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Vol. XIII • 1991

The Meaning of History:

A Rejoinder to R. G. Collingwood

Ellen Myers

The following Bible passage sums up the meaning of history according to the biblical Christian perspective:

God, who made the world and everything in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth ... gives to all life, breath, and all things. And He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their preappointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings, so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and have our being ...

... we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, something shaped by art and man's devising. Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent, because He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained. He has given assurance of this to all by raising Him from the dead.

(Acts 17:24-31)

This passage shows the purpose and linear course of history from creation to final judgment,

Historians reasoning apart from the biblical creation perspective must either substitute other alleged meanings for history or deny that history has any meaning at all. One such was the British philosopher and historian R. G. Collingwood (d. 1943). We will analyze his best-known, posthumously published work The Idea of History (hereafter referred to as IH)1 from the biblical creation perspective.

Collingwood, who taught philosophy at Oxford University and whose work is still used at colleges today, was a thoroughgoing evolutionist of the idealist rather than materialist-positivist variety. According to T. M. Knox, his editor and friend, he believed and taught that

we must not treat pleasure, utility, and moral goodness as mere specifications of goodness, existing side by side (like the biological species of pre-evolutionary biology) since a simultaneous creation; we must discover their genetic interconnexion and exhibit them as stages in the process through which the conception of goodness has developed.

Being an evolutionist, Collingwood could not help but be a historical relativist. He thought that there is no point is asking whether any historian is right or wrong since historians are compelled to write as they do by the circumstances of the periods in which they live. In his 1928 pamphlet Faith and Reason Collingwood still ascribed truth value to rational faith and presuppositions, which he held to be necessary to all human thought. In his 1940 Essay on Metaphysics, however, he relegated rational faith and presuppositions to historical conditioning as well, thereby making historical relativism his highest principle of philosophy.

Collingwood saw the historian's own present thought and "experience" of historical facts as that which gives meaning to history and even remodels human nature. For him "the historical process is a process in which man creates for himself this or that kind of human nature by recreating in his own thought the past to which he is heir" (IH, p. 226), Thus for Collingwood man, not God, is man's maker by means of "recreating" history in his own mind. The historian in particular assumes God-like power.

The traditional historian trained to investigate what actually happened in the past, and to report what he finds as accurately and faithfully as possible, may begin to have misgivings as he wonders how he is to" recreate the past for himself in his own thought." Should he not include as many factual details as possible to make his "recreation" as true as possible, as much history proper as possible rather than fiction? Collingwood's treatment of this problem would little reassure him, for Collingwood believed that "'what really happened' is only 'what the evidence obliges us to believe'" (IH, pp. 154, 204). This reductionist definition allows each historian to decide for himself what evidence he will accept as compelling on the grounds of his own presuppositions; and these, Collingwood said after 1940, are due to historical conditioning. Collingwood himself, after all a product of evolutionist thought as formulated by Darwin and Bergson, "recreated" Christian historical thought with tacit rejection of Christ's resurrection, as we shall see.

A large part of The idea of History consists of Collingwood's critiques of Western historical thought from Herodotus to Croce. According to Collingwood, Herodotus and Thucydides were the first who created "scientific history" by relying upon evidence rather than being mere "writers-down of current stories" (IH, p.19). However, since the "scientific history" of Herodotus and Thucydides could only use the memories of living eyewitnesses, it was limited to the recent past.

In the Hellenistic period following the conquests of Alexander the Great, the scope of history writing expanded geographically and with regard to the availability and use of sources. According to Collingwood, Roman historiography became a way of preserving continuity of society, "a history in which the hero of the story is the continuing and corporate spirit of a people and in which the plot of the story is the unification of the world under that people's leadership" (IH, p.34). In the biblical Christian perspective, on the other hand, Israel's rise and fall typifies the rise and fall of all other nations and civilizations both before and after Israel. As the incomparable Christian thinker Johann Georg Hamann (1730-1788) put it, the entire history of the Jewish people seems, according to the parable of their ceremonial law, to be a living, spirit- and heart-awakening elementary text of all historical literature ... a permanent, progressive leading toward the year of the Jubilee and the governmental plan of the divine regime for the whole creation from its beginning up till its exit, and the prophetic puzzle of a theocracy is mirrored in the pieces of this smashed vessel... For yesterday the dew from the Lord was only on Gideon's fleece, and all the ground was dry; today the dew is on all the ground, and only the fleece is dry (Judges 6:36-40).2

Here Hamann sees the famous story of Gideon's fleece as a parable or type of Jewish history related to world history. Large Western nations often understood themselves as fulfilling special divine missions in history or meant to influence the whole world. Examples are England under Queen Victoria, or the United States at the zenith of "manifest destiny" thought in the mid-nineteenth century, and again after World Wars I and II when America saw itself as the champion of "democracy" in the world. In Russia there was the perennial idea of Moscow as the "Third Rome" or last remaining bastion of true Christianity in the world after Western Christendom's alleged apostasy and the fall of Constantinople to the Turks, Nazism, attempting to implement Darwinism by enforcing "racial purity" through genocide, considered itself the arm of world destiny; as a popular Nazi song put it, "We shall march on/Even if everything is smashed/For today we own Germany/Tomorrow the whole world." Regardless of "perestroika" and "glasnost" Communism continues to see itself destined to conquer the world. Global unification and one-world rule through the United Nations as the ultimate fulfillment of history guided by "forces" or "spirits" is the goal of today's New Age movement. Though Collingwood did not live to see this latest development, his own idealist evolutionism with its emphasis upon "mind" or "spirit" as the inherent determining force of history anticipated this movement and may even be understood as one of its earlier manifestations.

Greco-Roman historiography partook of what Collingwood sharply castigated as its "substantialism." By this term he meant the Platonic concept of unchanging "substances" or "ideas" beneath the visible and changing phenomena, such as the idea of an unchanging human nature, From the biblical creation perspective this concept is not altogether false, for man was created fixedly and uniquely by God's direct action in God's own image and likeness (Genesis 1:26-28), and man, though now fallen and only brokenly and distortedly reflecting God's image and likeness, is still man and not in the process of becoming something other than man. God also created all other living creatures to reproduce after their (fixed) kinds, Collingwood denied the existence of any "substances" on the ground that they are not historical and lead to historical skepticism and "defeatism about historical accuracy and an unconscientiousness in the historical mind as such" (IH, p.45). However, his own view of history may also lead to this result. This is already evident in his own next chapter dealing with the influence of Christianity upon the idea and writing of history. Here is how he summed up the essential Christian teaching about history: According to Christian doctrine, it is inevitable that man should act in the dark. That inability ... is .., regarded as ... a permanent element in human nature, arising out of ... original sin ... the wisdom displayed in (man's) action is not his, it is the wisdom of God, by whose grace man's desires are directed to worthy ends. Thus the plans which are realized by human action ... come about... because men, doing from time to time what at the moment they wanted to do, have executed the purposes of God, ...

The metaphysical doctrine of substance in Greco-Roman philosophy was challenged by the Christian doctrine of creation. According to this doctrine nothing is eternal except God, and all else has been created by God ...

... the historical process is the working out not of man's purposes but of God's. ... In one sense man is the agent throughout history, for everything that happens in history happens by his will; in another sense God is the sole agent, for it is only by the working of God's providence that the operation of man's will at any given moment leads to this result, and not to a different one. ...

This was a profound revolution in historical thinking; it means that the process of historical change ... (entailed) a real creation and a real destruction. It is the application to history of the Christian conception of God as no mere workman fashioning the world out of a pre-existing matter but as a creator, calling it into existence out of nothing. (IH, pp. 46,47, 48,49)

This description is correct and praiseworthy in its recognition of the Christian-biblical view of God's absolute sovereignty and providence in history, and of the crucial importance of biblical creation ex nihilo for Christian historiography. Nevertheless it is fatally flawed.

First, from the biblical Christian perspective we must take sharp exception to Collingwood's deficient view of man's sinfulness as "acting in the dark." Conscious rebellion and disobedience of man against God are the essence of sin, not mere lack of wisdom or knowledge. Second, Collingwood omits altogether from his summary of basic Christian historical thought God's entrance into human history in Christ incarnate, crucified and resurrected. For Christians this is the turning point of all history. At this crucial point Collingwood betrays his profession as a historian. As a historian he was required at this juncture to acknowledge the fact that "God manifest in the flesh" (I Timothy 3:16) in Christ is the key belief of historical, orthodox Christianity. He should also have pointed out that the Christian faith stakes its all upon the resurrection of Christ as a real historical event; "And if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; you are yet in your sins" (I Corinthians 15:17). God's active presence in history is also affirmed in the historical creeds of Christendom. Collingwood's silence about all this is professionally unethical and proclaims his rejection of Christ louder than words. Here Collingwood also failed as a philosopher to come to grips with the relationship between the absolute, unchanging eternal and the temporal. In The Idea of History he repeatedly declared that the eternal and unchanging is irrelevant to history or implicitly non-existent, a mere postulate of man's mind which historians should disregard. Yet if it is really true that, as orthodox Christianity proclaims, God, the Absolute, Eternal and Unchanging in Person, entered human history by His incarnation in Christ, then that postulate is fact, precisely historical fact. In the incarnation God reconciled these two philosophical poles of dichotomy, the eternal and the temporal, by "tak(ing) the manhood into God, not by confusion of Substance, but by unity of Person" (Athanasian Creed). Yet more: since Christ by the Holy Spirit indwells His people. He the Eternal still walks the earth today in them, that is, the Church His body (2 Cor. 5:17; John 14:16-18, 17:22-23, 26; Gal. 2:20; I Tim. 3:16; I John 3:1-3, 4:17, etc.). To this magnificent, liberating answer biblical Christianity gives to the problem of the relationship between the eternal and the temporal Collingwood chose to remain blind, deaf and mute.

Collingwood did acknowledge the importance of the historical life of Christ on earth, or at least the Church's belief in it, when he mentioned in passing the adoption of a single universal chronology dating all historical events forward and backward from the birth of Christ in the seventh and eighth centuries A.D. This was, he says, because "Any history written on Christian principles will be of necessity universal, providential, apocalyptic, and periodized" (IH, p. 49), Collingwood disliked the eschatological aspect of Christian historiography because "Eschatology is always an intrusive element in history. ... whenever historians claim to be able to determine the future in advance ... something has gone wrong with their fundamental conception of history" (IH, p. 54). Thus he again tacitly dismissed the manifestation of God in history including Christ's coming again at the end of this age.

Collingwood correctly stated that skepticism and the systematic critique of historical evidences began with the rise of the Renaissance when historians were "learning to treat their authorities in a thoroughly critical spirit" (IH, p. 62). After briefly discussing the anti-Cartesian work of Vico, he turned to the thought of Locke and Hume. He believed that Locke's thought was "positively, a contribution towards a reorientation of philosophy in the direction of history" (IH, p, 72). This was so, he thought, because Locke denied the concept of innate ideas of knowledge and saw all knowledge as based upon experience.3 Hume defended historical thought and knowledge because history is more than a system of reasonable beliefs, relying as it does upon evidence independent of the would-be knower himself.

Hume and his contemporary Voltaire initiated the Enlightenment school of historiography. Collingwood rejected its tendency to ascribe all historical developments to environmental causes "not otherwise than the life of plants" and its view of human nature as "one single and unchangeable thing" (IH, p. 79). We share from the biblical Christian perspective Collingwood's disgust with the Enlightenment's positivism and scientism. We can also agree with him about the error of ascribing all historical events to environmental causes, but must point out that he himself is also guilty of that error. The only difference between him and the Enlightenment materialists is that for him the determining circumstances are not "natural" or "material," but somehow spiritual or of the mind.

Once again we must take exception to his repeated rejection of the concept of human nature as constant and fixed. Collingwood, like all evolutionists a process philosopher, claimed that a genuine history of man would have to be a history of how man came to be what he is, and this would imply thinking of human nature ... as the product of an historical process, whereas it was regarded (by the Enlightenment thinkers) as the unchanging presupposition of any such process, (IH, p. 85) For Christians whose faith is based on Scripture, man's true history begins by his creation by God in God's own image and likeness, and man is not "the product of an historical process." On this point, much as they would have been loath to admit it, the Enlighteners still shared a view of man based upon Christian presuppositions.

Collingwood also disliked the Enlightenment's utopianism. He ascribed it to their belief in unchanging human nature:

For if human nature itself undergoes no change when we come to understand it better, every new discovery we make about it will solve the problems which now perplex us because of our ignorance, and no new problems will be created. ... human life will consequently become better and better, happier and happier. (IH, p. 85)

What Collingwood overlooked is that for the Enlightenment thinkers human nature was first of all inherently good. Like Collingwood himself they had no biblical concept of sin but saw it as mere lack of wisdom or knowledge. Not their belief in the fixity of human nature but rather their rejection of the biblical view of man as a fallen sinner in need of repentance and submission to God his Creator condemns their rosy view of the future as Utopian and futile. The Christian view of the impossibility of a man-made Utopia in history has been well stated by C. S. Lewis:

What Satan put into the heads of our remote ancestors was the idea that they could "be like gods"--could set up on their own as if they had created themselves--be their own masters--invent some sort of happiness for themselves outside God, apart from God. ...

The reason why it can never succeed is this. God made us: invented us as a man invents an engine. A car is made to run on gasoline, and it would not run properly on anything else. Now God designed the human machine to run on Himself. He Himself is the fuel our spirits were designed to burn, or the food our spirits were designed to feed on. There is no other. ...

That is the key to history. Terrific energy is expended-- civilizations are built up--excellent institutions devised; but each time something goes wrong. ... In fact, the machine conks. ... They are trying to run it on the wrong juice.4

Consistent with his evolutionist process philosophy Collingwood believed that history is in principle endless because man will recreate or reshape his nature forever:

The truth is that if the human mind comes to understand itself better, it thereby comes to operate in new and different ways.... and these new ways of acting would give rise to new moral and social and political problems, and the millennium would be as far as ever. (IH, p. 85)

Collingwood did not seem to be aware of the hopeless pessimism of his view. What he was saying is that as man goes on "recreating" his nature he goes on forever creating new problems for himself as well. The deepest horror of all evolutionist, monist process thought is precisely that it never "solves" any problem absolutely. It can only "recycle" the same old mixture of corruption, troubles and illusions. This is why history turns out to be, for the man who rejects the God and Creator of the Bible Who rules history, "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." In addition, if Collingwood's claim about man's "better understood" mind to always operate in new and different ways with new and different social and moral problems were true, the historical record would not even have pragmatic or didactic value or meaning. The study of history would be reduced to a solipsist pursuit within the mind of each individual historian.

Collingwood was careful to counterbalance this tendency toward solipsism in his philosophy of history when he admonished historians to look at past historical periods "sympathetically and find in them the expression of genuine and valuable human achievements" (IH, p. 87), However, on his own premises the standard of what shall count as "genuine" or "valuable" can only be the standard of an individual historian's taste as determined by the historical period in which he lives. No admonitions to historians are possible from this premise.

One aspect of Collingwood's philosophy which requires special rebuttal from the biblical Christian perspective is his rejection of the realist theory of knowledge. This theory holds that "what mind knows is something other than itself, and that mind in itself, the activity of knowing, is immediate experience and therefore unknowable" (IH, p, 142). This formulation comes from Samuel Alexander's book Space, Time and Deity (London, 1920). The great Christian thinker C. S. Lewis accepted it immediately when he became acquainted with it and called it an important step on his own road from philosophical idealism to Christ,5 The important part of Alexander's formulation with regard to Collingwood's thought is the first, namely, that "what mind knows is something other than itself." This is also the view of biblical Christianity, and it is the common sense view we apply moment by moment as we go about our daily lives when we see, handle and think about the objects around us. They certainly look real and separate from ourselves, and they are "there" whether we notice them or not. To put it in the words of a favorite philosophical riddle, if a tree in a forest happens to fall but no one is there to hear it, is there "really" a noise? For biblical Christianity and philosophical realists, there is a noise regardless of whether someone is there to hear it. Creation ex nihilo by God, attested by God in His Word, substantiates reality as really "there" independent of our knowledge, observation and experience.

Collingwood argued that everything, and certainly all history. Is included in the concept of "experience" and takes place in the present in the mind of the historian or "knower." This is how he put it in his favorable review of the work of British historian Michael Oakeshott:

(For Oakeshott) the real is no longer divided into that which "knows" but cannot be known ... and that which is "known" but cannot know. Mind's right to know itself is reestablished.

The question now arises: what is the difference between such forms of thought as history and science? Each is an attempt to envisage reality (that is, experience) from a particular point of view... History is the way in which we conceive the world sub specie praeteritorum; its differentia is the attempt to organize the whole world of experience in the shape of past events....

The paradoxical result is that the historical past is not past at all; it is present. ,., (IH, pp. 152, 154)

Note, first, that Collingwood casually slips in by way of parenthesis the equation of reality with "experience." Now "reality," according to a standard American college dictionary, is in its widest meaning "the totality of all things possessing actuality, existence, or essence." The same dictionary defines "experience" as "the apprehension of, or participation in, an object, thought, emotion or event through the senses or the mind." To restate it more briefly, for most people, at least in the West today, "reality" is "all there is" while "experience" is "the apprehension of or participation in what there is." Therefore for most people in the West today "reality" and "experience" are not the same; "reality" comes first, and "experience" depends upon it to exist, not the other way around. This of course is a corollary of the realist theory of knowledge.

For Far Eastern (Hinduist, Buddhist, Taoist) thought, and increasingly for post-Christian "New Age" thought in the West as well, however, "reality" may not "really" exist but is an illusion made up by each thinker. For Far Eastern and "New Age" thinkers, then, "experience" must become and is also largely an illusion within the mind. Having rejected the transcendent, personal. Triune God of the Bible, they postulate that to begin with and fundamentally all is one. Then, as a sort of cosmic sickness, the one is divided within itself so that seemingly other, separate entities emanate from it. "Reality" and "experience" coincide, of if there be a difference between them, it is "experience" which gives rise to "reality" and not vice versa, The goal for everything, then, is to return and reunite with the source, the original one. Then the next cycle of division and reunion of the Cosmic One runs its course, and so on forever. When the West turned away from the transcendent, personal, sovereign God and Creator of the Bible, most decisively with Darwinian evolutionism in the nineteenth century, it opened the way for its relapse into that ancient monistic, cyclical pantheism it had escaped under the influence of biblical Christianity. It thereby condemned itself to uncertainty, skepticism, and ultimately hopeless indifference about reality, experience, knowledge and meaning. Collingwood's monistic evolutionist-idealist process philosophy of history is an example of this descent.

In later parts of The Idea of History Collingwood became more and more explicit in expressing his concept of "reality" as equal to "experience." While slipping in this equation by way of parenthesis while discussing Oakeshott, he later explicitly attacked Arnold Toynbee for viewing history as a "spectacle" consisting of discrete historical facts. Instead, Collingwood asserted, "the historical fact ... is always a process in which something is changing into something else. This element of process is the life of history" (IH, p. 163). This process view of history is completely contrary to the biblical creation perspective which sees the history of nations and individuals as moment by moment decision making about their actions under God, in submission or rejection of Him as the case may be. Adam and Eve did not "change into something else" by a "process." Eve decided to partake of the fruit as did Adam when she gave it to him. Their decision of conscious disobedience to God constituted their fall and mankind's original sin. They had been sinless and innocent the moment before, they were fallen sinners the moment they disobeyed God, and they were human beings before and after. Finally,from the biblical creation perspective man, though a fallen sinner, may reverse course thanks to God's grace, repent and be restored to his originally created likeness and image of God. For the evolutionist, alas, man's course is irreversible because he has no personal God above this present world to turn to for help and care. In the biblical view moment by moment decisions and acts are uniquely and supremely important and meaningful as for or against God. In the evolutionist view the meaning of "discrete data" is tenuous if not altogether absent, a fatal blow especially to historiography, whose explicit task it is to gather and evaluate such "data."

Collingwood resorted at times to mere unsubstantiated assertions about thinkers with whom he disagreed. One example is his hostility to the German historian Wilhelm Dilthey, who stressed the importance of a historian's individual psychological make-up for his conception and writing of history. Collingwood said that psychology has nothing to do with the writing of history, because history "is ... the self-knowledge of the historian's own mind as the present revival and reliving of past experience" (IH, p. 175). T. M. Knox suggested that Collingwood's stance was "due to a still unconscious suspicion that a similar and no less skeptical view was implicit in (Collingwood's own) historical relativism" (IH, xiii), This critique, perspicacious as it is, overlooks a deeper problem, Collingwood's answer to Dilthey is solipsist in that it denies any and all connection between the historian's "own mind" and all else, including even its own mode of functioning.

Collingwood returned to this problem of the relationship between "mind" or "spirit" and the rest of the world when discussing the work of Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce. Here he asserted that "whether or not there is such a thing as nature, as distinct from spirit, at least it cannot enter as a factor into the world of spirit" (IH, p, 200). Again this assertion lacks substantiation. More important, where, then, does Collingwood's "world of spirit" come from? On his own monist-evolutionist presuppositions he can neither posit a separate origin of "spirit" nor rule out "spirit's" interaction with nature, it is the universal problem besetting all monist-evolutionist philosophies that they cannot consistently account for "the One and the Many."

In the monist-evolutionist world view there is no real difference between idealist monists like Collingwood and materialist monists like, say, Karl Marx. There is only a strife over definitions or semantics. Collingwood's own language shows this muddle over words when he emphasizes now "spirit," now "mind," now "knowledge," now "experience," and so on. The cosmic idealist prefers a cosmic idealist evolution model in which "spirit" is the transforming principle; examples are Hegel, Bergson, Collingwood himself, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, and the New Age thinkers of our own generation. The materialist-positivist prefers a model of evolution in which "matter" is the prime mover as in Darwinism, Marxism, or Stephen Jay Gould's evolution by "punctuated equilibrium." As monist evolutionism in both forms has spread, historiography, along with all other areas of inquiry, increasingly reflects the loss of transcendent, permanent, absolute meaning of monist evolutionism. More and more language itself is losing its purpose and function as conveyer of meaning. Thus we are now seeing more and more clearly the terrible truth that "The wise men are ashamed, they are dismayed and taken: Io, they have rejected the word of the LORD; and what wisdom is in them?" (Jeremiah 8:9)

Collingwood's concept of history as "the self-knowledge of the historian's own mind" does not explain how the historian's mind can come to know itself. Its overtones of solipsism are particularly offensive with regard to history, by definition that branch of inquiry not concerned with the inquirer's own mind or self but with the "other-than-self," namely, the recorded past, as Hume still understood so clearly two centuries ago (that is, two centuries closer to the predominance of the Christian world view in the West). A historian trying to practice his calling as defined by Collingwood can never be sure that his purported "experience of the past" is not merely his own imaginary counterfeit of the past.

Collingwood did refer to "books and documents" as evidences outside the historian's own mind when agreeing with Croce that when the historian criticizes and interprets this evidence, he "relives for himself the states of mind into which he inquires" (IH, p. 202). However, he almost immediately afterwards relegated written historical evidences to an inferior category of study he called "chronicle." "Chronicle," in turn, was for him "the past as merely believed upon testimony but not historically known" (IH, p, 202) and even "the corpse of history" (IH, p. 203), Hence he concluded that "History, so far from depending on testimony, has therefore no relation with testimony at all. Testimony is merely chronicle" (ibid.). In the same vein he considered Croce's "philological history," which consists of the compilation of sources, "pseudo-history," writing that "Such work is useful, but it is not history; there is no criticism, no interpretation, no reliving of past experience in one's own mind. It is mere learning or scholarship" (IH, p. 204),

Collingwood objected to "patriotic history, partisan history, history inspired by liberal or humanitarian or socialist ideals; in general all history whose function is to express either the historian's love and admiration for his subject, or else his hatred and contempt for it: 'writing it up' or 'debunking' it" (IH, p, 204). However, this objection conflicts with Collingwood's basic premise that all historians write as they do compelled by the historical conditions in which they live, If this premise is true, then he has no right to condemn any kind of historiography whatever.

A brief reflection on the completeness of the historical record is to the point. Of course many historical documents have been lost, especially of antiquity. Johann Georg Hamann gave the Christian solution to this dilemma. He saw the preservation or the loss of historical documents as acts of God's all-ordaining providence in history: As no young sparrow falls to the ground without our God; thus no monument of antiquity has been lost for us which we should have need to bewail. Should not His providence extend to writings in view of the fact that He Himself became a writer, and as the Spirit of God was so precise in noting down the value of the first forbidden books which a pious zeal of our religion has sacrificed to the fire (Acts 19:18-20)?6 Mindful of his reader's hostility to the Bible as a historical primary source, Hamann added examples familiar to students of the classic Greek and Roman historians;

We admire in Pompey as a good and noble deed that he destroyed the writings of his enemy Sertorius; why not in our Lord that He allowed the writings of a Celsus? Thus I do not say without reason that God has given at least as much attention to books which are of value to us as did Caesar for the written scroll with which he leaped into the sea, or Paul for his parchment at Troas (2 Timothy 4:13).7

In the concluding part of The Idea of History Collingwood defended his philosophy of history against the kinds of objections raised above. His chapter headings, such as "Human Nature and Human History," "Historical Evidence," "History as Re-enactment of Past Experience," "Progress as created by Historical Thinking" and so on show that he was well aware of such objections and thought them worthy of rebuttal. However, the reader unconvinced by his basic premises thus far is not likely to change his mind.

In sum, Collingwood was a thinker of the period of transition from the last lingering traces of Christian influence to full-blown neo-pagan monistic evolutionism and relativism in Western philosophy of history. His attempt to define the writing of history as a re-creation of the past and even of human nature itself in the historian's mind fails because on his own premises historians write as they do compelled by their own historical circumstances. He is really saying that historical circumstances determine history by way of historians, much as he tries to assign god-like creative powers to historians. Within his or any monist-evolutionist world view no consistent separation between the mind of the historian (or anyone's mind) and the rest of the world is possible. One is reminded of Marx, Lenin and Trotsky who could never decide whether "history" itself or the Communist party as the "vanguard of the proletariat" insured Communism's victory.

Collingwood's definition of "what really happened" as "only 'that which the evidence obliges us to believe'" allowed him to reject historical evidence as he wished, for example the well substantiated historical evidence for the life, death and resurrection of Christ. This denial in turn blinded him to the biblical Christian answer to the philosophical problem of the relationship between the eternal and the temporal, namely, God Himself present and active in history in Christ and in the Church. In other major departures from Christianity Collingwood falsely defined sin as mere lack of wisdom and knowledge, and denied the fixity or givenness of man's nature.

Collingwood's solipsist equation of "reality" with "experience" also separates him from Christianity and the common sense, realist view that the objects around us are other than ourselves and really there. Collingwood saw history as a "process in which something is changing into something else," a view completely at odds with biblical Christianity, which sees men and nations making decisions moment by moment under God, for or against Him, while remaining themselves in their created identities, modified only by the fall and repentance and regeneration in Christ.

It is possible to see Collingwood's work as a somewhat desperate attempt to rescue history from meaninglessness in an evolutionist, monistic, relativistic world. The meaning he hoped to attain is history as "re-creation" of both past and future as each historian becomes a god in his own mind. This "meaning" amounts to solipsism and is hence meaningless as well, an "eating, drinking and merrymaking before death" (I Corinthians 15:32) in the groves of historical academe. Collingwood wrote between the two World Wars and as the heir and follower of Darwin, Bergson and the British idealist philosophers. In view of this background his belief that historians are compelled by their own historical circumstances to write as they do is terribly plausible for Collingwood himself. The Christian historian comes away from Collingwood rejoicing more than ever in the personal, transcendent God, Creator and Provider Who alone can and does give true meaning to history.


1 R. G. Collingwood, The Idea of History (Oxford University Press Galaxy Book 1956, Fourth Printing 1961}

2 Johann Georg Hamann, Golgotha and Scheblimini, translated by Stephen N. Dunning in The Tongues of Men (Missoula, MT: Scholars Press. 1979), pp. 223-224.

3 Locke's concept of the mind at birth as an "empty tablet" is being refuted by modern scientific research. For instance, the famous linguistic researcher Noam Chomsky discovered what he called "linguistic" or "syntactic" universals shared by all the world's languages and determining the hierarchical structure of sentences. Chomsky believes that these rules of intuitive syntax must be an innate rather than an acquired ability.

In addition, the amazing results of recent experiments with babies just a few days or weeks old can only be explained by innate abilities. See Paul D. Ackerman, In God's Image After All: How Psychology Supports Biblical Creationism (Grand Rapids, Ml: Baker Book House, 1990).

4C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Macmillan, First Paperback Edition, 1960), p. 39.

5C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1955), pp, 217-219.

6 Johann Georg Hamann, Saemtliche Werke (Collected Works), Josef Nadler, ed. (Wien: Verlag Herder, 1949-1955), Vol. II, p. 64,

7 ibid.

"The Meaning of History: A Rejoinder to R. G. Collingwood"
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