to those relatively few people who met the intellectual standards we now actually require. Superiority in point of adherence to democratic ideals consists not in majority rule as such but in the selection of a non-arbitrary subset of the population as those to be vested with political power – where cognitive competence is the operative criterion of selection. Thus the prime duty of a democratic state is the provision of sufficient mass education to satisfy its own preconditions.

Other duties of state are often urged: the facilitation of personal freedom, the maintenance of social order, the promotion of happiness, the defence of the state against the depredations of other states. Doubtless there are such duties, but they are not integral to the very concept of democracy; they are not essential to democracy qua democracy. Democracy is defined as that system of social decision-making in which political agency attaches generally to the citizens of a state (with the provisos just mentioned); but then it follows, as a theorem of philosophical politics, that rational political action requires a suitable degree of intellectual competence on the part of citizens at large – whether these citizens rule directly or through elected representatives. Democracy and education (in the widest sense) are thus as conceptually inseparable as individual rational action and knowledge of the world.

But now we must ask, as philosophical politicians, what education itself consists in. Plainly, it involves the transmission of knowledge from teacher to taught. But what exactly is knowledge? Here politics makes contact with epistemology, since it is an epistemic notion that, we now see, defines the prime duty of democracy. Setting aside certain irrelevant subtleties, the concept of knowledge is to be analysed as follows: knowledge is true justified belief that has been arrived at by rational means. Accordingly, a democracy must aim to secure a state of mind in its citizens that satisfies certain epistemic conditions – namely, truth and rational justification; it must ensure that people’s beliefs obey these epistemic norms, or else it is not securing knowledge. Thus the norms governing political action incorporate or embed norms appropriate to rational belief-formation. They may also, to be sure, incorporate moral or legal norms, but it is the epistemic norms that are internal to the idea of democracy. And given that the political is thus enmeshed in the epistemic, it is with the cognitive well-being of citizens that the state must be primarily or originally concerned. The educational system of schools and universities is one central element in this cognitive health service, but the state of the media of communication and of language itself is also a vital consideration.

It would be a mistake to suppose that the educational duties of the democratic state extended only to political education, leaving other kinds to their own devices. It is true that, according to the Collingwoodian thesis, political education is the only internally motivated duty of the state, since the agency of the state is (by definition) exclusively political. But brief reflection reveals that this educational end can be achieved only by means which include other kinds of education. For political knowledge clearly depends upon knowledge of many other kinds – knowledge of history, science, art, morals, and so on. Just consider the range of knowledge necessary to decide upon a sound political policy in respect of nuclear weapons. Political decisions require attention to the totality of knowledge, so the state must concern itself with knowledge in general.

How do we bring about the cognitive health required by democratic government? A basic requirement is to cultivate in the populace a respect for intellectual values, an intolerance of intellectual vices or shortcomings. The true enemy of democracy is the anti-intellectual, the brain-washer, the prejudice-pumper, since she undermines what alone makes democracy workable. The forces of cretinisation are, and have always been, the biggest threat to the success of democracy as a way of allocating political power: this is a fundamental conceptual truth, as well as a lamentable fact of history. Those forces are, we know, many and various: intentional deception by leaders, more subtle forms of corporate propaganda, tabloid philistinism, manipulative advertising, narcotic television, ingrained prejudices – the usual suspects. Collingwood identifies a deeper problem: ‘It is much easier for any kind of man known to me to doze off into daydreams which are the first and most seemingly innocent stage of craziness. If labour-saving is what you want, give up all this trouble about thinking; go mad and have done with it. That is what the tyrant has to offer mankind – an end to the intolerable weariness of sanity.’ Democracy requires responsibility, which requires sanity, which is an achievement not a gift. Rational self-rule, individual or social, causes mental fatigue; it’s less effort to be dictated to.

What Collingwood does not say, so I will say it for him, is that people do not really like the truth; they feel coerced by reason, bullied by fact. In a certain sense, this is not irrational, since a commitment to believe only what is true implies a willingness to detach your beliefs from your desires. You won’t always get to believe exactly what you want to believe if you insist on believing only what is true. From the point of view of maximising desire-satisfaction, a commitment to truth is a poor strategy, at least in the short term, since truth is inherently indifferent to desire. Truth limits your freedom, in a way, because it reduces your belief-options; it is quite capable of forcing your mind to go against its natural inclinations. This, I suspect, is the root psychological cause of the relativistic view of truth, for that view gives me licence to believe whatever it pleases me to believe – the truth is always my truth. Objective non-relative truth tends to be felt as inhuman, lacking in compassion. There is thus a basic endogenous obstacle to our reaching that level of cognitive health required for flawless conformity to epistemic norms; and if so, democracy itself comes into conflict with a deep fact about human nature – our reluctance, in a word, to follow the truth wherever it may lead. (Hence Plato’s suggestion that philosophers be kings – they being specially trained or tuned to the truth.) One of the central aims of education, as a preparation for political democracy, should be to enable people to get on better terms with reason – to learn to live with the truth. And this will involve, as Collingwood stressed, an education that produces critical self-knowledge. It is a substantive, and neglected, and I would say unsolved, problem of educational theory to consider how this human accommodation with truth might be brought about. Certainly, 20th-century man (and woman) is very far from meeting this essential condition for a well-functioning democracy. Indeed, I do not think that the urgency and importance of the task are at all widely appreciated. The cognitive health of modern democracies lags far behind their bodily health, yet this is scarcely even perceived as a serious political problem.

On one issue I think Collingwood oversteps the mark: he seems to have taken it to be a corollary of his conception of civilisation that there is such a thing as ‘right imperialism’. He cites the supposedly beneficial effects of the Roman domination of Europe, and he wonders what untold advances British imperialism might confer on Asia and Africa. That is, he thinks that an allegedly higher level of intellectual and political attainment on the part of one state can legitimate an imperialist policy with respect to another. Here he shows himself to be a man of his time (and of much earlier times) in a way that Russell, say, was not. It is true enough that if you instantiate a higher level of civilisation than me then it would be a kindness for you to offer to improve my lot, but it does not follow that you have the right to force me to accept your tutelage against my will; and the same point holds for relations between more and less civilised states (assuming such a ranking to be feasible). Collingwood is making the mistake, natural to a don, of conceiving the relation of more to less civilised states on the model of the relation of adult teacher to child pupil – a common enough error. He is erroneously thinking of imperialism on the analogy of parental authority.

On most other points, however, he comes across as a political thinker of acute and balanced judgment – humane, sensible, unblinkered. He is not perhaps a major political theoretician, but his political philosophy deserves to enjoy the same rescue from neglect that his other philosophical contributions have enjoyed since his early death. These two volumes will do much to aid that process.