Book of the week: History Man: The Life of R. G. Collingwood

Philip Smallwood says this great philosopher's story is long overdue

September 3, 2009

It is a strange fact that until the recent appearance of History Man: The Life of R. G. Collingwood, the world had no "life" of the greatest philosopher of history writing in English, nor England's leading 20th-century philosopher of art, and no apparent attempt at one.

One reason for this absence, until nearly 70 years after Collingwood's death aged 53, may be sought in the prophylactic success of his autobiography. Collingwood's account of a sometimes frenetic and intellectually isolated life, conceived as a life of thought, is powerful and readable. But it is selective to the point where the work offers no freedom to enter the philosopher's private world and to spotlight all that the modern reader has learned to expect of a biographical treatment. No doubt much can be reconstructed from published and manuscript sources. But we have needed a biography of Collingwood to synthesise, and dramatise, this material as a connected narrative, and in the way of biography, to point a moral and adorn a tale. In the present context, where Collingwood is largely the intellectual property of philosophy, Fred Inglis' biography is a courageous act of cultural and intellectual re-contextualisation that should be applauded. From the writer of previous intellectual "lives", it is also a labour of love in the best sense.

His narrative of Collingwood's life aspires to give "the form of his thought as manifested in the shape of his life". He begins with a journey into the world of English Romanticism and its roots in Lake District cultural life in the middle and later part of the 19th century. Collingwood's mother was a pianist and painter, and his father, the painter and novelist W.G. Collingwood, was friend and secretary to John Ruskin. The family lived near Brantwood on Coniston Water, and Inglis paints an appealing picture of the rich, practical, artistic life enjoyed by the exceptionally talented boy and his three sisters.

Inglis is a colourful historian of place in its time, and eloquently evokes the living particularity of a past milieu. Chapter two, "Brought up by Hand", its title turned from Dickens, captures Collingwood's Victorian origins as these shaped his later experience as a schoolboy at Rugby. The quintessential Englishness of this combination of high moral purpose with praxis, family, teaching, preaching, art and handiwork defines the unique contribution made by a strand of Victorian English middle-classness to intellectual life. The sense of a cultural hinterland Inglis again reclaims in chapter three on Oxford and Collingwood's wartime work at the Admiralty. The localism of his vision and its authority through practice emerges in the succeeding chapter on Collingwood's archaeological digs; its cosmopolitanism in the recounting of his continental friendships and the late recuperative voyage to the East.

Individual works are appraised en route: Religion and Philosophy (1916), An Essay on Philosophical Method (1933) and The Principles of Art (1938), which Inglis calls Collingwood's "most consummate work".

Compared with recent impoverishments, something of the romanticism that Collingwood's academic milieu inspires is retained in Inglis' expositional texture. While exuberant in many pleasing formulations and rich in "biographer's relish", this can seem just a bit over-tinted, and one is driven shamefacedly to wish for a little less imagining out. That said, the prose moves with fluid ease, and the book is intensely readable, with much to reward non-philosophers and non-Collingwoodians interested in the educational, social and political history of the era. This is not a book for the more rigid disciplinarians. Nor is it overburdened with an excess of notes or showy apparatus.

Inglis broaches the delicate matter of his own lack of success, encountered while researching the life, in gaining access to a stock of Collingwood's private letters, and reflects on the protectiveness of descendent families of eminent figures. The preserving of an image unpolluted by the "smell of mortality", Inglis is inclined to see as operative in the Collingwood case, although other motives for guarding private correspondence might come to mind. But if this material goes untapped in the volume, which is otherwise wide in its reference, Inglis (rightly in my view) refuses to be impeded, and does everything possible to compensate with the gusto of his exposition, and in his evident affection for the flawed but undoubted genius of the Collingwood who arises from the available remains.

The distinction of Inglis' volume is the moral generalisability of its vision: that of the writer in the man and of the man in the writer. For Inglis, unashamedly, Collingwood is a hero, and he writes suggestively about the inescapable tragedy of the writing life declining in the 1930s with the darkening political shadow over Europe. In this, he points out the poignant ratio of all that Collingwood could have said, had his short and intense life of thought been longer, to all that he did say. This perspective brings Collingwood into an implicit relationship with another great humanist and polymath, known to us both by his writings and his way of life, and by the greatest biography in English, Samuel Johnson. The story of Collingwood's life is the story of a life of thought, but its arc of accomplishment includes the struggle to practise philosophy with compositional flair as "a branch of literature". Even as his illness took charge, he did not go gently into that good night.

The impulse in the creative self that craves life, and is destructive of the self's own means of creation, can be felt in every turn of the later work - in the fierceness of An Autobiography or the bleak theoretical re-enactment of Hobbes. In the process, Collingwood produced some of the most pungent, expressive, intelligent, "poetical" prose in the English language. Inglis' sensitivity to the writerly qualities of Collingwood and the tonal range of his work, from the plainness of his classic study of Roman Britain to the abundant imagery elsewhere, with throughout the cool courtesy or animated satirical wit in the best traditions of 1920s and 1930s English hauteur, helps greatly to democratise his subject's appeal. Inglis locates an English voice able to find the ear of intelligent audiences beyond aficionados of metaphysics as a historical science.

Even without the helping hand of a professor of cultural studies, who is kind enough to include this reviewer's name in his copious acknowledgements, Collingwood once enjoyed a wider influence within the spectrum of the humanities than that which is now his lot. Inglis' final chapter especially addresses Collingwood's intellectual legacy within the disciplines of philosophy and social studies.

More could be said, at this juncture, of Collingwood's ramification of other disciplines, for as recently as the 1960s he was a common point of reference for literary critics. Among such critics are F.R. Leavis who, in a remark bracketing the philosopher with Lawrence and Blake, called Collingwood the "true creative mind". That good influence has often since been eclipsed by the dazzle of a continental "revolution", but this biography offers a route to the discovery of continuities, and with a new rotation of the wheel, a re-enactment of intellectual history "locked up in the future", as Inglis would say.

The Author

Fred Inglis, emeritus professor of cultural studies at the University of Sheffield, describes himself as a "loopy old Lefty". A member of the Fabian Society, Inglis was defeated four times as a Labour candidate. Political leanings run in the family; Inglis' grandfather refused a CBE, saying he'd "rather have a clay pipe".

Inglis began his academic career at the University of Southampton and has held posts at the University of Warwick, Princeton University and the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study. He was awarded his two doctorates while at the University of Bristol.

He remains proud of a rugby Blue at Cambridge, his friendship with fellow academic Richard Hoggart and tea once with Julie Christie.

His next publication will be A Short History of Celebrity, which he describes as "a mixture of scorn and rapture".

History Man: The Life of R. G. Collingwood

By Fred Inglis

Princeton University Press 400pp, £.95

ISBN 9780691130149

Published 15 July 2009

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