The Idea of History Review

cover of The Idea of HistoryFor the first of my mini book reviews, here are my thoughts on R. G. Collingwood’s The Idea of History, originally published in 1946.

In The Idea of History, which was published posthumously, Collingwood deals with a philosophy of history. The book is divided into an introduction followed by five parts, each part dealing with a different issue in this philosophy. The first section of the introduction deals with what he means by the phrase “philosophy of history” and how it differs from philosophers and historians who came before him. Parts I-IV then deal with a history of history and how it’s been told in the past — its own meta-discourse on history. Part V deals with history conceptually. That is, it deals with what history is and what it is not. Collingwood also tackles the idea of certain narratives masquerading as history precisely because they do not fit inside the definitions he has established. While I follow and agree with most of Collingwood’s claims, I couldn’t help but note a few times that this was published in 1946 and is therefore outdated in certain aspects. In many places, Collingwood would end a trajectory of thought right at the point I wanted him to keep going and take the next step.

Part I deals with Greco-Roman historiography. The section primarily summarizes and analyzes ancient Greek conceptions of history. It seems this was a good starting point for Collingwood given Herodotus is often considered the father of history. This section, however, was where I began to note the limitations of the book for my own work. Within the section, there’s a subsection called “Anti-historical Tendency of Greek Thought” that made some rather broad claims about the nature of ancient Greek thought that I consider beyond the reach of Collingwood’s own historical knowledge. In effect, this section highlights the limitations of Collingwood’s applications to his own conception of history. At the same time, however, I’m not convinced Collingwood was calling for a change in the way history is conceptualized and presented, but rather merely pointing out the flaws of the contemporary conceptions.

Parts II, III, and IV move the narrative forward through “The Influence of Christianity” to scientific history, highlighting notable historians along the way. To be frank, I didn’t find these sections particularly useful to me (I was reading this selfishly, after all). In the future, they may provide a good reference point should I find the need for a synopsis of a particular historian’s work. But beyond that, my main take away was the development of historical knowledge and presentation Collingwood saw in these historians’ works.

The final section, Part V, was the most interesting to me. Collingwood used this opportunity to develop ideas that were originally presented in the introduction. In this section, Collingwood clearly delineated scientific history from other sciences while also demarcating history as different from nature. Again, this was published in 1946, so there would perhaps be a presentation of these ideas that may make more sense now. The two main ideas that struck me in this section were: historical evidence, and historical knowledge. In dealing with historical evidence, Collingwood demonstrates that the way history is understood and accepted functions similarly to the natural sciences — you need more than one source that tells you something happened. As far as historical knowledge goes, Collingwood often returns to this point: historical knowledge only exists in the mind of the historian. Today, I would argue instead that any history at all (not just historical knowledge) exists in the mind of the historian in the present moment. All around, I enjoyed Collingwood’s book for what it was and was able to take away some useful ideas to apply to my own research and work.