The Life of R. G. Collingwood





It is a strange fact that until the recent appearance of History Man: The Life of R. G. Collingwood, the world had no "life" of the greatest philosopher of history writing in English, nor England's leading 20th-century philosopher of art, and no apparent attempt at one.

One reason for this absence, until nearly 70 years after Collingwood's death aged 53, may be sought in the prophylactic success of his autobiography. Collingwood's account of a sometimes frenetic and intellectually isolated life, conceived as a life of thought, is powerful and readable. But it is selective to the point where the work offers no freedom to enter the philosopher's private world and to spotlight all that the modern reader has learned to expect of a biographical treatment. No doubt much can be reconstructed from published and manuscript sources. But we have needed a biography of Collingwood to synthesise, and dramatise, this material as a connected narrative, and in the way of biography, to point a moral and adorn a tale. In the present context, where Collingwood is largely the intellectual property of philosophy, Fred Inglis' biography is a courageous act of cultural and intellectual re-contextualisation that should be applauded. From the writer of previous intellectual "lives", it is also a labour of love in the best sense.

His narrative of Collingwood's life aspires to give "the form of his thought as manifested in the shape of his life". He begins with a journey into the world of English Romanticism and its roots in Lake District cultural life in the middle and later part of the 19th century. Collingwood's mother was a pianist and painter, and his father, the painter and novelist W.G. Collingwood, was friend and secretary to John Ruskin. The family lived near Brantwood on Coniston Water, and Inglis paints an appealing picture of the rich, practical, artistic life enjoyed by the exceptionally talented boy and his three sisters.

Inglis is a colourful historian of place in its time, and eloquently evokes the living particularity of a past milieu. Chapter two, "Brought up by Hand", its title turned from Dickens, captures Collingwood's Victorian origins as these shaped his later experience as a schoolboy at Rugby. The quintessential Englishness of this combination of high moral purpose with praxis, family, teaching, preaching, art and handiwork defines the unique contribution made by a strand of Victorian English middle-classness to intellectual life. The sense of a cultural hinterland Inglis again reclaims in chapter three on Oxford and Collingwood's wartime work at the Admiralty. The localism of his vision and its authority through practice emerges in the succeeding chapter on Collingwood's archaeological digs; its cosmopolitanism in the recounting of his continental friendships and the late recuperative voyage to the East....


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