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Journal of the Philosophy of History 6 (2012) 44–59 brill.


Collingwood’s Opposition to Biography

Vasso Kindi
University of Athens

Biography is usually distinguished from history and, in comparison, looked
down upon. R. G. Collingwood’s view of biography seems to fijit this statement con-
sidering that he says it has only gossip-value and that “history it can never be”. His
main concern is that biography exploits and arouses emotions which he excludes
from the domain of history. In the paper I will try to show that one can salvage a
more positive view of biography from within Collingwood’s work and claim that
his explicit attacks against biography target specifijically the sensationalist kind.
First, I will show that Collingwood, in his later writings, allowed that, not only
thought, but also relevant emotions can be the subject matter of history, which
means that even if one takes biography to deal with emotions, it can still qualify as
history. Second, I will argue, based mainly on Collingwood’s Principles of Art, that
biography can be compared to portrait painting, in which case, it can be redeemed
as a work of art and not just craft and, thus, have more than entertainment value.
It can also be part of history, and more specifijically part of the history of art which
Collingwood endorses, if one takes the life of an individual, recounted by a biogra-
pher, to be an artistic creation, as Collingwood seems to suggest.

Collingwood, biography, history, emotions, re-enactment, thought

© Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, 2012 DOI: 10.1163/187226312X625591

V. Kindi / Journal of the Philosophy of History 6 (2012) 44–59 45

1. Collingwood’s Early Opposition to Biography1

The dichotomy between biography and history exists since ancient times2
with history typically enjoying more prestige and influence. Biography,
which started out as eulogy or encomium, and developed to relate the lives
of kings, politicians, generals, saints, etc, usually in a fashion that combined
exemplaristic instruction and entertainment, was seen, from the start, as
less serious a genre than history because of its interest in frivolous details,
in anecdotes and eccentricities.3 The same attitude towards biography we
fijind in Collingwood who, in his The Idea of History, distinguishes biography
from history and deprecates it in no uncertain terms:

[A] biography [. . .] however much history it contains is constructed on prin-

ciples that are not only non-historical but anti-historical. Its limits are natural
events, the birth and death of a human organism: its framework is thus not of

1) The following books by R. G. Collingwood will be abbreviated as follows:

R. G. Collingwood, An Autobiography (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1939/1982). Abbrevi-
ated as A.
R. G. Collingwood, The New Leviathan (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1942/1944). Abbrevi-
ated as NL.
R. G. Collingwood, The Idea of History, revised edition, ed. W. J. van der Dussen (Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 1946/2005). Abbreviated as IH.
R. G. Collingwood, The Principles of Art (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1958). Abbre-
viated as PA.
R. G. Collingwood, Essays in the Philosophy of Art, ed. A. Donogan (Bloomington: Indi-
ana University Press, 1964). Abbreviated as EPA.
R. G. Collingwood, The Principles of History, ed. W. H. Dray and W. J. van der Dussen
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999). Abbreviated as PH.
R. G. Collingwood, The Philosophy of Enchantment, ed. D. Bouchner, W. James,
P. Smallwood (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007). Abbreviated as PE.
2) “Whatever philosophical or sociological meaning we may attribute to the dichotomy,
the dichotomy itself is earlier than Aristotle” (A. Momigliano, The Development of Greek
Biography (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1971/1993, 109). Plutarch, in the fijirst
century AD, said that his design was not to write histories, but lives (Alexander 1.2). For
more on Greek biography and the distinction between history and biography see also
A. Momigliano, “Marcel Mauss and the Quest for the Person in Greek Biography and Auto-
biography” in M. Carrithers, S. Collins, S. Lukes (eds.), The Category of the Person, 83–92
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985) and A. Momigliano, “History and Biography”
in M. I. Finley (ed.) The Legacy of Greece, 155–184 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981).
3) Momigliano, The Development of Greek Biography, 103, 120.
46 V. Kindi / Journal of the Philosophy of History 6 (2012) 44–59

thought but of natural process. Through this framework – the bodily life of the
man, his childhood, maturity and senescence, his diseases and all the acci-
dents of animal existence – the tides of thought, his own and others’, flow
crosswise regardless of its structure like sea-water through a stranded wreck.
Many human emotions are bound up with the spectacle of such bodily life in
its vicissitudes, and biography, as a form of literature, feeds these emotions
and may give them wholesome food; but this is not history. Again the record
of immediate experience with its flow of sensations and feelings, faithfully
preserved in a diary or recalled in a memoir, is not history. At its best, it is
poetry; at its worst, obtrusive egotism; but history it can never be (IH 304).

The passage above is drawn from Collingwood’s lectures on the philosophy

of history of 1936.4 In this passage Collingwood clearly separates biography
from history and claims that it can never amount to history because (1) it deals
with natural events which, according to Collingwood, pertain to the animal
existence of humankind, and (2) because it only records and feeds emotions,
which belong to immediate experience. The analogy with the stranded wreck
is supposed to illustrate that bodily life, with its feelings and sensations, is an
empirical accident, a dead, fossilized fortuitous frame through which thought
flows and reaches us in the present.5 What is presupposed in this passage is
that history does not deal with emotions, immediate experience and natu-
ral events, but only with thought. “All history is the history of thought” (IH 215),
“At bottom [the historian] is concerned with thoughts alone” (IH 217).
According to Collingwood, natural facts and accidental happenings just
occasion and host human action and are not part of history.6 Human

4) The passage is drawn, in particular, from his text “The Subject Matter of History” which
appears in the “Epilegomena” section of The Idea of History (302–315).
5) The metaphor of flow is here used in relation to thought, which is supposed to survive the
accidents of life, but most often it is used by Collingwood to indicate the exact opposite,
namely, the transitory and fleeting nature of immediate experience. See for instance, “The
flow of immediate consciousness” (IH 287).
6) In the essay “Human Nature and Human History” published in 1936 and included in The
Idea of History (205–217), Collingwood claims that “[a] natural process is a process of events,
an historical process is a process of thoughts” (IH 216). Events interest historians so far as
they express thought (IH 217). In The Principles of History written in 1939, Collingwood
repeats that “accidental or contingent events do not occur in history at all: they form the
background or scenery of history. A mariner is caught in a storm: this is an accident: but that
storm appears in the history of navigation only if the historian is interested in the mariner’s
handling of the situation to which this accident gave rise (or someone else’s, e.g., the Board
V. Kindi / Journal of the Philosophy of History 6 (2012) 44–59 47

actions,7 unlike natural events, embody and express thought, and are, thus,
the proper object of history.8

1.1. Thought as the proper object of History

Thought is understood by Collingwood in a broad Cartesian sense (PH 168;
cf. IH 282)9 and comprises not only reflective ratiocinations or pure intel-
lection, but any kind of activity which is accompanied by an alert con-
sciousness.10 So, for instance, not only theory construction and literary
undertakings, but also physical movements or gestures can qualify as
embodying thought and can be objects of historical investigation. Fighting
a battle, crossing the Rubicon, dining or marrying, all these actions and
rituals, exemplify thought and invite historical understanding of the traces,
literary and non-literary, they leave behind. Moreover, actions need not be
deliberate and premeditated to qualify as objects for historical consideration;

of Trade or the Meteorological Offfijice). Nature as such is contingent” (PH 247). He also claims
that natural facts condition but do not determine human action (PH 163).
7) Collingwood allows for the possibility of non-human animals having thoughts and thus,
for the possibility of writing the history of their actions (IH 216, 227; also PH 46–47). Still, the
animal part of both human and non human animals would again be excluded from history:
“With animal appetites and their gratifijication or frustration history is not concerned”
(PH 98).
8) “In history itself, what makes it history is not the chronological framework but the nature
of what it contains: not events as such but Res Gestae, actions expressing thought.” (PH 76).
“Res Gestae are not mere action, they are rational action, action which embodies thought.
To embody thought is to express it” (PH 50).
9) By the term cogitatio (thought) in its wide sense Descartes understands more than the
operations of the intellect: “Thought is a word that covers everything that exists in us in such
a way that we are immediately conscious of it. Thus all the operations of will, intellect, imag-
ination, and of the senses are thoughts” R. Descartes, “Arguments Demonstrating the Exis-
tence of God and the Distinction between Soul and Body, Drawn up in Geometrical Fashion”
in The Philosophical Works of Descartes, transl. E. S. Haldane, G. R. T. Ross, vol. II (Cam-
bridge: Cambridge University Press, 1911/1984, 52). “By the term thought, I understand all
that of which we are conscious as operating in us. And that is why not alone understanding,
willing, imagining, but also feeling, are here the same thing as thought”, R. Descartes,
“The Principles of Philosophy” in The Philosophical Works of Descartes, transl. E. S. Haldane,
G. R. T. Ross, vol. I (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1911/1984, Principle ix ).
10) As we will see later in the paper, Collingwood, in his Principles of Art, which is written
later than the essays included in the Idea of History develops further his account of thought
as not just including intellectual operations.
48 V. Kindi / Journal of the Philosophy of History 6 (2012) 44–59

unplanned or spontaneous actions, collective actions, actions whose con-

sequences the agent may be unaware of and actions whose agents may
even be unknown can be studied historically (IH 50, 219, 238; cf. IH 88n1).11
What falls outside history are activities that pertain to the animal part of
human nature. Eating, sleeping, breathing, having sex and begetting chil-
dren may be of great interest to human beings but, according to Colling-
wood, are of no interest to historians (IH 216, PH 45, 98) because, in his
view, which echoes that of Hegel, “nature has no history” (IH 239).12 Nature
may undergo changes over time but timefulness does not turn it into a
historical process. Historical events presuppose the involvement of human
beings who have motives and, successful or unsuccessful aims, purposes
and plans. Recording mere data of natural events may result in annals or
chronology – what Collingwood calls the “dry bones of history” (PH 50) –,
but it does not yield history proper (IH 212; cf. PH 58, 121). The diffferent
treatment of history and nature is premised on a distinction that Colling-
wood draws between the outside surface of an event and its inside. Colling-
wood maintains that natural scientists study and explain phenomena – which
stay on the surface-, whereas historians aim at penetrating the external
spectacle and reach inside to get hold of the thought that has invigorated
them (IH 214).13 Given, then, the metaphor of the outside/inside distinction
and given the exclusion of natural events from history since they develop

11) Cf. W. H. Walsh, Philosophy of History. An Introduction (New York: Harper & Row Pub-
lishers, 1967, 53–54) and W. Dray, History as Re-enactment. R.G. Collingwood’s Idea of History
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995, 164–190).
12) Collingwood agrees with Hegel that nature has no history but disagrees with him in the
rejection of the theory of evolution (IH 115). Although Collingwood does not believe that
evolutionary development by itself amounts to history he is favorably inclined towards evo-
lutionary theory. There is only one possibility, he says, to have history of nature: “The only
condition on which there could be a history of nature is that the events of nature are actions
on the part of some thinking being or beings, and that by studying these actions we could
discover what were the thoughts which they expressed and think these thoughts for our-
selves.” (IH 302, cf. IH 217, PH 44, 60)
13) As Walsh has noted, Collingwood is not guilty of an inner/outer distinction which com-
mits him to a “ghost in the machine” conception of human beings. Collingwood, in trying to
understand thought historically, is not trying to access an inner ethereal entity enclosed in
a visible corporeal capsule (Walsh, Philosophy of History. An Introduction, 55–56). For Ryle’s
criticism which does not explicitly invoke Collingwood, see G. Ryle, The Concept of Mind
(London: Penguin Books, 1949/1990, 56–57).
V. Kindi / Journal of the Philosophy of History 6 (2012) 44–59 49

on the ‘outside’, Collingwood concludes that biography, which thrives,

according to him, on natural facts, is not history.

1.2. Emotions and re-enactment

Biography is also renounced by Collingwood as a type of history because it
deals with emotions; it makes use of them in order to also provoke them in
the readers. The problem with emotions as regards history, according to
Collingwood, is that they belong to immediate experience; they form part
of the flow of consciousness and, as such, cannot be studied historically. If
we simply have them, or recreate them, we cannot say that we know them
or understand them. To understand them, that is to know them histori-
cally, we need to reflect upon them and see them as the outcome of a his-
torical process which itself involves thought (IH 174). For instance, if we
want to understand why x feels upset, we need to see this feeling as the
result of, say, this person having been insulted, or fijired. We don’t need to
feel upset ourselves and then have psychology study our emotion.14 This is
what Dilthey did, according to Collingwood, and this is the reason Dilthey
was criticized for surrendering to positivism. In Collingwood’s view, Dilthey,
who included emotions in the empathetic reconstruction of past life forms,
was reducing historical knowledge to psychological knowledge. “[Dilthey]
assumes that the self-knowledge of the mind is identical with psychology”
(IH 174). Dilthey thought that we have a higher form of understanding if we
project ourselves into a work or a person, if we transfer ourselves into a
complex of life expressions, if we relive or reproduce in our consciousness
a complex of experience and bring the fragments together into a whole.
“Social states are intelligible to us from within; we can, up to a certain point
reproduce them in ourselves on the basis of the perception of our own
states; our representations of the historical world are enlivened by love and
hatred, by passionate joy, by the entire gamut of our emotions.”15 Colling-
wood objected that this is not doing history. By simply reliving the past the
historian does not understand it; “he is reliving and enlarging his own

14) Note that in The Idea of History Collingwood does not distinguish between emotions and
feelings (he uses both terms interchangeably), as he would do later in The New Leviathan
and in The Principles of Art.
15) W. Dilthey, Introduction to the Human Sciences Vol., In Selected Works, ed. R. A.
Makkreel and F. Rodi, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989, 88).
50 V. Kindi / Journal of the Philosophy of History 6 (2012) 44–59

personality incorporating in his own experience the experience of others in

the past.” (IH 173). That is, the experiences of individuals in the past simply
enter the flow of consciousness of the historian. If they are not reflected
upon and criticized they cannot amount to historical knowledge. History,
Collingwood says, thus understood, is “mere life, immediate experience” to
be studied by psychology and the historian does not obtain knowledge of
history by just reliving it. The historian needs to re-enact the past.
The doctrine of re-enactment, which Collingwood himself admits “needs
a good deal of clearing up” (PH 223), requires that historians rethink past
thoughts in their own minds. Past agents enacted. They contemplated the
situation they had before them, they considered options and possibilities
and they enacted. Historians re-enact; they try to reconstruct the same pro-
cess. They learn about the situation past agents faced – natural surround-
ings, the problems they had to confront-, they contemplate possible courses
of action and they re-enact (PH 165). But they can re-enact only thoughts
because thoughts, unlike feelings and emotions, do not belong to the indi-
viduals who entertain them – they are not private – and, so, they can be
shared. The aim of history is to understand the res gestae of the past, that is,
the thoughts exhibited in action, and the means to achieve it is for the his-
torians to reconstruct for themselves how past agents acted. This does not
imply that they are supposed to go over the same motions or to become the
historical agents themselves. Historians are also not supposed to simply
rely on given data and the mere testimony of authorities. This Collingwood
calls depreciatively scissor-and-paste history. Historians are urged to
make up their own mind by not only judging critically their sources but,
crucially and more importantly, by exercising their imagination in order to
understand how past agents thought and acted.16 This is not an intuitive,
mystical afffair requiring a supernatural, telepathetic clairvoyance on the
part of the historians.17 Minds are not understood by Collingwood as

16) I do not mean this as a two-stage process, i.e., fijirst thinking and then acting. Collingwood
seems to be making misleading references to this efffect (IH 311; Dray, History as Re-enactment.
R.G. Collingwood’s Idea of History, 110–111), but what he does want to stress is that thought is
exhibited in action.
17) G. D’Oro, “Collingwood on Re-Enactment and the Identity of Thought”, Journal of
the History of Philosophy 38:1 (2000), 87–101, 99; Dray, History as Re-enactment. R. G. Colling-
wood’s Idea of History, 39. In a sheet of paper, inserted in the essay “Outlines of a Philosophy
of History” and published in note 8 in the revised edition of The Idea of History (IH 442–443),
Collingwood, recognizing that the re-enactment of past history in the historian’s mind is a
V. Kindi / Journal of the Philosophy of History 6 (2012) 44–59 51

substances housing, in a container like manner, private ethereal thoughts

which are seized across time by the penetrating vision of current historians.
Nor are thoughts understood as abstract entities which hover above the
world in spaceless and tenseless eternity, again waiting to be grasped by
the historians’ minds. Minds for Collingwood are activities and thoughts
are embodied and expressed in actions. Re-enacting past thoughts is a spe-
cial inferential process (PH 152, 165, 179) which starts from clues (PH 150)18
and then summons up all the possessions of the historians – mental habits,
knowledge about nature and man, philosophical or mathematical knowl-
edge (PH 165) – in order to reach conclusions which yield the picture of
past events. This picture is not arbitrary, the work of capricious fancy, but
is characterized, Collingwood contends, by necessary and universal valid-
ity. The imagination which is mobilized to paint it is a priori – like the Kan-
tian faculty at work in perceptual experience (PH 152) – the thoughts which
are re-enacted stand outside the flow of consciousness,19 and the conclu-
sions reached by historians are compelling.20

difffijicult conception to clarify, asks: “How can the historian genuinely re-enact history in his
mind? How can he call the dead to live again and repeat events that have happened once for
all and are irrevocably past? And does not the idea of a literal revival of the past in the histo-
rian’s mind savour of a crude magical necromancy rather than of a serious theory of knowl-
edge?” (IH 443). This is where the text on the inserted page ends. The editors note that there
follow the words “It is easy to answer” crossed out!
18) Speaking of an inferential process and of clues may invoke again the Rylean implicit
criticism of Collingwood: “Overt intelligent performances are not clues to the workings of
minds; they are those workings” (Ryle, The Concept of Mind, 57). Yet, that would be mis-
taken, I believe, because Collingwood agrees that there is no inference from mere marks to
what these marks mean (PH 53); the inference he speaks of is from already understood
marks (the evidence) to the setting up of a picture of past events.
19) It might seem that there is a contradiction here with what was mentioned earlier,
namely, that thoughts are not abstract entities hovering above the world in a spaceless and
tenseless realm of eternity. When Collingwood says that thoughts are not part of the flow of
consciousness, he means that they are public and shareable, possible objects of experience
and knowledge (PA 159; PH 134–5, 222–224).
20) Such contentions, and claims that historical argument proves its point “as conclusively
as a demonstration in mathematics” (IH 262; cf. IH 268), have driven several scholars to
maintain that the inferences of which Collingwood speaks have the form of valid arguments.
See for instance: G. D’Oro, “Re-enactment and Radical Interpretation”, History and Theory 43
(2004), 198–208; G. D’Oro, “Collingwood, Psychologism and Internalism”, European Journal
of Philosophy, 12:2 (2004), 163–177; Dray, History as Re-enactment. R.G. Collingwood’s Idea of
History, 124; L. Pompa, “Collingwood’s Theory of Historical Knowledge” in D. Boucher, J.
52 V. Kindi / Journal of the Philosophy of History 6 (2012) 44–59

In any case, however we understand historical knowledge, it seems that

emotions are defijinitely left out. They cannot be re-enacted since they can-
not be detached from the flow of experience.

2. Modification of Collingwood’s Position

In the Principles of History Collingwood makes a major concession: “All his-
tory is the history of thought. This includes the history of emotions so far
as these are essentially related to the thoughts in question: not of any
emotions that may happen to accompany them, nor for that matter, of
other thoughts that may happen to accompany them.” (emphasis added,
PH 77). What he means is that when historians study a particular action
(for example, a military assault or the building of a fort by an offfijicer), they
need to take into account both the relevant thoughts and the relevant emo-
tions, not whatever the agent might had been thinking or feeling at the
time. Historians ought to take into account the thoughts and feelings that
will help them understand and explain the particular action they are inter-
ested in. “It is a matter of biography, not of military history that Wolfe was
thinking about Gray’s Elegy during the early stages of his assault on Quebec.
It would have been a matter of military history if he had allowed Gray’s
Elegy to interfere with his assault” (PH 68). Similarly, the fear of danger that

Connelly and T. Modood, Philosophy History and Civilization (Cardifff: University of Wales
Press, 1995, 168–181, 173). This is, I think, overly restrictive. The inferences employed in his-
torical thinking are of a peculiar kind according to Collingwood (PH 165), resembling nei-
ther deductive nor typical inductive arguments. If the inferences were deductively valid,
that would mean that the historians would learn not how particular agents acted in the past
but how they should have acted if they wanted to be rational (cf. IH 445). But Collingwood
claims, fijirst, that historical understanding yields knowledge of particular actions performed
by particular individuals in particular historical settings (“no explanation of the French
Revolution can be the right one which will fijit any other revolution” PH 180), secondly, that
the rationality of past agents may involve unreasonable actions on their part by our own
light (PH 46, n. 13, 47), and thirdly, that logic itself may vary with time and space (PH 242).
He also maintains that historians may reach diffferent conclusions when considering the
same sum of clues (PH 165). Given all this it is doubtful that re-enacting past thoughts is a
valid deductive inference. Admittedly, insistence on the validity of the historical inference
rather than its soundness, is supposed to avoid some, at least, of these objections, but it
certainly cannot avoid them all. This is, perhaps the reason that commentators fijind the
whole doctrine problematic, too restrictive, rationalistic and intellectualist.
V. Kindi / Journal of the Philosophy of History 6 (2012) 44–59 53

the offfijicer who builds the fort feels is relevant to understanding his action
while other emotions that he may have had at the time are irrelevant.21
Despite the concession to emotions, Collingwood repeats in The Princi-
ples of History his categorical objection to biography. His problem is not
so much that biographies include events that may not embody thought,
but rather that the events chosen to be included are included on the
basis of their gossip-value.22 “Biography, though it often uses motives of an
historical kind by way of embroidery, is in essence a web woven of these
two groups of threads, sympathy and malice. Its function is to arouse these
feelings in the reader; essentially therefore it is a device for stimulating
emotion, and accordingly it falls into the two main divisions of amusement-
biography, which is what the circulating libraries so extensively deal in,
and magical biography,23 or the biography of exhortation and moral point-
ing, holding up good examples to be followed or bad ones to be eschewed”
(PH 70).
The purpose of biography, according to Collingwood, is not to command
assent (PH 73), as history properly done requires, but to stimulate emotions
(and, in fact, emotions of the “proper kind”, the ones, that is, that will not
offfend the prevalent public opinion). For that reason, (i.e., to stimulate
emotions), biographers include pictures, they speak of childhood and old
age, of diseases, feuds and love afffairs. They give facts that will paint for the
reader a concrete, and at the same time familiar, individual – a person like

21) The same point, namely that emotions can be the object of historical understanding, is
also made in The Philosophy of Enchantment, and more specifijically in his folktale essays
included in this volume (PE 115–287), which were written in the late 30s, after much of the
Idea of History was written. In these essays, Collingwood’s view is that magic is an expres-
sion of emotion (PE 205) and should be studied by the science of anthropology using the
historical method. “[Cultural] Anthropology . . . is a historical science” (PE 153). The editors
of the volume note that the emphasis given by Collingwood to emotions in relation to magic
“should serve signifijicantly to modify and complicate perceptions of the place of emotions in
Collingwood’s description of history as a history of thought (e.g., as derived from A and IH)”,
(PE 196, n. 3).
22) Cf. Momigliano, The Development of Greek Biography, 103). According to Momigliano the
distinctive features of Hellenistic biography were erudition, scholarly zeal, realism of detail
and gossip. “Clearly it fijitted into the new Hellenistic fashion of care for details, erudition,
elegant gossip. . . . what was now called bios was a detached, slightly humorous account of
events and opinions characterizing an individual”.
23) The term magical here is similar to the use it has in what Collingwood calls magical art
in the Principles of Art, i.e., art that aims to be useful.
54 V. Kindi / Journal of the Philosophy of History 6 (2012) 44–59

us-, which will provoke sympathy or malice. These are facts that, according
to Collingwood, pertain to animals. On top of that all, biography, Colling-
wood says, has also snobbery value which feeds in turn its gossip value.
Members of certain circles, or certain families, have their biographies
written or read biographies themselves so that they can then discuss, in
a gossipy manner, the afffairs of their milieu. In so doing they also flatter
themselves that they read history which is, unfortunately though, scissors
and paste history.
In The Principles of Art things become more complicated. Collingwood
repeats again that “biographies of cattishness” (PA 87) belong to the class of
pseudo-art or amusement-art – that is art that is purely hedonistic that
aims simply to entertain – yet, in this book he does not seem to hold a dis-
paraging view of emotions. Instead, he develops a nuanced account of
them. He distinguishes between feelings of sensation (sensations of hot
and cold, hard and soft, red and blue, bitter, sweet, etc.) and feelings of
pain, anger, fear, etc which he calls emotions. He goes on, however, to say
that there is an intimate relation between sensation and emotion. Emotion
is not a mere efffect of sensation; rather, every sensum has its own emo-
tional charge.24 Then he distinguishes three levels: the psychical level
where feelings and emotions reside, the level of consciousness and the level
of thought or intellectual level. At the level of consciousness the self domi-
nates the feelings, claims them as his own, domesticates them, rescues
them from the flux of mere sensation (PA 209) and the impressions of sense
are converted into ideas of imagination. Thought deals with sensations and
the relations between sensa (as when I say “It’s hot today”), but it can also
take the form of secondary thought when we do not think about our feel-
ings but about our thoughts (PA 166). There are also intellectual emotions,
emotions which can be felt only by intellectual beings and are the emotional

24) The same claim is made in the New Leviathan (NL 4.I–4. II): “A feeling consists of two
things closely connected: fijirst, a sensuous element such as a colour seen, a sound heard, an
odour smelt; secondly, what I call the emotional charge on this sensation: the cheerfulness
with which you see the colour, the fear with which you hear the noise, the disgust with
which you smell the odour. Does every feeling consist of these two elements? I do not know.
Generalization about feelings is impossible.” In the same book, Collingwood argues that
thought, and intellectual work in general, require a fijirm foundation which is provided by
“the solidity and robustness of a man’s sensuous emotional nature” (NL 5.I4). If this base is
shaken, the mind cannot properly perform its intellectual functions.
V. Kindi / Journal of the Philosophy of History 6 (2012) 44–59 55

charge upon thought in the narrow sense (PA 294). Aesthetic emotions are
not some special kind of emotions already formed at the psychical level
of individuals and particularly apt for the creation or appreciation of art.
Rather, they emerge when the crude psychical emotions are transformed
by imagination into idealized emotions, when from impressions they
become ideas. Aesthetic emotions do not pre-exist to the expression of
emotions that are necessary for artistic activity. They are the emotional
charge on the experience of expressing a given emotion (PA 274).
What I want to retain from all this is that thought is pervasive in a com-
plicated but also immediate manner. “[O]ur experience of the world in
space and time, the ‘world of nature’ or the ‘external world’ [. . .] is an expe-
rience partly sensuous (strictly sensuous-emotional) and partly intellec-
tual. (PA 166)” There are no sterilized feelings or emotions. Once they are
arrested by consciousness, thought begins to operate. So, if history is the
history of thought and emotions are fused with thought (PA 295), then, his-
tory can deal with emotions as well. This becomes more evident in the his-
tory of art. Art, according to Collingwood, expresses emotion (that of the
artist) and arouses emotion in the audience but its purpose is neither utili-
tarian nor hedonistic as in the case of magic and amusement art respec-
tively. The artists resonate with their public, share emotions with them
and express them. They tell their audience “the secrets of their own [the
audience’s] hearts” (PA 336). Both writer and reader are artists (PA 119),
both have and express emotion and they need to do that to communicate.
“If a poet expresses, for example, a certain kind of fear, the only hearers
who can understand him, are those who are capable of experiencing that
kind of fear themselves. Hence, when some one reads and understands a
poem, he is not merely understanding the poet’s expression of his, the poet’s
emotions, he is expressing emotions of his own in the poet’s words, which
have thus become his own words. As Coleridge put it, we know a man for a
poet by the fact that he makes us poets. [. . .] The poet’s diffference from his
audience lies in the fact that, [. . .] the poet is a man who can solve for him-
self the problem of expressing [this particular emotion], whereas the audi-
ence can express it only when the poet has shown them how” (PA 118).
According to Collingwood, language expresses emotion (PA 245, 252,
260, 266, 296); even when it becomes intellectualized, it does not dry up
emotions but it acquires new (PA 269). “Every utterance”, Collingwood
says, “and each gesture that each one of us makes is a work of art” (PA 285,
296), “Every human being is an artist” (IH 431).
56 V. Kindi / Journal of the Philosophy of History 6 (2012) 44–59

So, in The Principles of Art we have a broad and pervasive conception of

thought (cf. IH 445, PA 287) and a pervasive and inescapable presence of
emotions which means that the history of thought, which is history proper,
will also involve the history of emotions.

3. Can biography Find a Place in Collingwood’s Thought?

I think that biography, even if taken as recording emotions, can fijind a place
in and can be salvaged from within Collingwood’s philosophy. Apart from
the fact that Collingwood himself, not inconsistently, wrote his own auto-
biography, admittedly as an austere “story of his thought” (A, vii),25 here are
fijive arguments in favor of the view that biography as a genre is not to be
excluded from history even by Collingwood’s lights:

1. Collingwood himself on several occasions speaks not disparagingly of

biographies: in the Idea of History he speaks of national history as a biog-
raphy of a people (IH 34) and he also considers the possibility of study-
ing the biographies of historians before one attempts to study the
histories they wrote (IH 381). According to his own biographer, Fred Ing-
lis, Collingwood revered Ruskin’s biography written by his father.26 All
this evidence shows, I think, that Collingwood was not critical of biogra-
phies in general. His target was a particular kind of biography. His ambiv-
alence is illustrated in his essay of 1934 on Jane Austin (PE 34–48) where,
on the one hand, he offfers a short biography of the novelist27 and, on the
other, claims that “[a]bout Jane Austin biography has nothing to say,
except to relate her visits to friends, her changes of residence, and her
unidentifijied last illness” (PE 38). His point, I take it, is that Jane Austin,

25) Cf. W. Sellars, “Autobiographical Reflections” in H.-N. Castañeda (ed.), Action, Knowl-

edge, and Reality: Critical Studies in Honor of Wilfrid Sellars, 277–293, (Indianapolis: The
Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1975, 277): “Autobiography like history is the attempt to
rethink the thoughts of others.”
26) F. Inglis, History Man: The Life of R.G. Collingwood (Princeton: Princeton University
Press, 2009, 25).
27) After having given a biographical sketch of Jane Austin, and before proceeding to talk
about her writing, Collingwood acknowledges that what he did amounts to biography: “So
much for biography. It remains to speak of her writing” (PE 38).
V. Kindi / Journal of the Philosophy of History 6 (2012) 44–59 57

not being a romantic fijigure but “a very ordinary English lady” would not
provide the spicy material that a biographer would require (PE 38).
2. In The Principles of Art, Collingwood notes that a portrait painter sees
much more in his subject than a casual observer does. The artist “may
easily see through the mask that is good enough to deceive a less active
and less pertinacious observer, and detect in a mouth or an eye or the
turn of a head things that have long been concealed” (PA 309). The art-
ist’s work, that is, is diffferent from an ordinary artifact. And it so hap-
pens that many people, according to Collingwood, prefer ‘nature’ to ‘art’
“because they prefer not to be shown so much, in order to keep their
apprehensions at a lower and more manageable level, where they can
embroider what they see with likes and dislikes, fancies and emotions of
their own, not intrinsically connected with the subject” (PA 308–309). If
we draw the analogy with biography, we could say that we can distin-
guish between two kinds of biographies: the gossipy ones and the artis-
tic. A biography, just like a portrait done by a real artist, may be a work
of art properly so called28 and not just something for amusement or
instruction. In producing a biography, we may genuinely aim at under-
standing a particular character and the life he or she led. In this case we
are creating a work of art and it would be possible for Collingwood to
accept it.
3. In the previous paragraph I developed an argument to show that Col-
lingwood would not object to the kind of biography which aims to be
itself a work of art. Now, I will consider an argument in favour of biogra-
phy from within Collingwood’s philosophy which does not take biogra-
phy to be a work of art but, rather, considers biography to be the history
of a work of art. This piece of art is the life of an individual. As long as an
individual does not corrupt his or her consciousness, his or her life may
be considered a work of art. Consequently, the biography of this indi-
vidual may qualify as history of art. Here, of course, one is faced with the
problems surrounding history of art from the point of view of Collingwood.
Collingwood was not at all critical of the history of art and considered it

28) Cf. E. Colwil, “Subjectivity, Self-Representation, and the Revealing Twitches of Biogra-

phy”, French Historical Studies, 24:3 (2001), 421–437, 436): Historians in writing a biography
“sculpt a human face from [their] sources”. Momigliano also speaks of “the art of portrayal”
in putting together an encomium, which he takes to be a forerunner of biography (Momigli-
ano, The Development of Greek Biography 102).
58 V. Kindi / Journal of the Philosophy of History 6 (2012) 44–59

an improvement to include into history the history of art, the history of

science or the history of religion (IH 105). He disapproved, for instance,
of positivist historiography for identifying history with political history
and ignoring subjects like the history of art (IH 132, 213). Still, in his essay
of 1925 “Outlines of a Philosophy of Art”, he claims that “[a]rt, as art has
no history” (EPA, 151). This is because he sees every work of art as a closed
monad, complete in itself with no connection to any other. Since the
task of history is “to show why things happened, to show how one thing
led to another” (EPA 152), Collingwood concludes that that there cannot
be history of art proper but “only magic-lantern shows in which we are
invited to contemplate fijirst one work of art, and then another, and then
another; as if an historian should think that he had discharged his whole
duty when he has told us that this year there was an earthquake, next
year a battle, and the year after that a famine (EPA 152). In his lectures of
1936 on “The Subject-Matter of History”, however, Collingwood allows
for the history of artistic achievements (IH 314) rejecting only a history
of artistic problems since the problems which lead to the achievements
cannot be formulated independently of, and in advance of, the achieve-
ments. Can the artistic achievement of one’s life qualify as an object for
the history of art as Collingwood understands it? I think it can. Whether
we understand a life as a unique achievement or as a series of achieve-
ments, one can recount it historically especially given the peculiarities
of this case: unlike artistic creation, life depends on connections between
events and the work of art, namely, life, cannot be easily detached from
the artist, that is the historical agent.
4. We saw earlier that Collingwood acknowledged that thought is fused
with emotion and emotion permeated by thought. This means that his-
tory, which deals with thought, cannot but also deal with emotions. It
also means that biography, even if it is taken to be particularly con-
nected to emotions, does not fail in principle to qualify as history. It fails
only when it tries to express already available and schematized emo-
tions in order to amuse or instruct. It, then, degenerates into a biogra-
phy of the sensationalist kind which is what Collingwood actually
condemns. His explicit negative references to biography should not be
taken to encompass the whole genre.
5. Finally, and independently of the particulars of Collingwood’s philoso-
phy, one may want to claim that life is not defijined by physiological
events, like the birth and death of an individual. In contemporary
V. Kindi / Journal of the Philosophy of History 6 (2012) 44–59 59

bioethics, for instance, especially in debates concerning euthanasia,

distinctions are made between physiological and biographical lives
(Ruddick 2005). Ruddick speaks of “post mortem lives”29 and notes that
one can lead many biographical lives in the span of a physiological life.
So, a life recounted in biography need not be framed in physiological
terms as Collingwood feared. A life is built by the actions of an individ-
ual which are the manifestations of his or her thoughts in the context of
a physical and historical environment and can duly be told historically.

I think it follows from the above that Collingwood is only opposed to the
kind of biography that aims solely to entertain the public by cultivating and
enhancing already available inclinations and habits of reaction. No efffort is
being made in these works to understand an individual and the historical
circumstances of his or her life. The only care authors of such biographies
have is to arouse and feed the hunger of the audience for personal details
and eccentric facts. It’s a mechanical process which links externally together
satisfaction and demand. Such biographies cannot qualify as either history
or art. Collingwood, who commended the communion of souls between
artist and audience and insisted on historians making every efffort to re-
enact past thoughts in order to understand past agents and their actions,
could not but be opposed to such shallow pieces of work. But his under-
standing of history cannot exclude and could not, in principle, be opposed
to biographies which aim to make sense of the events that make up a
human life. As either pieces of art themselves, just like portrait painting, or
as historical accounts of artistic or non-artistic individual lives, biographies
can be redeemed from within Collingwood’s work.30

29) Cf. F. Nietzsche, “The Anti-Christ: A Curse on Humanity” in A. Ridley and J. Norman

(eds.), The Anti-Christ, Ecce Homo, Twilight of the Idols and Other Writings, 1–67, (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 2005, 3): “Some people are born posthumously”.
30) Earlier versions of this paper were presented at the conference on “Collingwood and
Twentieth Century Philosophy” in Montreal in October 2007 and at the faculty seminars of
the Philosophy Department of the University of Southampton in December 2007 and of my
department at the University of Athens. I would like to thank the audience on all these occa-
sions for their response to my presentations. I owe special thanks to Professors Peter Brown
(Princeton University), Giuseppina D’Oro (Keele University), Katerina Ierodiakonou (Uni-
versity of Athens), Genia Schönbaumsfeld (University of Southampton) and the anonymous
referee for their very helpful comments and suggestions.