Day By Day

Monday, April 12, 2010

Collingwood and the Study of History

The New Republic features a viciously snarky piece by Simon Blackburn on R. G. Collingwood, one of the greatest philosophers of history. Blackburn clearly does not like Collingwood or his class, but has to recognize his great contributions to the way in which professionals think about history.

As a young man I was greatly impressed by two of Collingwood's precepts -- that past figures must be understood on their own terms, not on ours; and that individuals are embedded in and a product of their times [the technical term for this perspective is "historicism"]. As Blackburn points out, Collingwood's understanding of the historical enterprise stands in opposition to the poisonous “moral hypochondria and sanctimonious recrimination” that characterizes so much of today's popular historiography [the technical term for this perspective, that imposes today's values on the past, is "presentism"] as well as to the reductionist practice of "social science" history. It is as a corrective to the blatant misuse of history that characterizes our present discourse that Collingwood should be read and treasured. The best place to start is with his great work -- The Idea of History. At least, that's where I started lo those many, many years ago.

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