Skip to content
Apr 29 / Jonathan

R G Collingwood

Andrew Brown points us to Simon Blackburn’s review in The New Republic of a new biography of R G Collingwood, quoting along the way this admiration.

“Although art as magic is not art proper, Collingwood accords it the greatest respect. He dismisses more brutally and contemptuously even than Wittgenstein the patronizing view, held by Frazer, Lévy-Bruhl, and other anthropologists of his time, that religion and magic simply amount to bad science, so that the “savage mind” is one lacking the most elementary knowledge of cause and effect. He also dismisses the ludicrous Freudian view that magic is a kind of neurosis in which the patient supposes that by wishing for a thing he can bring it about. Instead, Collingwood insists, surely correctly, that the end of magic is the raising and channeling of emotion: ‘magical activity is a kind of dynamo supplying the mechanism of practical life with the current that drives it.’ Its true purpose is not, say, to avert natural catastrophes, but to ‘produce in men an emotional state of willingness to bear them with fortitude and hope.’

“This attitude gave Collingwood an uncommon sympathy with religious ritual and practice, and a much more realistic understanding of its ongoing place in human life. He also enables us to see why the majority of people, including those like myself who have no religious attachments, are nevertheless embarrassed at the dogmatic contempt poured on religious practice by our more militant atheists. Every sane person recognizes at some level that dance, music, poetry, and ritual may be just what you need as you prepare to face a battle, or desolation, failure, grief, or death.”

Blackburn isn’t uncritical, though.

If Collingwood is as acute and interesting as I have suggested, how does it happen that he is largely a minority interest? He has his devotees, certainly; but I doubt if he is more than a ghost in the footnotes to syllabi across the Western world. The comparison to Wittgenstein might help. It is difficult to pick up a page of Wittgenstein without being seduced: whether you understand it or not, the sense is overwhelming that something of the highest importance is being addressed with a rare detachment and intelligence. With Collingwood, there is assertion and bravado instead of seduction. Wittgenstein shows that he is a wonderfully and originally reflective thinker; Collingwood cannot help telling you that he is. Wittgenstein is silent about his being capable of other things as well; Collingwood boasts of it. You can read all of Wittgenstein without knowing of his genuine heroism during World War I. One cannot help feeling that had Collingwood done anything like that, it would have cropped up on every other page. All this is off-putting, and Collingwood’s readers have to learn to shake their heads with a smile rather than toss the whole thing into the bin.

Leave a Comment