Gary North – November 05, 2021
History is thus the self-knowledge of the living mind. For even when the events which the historian studies are events that happened in the distant past, the condition of their being historically known is that they should ‘vibrate in the historian’s mind’, that is to say, that the evidence for them should be here and now before him and intelligible to him. For history is not contained in books or documents; it lives only, as a present interest and pursuit, in the mind of the historian when he criticizes and interprets those documents, and by so doing relives up for himself the states of mind into which he inquires. – R. G. Collingwood (1946).
A. Covenant Model, Part 2
Part 2 of the biblical covenant model is hierarchy: God over man over nature.
Part 2 of the biblical model for social theory is authority. Authority is delegated by God. It is hierarchical.
Part 2 of the humanist covenant model is autonomy: man over nature, which includes other men. The humanist believes that the theory of cosmic evolution has eliminated the idea of the Creator God of the Bible. The humanist therefore denies three concepts: the sovereignty of God, the omniscience of God, and the providence of God. This denial creates a challenge: the humanist must make sense of the world without invoking any of these three biblical concepts. He searches for an authoritative theory of causation by which he can gain a correct understanding of the world. There are many conflicting theories of causation, but they all rest on this presupposition: the autonomy of man.B. Collingwood’s The Idea of History
1. Autonomy vs. Objective History
I began this chapter with the quotation from page 202 of The Idea of History. I am going to discuss his theory in detail because it is representative of what the epistemology of historians became no later than the mid-1930’s. He was not alone. But, because of his erudition as a philosopher, and because of his willingness to declare in print some of the most audacious conclusions of this position, readers who are interested in history should pay attention to what he wrote.
Oxford University Press published The Idea of History in 1946. The author, R. G. Collingwood, had died in 1943. This book was an edited version of the fragments that he had spent years writing in the 1930’s. He probably wrote most of it in 1935.
Collingwood was not a practicing historian. He was a philosopher. But his book gained rapid acceptance among historians. There were a few early critics, but the book eventually became a classic. It is still in print. It is still widely cited.
Collingwood’s primary thesis was this: the autonomy of the historian. He believed that the creative imagination of the individual (autonomous) historian is the basis of history. He did not say that the historian’s creative imagination is the basis of historiography: historical interpretation. That would not have been controversial. He argued something fundamentally different. He said that the creative historian literally creates history. This seems implausible to a non-historian, but his suggestion has gained support from practicing historians over the decades. He argued that the lone historian imputes meaning to the past. There is no objective past. The past is dead and gone. So, there are only subjective interpretations of the past—lots and lots of subjective interpretations. (See Chapter 9.) This is consistent with the idea of the autonomy of man.
The Christian philosophy of history rests on this presupposition: God imputes meaning to the past. This past is objective. Why? Because God has providentially sustained all of it. This past has left a record in God’s perfect memory. This objective past will be the context of God’s final judgment at the end of history. He continually judges the words and deeds of everyone, and His judgments are irrefutable. (See Chapter 4.) Man, who is made in God’s image, possesses an analogous ability (Chapter 2). This is why historical scholarship has meaning. This is also why there is a covenantal battle over historical interpretation.
In his rebellion, Adam decided to test God’s word against the serpent’s. Adam remembered what God had told him. There was nothing defective in his memory. This was why he was responsible for his actions. The serpent had offered Eve a different account of God’s words. She was deceived. Adam was not. He decided to test God’s words. He thereby asserted his autonomy from God. He had to assume the high probability that God had misinformed him about the consequences of his disobedience. This was a life-or-death assumption. He lost. So did we all. He was our covenantal representative (point 2).
Collingwood was Adam’s spiritual heir. He made the case for the historian’s autonomy. No other book on the philosophy of history is more self-conscious in its assertion of the individual historian’s autonomy. But, in making this case, Collingwood had to surrender the idea of objective history (the past) and also objective historiography (writing about the past). He also ignored the crucial issue of competing interpretations. In 334 pages, he never raised this issue. Refusing even to raise the question, he did not suggest an epistemology or a methodology for reconciling competing interpretations.
Then what good is the book? For understanding history, it is useless. For understanding historiography, it is equally useless. But for serving as evidence of the inability of humanism to answer the fundamental questions of both history and historiography, it is a primary source document of great value.
2. Historical Evidence and Its Interpretation
He talked about historical evidence. This included historical documents. He called this testimony. Documents possess no objective value. “History, so far from depending on testimony, has therefore no relation with testimony at all. Testimony is merely chronicle. So far as any one speaks of authorities or of accepting statements or the like, he is talking of chronicle and not of history. History is based on a synthesis of two things which only exist in that synthesis: evidence and criticism. Evidence is only evidence so far as it is used as evidence, that is to say, interpreted on critical principles; and principles are only principles so far as they are put into practice in the work of interpreting evidence” (p. 203).
This raises three questions. First, what are these critical principles? Second, what is the epistemological foundation of these critical principles? Third, how can the historian correctly apply these permanent critical principles (Parmenides) to pass judgment on the validity of evidence regarding historical change (Heraclitus). You might imagine that somewhere in the book, he would have dealt with these three questions, but he did not mention them.
I am not singling out Collingwood as having uniquely failed to explain what he was talking about. In fact, he is representative of the historical guild as a whole after the 1920’s. (See Chapters 9 and 10.) Part V of the book is “Epilogomena.” It is a long chapter, beginning on page 205 and ending on page 334. Here, he attempted to explain what he was talking about.
In section 2, “The field of historical thought,” he took a stand against what he and his peers referred to as positivist historiography. This approach to studying history extended back to the mid-nineteenth century. Positivists believed that, through a careful compilation of documents, and through careful research, historians can discover what had objectively taken place in the past. This is what normal people also suppose is possible. Otherwise, why study history? By the 1930’s, almost no professionally trained historian defended such a view. About the only person who held it was Arnold Toynbee, who was the greatest historian of the era—or maybe any era—in terms of volume of research and breadth of knowledge, but he was also the last.
Collingwood distinguished between outside history and inside history. Outside history has to do with documents. The outside of an event has to do with “bodies and their movements” (p. 213). Caesar crossed the Rubicon. A group of senators later assassinated Caesar. Something moved. In contrast, the inside of the event can be described only in terms of the thoughts of the actors. The historian must consider both. He is studying actions, and action is the unity of the outside and inside of the event. He said this of the historian: “. . . his main task is to think himself into this action, to discern the thought of its agent” (p. 213).
This means that the historian has to be a retroactive mind reader. Collingwood never used this phrase, but he used something similar: “mental science” (p. 224). I understand his point. God is a mind reader. He judges all of the thoughts of everyone. So, I am not dismissing Collingwood’s requirement that the historian must understand the motivations of historical actors. What I am saying is this: if you reject the concept of an omniscient God, you lose any authoritative way of ascertaining whether you have successfully gotten inside the mind of a past actor. I ask: What repeatable technique would enable you to do this? How would you judge the objective adequacy of this technique? How would you judge the adequacy of your ability to implement this technique in any specific assessment of evidence? Humanistic historians cannot answer these questions. They pretend that they can, but they cannot. They do not agree on what this technique is. One group has said that no such technique exists: postmodernists. They have blown the whistle on the entire profession, so to speak. They are not appreciated by the vast majority of practicing historians, but these historians have not written coherent responses to the postmodernists that invoke any agreed-upon theory of historical investigation and procedure that answers their criticisms. Postmodernists are radical autonomists. They have followed the logic of autonomy to its unpalatable conclusion: nobody can know anything about the meaning of the past. Other historians do not want to follow them down this path. (See Chapter 9.)
Collingwood continued: “For history, the object to be discovered is not the mirror event, but the thought expressed in it. To discover that thought is already to understand it. After the historian has ascertained the facts, there is no further process of inquiry into their causes. When he knows what happened, he already knows why it happened” (p. 214). But how does the historian discover this past thought? How does he understand it? How does he ascertain the facts? Once he does, I am sure that “there is no further process of inquiry into their causes.” But how can he attain this highly desirable situation? Collingwood never said.
He continued: “The cause of the event, for him, means the thought in the mind of the person by whose agency the event came about: and this is not something other than the event, it is inside the event itself” (pp. 214–15). Thus, he drew a conclusion: “All history is the history of thought” (p. 215). He then asked the right question. “But how does the historian discern the thoughts that he is trying to discover?” Here was his answer: “There is only one way in which it can be done: by rethinking them in his own mind” (p. 215). “The history of thought, and therefore all history, is the re-enactment of past thought in the historian’s own mind” (p. 215). In short, we are back to the historian as a mind reader.
Collingwood was a defender of autonomy for the historian. In a careful review of Collingwood’s unfinished book, Principles of History, David Boucher summarized Collingwood’s view of evidence: the historian creates it in his mind.
The starting point of history is not the evidence itself but what the historian, knowing the language, takes it to mean. He or she makes his or her own autonomous statement of the fact that the statement has been made. The historian makes the judgment saying that I read this evidence to be saying this rather than that, and it is in this respect that the historian is autonomous in relation to the evidence: ‘his evidence is always an experience of his own, an act which he has performed on his own powers and is conscious of having performed by his own powers: the aesthetic act of reading a certain text in a language he knows, and assigning to it a certain sense’ [PH, 43–44]. The evidence, then, is not found, but instead made in the mind of the historian, which interprets what the evidence says and what it means (“The Significance of R. G. Collingwood’s ‘Principles of History,’” Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 58 [April 1997],p. 315.)
3. Historical Criticism
How does the historian do this? Through criticism. Unfortunately, Collingwood never explained how this criticism works. He never presented a methodology by which criticism can be made to work. He did not explain how such a thing as objective criticism can even exist in a subjective world. Nevertheless, he invoked the word. “It is not a passive surrender to the spell of another’s mind; it is a labour of active and therefore critical thinking. The historian not only re-enacts past thought, he re-enacts it in the context of his own knowledge and therefore, in re-enacting it, criticizes it, forms his own judgment of its value, corrects whatever errors he can discern in it. This criticism of the thought whose history he traces is not something secondary to tracing the history of it. It is an indispensable condition of the historical knowledge itself” (p. 215). This is an implication of the doctrine of autonomy. The autonomous historian must use his mind to understand the thoughts of somebody decades or millennia ago. This assumes a constancy of human thought. On what basis can an evolutionist assume this? He has to assume it, but how is it that such continuity exists? The continuity of thought means that human thought does not evolve socially. But how can human thought be rendered immune to the processes of social change? In other words, how can Parmenides defend his kingdom of changeless logic against the constant assault by random historical change? Collingwood was a consistent evolutionist. He later denied in the same chapter what he had to assume in order to make sense of his position. He spelled out in detail the implications of his position.
History, then, is not, as it has so often been mis-described, a story of successive events or an account of change. Unlike the natural scientist, the historian is not concerned with events as such at all. He is only concerned with those events which are the outward expression of thoughts, and is only concerned with these in so far as they express thoughts. At bottom, he is concerned with thoughts alone; with the outward expression in events he is concerned only by the way, in so far as these reveal to him the thoughts of which he is in search (p. 217). To the historian, the activities whose history he is studying are not spectacles to be watched, but experiences to be lived through in his own mind; they are objective, or known to him, only because they are also subjective, or activities of his own (p. 218).
It is the historian himself who stands at the bar of judgement, and there reveals his own mind in its strength and weakness, its virtues and its vices (p. 219).
As I have written, all of this assumes a continuity in human nature and human thought. This is what evolutionism denies. Collingwood was consistent. He also denied it.
To regard such a positive mental science as rising above the sphere of history, and establishing the permanent and unchanging laws of human nature, is therefore possible only to a person who mistakes the transient conditions of a certain historical age for the permanent conditions of human life. It was easy for men of the eighteenth century to make this mistake, because their historical perspective was so short, and their knowledge of cultures other than their own so limited, that they could cheerfully identify the intellectual habits of a western European in their own day with the intellectual faculties bestowed by God upon Adam and all his progeny (p. 224).
Notice his contempt regarding the idea of God the Creator bestowing Adam and mankind with constant intellectual faculties, meaning constant logic. Collingwood was an evolutionist. He was in revolt against the idea of a Creator God. So were eighteenth-century Enlightenment historians. So were sixteenth-century Renaissance historians. But they accepted the idea of a fixed human nature. Collingwood did not. “The idea of a science of human nature, as entertained in the eighteenth century, belonged to a time when it was still believed that the human species, like every other, was a special creation with unalterable characteristics” (p. 224). We know better today, he assured his readers. I ask: if there is no valid science of human nature, as Collingwood insisted there is not, then what is the meaning of “positive mental science”? He never said.
Collingwood at this point had painted himself into a corner: relativism. He did not want to be in that corner. But he had a problem. He was an evolutionist. Social evolution changes people’s ideas. This raises a question: how can today’s historian accurately—objectively—understand the thoughts of people who made decisions thousands of years ago? Collingwood had to maintain the idea of the continuity of human thought in order to justify the idea of an historian whose mind has a connection with the minds of people long dead. If this connection is not viable, one generation to the next, then there can be no historical truth. He was horrified by this suggestion. So, he denied that evolutionary change applies to human thought. His argument had two parts. Here is part 1: an admission that the intellectual problem exists.
The fallacy inherent in the very idea of a science of human nature is not removed by pointing out that human nature, like every kind of nature, must according to the principles of modern thought be conceived as subject to evolution. Indeed, such a modification of the idea only leads to worse consequences. Evolution, after all, is a natural process, a process of change; and as such it abolishes one specific form in creating another. The trilobites of the Silurian age may be the ancestors of the mammals of to-day, including ourselves; but a human being is not a kind of wood-louse. The past, in a natural process, is a past superseded and dead. Now suppose the historical process of human thought were in this sense an evolutionary process. It would follow that the ways of thinking characteristic of any given historical period are ways in which people must think then, but in which others, cast at different times in a different mental mould, cannot think at all. If that were the case, there would be no such thing as truth: according to the inference correctly drawn by Herbert Spencer, what we take today for knowledge is merely the fashion of present-day thought, not true but at the most useful in our struggle for existence (p. 225).
We have now arrived at point 3 of the humanists’ concept of history: relativism. There is no truth. (See Chapter 8.) But Collingwood, without warning, reversed himself. He denied the logic of this position. This is part 2 of his argument. He said that evolution applies only to a natural process. It does not apply to historical change. The problem he faced was this: he had to show that historical change is not at least as evolutionistic as change in the biological world. To make this argument, he invoked corporate imputation. He had spent a hundred pages talking about the autonomy of the historian. But he finally admitted that the autonomous historian faces the problem of the discontinuity of thought over time. There is no way for the historian to be certain that, when he somehow gets inside the dead man’s mind, he can understand it correctly. So, Collingwood at this point abandoned the idea of the historian who imputes meaning autonomously. He needs help. “The body of human thought or mental activity is a corporate possession, and almost all the operations which our minds perform are operations which we learned to perform from others who have performed them already. Since mind is what it does, and human nature, if it is a name for anything real, is only a name for human activities, this acquisition of ability to perform determined operations is the acquisition of a determinate human nature. Thus the historical process is a process in which man creates for himself this or that kind of human nature by re-creating in his own thought the past to which he is heir” (p. 226).
In the game of poker, this procedure is described as dealing from the bottom of the deck. His invocation of corporate mental continuity down through the ages is in opposition to what he had been arguing for: an autonomous historian’s imputation of meaning to autonomous human beings in the past. I ask: How did this continuity maintain itself? How can he prove this? People change their opinions. Societies do, too. How can an autonomous historian impute accurate meaning to the past in terms of what actors in the past believed? How can he determine such meaning? In terms of social evolutionism, he cannot do this. In terms of humanist philology, there is no agreed-on theory that answers this problem.
Having made this argument of mental continuity by way of corporate instruction, he reversed himself again. He went back to his original justification of the autonomous historian. He never again raised the issue of corporate imputation, for corporate imputation is a denial of individual autonomy. (See Chapter 9.) He wrote this. (Warning: what you are about to read is incoherent.) “The historical process is itself a process of thought, and it exists only in so far as the minds which are parts of it know themselves for parts of it. By historical thinking, the mind whose self-knowledge is history not only discovers within itself those powers of which historical thought reveals the possession, but actually develops those powers from a latent to an actual state, brings them into effective existence” (p. 226). You cannot make sense of this, can you? That is because it makes no sense. Reread it. It is not going to make any more sense the second time than it did the first time.
Here is a way to spot someone who is in trouble answering a difficult question. For a time, you can follow his arguments. Then, without warning, he becomes incoherent. You can no longer follow his argument. If you try to get inside his mind, you find that his mind is jumbled. This is not because your mind is jumbled. He has failed to maintain logical coherence. This was Collingwood’s problem. His theory of history rested on the assumption of the continuity of human thought. But his theory of history did not offer cogent reasons to believe in such a concept. Humanism’s theory of autonomy undermines such a concept. Collingwood had to justify his theory of autonomous individual imputation of meaning to the past. He failed. He did not solve the problem raised by the theory of evolution. The doctrine of evolution undermines every theory of a constant human nature. Collingwood was in revolt against the concept of God-given human nature. But, to maintain his position, he invoked an unsupported theory of corporate mankind-given continuity of thought. There is such continuity, he said, because we have been taught ideas by others, who were taught ideas by others, who were taught ideas by others, all the way back to the non-objective past event, “outside and inside.” This justification of continuity is implausible. He offered no support for it. He merely asserted it. He never mentioned it again in his book.
Collingwood never finished this book. He started another, which he also did not finish. He never got his system clear in his own mind. He denied God’s granting of constancy in human logic. He did so in the name of evolution. But then, having chased God out of the universe by means of the theory of evolution, he found himself defending the autonomous historian who somehow has the ability to get inside the minds of people who have been dead for millennia. He had to assume the constancy of imputed ethical value and the constancy of imputed meaning. But he could not defend his concept of continuity in terms of his theory of autonomous individual imputation. So, he invoked collective imputation. He invoked an undefined system of consistent education down through the ages, which somehow preserves sufficient continuity of meaning for the historian to practice his “mental science.”
5. Evolving Principles of Selection
He asked a good question. “How can we ever satisfy ourselves of the principles on which we think are true, except by going on thinking according to those principles, and seeing whether unanswerable criticisms of them emerge as we work?” (p. 230). This is pragmatism. This is the philosophy of “if it works in practice, it is morally and epistemologically valid.” But then the humanist needs a theory for determining what works objectively. Collingwood did not offer such a theory.
He wanted liberty, which he defined as autonomy. He therefore did not want any trace of Parmenidean constancy in his theory of history. “History, therefore, cannot be made to square with theories according to which the object of knowledge is abstract and changeless, a logical entity toward which the mind may take up various attitudes” (p. 234). He claimed that he was offering “a Copernican revolution in the theory of history: the discovery that, so far from relying on authority other than himself, to whose statements his thought must conform, the historian is his own authority and his thought at times, self-authorizing, possessed of a criterion to which his so-called authorities must conform and by reference to which they are criticized” (p. 236).
In the next paragraph, he got to the main point of the entire book. It is the issue associated with the selection of facts and their interpretation. This issue affects every field of thought. It is the essence of the problem of knowledge. If man is not made in the image of God, yet he is still held responsible by someone or something for his thoughts and actions, this raises a question: which facts should he pay attention to at any point in his life? Here is Collingwood’s answer.
The autonomy of historical thought is seen at its simplest in the work of selection. The historian tries to work on the common-sense theory, and accurately reproduce what he finds in his authorities, resembles a landscape-painter who tries to work on that theory of art which bids the artist copy nature. He may fancy that he is reproducing in his own medium the actual shapes and colours of natural things; but however hard he tries to do this he is always selecting, simplifying schematizing, leaving out what he thinks unimportant and putting in what he regards as essential. . . . It is he, therefore, and not his authority, that is responsible for what goes on. On that question he is his own master: his thought is to that extent autonomous (pp. 236–37).
The historian autonomously creates the past. “The historian’s picture is his subject, whether that subject be a sequence of events or a past state of things, thus appears as a web of imaginative constructions stretched between certain fixed points provided by the statements of his authorities; and if these points are frequent enough and the threads spun from each to the next are constructed with due care, always by the a priori imagination and never by merely arbitrary fancy, the whole picture is constantly verified by appeal to these data, and runs little risk of losing touch with the reality which it represents” (p. 242). Notice his use of the word “if.” He based his case for the idea of history on this assumption, never explained: if has become are. I ask: “How can the historian know whether there are enough points?” There are always more. Next, how can he know whether he has connected the “threads” with “due care”? What is “due care”? Next, how can the historian distinguish between “the a priori imagination” and “arbitrary fancy”? For that matter, how can there be such a thing as an a priori imagination in a world of constant flux? The moment that somebody invokes a priori anything, he is nestled securely in the arms of Parmenides, who will squeeze him to death if he decides to change his mind about anything. In the world of humanism, when you embrace a priori, you must necessarily abandon a posteriori: the ability to assess new facts that may lead to new ideas. In short, you lose your liberty.
Collingwood, in the name of autonomy, wrote this: “The a priori imagination which does the work of historical construction supplies the means of historical criticism as well” (p. 245). I ask: how does such autonomous imagination supply the means of historical criticism? How does it criticize the means of criticism? In other words, how can the historian’s historical construction be evaluated in such a way that he can reach the truth about the past? What are the means of criticism? How does the historian get access to them? How does the historian apply them in specific situations? Are they permanent? Do they evolve? He answered none of these questions. He did not bother to ask them in the book.
At this point, his inner Heraclitus beat the stuffing out of his inner Parmenides.
It is for the same reason then in history, as in all serious matters, no achievement is final. The evidence available for solving any given problem changes with every change of historical method and with every variation in the competence of historians. The principles by which this evidence is interpreted changed too. . .” (p. 248).
. . . every new historian, not content with giving new answers to old questions, must revise the questions themselves; and—since historical thought is a river into which none can step twice—even a single historian working at a single subject for a certain length of time, finds when he tries to reopen an old question that the question has changed (p. 248).
This position produces skepticism. He did not want to be understood as advocating skepticism. So, he denied categorically the implication of what he had just written. “This is not an argument for historical skepticism. It is only the discovery of a second dimension of historical thought, the history of history: the discovery that the historian himself, together with the here-and-now which forms the total body of evidence available to him, is a part of the process he is studying, has his own place in that process, and can see it only from the point of view which at this present moment he occupies within it” (p. 248). I ask: what is this process? If it is a process, it keeps changing. But if it keeps changing, then the truth keeps changing. If the truth keeps changing, there is no truth across history. If “the process he is studying” keeps changing, this is a philosophy of skepticism. He did not show that this process does not keep changing. Here was his problem: an evolutionist is beset on all sides by historical processes that keep changing. This is the curse of Heraclitus.
What happens to historical truth? Collingwood did not say. He attempted to say it, but he did not say it coherently. “But neither the raw material of historical knowledge, the detail of the here-and-now, is given him in perception, not the various endowments that serve him as aids to interpreting this evidence, can give the historian his criterion of historical truth. That criterion is the idea of history itself: the idea of an imaginary picture of the past” (p. 248). I ask: what was his idea of history? He never got around to saying. Instead, he told us about the autonomy of historians in making judgments regarding documents that express dead people’s motivations and thoughts. He justified these creative explanations in terms of a priori principles that change. He needed to write a book on how a priori principles change.
He then wrote what he thought might be inspirational to some budding historian who took seriously his theory of history, whatever it was. This is what the young historian can look forward to. “The historian, however long and faithfully he works, can never say that his work, even in crudest outline or in this or that smallest detail, is done once for all. He can never say that his picture of the past is at any point adequate to the idea of what ought to be. But, however fragmentary and faulty the results of his work may be, the idea which governed his course is clear, rational, and universal. It is the idea of the historical imagination as a self-dependent, self-determining, and self-justifying form of thought” (p. 249). I do not regard this as an inspirational rallying cry to recruit, train, and motivate successive generations of dedicated historians.C. Van Til on Collingwood
I have gone through some of the arguments that Collingwood made in defense of the totally autonomous historian. Van Til devoted six pages to an analysis of Collingwood in Part 1 of the syllabus, Christianity in Conflict (1962).
Van Til got to the heart of the matter. Collingwood was opposed to the idea of an omniscient God who imputes meaning to his universe. He denied God’s sovereignty. “According to Collingwood the sort of philosophy of history involved in orthodox Christianity is to be called theocratic history [p. 15]. In theocratic history humanity is not an agent, but partly an instrument and partly a patient, of the actions recorded. The idea of God’s plan back of history as revealed by Christ in history through the Scriptures is said to be pure determination. Collingwood will not think of man as made in the image of God and therefore as an analogue of God” (pp. 10–11). Here was the motivation behind Collingwood’s vision of the totally autonomous historian. “For Collingwood, man’s thought, to be really his own, must be absolutely his own. Man must be his own ultimate interpreter” (p. 11). This means autonomy.
Van Til then asked a question: “What happens to the ‘objective facts of history’ on this point of view? The answer is that they gradually disappear into the subject that interprets them. That does not mean that the subject at last creates them in the sense that it produces them. But it does signify that the meaning to be attached to any objective historical fact is what it is as part of the framework that the subject projects for itself” (p. 11). What Van Til wrote about Collingwood applies to all of the humanists who have offered a philosophy of history. They attribute to the individual historian the ability to impute meaning to historical facts—facts revealed by historical evidence. But this view of imputation means that every man becomes his own historian. This creates cacophony in historiography. There is no way to bring harmony to this cacophony, given the presuppositions of humanism. (See Chapter 9.)
Here was Collingwood’s recommendation, Van Til wrote: “Collingwood thinks that the modern historian should follow Vico, the Italian philosopher of history, in holding that verurn et factum convertuntur [p. 64] The fabric of human society is created by man out of nothing, and every detail of this fabric is therefore a human factum, eminently knowable to the human mind as such [p. 65]” (p. 11). Although Van Til did not say this, Vico’s vision of the autonomy of man goes back to the Renaissance.
I have devoted this chapter entirely to Collingwood. There is a reason for this. Van Til understood this reason in 1962. “The great virtue of Collingwood’s view is that it so plainly rests itself upon the autonomy of man. When he speaks of the autonomy of the historical method he speaks, of course, in opposition to the idea that the historian should narrowly follow the method of the scientist. But more basically he is opposing the idea that the historian should be required to submit to any statement even in his own field as authoritative. The rights of the historian are infringed if he is required to take any statement at face value as being a true account of the facts that have taken place” (p. 15). The implication of this outlook can accurately be described in one word: skepticism.Conclusion
Collingwood did not finish the book. He started to write another, but he only wrote four chapters. Then he died.
The Idea of History presents one inconsistent theory after another. First, the autonomous historian needs to be able to impute meaning to past events. The past events are dead and gone. They are not objective. Collingwood’s theory implicitly assumes that there is no objective history. There is only imputed history, even five minutes after an event. It has become history. The historian needs evidence. But this evidence is not evidence until he imputes meaning to what the evidence points to. He has to be able to read the minds of the people who produced the documents. He also has to read the mind of the person described in the documents. This means that there has to be a source of epistemological continuity from the past to the present, so that he will be able to understand what the dead person was thinking. But, in a world of autonomous imputations of meaning, the existence of such epistemological continuity cannot legitimately be assumed. Also, in a world of evolutionary change, such epistemological continuity seems out of the question. So, Collingwood was forced to invoke collective judgments over time. Somebody taught the historian how to think, and somebody taught the person who taught the historian, back to the historical document. Then he dropped the argument.
Everything is in flux. This includes the principles of historical interpretation. It includes human logic. It includes individual value judgments down through the ages. There has to be continuity in the imputation of meaning, but autonomous man cannot show why this continuity exists or how he can take advantage of it in order to understand the past.
From a philosophical standpoint, Collingwood was among the best and the brightest of the authors who have offered a philosophy of history. He never offered guidelines for writing history: the selection of documents, analyzing documents, and the application of his unexplained critical theory to documents and also interpretations. He was not a practicing historian. But even if he had been, this would have done his theory no good. There have been a lot of practicing humanistic historians who have attempted to provide a philosophical justification for what they do and how they do it. They have been no more successful than he was. I hope to demonstrate this in the next two chapters.