Sunday, March 28, 2010

R. G. Collingwood, is he still worth reading?

            In the current issue of the London Review of Books is a review of History Man: The Life of R.G. Collingwood by Fred Inglis.  The review was written by Mary Beard and entitled "No More Scissors and Paste."  It is not available on line.

I'll quote a bit from it and comment below: 

            "For all the engaging enthusiasm of the book, two important questions about Collingwood’s achievements and his academic profile remain only half convincingly answered. First, how important is The Idea of History, the posthumous book which remains his most famous work? Second, what was the connection, if any, between the two academic sides of his career, the Romano-British archaeology and the philosophy? What, in other words, does the Roman Inscriptions of Britain have to do with The Idea of History, let alone the Essay on Metaphysics?
            "The Idea of History has had some very distinguished supporters. By his own account, it was the book that inspired Quentin Skinner at the start of his own historical career – and Skinner of course went on to give his own distinctive spin to Collingwood’s slogan about all history being a ‘history of the mind’. And, if only in the absence of much competition (it is a classic, as Collini has observed, ‘in a field not over-supplied with classics written in English’), it used to be the theoretical standby of undergraduates reading history at university, or of sixth-formers wanting to do so. It still appears on general bibliographies and is warmly recommended to their pupils by ambitious schoolteachers (though when, a few years ago, I asked a group of about 50 third-year students studying history in Cambridge whether any of them had read it, not a single one put up their hand). . . ."
             "Rereading The Idea of History after some 30 years or so, I found myself less impressed than I had been as a student, or at least more counter-suggestible. His image of the mindless, unquestioning narration of ‘scissors and paste’ history, and of generations of historians being content merely to stick one source after another, now seems very largely a self-serving myth. It did not require the birth of narratology or the return to fashion of ‘grand narrative’, to realise that historical narration is always selective and always posing questions about the evidence. No history – not even the most austere chronicle – has ever been as unquestioning as Collingwood paints his imaginary methodological enemy. . . ."
            COMMENT:  Beard implies that Collingwood's work on History and hermeneutics was hardly worth doing, that he wasted time stating the obvious or attacking straw men.  I have a very different opinion from having read Collingwood.   If he spent time stating the obvious, why is it that previous works of history, say prior to 1895 have the very flaws that Collingwood described -- a mere stating of facts without drawing us into the events of the time?   I once spent quite a lot of time reading works of history about the Middle Ages.  I don't recall if Norman F. Cantor was a fan of Collingwood, but in his Inventing the Middle Ages, he demonstrates that works of history written prior to about 1895 are no longer worth reading.  Historians prior to that time didn't know who to write them.   So if Collingwood was stating the obvious, it wasn't obvious to historians who wrote prior to 1895.
            Mary Beard is certainly qualified to write about history -- at least about certain segments of it.  She is "a fellow of Newnham College, Cambridge and classics editor of the TLS. Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town won the Wolfson History Prize for 2008."  On the other hand we know something else about this particular historian: (The following is from Wikipedia)  "Shortly after the 11 September 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center, Beard was one of several authors invited to contribute articles on the topic to the London Review of Books. She opined that many people, once "the shock had faded", thought 'the United States had it coming', and that '[w]orld bullies, even if their heart is in the right place, will in the end pay the price' (the so-called 'Roosting Chickens argument'). In a November 2007 interview, she stated that the hostility these comments provoked had still not subsided, although she believed it had become a standard viewpoint that terrorism was associated with American foreign policy. '
            That Beard was wrong about 9/11, and I sincerely believe that she was, doesn't necessarily mean that she is wrong about Collingwood, but I believe she was wrong about him as well -- at least insofar as works of history written about the Middle Ages.  Perhaps historians who wrote prior to 1895 about Pompeii were more perceptive.  I wonder how much Mary Beard has read by or about Collingwood besides The Idea of History and this biography by Inglis; which she finds too adulatory.
            As to the subject question,  Mary Beard believes that Collingwood is dated.  I on the other hand share the opinion of Inglis, Skinner, Collini and others that he is still worth reading.

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