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.

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