From the autobiograph of R G Collingwood

More on Collingwood.

Review of a collection of Collingwood’s essays on political philosophy.

Chapter 1 BENT OF A TWIG

UNTIL I was thirteen years old I lived at home and was taught by my father. Lessons occupied only two or three hours each morning; otherwise he left me to my own devices, sometimes helping me with what I chose to do, more often leaving me to work it out for myself.

It was his doing that I began Latin at four and Greek at six; but my own that I began, about the same time, to read everything I could find about the natural sciences, especially geology, astronomy, and physics; to recognize rocks, to know the stars, and to understand the working of pumps and locks and other mechanical appliances up and down the house. It was my father who gave me lessons in ancient and modern history, illustrated with relief maps in papier-mache made by boiling down newspapers in a saucepan; but my first lesson in what I now regard as my own subject, the history of thought, was the discovery, in a friend’s house a few miles away, of a battered seventeenth-century book, wanting cover and title-page, and full of strange doctrines about meteorology and geology and planetary motions.

It must have been a compendium of Descartes’ Principia, to judge by what I recall of its statements about vortices; I was about nine when I found it, and already knew enough about the corresponding modern theories to appreciate the contrast which it offered. It let me into the secret which modern books had been keeping from me, that the natural sciences have a history of their own and that the doctrines they teach on any given subject, at any given time, have been reached not by some discoverer penetrating to the truth after ages of error, but by the gradual modification of doctrines previously held; and will at some future date, unless thinking stops, be themselves no less modified. I will not say that all this became clear to me at that childish age; but at least I became aware from reading this old book that science is less like a hoard of truths, ascertained piecemeal, than an organism which in the course of its history undergoes more or less continuous alteration in every part.

During the same years I was constantly watching the work of my father and mother, and the other professional painters who frequented their house, and constantly trying to imitate them; so that I learned to think of a picture not as a finished product exposed for the admiration of virtuosi, but as the visible record, lying about the house, of an attempt to solve a definite problem in painting, so far as the attempt has gone. I learned what some critics and aestheticians never know to the end of their lives, that no ‘work of art’ is ever finished, so that in that sense of the phrase there is no such thing as a ‘work of art’ at all. Work ceases upon the picture or manuscript, not because it is finished, but because sending-in day is at hand, or because the printer is clamorous for copy, or because ‘I am sick of working at this thing’ or ‘I can’t see what more I can do to it’. In myself I found less aptitude for painting than for literature; from an early age I wrote incessantly, in verse and prose, lyrics and fragments of epics, stories of adventure and romance, descriptions of imaginary countries and bogus scientific and archaeological treatises. A prolific habit in regard to such things was encouraged, demanded indeed, by the family custom of producing in manuscript a monthly magazine, circulated among a few friends and relations. My mother was a good pianist, and used to play for an hour every day before breakfast; sometimes in the evening as well, to a surreptitious audience of children sitting on the stairs in the dark; in this way I got to know all Beethoven’s sonatas and most of Chopin, for these were her favourite composers, though not mine. But I have never been able to master the piano for myself.

My father had plenty of books, and allowed me to read in them as I pleased. Among others, he had kept the books of classical scholarship, ancient history, and philosophy which he had used at Oxford. As a rule I left these alone; but one day when I was eight years old curiosity moved me to take down a little black book lettered on its spine ‘Kant’s Theory of Ethics’. It was Abbott’s translation of the Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten; and as I began reading it, my small form wedged between the bookcase and the table, I was attacked by a strange succession of emotions. First came an intense excitement. I felt that things of the highest importance were being said about matters of the utmost urgency: things which at all costs I must understand. Then, with a wave of indignation, came the  discovery that I could not understand them. Disgraceful to confess, here was a book whose words were English and whose sentences were grammatical, but whose meaning baffled me. Then, third and last, came the strangest emotion of all. I felt that the contents of this book, although I could not understand it, were somehow my business: a matter personal to myself, or rather to some future self of my own. It was not like the common boyish intention to ‘be an engine-driver when I grow up’,for there was no desire in it; I did not, in any natural sense of the word, ‘want’ to master the Kantian ethics when I should be old enough; but I felt as if a veil had been lifted and mydestiny revealed.

There came upon me by degrees, after this, a sense of being burdened with a task whose nature I could not define except by saying, ‘I must think.’ What I was to think about I did not know; and when, obeying this command, I fell silent and absent-minded in company, or sought solitude in order to think without interruption, I could not have said, and still cannot say, what it was that I actually thought. There were no particular questions that I asked myself; there were no special objects upon which I directed my mind; there was only a formless and aimless intellectual disturbance, as if I were wrestling with a fog.

I know now that this is what always happens when I am in the early stages of work on a problem. Until the problem has gone a long way towards being solved, I do not know what it is; all I am conscious of is this vague perturbation of mind, this sense of being worried about I cannot say wha1t. I know now that the problems of my life’s work were taking, deep down inside me, their first embryonic shape. But any one who observed me must have thought, as my elders did think, that I had fallen into a habit of loafing, and lost the alertness and quickness of wit that had been so noticeable in my early childhood. My only defence against this opinion, since I did not know and therefore could not explain what was happening to me, was to cover these fits of abstraction with some bodily activity, trifling enough not to distract my attention from my inward wrestling. I was a neat-fingered boy, skilful at making all sorts of things; active in walking, bicycling, or rowing, and thoroughly practised in sailing a boat. So when the fit was upon me I would set myself to make something quite uninteresting, like a regiment of paper men, or wander aimlessly in the woods or on the mountains, or sail all day in a dead calm. It was painful to be laughed at for playing with paper men; but the alternative, to explain why I did it, was impossible.

Whether it was this growing idleness that made my father send me to school, I am not sure. In any case he was too poor to pay for it himself, and my school bills (and later my Oxford bills) were paid by the generosity of a rich friend. Thus, at thirteen, I was put into a preparatory school with the aim of competing for a scholarship, and became acquainted with the treadmill on which middle-class boys in this country earn their own living by competitive examination, beginning at an age when their working-class fellow children are debarred by law from exposing themselves in the labour market. My father’s friend would, I am sure, as willingly have paid two hundred pounds a year for me as one; but to myself at least it was a point of honour that I should win scholarships, if only to justify the spending upon me of all that money; and, even had it not been, the specialism which is one chief vice of English education would not have spared me. The ghost of a silly seventeenth-century squabble still haunts our classrooms, infecting teachers and pupils with the lunatic idea that studies must be either ‘classical’ or ‘modern’. I was equally well fitted to specialize in Greek and Latin, or in modern history and languages (I spoke and read French and German almost as easily as English),or in the natural sciences; and nothing would have afforded my mind its proper nourishment except to study equally all three; but my father’s teaching had given me a good deal more Greek and Latin than most boys of my age possessed; and since I had to specialize in something I specialized in these and   became a ‘classical’ scholar.

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Nicholas Gruen
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Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
15 years ago

Thanks Rafe,

As you know, I think Collingwood the philosopher is even greater than the AFL team. He was all the rage briefly I think in that period when historians were becoming very aware of ‘theory’, and were interesting themselves in the higher methodological questions of what they did and why. But it was before what seems to me like the overkill of deconstruction (though I don’t claim to understand that stuff).

Anyway, Collingwood had realised early on that truth was ineluctably ‘historical’ – something that was music to the ears of historians. Anyway, Collingwood had a lot to do with the revival of a new kind of history of political thought where great effort went into transporting oneself into the intellectual world of this or that political thinker. As Quentin Skinner pointed out in an essay years later saying that Hobbes ‘anticipated’ Hume or whatever, can’t possibly be a statement about Hobbes in terms of describing his intentions.

Of course the uninitiated would argue that while that is true, surely one can say that this is a reasonable comment about the content of Hobbes’ thought. Well yes, that’s true – or possibly true depending on the circumstances. But it might well mislead you as much as it helps you understand someone’s thinking. And historians like Skinner showed how often such statements were just plain wrong, ending up describing nothing about Hobbes, but perpetuating various myths about him, and various reductions of him to our own sensibilities.

Anyway, I recommend reading Collingwood to all Troppodillians, and his Autobiography is the best thing to read. I’ve read it a couple of times myself, and had forgotten how well written it is, and how much he says in such a short space.