Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Position Paper #9 Robin George Collingwood


History, Something More Than Past Events

As a Historian, I do not want to define history just as ‘a study of the past’. History tells us not just what happened in the past but gives us teachings that each of Historical events implies. I do not value history like Antiquarian Historians who valued history just because it was old. Perhaps, the events of the past are not really important to me but the teachings and insights that the events imply are really precious to me. History is not just an observation on the past things but it is a science which requires precise analysis and investigation because historians should be able to profoundly look into the inside of specific historical events and not just the appearance of the events.

Robin George Collingwood is the one who thought of history as a ‘Science of human nature’. Collingwood was quite active in treating and studying history. He believed that historical events are interpreted as the expression of particular thought and mentality of culture, which are from human reason.

The philosophers like Kant and Hegel believed that the history was the work of human reason and I also partially agree with that view of history. Actually, the reason is not the most important factor that makes and moves history (It is God’s prudence) but it still takes an important role in history. The presence and development of human reason is obviously shown in historical events if we notice. I believe that the human society has been developing in accordance with development of human reason. No development of human reason means no development in society at all. For that reason, Collingwood tried to study about human mind, or reason, the cognitive part of mind.

The concept of Collingwood, which considers history as a science, is quite different from Scientism of philosophers of Enlightenment. He did not see history and reality of human reason as fixed. I believe that he thought of history as a science because studying history requires precise analysis and carful investigation and not based on the belief that history can be interpreted and analyzed as it is put into some formulas and rules.

I agree with the view of Collingwood on history. His view elevates the value of history by emphasizing the fact that history is not just past events, but there is something more behind them of which our studies should be focused on. And he believed that we can obtain real and accurate understanding about Physical world through this natural science. I quote: “the principles and methods of natural science had been lately perfected and were being triumphantly applied to the investigation of the physical world.” (Collingwood, 1946)

I strongly argue that a Historian should be able to point out the rational activity of human reason which makes certain phenomenon occurs. We should not be satisfied by just getting information about the event itself. We must go deeper and draw the real factor behind external appearance which caused an event. What made it happen? What did this event imply? This is the worth of History. Some say that history is boring and somehow passive. However, we see in Collingwood’s theory how much we should be active in studying history and that history is the study which requires high intellectual level. If the history is just about past events, we have nothing to do but to memorize them in their chronological order. However, the virtue of history makes me proud to be a historian. This is what is really exciting and interesting about history. History is quite a fundamental study that carefully and precisely looks into human reason and rational activity and cause, which crucially affect every event in the world of humans.

Therefore, I believe that Collingwood has made a great contribution on philosophy of history by pointing out the true value of history and giving us a clear direction so that we can know where to focus on in studying history.


A Priori Imagination, Walking in History

The history of thought, and therefore all history, is the re-enactment of past
thought in the historian's own mind.

-Robin George Collingwood (1946)

However, the problem is how we will be able to draw hidden insights and teachings behind the events. Actually, most of historical records are not presenting the state of human reason and how it works behind the story but it only shows what exactly happened during a certain period. This is a great obstacle for historians to analyze and interpret the historical events by means of investigating rational aspect of human being.

Collingwood was aware of this problem and proposed the solution to it. The solution is the use of “a Priori Imagination’. It helps us to profoundly look into the historical events and gives us understanding and analysis about inside of the events. A priori imagination is reenacting the past events using our own imagination and rational ability to assume what the situation must be like and what the state of mind of historical character must be like in accordance with historical context. In other words, a priori imagination simply refers to putting one’s self into a certain historical events and being a character in the events. Collingwood gave an example of a priori imagination. By being Caesar before he went across the Rubicon we may as well be able to understand what was in his mind, which was what caused the events after he went across the Rubicon. We cannot exactly know what Caesar was thinking about at that time but the historical context and our rational ability can at least assume what Caesar could have thought. This is a great help for us to have better understanding about the events made by Caesar.

Likewise, a priori imagination requires a high level of rational ability and precise analysis about historical context, which is the situation of society at that time. We should not use a priori imagination thoughtlessly and blindly. It is not an easy thing.

A historian’s a priori imagination should fit with historical context of the events. I quote: The historian not only re-enacts past thought, he re-enacts it in the context of his own knowledge. (Collingwood, 1946)

I stated above that Collingwood was quite an active Historian. He suggested to us to go into history and meet the reality of history rather than being an armchair of historians who makes large scales of schematization with no reality and no real practice. I quite agree with his attitude in studying history. I believe that historians ought to throw away passive attitude in studying history. We have to stop looking at history in a third person’s view. Rather, we must be a part of history. We must depart from our desks and go into history and walk into it. I strongly believe that this active attitude will bring great understanding and analysis of history.


Kant, I. (1824). The idea of a universal history on a cosmopolitical plan. (De Quincey,
T., Trans.). In London Magazine. (Originally published in 1784).

Hegel, G.W.F. (2001). The philosophy of history (J. Sibree, Trans.). Kitchener, Ontario:
Batoche Books.

Collingwood, R. G. (1946). The idea of history. Oxford: Oxford University Press, Pp.
205-334 .

Nietzsche, F. (2007). On the use and abuse of history for life (I. C. Johnston, Trans.).
(Originally published in 1873). Retrieved March 27, 2008, from

Marie Hughes Warrington (2009). 50 Key Thinker on History New York: Routlege

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