R. G. Collingwood

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Robin George Collingwood
Robin G. Collingwood.jpg
Born 22 February 1889 (1889-02-22)
Gillhead, Cartmel Fell, Lancashire
Died 9 January 1943(1943-01-09) (aged 53)
Coniston, Lancashire
Education Rugby School
Oxford University
Occupation Philosopher, historian, and archaeolgist
Parent(s) W. G. Collingwood

Robin George Collingwood (/ˈkɒlɪŋˌwʊd/) (22 February 1889 – 9 January 1943) was an English philosopher, historian, and archaeologist, best known for his posthumously-published book The Idea of History (1946).


Collingwood was born in Cartmel, Grange-over-Sands, in Lancashire, the son of the artist and archaeologist W. G. Collingwood. He was educated at Rugby School, and at University College, Oxford, where he gained a First in Classical Moderations [Greek and Latin] in 1910 and a congratulatory First in Greats [Ancient History and Philosophy] in 1912.[1] Prior to graduation he was elected a fellow of Pembroke College, Oxford.

Collingwood was a fellow of Pembroke College, Oxford, for some 15 years until becoming the Waynflete Professor of Metaphysical Philosophy at Magdalen College, Oxford. He was the only pupil of F. J. Haverfield to survive World War I. Important influences on Collingwood were the Italian Idealists Benedetto Croce, Giovanni Gentile and Guido de Ruggiero, the last of whom was also a close friend. Other important influences were Hegel, Kant, Giambattista Vico, F. H. Bradley and J. A. Smith. His father W. G. Collingwood was a leading archaeologist and artist, being a student of Ruskin.


Collingwood is most famous for his book The Idea of History (1946), a work collated from various sources soon after his death by his pupil T. M. Knox. The book came to be a major inspiration for philosophy of history in the English-speaking world, and is extensively cited, leading one commentator to ironically remark that Collingwood is coming to be "the best known neglected thinker of our time".[2]

Collingwood held history as "recollection" of the "thinking" of a historical personage. Collingwood considered whether two different people can have the same thought and not just the same content, concluding that "there is no tenable theory of personal identity" preventing such a doctrine.

In The Principles of Art Collingwood held (following Croce) that works of art are essentially expressions of emotion. He portrayed art as a necessary function of the human mind, and considered it collaborative activity. In politics Collingwood defended the ideals of what he called liberalism "in its Continental sense":

The essence of this conception is ... the idea of a community as governing itself by fostering the free expression of all political opinions that take shape within it, and finding some means of reducing this multiplicity of opinions to a unity.[3]

Collingwood as archaeologist[edit]

Collingwood was not just a philosopher of history, but also a practising historian and archaeologist, being during his time a leading authority on Roman Britain: he spent his term time at Oxford teaching philosophy but devoted his long vacations to archaeology.

He began work along Hadrian’s Wall. The family home was at Coniston in the Lake District and his father was a leading figure in the Cumberland and Westmorland Archaeological Society. Collingwood was drawn in on a number of excavations and put forward the theory that Hadrian’s Wall was not so much a fighting platform but an elevated sentry walk.[4] He also put forward the suggestion that Hadrian’s defensive system also included a number of forts along the Cumberland coast. He was very active in the 1930 Wall Pilgrimage for which he prepared the ninth edition of Bruce’s Handbook.

His final and most controversial excavation in Cumbria was that of a circular ring ditch near Penrith known as King Arthur's Round Table (henge) in 1937. This would appear to be a Neolithic henge monument and Collingwood’s excavations, while failing to find conclusive evidence of Neolithic activity, nevertheless found the base of two stone pillars, a possible cremation trench and some post holes. Sadly his subsequent ill health prevented him undertaking a second season, so the work was handed over to the German prehistorian Gerhard Bersu who queried some of Collingwood’s findings. However recently Grace Simpson, the daughter of the excavator F.G. Simpson, has queried Bersu’s work and largely rehabilitated Collingwood as an excavator.[5]

He also began what was to be the major work of his archaeological career, preparing a corpus of the Roman Inscriptions of Britain, which involved travelling all over Britain to see the inscriptions and draw them; he eventually prepared drawings of nearly 900 inscriptions. It was finally published in 1965 by his student R.P. Wright.

He also published two major archaeological works. The first, somewhat surprisingly for a philosopher was The Archaeology of Roman Britain, a handbook in sixteen chapters covering first the archaeological sites - fortresses, towns and temples, and then the portable antiquities – inscriptions, coins, pottery and brooches. Mortimer Wheeler in a review, [6] remarked that "it seemed at first a trifle off beat that he should immerse himself in so much museum-like detail … but I felt sure that this was incidental to his primary mission to organise his own thinking".

But his most important work was his contribution to the first volume of the Oxford History of England – Roman Britain and the English Settlements of which he wrote the major part – Nowell Myres adding the second smaller part on English Settlements. The book was in many ways revolutionary, for it set out to write the story of Roman Britain from an archaeological rather than a historical viewpoint, putting into practice his own belief in ‘Question and Answer’ archaeology.

The result was alluring and influential. However, as Ian Richmond wrote: ‘The general reader may discover too late that it has one major defect. It does not sufficiently distinguish between objective and subjective and combines both in a subtle and apparently objective presentation.’ [7]

The most notorious passage is that on Romano-British art where he says: "The impression that constantly haunts the archaeologist, like a bad smell, is that of an ugliness that plagues the place like a London fog".[8]

Collingwood’s most important contribution to British archaeology was his insistence on Question and Answer archaeology, that excavations should only take place if there is a question to be answered. It is a philosophy which, as Anthony Birley points out,[9] has been incorporated by English Heritage into the conditions for Scheduled Monuments Consent. But it has always been surprising that the proponents of the ‘New’ archaeology in the 1960s and the 70s should have entirely ignored the work of Collingwood, the one major archaeologist who was also a major professional philosopher.

Outside archaeology and philosophy, he also published The First Mate's Log (1940), an account of a yachting voyage in the Mediterranean, in the company of several of his students.

Arthur Ransome was a family friend, and learned to sail in their boat, subsequently teaching his sibling's children to sail. Ransome loosely based the Swallows in Swallows and Amazons series on his sibling's children.

After several years of increasingly debilitating strokes Collingwood died at Coniston, Lancashire, in January 1943. He was a practising Anglican throughout his life.

Main works published in his lifetime[edit]

Main articles published in his lifetime[edit]

  • 'A Philosophy of Progress', The Realist, 1 : 1, April 1929, 64-77

Posthumously-published works[edit]

All 'revised' editions comprise the original text plus a new introduction and extensive additional material.



  1. ^ Oxford University Calendar 1913, Oxford : Oxford University Press, 1913, pp.196, 222
  2. ^ Mink, Louis O. (1969). Mind, History, and Dialectic. Indiana University Press, 1.
  3. ^ R. G. Collingwood (2005). "Man Goes Mad" in The Philosophy of Enchantment. Oxford University Press, 318.
  4. ^ The Vasculum,8, 4-9)
  5. ^ Collingwood Studies 5, 1998, 109-119
  6. ^ Antiquity 43
  7. ^ I A Richmond, Proceedings of the British Academy 29:478
  8. ^ page 250
  9. ^ Introductory essay in R G Collingwood, An Autobiography, OUP
  10. ^ archive.org
  11. ^ books.google.com
  12. ^ books.google.com
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  27. ^ books.google.com
  28. ^ books.google.com
  29. ^ philpapers.org

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