Robin George Collingwood

First published Wed Jan 11, 2006; substantive revision Mon May 17, 2010

R. G. Collingwood (1889–1943) was a British philosopher and practising archaeologist best known for his work in aesthetics and the philosophy of history. During the 1950s and 1960s his philosophy of history in particular occupied centre stage in the debate concerning the nature of explanation in the social sciences and whether or not they are ultimately reducible to explanations in the natural sciences. Primarily through the interpretative efforts of W. H. Dray, Collingwood’s work in the philosophy of history came to be seen as providing a powerful antidote against Carl Hempel’s claim for methodological unity.

Collingwood is the author of one of the most important treatises in meta-philosophy written in the first half of the twentieth century, An Essay on Philosophical Method (1933), which is a sustained attempt to explain why philosophy is an autonomous discipline with a distinctive method and subject matter that differ from those of the natural and the exact sciences.

He is often described as one of the British Idealists, although the label fails to capture his distinctive kind of idealism, which is conceptual rather than metaphysical. In his correspondence with Gilbert Ryle, Collingwood himself explicitly rejected the label “idealist” because he did not endorse the arch-rationalist assumptions that shaped much British idealism at the end of the 19th and the early part of the 20th century and consequently did not wish to be identified with it.

From the mid-thirties onwards Collingwood’s work increasingly engaged in a dialogue with the newly emerging school of analytic philosophy. In An Essay on Metaphysics (1940) he attacked the neo-empiricist assumptions prevalent in early analytic philosophy and advocated a logical/epistemological transformation of metaphysics from a study of being or ontology to a study of the absolute presuppositions or heuristic principles which govern different forms of enquiry. Collingwood thus occupies a distinctive position in the history of British philosophy in the first half of the 20th century. He rejects equally the neo-empiricist assumptions that prevailed in early analytic philosophy and the kind of metaphysics that the analytical school sought to overthrow. His epistemological reform of metaphysics also ensures a distinctive role and subject matter for philosophical enquiry and is thus far from advocating a merely therapeutic conception of philosophy or the dissolution of philosophical into linguistic analysis in the manner of ordinary language philosophy.

See the separate entry for a discussion of Collingwood’s aesthetics.

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Coordonatrice du Centre de justice sociale de l'Université Concordia (Montréal) - Coordinator Social Justice Centre (Concordia University, Montreal)

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