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R G Collingwood 1889-1943

R G Collingwood, 1912. Watercolour painted by his mother, EMDC.

R G Collingwood (1889-1943), philosopher, historian and archaeologist, was best known for his philosophy of history – ‘how do we know historical facts?’ – and his archaeological work on Roman Britain. But he was an all-rounder, a good sailor and photographer, writing literary criticism (on Jane Austen) and the theory of art (‘was Picasso a Post-Impressionist?’), friend of Edith Sitwell and T S Eliot; and an acute observer of contemporary politics, travelling in Spain in the 1930s and the Dutch East Indies in 1938-39, and sailing across the Mediterranean in 1939 where he saw Italy under Mussolini, and then travelling home through France as war broke out.

He came from the Lake District, from a family of artists, writers and archaeologists. His father, W G Collingwood, Ruskin’s secretary and right-hand man, was well known for his work on Viking and Anglo-Saxon crosses and monuments in northern England, and on the Icelandic sagas, travelling to Iceland in 1896 and documenting local events and the saga sites in sketches and photographs in what is now recognised as a unique contemporary record. RGC’s mother, E M D Collingwood (Dorrie) was a well-known miniaturist. His eldest sister Dora married an Armenian doctor, Ernest Altounyan –  a friend of RGC’s from Rugby School – and helped him run the hospital in Aleppo in Syria. The five Altounyan children were the originals for the Swallows and Amazons stories by Arthur Ransome, who learnt sailing from RGC on Coniston Water.

RGC went to Rugby School (1903-08) and then University College in Oxford (1908-12), his father’s old college. He was appointed fellow of Pembroke College in 1912 before he officially graduated; and stayed there until his appointment as Waynflete Professor of Metaphysics at Magdalen College in 1936.

Collingwood wrote his autobiography as the shadow of Fascism darkened over Europe. The first two chapters describe his early education, at home, and then school; the next two his undergraduate training at Oxford. But the book as a whole is about the relationship between philosophy and history, and between theory and practice. The important thing is not ‘the answer’ but to dig (if in archaeological terms, literally) until ‘the question’ becomes clear. One famous example is that of Nelson and the battle of Trafalgar: how can we understand Nelson’s success unless we first ‘rethink’ the problems of strategy, tide, wind facing him? This is Collingwood’s theory of re-enactment. The second example is Collingwood’s treatment of Roman Britain, to which he devotes an entire chapter, tackling questions such as Caesar’s reasons for invading, the meaning of Romanisation and Celtic ‘survivals’,  and the statistical evidence for population in town and country.

But it is the final chapter on theory and practice which contains the key to the whole work. It is essentially a critique of Fascism, by RGC as an engaged ‘gloves-off’ philosopher, for whom philosophical thinking leads to action. This leads us inevitably forward to his last work, the incomplete New Leviathan (1942). R G Collingwood returned to his family home on the edge of Coniston Water and died there in 1943.

The message of the Autobiography is clear. How do we know what we know? How should we act on what we know? How can we use our own rigorous historical thinking to drive us forward? These questions are still as crucially important to us today as when RGC asked them almost eighty years ago.

R G Collingwood, 1938, in the cabin of his sailing cruiser, Zenocrate, Buckler’s Hard, Beaulieu , Hampshire, taken by Bill, his son or Ruth, his daughter.