Great Throughts Treasury

This site is dedicated to the memory of Dr. Alan William Smolowe who gave birth to the creation of this database.

R. G. Collingwood, fully Robert George Collingwood

British Philosopher, Historian and Professor at University of Oxford and Pembroke College

"There is no truer and more abiding happiness than the knowledge that one is free to go on doing, day by day, the best work one can do, in the kind one likes best, and that this work is absorbed by a steady market and thus supports one's own life. Perfect freedom is reserved for the man who lives by his own work and in that work does what he wants to do."

"People sometimes talk as if ‘selection’ were an essential part of every artist’s work. This is a mistake. In art proper there is no such thing; the artist draws what he sees, expresses what he feels, makes a clean breast of his experience."

"For history, the object to be discovered is not the mere event, but the thought expressed in it... All history is the history of thought."

"In the later nineteenth century the idea of progress became almost an article of faith. This conception was a piece of sheer metaphysics derived from evolutionary naturalism and foisted upon history by the temper of the age."

"Perfect freedom is reserved for the person who lives by their own work and in that work does what they want to do."

"An individual soul is a thing created in the fullness of time to have just those characteristics which the time requires if God’s purpose is to be fulfilled."

"A man ceases to be a beginner in any given science and becomes a master in that science when he has learned that ... he is going to be a beginner all his life."

"Art has no cosmology, it gives us no view of the universe; every distinct work of art gives us a little cosmology of its own, and no ingenuity will combine all these into a single whole. But religion is essentially cosmological, though its cosmology is always an imaginative cosmology. Any given religious experience can be fitted by this cosmology into the scheme of the whole, and labeled as an ascent into the third heaven, a temptation of the devil, and so forth. Hence religion is social, as art can never be. The sociability of artists is a paradoxical and precarious thing, and ceases the instant they begin their actual artistic work. But the sociability of religion is part of its fundamental nature. The life of religion is always the life of a church."

"Asking questions is, you know, one day no answer in science is a fundamental sin, like giving orders that you think would be ignored in the political field, or request something you do not think is it Lord granted in religion."

"Classical art, in a word, stands for form; romantic art for content. The romantic artist expects people to ask, What has he got to say? The classical artist expects them to ask, How does he say it?"

"It is a commonplace that all religion expresses itself in mythological or metaphorical terms; it says one thing and means another; it uses imagery to convey truth. But the crucial fact about religion is not that it is metaphor, but that it is unconscious metaphor. No one can express any thought without using metaphors, but this does not reduce all philosophy and science to religion, because the scientist knows that his metaphors are merely metaphors and that the truth is something other than the imagery by which it is expressed, whereas in religion the truth and the imagery are identified. To repeat the Creed as a religious act it is necessary not to add "All this I believe in a symbolical or figurative sense": to make that addition is to convert religion into philosophy."

"Knowing yourself means knowing, first, what it is to be a person; secondly, knowing what it is to be the kind of person you are; and thirdly, knowing what it is to be the person you are and nobody else is. Knowing yourself means knowing what you can do; and since nobody knows what they can do until they try, The only clue to what man can do is what man has done. The value of history, then, is that it teaches us what man has done and thus what man is."

"Like other revolutionaries I can thank God for the reactionaries. They clarify the issue."

"Parenthood is not an object of appetite or even desire. It is an object of will. There is no appetite for parenthood; there is only a purpose or intention of parenthood."

"The aim of science is to apprehend this purely intelligible world as a thing in itself, an object which is what it is independently of all thinking, and thus antithetical to the sensible world.... The world of thought is the universal, the timeless and spaceless, the absolutely necessary, whereas the world of sense is the contingent, the changing and moving appearance which somehow indicates or symbolizes it."

"Speech is after all only a system of gestures, having the peculiarity that each gesture produces a characteristic sound, so that it can be perceived through the ear as well as through the eye. Listening to a speaker instead of looking at him tends to make us think of speech as essentially a system of sounds; but it is not; essentially it is a system of gestures made with the lungs and larynx, and the cavities of the mouth and nose. We get still farther away from the fundamental facts about speech when we think of it as something that can be written and read, forgetting that what writing, in our clumsy notations, can represent is only a small part of the spoken sound, where pitch and stress, tempo and rhythm, are almost entirely ignored. But even a writer or reader, unless the words are to fall flat or meaningless, must speak them soundlessly to himself. The written or printed book is only a series of hints, as elliptical as the neumes of Byzantine music, from which the reader thus works out for himself the speech-gestures which alone have the gift of expression."

"The progressive intellectualization of language, its progressive conversion by the work of grammar and logic into a scientific symbolism... represents not a progressive drying-up of emotion, but its progressive articulation and specialization... We are acquiring new emotions and new means of expressing them."

"The artist... tells his audience, at the risk of their displeasure, the secrets of their own hearts."

"The romantic artist expects people to ask, 'What has he got to say?' The classical artist expects them to ask, 'How does he say it?'"

"The chief business of twentieth-century philosophy is to reckon with twentieth-century history."

"The value of history... is that it teaches us what man has done and thus what man is."

"The sociability of artists is a paradoxical and precarious thing, and ceases the instant they begin their actual artistic work."

"Thus natural science is not a way of knowing the real world; its value lies not in its truth but in its utility; by scientific thought we do not know nature, we dismember it in order to master it."

"To the scientist, nature is always and merely a 'phenomenon,' not in the sense of being defective in reality, but in the sense of being a spectacle presented to his intelligent observation; whereas the events of history are never mere phenomena, never mere spectacles for contemplation, but things which the historian looks, not at, but through, to discern the thought within them."

"The sciences of observation and experiment are alike in this, that their aim is to detect the constant or recurring features in all events of a certain kind. A meteorologist studies one cyclone in order to compare it with others ; and by studying a number of them he hopes to find out what features in them are constant, that is, to find out what cyclones as such are like. But the historian has no such aim. If you find him on a certain occasion studying the Hundred Years War or the Revolution of 1688, you cannot infer that he is in the preliminary stages of an inquiry whose ultimate aim is to reach conclusions about wars or revolutions as such. If he is in the preliminary stages of any inquiry, it is more likely to be a general study of the Middle Ages or the seventeenth century. This is because the sciences of observation and experiment are organized in one way and history is organized in another. In the organization of meteorology, the ulterior value of what has been observed about one cyclone is conditioned by its relation to what has been observed about other cyclones. In the organization of history, the ulterior value of what is known about the Hundred Years War is conditioned, not by its relation to what is known about other wars, but by its relation to what is known about other things that people did in the Middle Ages."

"To regard such a positive mental science [psychology] as rising above the sphere of history, and establishing the permanent and unchanging laws of human nature, is therefore possible only to a person who mistakes the transient conditions of a certain historical age for the permanent conditions of human life."

"What a man is ashamed of is always at bottom himself; and he is ashamed of himself at bottom always for being afraid."

"Until a man has expressed his emotion, he does not yet know what emotion it is. The act of expressing it is therefore an exploration of his own emotions. He is trying to find out what these emotions are."

"Francis Bacon, lawyer and philosopher, laid it down in one of his memorable phrases that the natural scientist must ?put Nature to the question?. What he was denying, when he wrote this, was that the scientist?s attitude toward nature should be one of respectful attentiveness, waiting upon her utterances and building his theories on the basis of what she chooses to vouchsafe him. What he was asserting was two things at once: first, that the scientist must take the initiative, deciding for himself what he wants to know and formulating this in his own mind in the shape of a question; and secondly, that he must find means of compelling nature to answer, devising tortures under which she can no longer hold her tongue. Here, in a single brief epigram, Bacon laid down once for all the true theory of experimental science. It is also, though Bacon did not know this, the true theory of historical method. ? The scissors-and-paste historian reads [historical sources] in a simply receptive spirit, to find out what they said. The scientific historian reads them with a question in his mind, having taken the initiative by deciding for himself what he wants to find out from them. Further, the scissors-and-paste historian reads them on the understanding that what they did not tell him in so many words he would never find out from them at all; the scientific historian puts them to the torture, twisting a passage ostensibly about something quite different into an answer to the question he has decided to ask."

"Philosophy does not, like exact or empirical science, bring us to know things of which we were simply ignorant, but brings us to know in a different way things which we already knew in some way; and indeed it follows from our own hypothesis; for if the species of a philosophical genus overlap, the distinction between the known and the unknown, which in a non-philosophical subject-matter involves a difference be-tween two mutually exclusive classes of truths, in a philosophical subject-matter im- plies that we may both know and not know the same thing; a paradox which disappears in the light of the notion of a scale of forms of knowledge, where coming to know means coming to know in a different and better way."

"Slaves tend to learn the desires that discarded their masters"

"History is for human self-knowledge ... the only clue to what man can do is what man has done. The value of history, then, is that it teaches us what man has done and thus what man is."

"My historical review of the idea of history has resulted in the emergence of an answer to this question : namely, that the historian must re-enact the past in his own mind. What we must now do is to look more closely at this idea, an see what it means in itself and what further consequences it implies. In a general way, the meaning of the conception is easily understood. When a man thinks historically, he has before him certain documents or relics of the past. His business is to discover what the past was which has left these relics behind it, For example, the relics are certain written words ; and in that case he has to discover what the person who wrote those words meant by them. This means discovering the thought (in the widest sense of that word : we shall look into its preciser meaning which he expressed by them. To discover what this thought was, the historian must think it again for himself."

"The act of thinking, then, is not only subjective but objective as well. It is not only a thinking, it is something that can be thought about. But, because (as I have already tried to show) it is never merely objective, it requires to be thought about in a peculiar, way, a way only appropriate to itself. It cannot be set before the thinking mind as a ready-made object, discovered as something independent of that mind and studied as it is in itself, in that independence. It can never be studied 'objectively', in the sense in which `objectively' excludes 'subjectively'. It has to be studied as it actually exists, that is to say, as an act. And because this act is subjectivity (though not mere subjectivity) or experience, it can be studied only in its own subjective being, that is, by the thinker whose activity or experience it is. This study is not mere experience or consciousness, not even mere self-consciousness : it is self-knowledge. Thus the act of thought in becoming subjective does not cease to be objective ; it is the object of a self-knowledge which differs from mere consciousness in being self-consciousness or awareness, and differs from being mere self-consciousness in being self-knowledge : the critical study of one's own thought, not the mere awareness of that thought as one's own."

"The historian's picture of the past is?in every detail an imaginary picture."