The Idea of History

Epilegomena: 5: The Subject-matter of History

R. G. Collingwood

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If we raise the question, Of what can there be historical knowledge? the answer is, Of that which can be re-enacted in the historian's mind. In the first place, this must be experience. Of that which is not experience but the mere object of experience, there can be no history. Thus there is and can be no history of nature, whether as perceived or as thought by the scientist. No doubt nature contains, undergoes, or even consists of, processes ; its changes in time are essential to it, they may even (as some think) be all that it has or is ; and these changes may be genuinely creative, no mere repetitions of fixed cyclical phases but the development of new orders of natural being. But all this goes no way towards proving that the life of nature is an historical life or that our knowledge of it is historical knowledge. The only condition on which there could be a history of nature is that the events of nature are actions on the part of some thinking being or beings, and that by studying these actions we could discover what were the thoughts which they expressed and think these thoughts for ourselves. This is a condition which probably no one will claim is fulfilled. Consequently the processes of nature are not historical processes and our knowledge of nature, though it may resemble history in certain superficial ways, e.g. by being chronological, is not historical knowledge.

Secondly, even experience is not as such the object of historical knowledge. In so far as it is merely immediate experience, a mere flow of consciousness consisting of sensations, feelings, and the like, its process is not an historical process. That process can, no doubt, be not only directly experienced in its immediacy, but also known ; its particular details and its general characteristics can be studied by thought ; but the thought which studies it finds in it a mere object of study, which in order to be studied need not be, and indeed cannot be, re-enacted in the thinking about it. In so far as we think about its particular details, we are remembering experiences of our own or entering with sympathy and imagination into those of others ; but in such cases we do not re-enact the experiences which we remember or with which we sympathize ; we are merely contemplating them as

( 303) objects external to our present selves, aided perhaps by the presence in ourselves of other experiences like them. In so far as we think about its general characteristics, we are engaging in the science of psychology. In neither case are we thinking historically.

Thirdly, even thought itself, in its immediacy as the unique act of thought with its unique context in the life of an individual thinker, is not the object of historical knowledge. It cannot be re-enacted ; if it could, time itself would be cancelled and the historian would be the person about whom he thinks, living over again in all respects the same. The historian cannot apprehend the individual act of thought in its individuality, just as it actually happened. What he apprehends of that individual is only something that it might have shared with other acts of thought and actually has shared with his own. But this something is not an abstraction, in the sense of a common characteristic shared by different individuals and considered apart from the individuals that share it. It is the act of thought itself, in its survival and revival at different times and in different persons : once in the historian's own life, once in the life of the person whose history he is narrating.

Thus the vague phrase that history is knowledge of the individual claims for it a field at once too wide and too narrow: too wide, because the individuality of perceived objects and natural facts and immediate experiences falls outside its sphere, and most of all because even the individuality of historical events and personages, if that means their uniqueness, falls equally outside it ; too narrow, because it would exclude universality, and it is just the universality of an event or character that makes it a proper and possible object of historical study, if by universality we mean something that oversteps the limits of merely local and temporal existence and possesses a significance valid for all men at all times. These too are no doubt vague phrases ; but they are attempts to describe something real: namely the way in which thought, transcending its own immediacy, survives and revives in other contexts ; and to express the truth that individual acts and persons appear in history not in virtue of their individuality as such, but because that individuality is the vehicle of a thought which, because it was actually theirs, is potentially everyone's.

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Of everything other than thought, there can be no history. Thus a biography, for example, however much history it contains, is constructed on principles that are not only non-historical but anti-historical. Its limits are biological events, the birth and death of a human organism: its framework is thus a framework not of thought but of natural process. Through this framework—the bodily life of the man, with his childhood, maturity and senescence, his diseases and all the accidents of animal existence—the tides of thought, his own and others', flow crosswise, regardless of its structure, like sea-water through a stranded wreck. Many human emotions are bound up with the spectacle of such bodily life in its vicissitudes, and biography, as a form of literature, feeds these emotions and may give them wholesome food ; but this is not history. Again, the record of immediate experience with its flow of sensations and feelings, faithfully preserved in a diary or recalled in a memoir, is not history. At its best, it is poetry ; at its worst, an obtrusive egotism ; but history it can never be.

But there is another condition without which a thing cannot become the object of historical knowledge. The gulf of time between the historian and his object must be bridged, as I have said, from both ends. The object must be of such a kind that it can revive itself in the historian's mind ; the historian's mind must be such as to offer a home for that revival. This does not mean that his mind must be of a certain kind, possessed of an historical temperament ; nor that he must be trained in special rules of historical technique. It means that he must be the right man to study that object. What he is studying is a certain thought : to study it involves re-enacting it in himself ; and in order that it may take its place in the immediacy of his own thought, his thought must be, as it were, pre-adapted to become its host. This does not imply, in the technical sense of the phrase, a pre-established harmony between the historian's mind and its object; it is not, for example, an endorsement of Coleridge's saying that men are born Platonists or Aristotelians ; for it has not prejudged the question whether a Platonist or an Aristotelian is born or made. A man who at one time of life finds certain historical studies unprofitable, because he cannot enter for himself into the thought of those about whom he is thinking, will find at another time that he has become able to

( 305) do so, perhaps as a result of deliberate self-training. But at any given stage in his life the historian as he stands is certain to have, for whatever reason, a readier sympathy with some ways of thinking than with others. Partly this is because certain ways of thinking are altogether, or relatively, strange to him : partly it is because they are all too familiar, and he feels the need of getting away from them in the interests of his own mental and moral welfare.

If the historian, working against the grain of his own mind because it is demanded of him that he should study such uncongenial subjects, or because they are ' in the period' which his own misguided conscience fancies he ought to treat in all its aspects, tries to master the history of a thought into which he cannot personally enter, instead of writing its history he will merely repeat the statements that record the external facts of its development : names and dates, and ready-made descriptive phrases. Such repetitions may very well be useful, but not because they are history. They are dry bones, which may some day become history, when someone is able to clothe them with the flesh and blood of a thought which is both his own and theirs. This is only a way of saying that the historian's thought must spring from the organic unity of his total experience, and be a function of his entire personality with its practical as well as its theoretical interests. It need hardly be added that since the historian is a son of his time, there is a general likelihood that what interests him will interest his contemporaries. It is a familiar fact that every generation finds itself interested in, and therefore able to study historically, tracts and aspects of the past which to its fathers were dry bones, signifying nothing.

Historical knowledge, then, has for its proper object thought: not things thought about, but the act of thinking itself. This principle has served us to distinguish history from natural science on the one hand, as the study of a given or objective world distinct from the act of thinking it, and on the other from psychology as the study of immediate experience, sensation, and feeling, which, though the activity of a mind, is not the activity of thinking. But the positive meaning of the principle needs further determination. How much or how little is meant to be included under the term 'thought' ?

The term 'thought', as hitherto used in this section and its

( 306) predecessor, has stood for a certain form of experience or mental activity whose peculiarity may be negatively described by saying that it is not merely immediate, and therefore is not carried away by the flow of consciousness. The positive peculiarity which distinguishes thought from mere consciousness is its power of recognizing the activity of the self as a single activity persisting through the diversity of its own acts. If I feel cold, and later feel warm, there is for mere feeling no continuity between the two experiences. It is true, as Bergson points out, that the feeling cold 'interpenetrates' the subsequent feeling warm, and gives it a quality which it would not otherwise have had ; but the feeling warm, though it owes that quality to the previous feeling cold, does not recognize the debt. The distinction between mere feeling and thought may thus be illustrated by the distinction between simply feeling cold and being able to say 'I feel cold'. To say that, I must be aware of myself as something more than the immediate experience of cold: aware of myself as an activity of feeling which has had other experiences previously, and remains the same throughout the difference of these experiences. I need not even remember what these experiences were ; but I must know that they existed and were mine.

The peculiarity of thought, then, is that it is not mere consciousness but self-consciousness. The self, as merely conscious, is a flow of consciousness, a series of immediate sensations and feelings ; but as merely conscious it is not aware of itself as such a flow ; it is ignorant of its own continuity through the succession of experiences. The activity of becoming aware of this continuity is what is called thinking.

But this thought of myself as an activity of feeling, which remains the same activity through its various acts, is only the most rudimentary form of thought. It develops into other forms by working outwards from this starting-point in various directions. One thing which it may do is to become more clearly aware of the precise nature of the continuity: instead of only conceiving 'myself' as having previously had some experiences, indeterminate in their nature, considering what in particular these experiences were : remembering them and comparing them with the immediate present. Another is to analyse the present experience itself, to distinguish in it the act of feeling from what

( 307) is felt, and to conceive what is felt as something whose reality (like the reality of myself as the feeler) is not exhausted by its immediate presence to my feeling. Working along these two lines, thought becomes memory, the thought of my own flow of experiences, and perception, the thought of what I experience as something real.

A third way in which it develops is by recognizing myself as not only a sentient being but as a thinking being. In remembering and perceiving, I am already doing more than enjoying a flow of immediate experience ; I am also thinking ; but I am not (simply in remembering or perceiving as such) aware of myself as thinking. I am only aware of myself as feeling. This awareness is already self-consciousness or thought, but it is an imperfect self-consciousness, because in possessing it I am performing a certain kind of mental activity, namely thinking, of which I am not conscious. Hence the thinking which we do in memory or perception as such may be called unconscious thinking, not because we can do it without being conscious, for in order to do it we must be not only conscious but self-conscious, but because we do it without being conscious that we are doing it. To be conscious that I am thinking is to think in a new way, which may be called reflecting.

Historical thinking is always reflection ; for reflection is thinking about the act of thinking, and we have seen that all historical thinking is of that kind. But what kind of thinking can be its object ? Is it possible to study the history of what was just now called unconscious thinking, or must the thinking which history studies be conscious or reflective thinking?

This amounts to asking whether there can be a history of memory or perception. And it is clear that there cannot. A person who should sit down to write the history of memory or the history of perception would find nothing to write about. It is conceivable that different races of mankind, and for that matter different human beings, have had different ways. of remembering or perceiving ; and it is possible that these differences were sometimes due, not to physiological differences (such as the undeveloped colour-sense which has been ascribed, on very dubious grounds, to the Greeks), but to different habits of thought. But if there are ways of perceiving which for such reasons have prevailed here and there in the past, and are not

( 308) practised by ourselves, we cannot reconstruct the history of them because we cannot re-enact the appropriate experiences at will ; and this is because the habits of thought to which they are due are `unconscious', and therefore cannot be deliberately revived. For example, it maybe true that civilizations other than our own have enjoyed as part of their normal equipment the faculty of second sight or the power of seeing ghosts. It may be that, among them, these things arose out of certain habitual ways of thinking, and were therefore a familiar and understood way of expressing genuine knowledge or well-founded belief. Certainly, when Burnt Njal in the saga used his second sight as a means of giving advice to his friends, they were profiting by the wisdom of a sound lawyer and a shrewd man of the world. But, supposing all this to be true, it is still impossible for us to write a history of second sight ; all we can do is to collect instances in which it has been alleged, and to believe that the statements about it are statements of fact. But this would be, at most, belief in testimony ; and we know that such belief stops where history begins.

In order, therefore, that any particular act of thought should become subject-matter for history, it must be an act not only of thought but of reflective thought, that is, one which is performed in the consciousness that it is being performed, and is constituted what it is by that consciousness. The effort to do it must be more than a merely conscious effort. It must not be the blind effort to do we know not what, like the effort to remember a forgotten name or to perceive a confused object ; it must be a reflective effort, the effort to do something of which we have a conception before we do it. A reflective activity is one in which we know what it is that we are trying to do, so that when it is done we know that it is done by seeing that it has conformed to the standard or criterion which was our initial conception of it. It is therefore an act which we are enabled to perform by knowing in advance how to perform it.

Not all acts are of this kind. Samuel Butler was confusing the issue from one side when he said that an infant must know how to suck, or it could not do it ; others have confused it from the opposite side by maintaining that we never know what we are going to do until we have done it. Butler was trying to make out that acts which are unreflective are really reflective, exag-

( 309) -gerating the place of reason in life, in order to oppose a prevailing materialism ; these others are contending that reflective acts are really unreflective, because they conceive all experience as immediate. In its immediacy, as a unique individual, complete with all details and in the full context in which alone it can immediately exist, our future act can certainly never be planned in advance ; however carefully we have thought it out, it will always contain much that is unforeseen and surprising ; but to infer that therefore it cannot be planned at all is to betray the assumption that its immediate being is the only being it has. An act is more than a mere unique individual ; it is something having a universal character ; and in the case of a reflective or deliberate act (an act which we not only do, but intend to do before doing it) this universal character is the plan or idea of the act which we conceive in our thought before doing the act itself, and the criterion by reference to which, when we have done it, we know that we have done what we meant to do.

There are certain kinds of act which cannot be done except on these terms: that is to say, cannot be done except reflectively, by a person who knows what he is trying to do and is therefore able, when he has done it, to judge his own action by reference to his intention. It is characteristic of these acts that they should be done, as we say, 'on purpose': that there should be a basis of purpose upon which the structure of the act should be erected, and to which it must conform. Reflective acts may be roughly described as the acts which we do on purpose, and these are the only acts which can become the subject-matter of history.

From this point of view, it can be seen why certain forms of activity are, and others are not, matter of historical knowledge. It would be generally admitted that politics is a thing that can be historically studied. The reason is that politics affords a plain instance of purposive action. The politician is a man with a policy ; his policy is a plan of action conceived in advance of its performance ; and his success as a politician is proportional to his success in carrying out his policy. No doubt, his policy is not prior to his action in the sense of being fixed once for all before his action begins ; it develops as his action develops ; but at every stage of his action policy precedes its own fulfilment. If it were possible to say of any man that he acted with no idea whatever what would come of it, but did the first thing that came

( 310) into his head and merely waited to see the consequences, it would follow that such a man was no politician, and that his action was merely the intrusion into political life of a blind and irrational force. And if it has to be said of a certain man that he doubtless had a policy but that we cannot discover what it was (and one sometimes feels inclined to say this of, for example, certain early Roman emperors), this is as much as to say that one's attempts to reconstruct the political history of his action have failed.

For the same reason, there can be a history of warfare. In a general way, the intentions of a military commander are easy to understand. If he took an army into a certain country and engaged its forces, we can see that he meant to defeat it, and from the recorded account of his acts we can reconstruct in our own minds the plan of campaign which he tried to carry out. Once more, this depends on the assumption that his acts were done on purpose. If they were not, there can be no history of them ; if they were done on a purpose that we cannot fathom, then we at least cannot reconstruct their history.

Economic activity, too, can have a history. A man who builds a factory or starts a bank is acting on a purpose which we can understand ; so are the men who accept wages from him, buy hisgoods or his shares, or make deposits and withdrawals. If we are told that there was a strike at the factory or a run on the bank, we can reconstruct in our own minds the purposes of the people whose collective action took those forms.

Again, there can be a history of morals ; for in moral action we are doing certain things on purpose, in order to bring our practical life into harmony with the ideal of what it ought to be. This ideal is at once our conception of our own life as it should be, or our intention of what we mean to make it, and our criterion of whether what we have done has been done well or ill. Here too, as in the other cases, our purposes change as our activity develops, but the purpose is always in advance of the act. And it is impossible to act morally except when, and in so far as, one acts on purpose ; duty cannot be done by accident or inadvertence ; no one can do his duty except a person who means to do his duty.

In these cases we have examples of practical activities which are not merely as a matter of fact pursued on purpose, but

( 311) could not be what they are unless they were so pursued. Now, it might be thought that all purposive action must be practical action, because there are two stages in it: first conceiving the purpose, which is a theoretical activity or act of pure thought, and then executing it, which is a practical activity supervening on the theoretical. On this analysis it would follow that acting, in the narrow or practical sense of the word, is the only thing that can be done on purpose. For, it might be argued, you cannot think on purpose, since if you conceived your own act of thought before executing it, you would have executed it already. The theoretical activities, it would follow, cannot be purposive: they must be, as it were, done in the dark, with no conception of what is to come from engaging in them.

This is an error, but it is an error of some interest for the theory of history, because it has actually influenced the theory and practice of historiography to the extent of making people think that the only possible subject-matter of history is the practical life of men. The idea that history concerns itself, and can concern itself, only with such matters as politics, warfare, economic life, and, in general, the world of practice, is still wide-spread and was once almost universal. We have seen how even Hegel, who showed so brilliantly how the history of philosophy should be written, committed himself in his lectures on the philosophy of history to the view that history's proper subject-matter is society and the state, the practical life, or (in his own technical language) objective mind, mind as expressing itself outwardly in actions and institutions.

To-day it is no longer necessary to argue that art, science, religion, philosophy, and so forth are proper subjects of historical study ; the fact of their being studied historically is too familiar. But it is necessary to ask why this is so, in view of the argument to the contrary that has been stated above.

In the first place, it is not true that a person engaged in purely theoretical thinking is acting without a purpose. A man doing a certain piece of scientific work, such as inquiring into the cause of malaria, has a quite definite purpose in mind: to discover the cause of malaria. True, he does not know what this cause is ; but he knows that when he finds it he will know that he has found it by applying to his discovery certain tests or criteria which he has before him from the start. The plan of his

( 312) discovery, then, is the plan of a theory which will satisfy these criteria. Similarly for the historian or philosopher. He is never sailing an uncharted sea ; his chart, however little detail it contains, is marked with the parallels of latitude and longitude, and his purpose is to discover what there is to put down on and between those lines. In other words : every actual inquiry starts from a certain problem, and the purpose of the inquiry is to solve that problem ; the plan of the discovery, therefore, is already known and formulated by saying that, whatever the discovery may be, it must be such as to satisfy the terms of the problem. As in the case of practical activity, this plan of course changes as the activity of thought proceeds ; some plans are abandoned as impracticable and replaced by others, some are carried out successfully and found to lead to new problems.

In the second place, the difference between conceiving and executing a purpose was not correctly described as the difference between a theoretical act and a practical one. To conceive a purpose or form an intention is already a practical activity. It is not thought forming an anteroom to action ; it is action itself in its initial stage. If this is not at once recognized, it may be recognized by considering its implications. Thought, as theoretical activity, cannot be moral or immoral ; it can only be true or false. That which is moral or immoral must be action. Now, if a man forms the intention of committing murder or adultery, and then decides not to carry out his intention, the intention itself already exposes him to condemnation on moral grounds. It is not said of him `he accurately conceived the nature of murder or adultery, so his thought was true and therefore admirable'; it is said of him `he is doubtless not so wicked as if he had carried his intention out to the end ; but to intend such action at all was wicked'.

The scientist, the historian, and the philosopher are thus, no less than the practical man, proceeding in their activities according to plans, thinking on purpose, and thus arriving at results that can be judged according to criteria derived from the plans themselves. Consequently there can be histories of these things. All that is necessary is that there should be evidence of how such thinking has been done and that the historian should be able to interpret it, that is, should be able to re-enact in his own mind the thought he is studying, envisaging the problem from

( 313) which it started and reconstructing the steps by which its solution was attempted. In practice, the common difficulty for the historian is to identify the problem, for whereas the thinker is generally careful to expound the steps of his own thought, he is talking as a rule to contemporaries who already know what the problem is, and he may never state it at all And unless the historian knows what the problem was at which he was working, he has no criterion by which to judge the success of his work. It is the historian's endeavour to discover this problem that gives importance to the study of `influences', which is so futile when influences are conceived as the decanting of ready-made thoughts out of one mind into another. An intelligent inquiry into the influence of Socrates on Plato, or Descartes on Newton, seeks to discover not the points of agreement, but the way in which the conclusions reached by one thinker give rise to problems for the next.

There might seem to be a special difficulty about the case of art. The artist, even if his work can be called reflective at all, seems a great deal less reflective than the scientist or philosopher. He does not appear to set out on a particular piece of work with a clearly formulated problem, and judge his result by reference to the terms of the problem. He seems to be working in a world of pure imagination, where his thought is absolutely creative, never in any sense knowing what he is going to do until he has done it. If thinking means reflection and judgement, it would seem that the genuine artist does not think at all; his mental labour seems to be a labour of pure intuition, where no concept either precedes or sustains or judges the intuition itself.

But the artist does not create his works out of nothing. He begins in every case with a problem before him. This problem, in so far as he is an artist, is not the problem of decorating a given room or designing a house to comply with given utilitarian requirements ; these are the special problems of applied art, and in art as such they do not arise. Nor is it the problem of making something out of paint, or sounds, or marble ; he only begins to be an artist when those problems cease to be problems at all, and the materials of his craft have become obedient servants of his imagination. The point at which he begins creating a work of art is the point at which that work is grafted on the body

( 314) of his unreflective experience: his immediate sensitive and emotional life with its development, rational but unconscious, through memory and perception. The problem with which he is confronted is the problem of feeding this experience into a work of art. He has encountered some experience that stands out from the rest as significant or moving ; its unexpressed significance lies on his mind as a burden, challenging him to find some way of uttering it ; and his labour in creating a work of art is his response to that challenge. In this sense the artist knows very well what he is doing and what he is trying to do. The criterion of his having done it rightly is that, when it is done, it should be seen as expressing what he wanted to express. All that is peculiar to him is the fact that he cannot formulate his problem ; if he could formulate it, he would have expressed it ; and the work of art would have been achieved. But although he cannot in advance of the work itself say what the problem is, he knows that there is a problem, and he is aware. of its peculiar nature ; only not reflectively aware until the work has been done.

This indeed seems to be the special character of art and its peculiar importance in the life of thought. It is the phase of that life in which the conversion from unreflective to reflective thought actually comes about. There is therefore a history of art, but no history of artistic problems, as there is a history of scientific or philosophical problems. There is only the history of artistic achievements.

There is also a history of religion ; for religion, no less than art or philosophy or politics, is a function of reflective thought. In religion man has a conception of himself as a thinking and active being, which he sets over against a conception of God in which his notion of thought and action, knowledge and power, are raised to the level of infinity. The task of religious thought and religious practice (for in religion the theoretical and practical activities are fused into one) is to find the relation between these two opposed conceptions of myself as finite and God as infinite. The absence of any definite relation, the mere difference of the two, is the problem and torment of the religious mind. The discovery of a relation is at once the discovery of my thought as reaching God and of God's thought as reaching me: and, indistinguishable from this, the performance of an act of

( 315) mine by which I establish a relation with God and an act of God's by which he establishes a relation with me. To fancy that religion lives either below or above the limits of reflective thought is fatally to misconceive either the nature of religion or the nature of reflective thought. It would be nearer the truth to say that in religion the life of reflection is concentrated in its intensest form, and that the special problems of theoretical and practical life all take their special forms by segregation out of the body of the religious consciousness, and retain their vitality only so far as they preserve their connexion with it and with each other in it.


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