Posted by: Xhyra Graf | 4 February 2007


  • 2. Metaphilosophy
  • Collingwood’s first mature work, An Essay on Philosophical Method (1933), is a substantial treatise in metaphilosophy which seeks to delineate the subject matter and method of philosophical analysis. Philosophy, according to Collingwood, is a second-order enquiry whose task is to offer a reflection on first-order forms of knowledge. The subject matter of philosophical analysis is thus the fundamental concepts and principles which govern different forms of investigation and define the subject matters of the first-order sciences.

    Central to Collingwood’s account of philosophical method is the doctrine of the overlap of classes. According to this doctrine, the concepts and principles with which philosophy is concerned allow for complete extensional overlap.

    Philosophical distinctions, in other words, are semantic distinctions to which there may not correspond any empirical difference. The task of the philosopher is precisely to distinguish concepts which coincide in their instances. Philosophical distinctions differ from empirical classifications because the coordinate species of an empirical genus, unlike those of a philosophical one, form mutually exclusive classes.
    The mind-body distinction, according to Collingwood, is similar to the distinction between duty and utility; it is a semantic distinction between concepts which coincide in their instances. Philosophical distinctions, whether they are found in ethics, aesthetics or the philosophy of mind, are semantic distinctions without an empirical difference. This is why what philosophers do differs from what natural scientists do: natural scientists classify, whereas philosophers draw distinctions.

    The justification for philosophical concepts lies in the fact that they enable us to make crucial distinctions, such as the one between duty and utility, music and poetry, actions and mere bodily movements. The justification of philosophical concepts is accordingly neither inductive nor deductive. It is not inductive because philosophical concepts need to be presupposed in order to make the relevant distinctions. It is not deductive because philosophical concepts do not possess the status of Cartesian first principles on which the edifice of knowledge is deductively built. They are rather more like Kantian categories that are presupposed and implicit in ordinary judgments. To justify a philosophical concept involves regressing from a claim to the conditions of its possibility in the manner of a transcendental argument. Philosophical justification is therefore inevitably in a way circular, since in a regressive argument, unlike a deductive one, the truth of the premises is not established independently of the conclusion. Rather, the entitlement to employ philosophical concepts lies in the fact that they ground our knowledge claims.

    According to Collingwood concepts have two aspects, intension and extension. The extension of a concept is the class of objects that it denotes. The intension of a concept is what it means. Collingwood clearly rejects the extensionalist account of concepts developed by Ayer, Russell, and the early Ryle (see below ‘The Reform of Metaphysics and Early Analytic Philosophy’) for he argues that the intension of a concept is not reducible to its extension. As he puts it: “two concepts ‘are the same thing’ in the sense that a thing which exemplifies the one exemplifies the other also, but ‘their being is not the same’ in the sense that being an instance of the one is not the same as being an instance of the other” (EPM, 50). His refusal to define concepts in purely extensional terms is crucial for his account of philosophical concepts because, as we have seen, philosophical distinctions are for him purely semantic in nature. Philosophical concepts do not carve out a segment of reality but rather provide a way of describing it: in its philosophical employment, the concept of action does not distinctively denote a subset of objects, i.e., the deeds performed by animals of the human species, but is rather a way of describing what happens as an expression of rational as opposed to causal processes.

    Philosophy, Collingwood says, “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” (EPM, 161). It is the task of philosophical analysis to make explicit principles which are implicit in the practices of first order sciences.

    According to Collingwood, neither the proposition “mind exists” nor the proposition “matter exists” is a metaphysical proposition in the traditional sense. They are not metaphysical propositions because they do not assert the existence of metaphysical kinds (mind and matter) but of the methodological assumptions that govern the study of mind and nature. These propositions are, as Collingwood puts it, philosophical propositions which define the domains of enquiry or subject matters of the science of history and nature. Philosophical propositions, unlike metaphysical propositions, make an epistemological claim, rather than an ontological one. They assert that mind exists for the historian and that matter exists for the natural scientist. Further, philosophical propositions cannot be accommodated within a Humean epistemology since they are neither about relations of ideas nor about matters of fact. They are not propositions about matters of fact because they are not empirically verifiable. They are not propositions about relations of ideas because they are not self- evidently true analytical propositions. Yet although philosophical propositions cannot be accommodated within Humean epistemology, accepting them does not entail a commitment to the metaphysics which Hume wanted to reject. As already mentioned, philosophical propositions are not presented as necessary existential claims but as methodologically necessary ones. Philosophical analysis thus brings us to know “in a different way things which we already knew in some ways” in so far as it enables us to become aware of the assumptions that we implicitly and unselfconsciously make in order to provide radically different and sometimes incompatible descriptions of the same thing.

    Collingwood’s conception of the subject matter of philosophy (the fundamental principles and concepts which underpin different forms of investigation) and of its task (the distinguishing of concepts that coincide in their instances) entails a particular view of the nature of philosophical problems. Philosophical problems arise because there are certain distinctions which do not map onto the empirical classification of reality. The distinction between mind and matter, as we have seen, is one such distinction, i.e. a distinction without a difference. According to Collingwood this is why we have a problem of mind body dualism, why problems such as that of freedom of the will and determinism, or of the criteria of personal identity versus bodily continuity, arise in the first place. They arise because of our implicit commitment to two concepts, that of mind and matter, which entail a radically different way of looking at the world and of explaining what occurs in it.

    Many contemporary philosophers would endorse the view that in spite of the progress of natural science we have been unable to explain away the mind/body distinction. They may even maintain that the so-called ‘explanatory gap’ is always likely to remain with us. Some contemporary philosophers of mind then try to explain the persistence of the mind-body problem by claiming that there are two radically different modes of access to the mind and the body and, given the ineradicability of these two modes of access, we will continue to have two radically different descriptions of reality. Admittedly, this position bears some surface similarities to that defended by Collingwood, but it is in fact very different. Like many contemporary philosophers of mind, Collingwood holds that the mind/body distinction is ineliminable, but for him such ineliminability is not connected to the existence of different modes of access. It is rather due to the fact that we mean very different things when we speak about mental phenomena than when we speak about physical ones. The explanatory gap, according to Collingwood, is not epistemological but semantic. The resilience of the mind-body problem is thus due not to the ineliminability of two modes of access, but to the ineliminability of the analytic/synthetic distinction. As long as we will make distinctions to which there correspond no empirical differences there will be a role for philosophical analysis. The role of philosophy is to discern different senses even when there is only one referent.

  • 3. Epistemology and Metaphysics
  • A discussion of epistemological and metaphysical issues would normally comprise two different topics. This is not the case with Collingwood who thought that, in order to be possible, metaphysics should undergo an epistemological reform and be transformed from an ontological enquiry to an enquiry into the heuristic principles which enable us to cognize reality.
  • Metaphysics, traditionally understood as an ontological enquiry, possesses no subject matter of its own since it undertakes to carry out a study of what exists without asking any specific questions and making any presuppositions. If therefore metaphysics is to be possible at all, it must be subjected to an epistemological reform; it must take the form not of ontology or a study of pure being, but of a study of the presuppositions that underlie different forms of enquiry.

    To illustrate how different disciplines are governed by different sets of presuppositions, Collingwood considers the way in which the term ‘cause’ is employed in the historical sciences and in the practical and theoretical sciences of nature. He speaks of three distinct meanings of the term “cause”. In the historical sciences (sciences which deal with the mind) “that which is caused is the free and deliberate act of a conscious and responsible agent, and causing him to do it means affording him a motive for so doing” (EM, 285). This is what Collingwood calls sense I of the term cause. Secondly, the term cause is used in sense II in the practical sciences of nature, sciences such as medicine and engineering, where “that which is caused is an event in nature and its cause is an event or state of things by producing or preventing which we can produce or prevent that whose cause it is said to be” (EM, 296-7). Finally, the term cause is also employed in sense III in the theoretical sciences of nature where “that which is caused is an event or state of things and its cause is another event or state of things such that (a) if the cause happens or exists, the effect must happen or exist even if no further conditions are fulfilled (b) the effect cannot happen or exist unless the cause happens or exists” (EM, 285-86). When we move from sense I to sense III we effectively remove a teleological framework of explanation.

    Collingwood’s claim that we are here dealing with three different senses of the term cause is specifically intended to draw attention to the fact that we are providing different kinds of explanations, rather than distinguishing between explanations that have ontological or existential import (causal explanations) and explanations which do not and which are consequently epiphenomenal (mere rationalizations). The refusal to prioritise causation in a single sense, by granting ontological status to explanations employed in the theoretical sciences of nature, reflects Collingwood’s attempt to provide an epistemological reform of metaphysics or a “metaphysics without ontology”.

    In An Essay on Metaphysics Collingwood sought to show that, contrary to the prevailing neo-empiricism of the new philosophical climate, there are indeed meaningful propositions which are neither empirically verifiable nor merely analytic. To this end he distinguished between relative and absolute presuppositions. Absolute presuppositions are presuppositions which govern a form of enquiry and make it possible in the first place. Relative presuppositions are presuppositions that are internal to a particular form of enquiry.

    Relative presuppositions are empirically verifiable since they may be found to be either true or false. Absolute presuppositions are not empirically verifiable because they are neither true nor false, yet must necessarily be presupposed in order to engage in a particular form of enquiry. Absolute presuppositions are neither analytically true, nor are they empirically true or false, and yet they are meaningful.

    Unlike the Ryle of “Systematically Misleading Expressions,” he believes that, when understood in methodological rather than metaphysical terms, a commitment to the concept of mind and matter are logically necessary if we are to engage in the practice of history and natural science, and not simply errors generated by the surface structure of propositions.

    His reform of metaphysics suggests that he might be more appropriately described as a weak anti-realist rather than as an idealist, since his commitment to idealism is not a commitment to immaterialism, but to the claim that there is no epistemically unmediated access to reality. In other words, the ‘realism’ which constitutes the target of Collingwood’s critique is not the ontological thesis that there exist mind independent objects, but the epistemological thesis that there is such a thing as presuppositionless knowledge of reality.

    His reform of metaphysics entails that ontology or the study of what is must be subordinated to epistemology and thus that the subject matter of different forms of enquiry, such as nature and history, are distinct from one another not in virtue of the entities that they designate but of the way in which they investigate them. The realism that Collingwood attacks seems ill positioned to explain how can there be a distinction in the subject matters of two sciences without there being a distinction in the entities which they investigate.

    Collingwood advances one main argument against epistemological realism. This argument is restated in a number of different ways. As we have already seen, in An Essay on Metaphysics, he claims that the idea of presuppositionless knowledge is an oxymoron because there can be no science of pure being; a science of pure being is a science without a subject matter and thus not a science at all. This argument is also developed in An Autobiography (1939) where Collingwood claims that realism is committed to the view that “knowing makes no difference to what is known” and that such a view is self-contradictory since one cannot consistently claim to know an object independently of any other predicate that may be ascribed to it i.e., to know it as merely existing without further qualification. Collingwood’s argument against realism is thus a development of the claim that existence is not a real predicate and that as such it fails to describe an object in any way. Objects to which no predicate other than existence is ascribed, are unknown since we cannot say anything about them other than that they are. With this in mind, Collingwood’s reluctance to accept the description of his philosophy as idealist may be explained by the fact that his idealism, as a form of epistemological anti-realism, differs significantly from that of British idealists such as Bradley and Bosanquet, who were much more confident in the ability of thought to grasp the ‘ultimate’ nature of reality and whose work has a rationalistic flavour that is absent from Collingwood’s philosophising.

  • 4. Mind and Action
  • Collingwood’s description of actions as having an inside which mere events lack led many of his early commentators to conclude that he believed the distinction between actions and events to be a distinction between inner psychological processes which are inaccessible from a third person perspective and outer bodily movement which are observable form a third person perspective. Collingwood was thus accused of subscribing to what Ryle called the doctrine of the ghost in the machine. Most contemporary commentators, on the other hand, would argue that the inside/outside distinction is not to be taken literally, that it is a mere metaphor intended to draw attention to the fact that the term “because” has different meanings in different explanatory contexts. The distinction between actions and events, far from being a distinction between inner psychological processes and outer bodily movements, is a distinction between the explanatory practices of different sciences. As Collingwood puts it in The New Leviathan (1942), the relationship between the mind and the body “is a relation between the sciences of the body, or natural sciences, and the sciences of the mind; that is the relation inquiry into which ought to be substituted for the make-believe inquiry into the make-believe problem of ‘the relation between body and mind” (NL, 2.49/11).

    As we have seen, history for Collingwood differs from natural science because in the former as opposed to the latter the relationship between the explanans and the explanandum is logical or conceptual rather than empirical. The question that the genuine historian asks is not “what kind of event usually precedes the event that I am trying to explain?” but “what reasons make the action intelligible?” In other words the historian is concerned with rational connections rather than with inductive generalisations. Further, only to the extent that this point is acknowledged is the study of history genuinely distinct from the study of nature.

    Collingwood denounces historians who employ the method of inductive generalisations as writing pseudo-histories. The pseudo history that Collingwood has in mind is of the kind one finds in Hume’s account of miracles. According to Hume, a historian who comes across statements which are, in the eyes of the historians, false, should simply discard them. Historians who come across statements asserting the occurrence of miracles should ask themselves whether an inductive generalisation based on their own experience of reality would provide probabilistic evidence for the occurrence of miraculous events. If the experience of the historian fails to provide such probabilistic support, then the historian is justified in deeming the statement false and cutting it from the available evidence. Collingwood calls this kind of history scissors-and-paste history and condemns it as a pseudo history. Genuine history seeks to recover the meaning behind the statements, not whether they are true or false. To recover such meanings historians must try, as far as possible, to bear in mind the epistemic and motivational premises of agents, even when they regard them as false. Thus an historian who comes across a statement claiming that certain agents changed their itinerary in order to avoid crossing mountains inhabited by devils, should not discard the statement as false but rather understand the decision making process in the light of the agent’s beliefs, even if these are not shared by the historian. In investigating the actions of historical agents, Collingwood reminds us, historians cannot presuppose that the agents whose actions they are trying to interpret share the same background epistemic premises. Whilst the uniformity of nature is an absolute presupposition of natural science (the assumption that nature is uniform is necessary in order to carry out the inductive generalisations that enable us to predict and control the natural environment), historians cannot presuppose that the agents whose thoughts they are trying to recover share their same background beliefs. The presumption of rationality is a presupposition of historical enquiry; but historians must presuppose that agents are rational not in the substantive sense that they hold true beliefs, but in the more minimal sense that they can infer validly from premises to conclusions and act on the practical syllogism.

  • Collingwood’s philosophy of history shares with Gadamer the view that meaning (in Collingwood’s case the meaning of an action rather than a text) is not to be identified with inner psychological processes. An action’s meaning is to be found in a publicly re-enactable syllogism. It is because meaning is not a hidden psychological entity that it is inter-subjectively accessible. But although Collingwood, like Gadamer, eschews a psychologistic account of meaning, he does not endorse the quasi-sceptical conclusion according to which the meaning of a text is different for each generation of interpreters. For Collingwood there is such a thing as seeing the world from the agent’s point of view. Taking the agent’s point of view does not mean entering the agent’s mind by some quasi-miraculous telepathic process; it requires rather that we temporarily suspend our own epistemic and motivational premises in order to understand the inferential processes that guide agents with radically different beliefs. Failing to take the agent’s epistemic and motivational premises on board leads the historian to write bad historical narratives, the narratives Collingwood refers to as scissors-and-paste histories. Thus, whilst Collingwood’s philosophy of history, like Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics, rejects psychologism, Collingwood, unlike Gadamer is not sceptical about the possibility of reaching inter-generational agreement about the meaning of past actions.

    According to Collingwood the distinction between reasons and causes is a distinction between different forms of explanations (rational and causal explanations), not a distinction between mere elucidation and causation. In contemporary philosophy of mind and action the reasons/causes distinction is taken to be a distinction between explanations that have ontological or metaphysical import and explanations which do not. By contrast, in line with his project of developing a metaphysics without ontology, Collingwood does not construe the distinction between reasons and causes in this way. This is why in An Essay on Metaphysics he describes the distinction between these different kinds of explanations as employing different senses of the term cause: reasons and causes are species of the same philosophical genus, “explanation”, and as such they can coincide in their instances. Thus, what could be described by the natural scientist as the movement of the biceps could be described by the historian as an action embodying a motive, e.g. opening a window. The action and the bodily movement are ontologically the same but conceptually distinct. Collingwood’s distinction between actions and events in the philosophy of history thus rests on an endorsement of the overlap of classes as outlined in his earlier treatise in meta-philosophy.

    6.3 Intellectual influences and affiliations

    Another problem of interpretation which has been at the centre of recent scholarship concerns the issue of intellectual influences. Which thinkers exercised a major influence on Collingwood? Was it the Italian idealists? Was it Hegel or was it Kant? Collingwood was reading Kant’s Groundwork by the time he was eight years old and it seems very possible that his reading of Kant’s moral philosophy informed, however indirectly, his own reflections on ethics and the repeated drafting of the introductions to his lectures on moral philosophy, introductions which eventually took on a life of their own and became An Essay on Philosophical Method. Collingwood’s work is full of implicit and explicit references, both sympathetic and unsympathetic, to Hegel, which show he had read his work carefully. And he was also familiar with the work of Italian idealists such as Croce, De Ruggiero and Gentile. The relationship of Collingwood’s philosophy to Italian idealism has been relatively under-explored. The issue of Collingwood’s relation to Hegel has been the subject of a recent monograph by Gary Browning (Browning 2004), which argues for a strong Hegelian influence against the neo-Kantian reading of D’Oro (D’Oro 2002). The issue of Collingwood’s relationship to Kant and Hegel is complex, but important since it forces us to reflect carefully on the precise nature of Collingwood’s ‘idealism’, whether Collingwood’s idealism is, like Kant’s, a merely conceptual idealism, committed to developing a metaphysics without ontology, or whether it stands nearer to the absolute idealism of Hegel, and is thus ultimately continuous with the project of classical rationalism, as his fondness for the ontological proof has led some to suspect.


    D’Oro, Giuseppina, “Robin George Collingwood”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2006 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL =



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