Monday, 7 May 2007

Thinking outside the box

An Autobiography by RG Collingwood

Oxford University Press 1939
Page 77

...Soon after the beginning of that century, a number of intelligent people in western Europe began to see in a settled and steady manner what a few here and there had seen by fits and starts for the last hundred years or more: namely that the problems which ever since the time of early Greek philosophy had gone by the collective name of ‘physics’ were capable of being restated in a shape in which, with the double weapon of experiment and mathematics, one could now solve them. What was called Nature, they saw, had henceforth no secrets from man; only riddles which he had learnt the trick of answering. Or, more accurately, Nature was no longer a Sphinx asking man riddles; it was man that did the asking, and Nature, now, that he put to the torture until she gave him the answer to his questions.

This was an important event in human history, it was important enough to divide the philosophers of the period into two groups: those who understood its importance and those who did not. The first group comprised all those whose names are now generally know to students of philosophy. The second, an immensely greater host of good men, learned men, subtle men, sleep their long night unknown and unlamented, not because they did not find a poet to praise them; few philosophers do; but because they misread the signs of the times. They did not realise that the chief business of seventeenth century philosophy was to reckon with seventeenth century natural science; to solve the new problems that the new science had raised, and to envisage the old problems in the new forms which they had assumed, or would assume, when refracted into new shapes through the new scientific atmosphere.

The chief business of twentieth-century philosophy is to reckon with twentieth-century history. Until the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, historical studies had been in a condition analogous to that of natural science before Galileo. In Galileo’s time something happened to natural science … which suddenly and enormously increased the velocity of its progress and the width of its outlook. About the end of the nineteenth century something of the same kind was happening, more gradually and less spectacularly perhaps, but not less certainly, to history.

Until then, the writer of history had been in the last resort, however he might prune and pad, moralise and comment, a scissors-and-paste man. At bottom, his business was to know what ‘the authorities’ had said about the subject he was interested in, and to his authorities’ statements he was tied by the leg, however long the rope and however flowery the turf over which it allowed him to circle. If his interest led him towards a subject on which there were no authorities, it led him into a desert where nothing was except the sands of ignorance and the mirage of imagination...

(Collingwood grew up in an atmosphere of archaeological exploration, his father WG Collingwood was a minor painter, secretary to William Ruskin and a passionate archaeologist. It was a mixture of these early influences that would effected the way RG thought and ultimately influenced his way of approaching historical assumptions and to see ‘outside the box’. VH)

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