Saturday, October 23, 2010

Unfinished Journey

The New Leviathan:
Or Man, Society, Civilization and Barbarism
(1992; originally published in 1942).
By R.G. Collingwood. 525 pp. Revised edition edited and introduced by David Boucher. Clarendon Press: Oxford. $84 (1992 price).

Reviewed by Nicholas Stix.

Reading The New Leviathan, you wouldn’t know it was written by a dying man in a race against the clock.

Although it proposes to treat of political science from the standpoint of first principles, TNL is clearly a work of philosophy. For if a byword coined by John Rawls (whose Columbia University Press work, Political Liberalism, will be reviewed in a coming ADD) argues “politics not metaphysics,” R. G. Collingwood’s (1889-1943) slogan might have been, “politics and metaphysics.”

Collingwood and Rawls are really not at sword’s point. Rather, Rawls argues against a politics driven by “metaphysical” concerns. Read: ontological. Or rather, religious. Er, utopian. I mean, bad politics. Which begs the question. The theorist (call himself what he will: philosopher, political scientist, theologian, etc.) seeking to limit such influences must face them, not dismiss them, before the confrontation. Collingwood faced them squarely in a way that no postwar analytic political thinker has.

Collingwood was the last great member of the old history of ideas school at Oxford. Upon his death, his Wayneflete Chair of Moral and Metaphysical Philosophy devolved upon Gilbert Ryle and a series of professors who simply didn’t know or care what the hell Collingwood had been talking about. Civilization? Barbarism! Pass the crumpets, please.

Collingwood saw clearly that the fight was for the rule of law, science, and peace and prosperity, vs. mob rule, emotionalism, and the destitute life of a perpetual war state. He made his points in a philosophical prose without parallel in the English language. Certain figures of speech he used were deliberately old fashioned, particularly early in the work, giving it a cosmetic continuity with Hobbes’ original Leviathan (1651). Thus, many nouns are capitalized, as per the conventions of mid-17th century English. Collingwood followed Hobbes too in his organization and in his dry wit. But Collingwood was no mere epigone, and certainly no Hobbesian. His concerns were those of the mid and late-20th century—our concerns—and whereas Hobbes was a materialist, Collingwood was an idealist.

The most theoretical passages in TNL have not aged a day since Collingwood originally jotted them down between the 1920s and ‘40s. His classic section on the “relation between body and mind,” for instance, applies without qualification to much contemporary “social science” discussion. I am speaking of “dialectical” thinkers who equivocate between seeing men as autonomous agents and as passive, physical objects, depending on political expediency.

Although in crucial respects Collingwood was himself a neo-Hegelian, on this point (with an assist from Spinoza) he blows away all of neo-Hegelian (which includes Marx and all his progeny) social science. Another application of the same criticism refutes those who posit a conflict between hypostatized “individualism” and “collectivism.”

Collingwood’s attempt to combine Kant (1724-1804) and Hegel (1770-1831) proved his undoing. A great many misguided Germans have attempted this, most notably Hegel Himself (Dieter Henrich and Juergen Habermas come to mind among contemporary philosophers).

Collingwood tried to proceed from historical, relativistic assumptions to absolute, non-relativistic conclusions (“absolute presuppositions”). Specifically, he asserted the existence of a series of discrete historical stages, each with its own inherent principle. Theorists of moral development, take note: the fact that humanity, a particular nation or group, or even the average child tend to act based on a certain principle at a certain time does not endow that principle with any inherent sovereignty regarding how one ought to act. Saying that a five year old child usually acts according to “stage two,” or that “European man” acts according to the concept of “duty” (funny thing for a Brit to be arguing for, while fighting the Gerries), gives you no answer for he who acts based on a different principle. To say of an unpopular principle, “that’s not normal” for five year olds or European men is beside the point. “Normality” is statistical. To suggest anything else requires presupposing a standard whose validity obtains independent of whether a single person follows it, positing a Platonic form, or believing in the existence of a God who commands the normalcy of which one speaks. And still, the deviant has the option of defying God.

Collingwood, however, was loathe to draft God or posit Platonic forms.

Ultimately, he broke his own commandment regarding the relation between body and mind, in confusing the causes of empirically observed action with the grounds behind action chosen by an autonomous agent. He tried to look at man simultaneously from the positions of science and philosophy.

In attempting to refute the charge that Collingwood was a relativist, Editor David Boucher has appended two heretofore unpublished manuscripts. Alas, Collingwood made his own choices; unpublished “Nachlass” is always inferior to published works. To do business differently would be to undermine authorship. Were we to dig deeply enough into any great thinker’s notebooks, we would find so many thoughts contradicting his published views that chaos would replace the notion we have of his ideas. Academic autopsies serve either pure curiosity, the illusion that a Johnny-come-lately can conduct the deceased’s career better than he did, or are purely frivolous.

Although the deconstruction of notebook marginalia has produced a healthy academic make-work industry, I am not presently taking applications.

That’s no knock on Boucher for including the “new” material; pure curiosity is a more than adequate justification, and I’ve curiosity to spare. I am merely saying that he can’t draw the conclusions he does from it.

Oxford plans to reissue Collingwood’s posthumously published lectures on the philosophy of history and historiography, The Idea of History (1946) later this year. (The latter work and his The Principles of Art (1937) are meanwhile available in cheap paperback versions. [P.S. 2010: I published a systematic introduction to Collingwood’s ideas in ADD #1, not yet available online.] As pleased as I am by the respectful, handsome presentation given to TNL, its price indicates the sort of meager press run that assures that Collingwood’s political philosophy will continue to be a matter of intellectual trivia to any but a pedant like me. Hell, even John Rawls neglected to mention Collingwood at all in his magisterial Political Liberalism.

TNL’s high price and correspondingly low press run mean that only major research libraries will acquire it. This is a book for civilians, every man Jack of them that is intellectually alive. TNL is concerned with those matters which, in Kant’s words, “necessarily concern everyone” (“jedermann notwendigerweise angeht”). When some of my students asked how they might get their hands on a copy, I could only hope aloud that Oxford might publish a reasonably priced paperback version, as it did thirty years ago. (Hint, hint!)
So, Collingwood was a relativist. Oh, pooh. Of every great philosopher it can be said, “He’s an ‘X’.” That’s just another way of saying, “He’s human.” Once the former criticism is translated into the latter observation, it becomes clear with what manner of speciousness we are contending.

Relativism was one of the two chief forms of human frailty to which Collingwood was subject. (Dogmatism was the other.)

Collingwood’s frailties notwithstanding, I can take his concern for the need for both philosophy and science, and their respective roles as foundations of civilization, on my own journey:

I have mentioned two approaches to the problem of self-knowledge: the natural sciences and the sciences of man... I have suggested that the relation between them is one into which inquiry ought to be made...

I shall not undertake it. There is only one thing about it which has to be said here. Each is valid. Each is a search for truth, and neither goes unrewarded. Each, therefore, has its own problems, and must solve them by its own methods. Neither can do anything but harm, either to itself, or to its fellow, by trespassing on its fellow’s hunt. Of these two different forms of science, the one that has started a hare must catch it.

The reason is plain. You can only solve a problem which you recognize to be a problem. The same methods, therefore, which led to the asking of a question must lead to the answering of it. If they cannot, no others can; for others will involve the recognition that the question needs an answer.

Here you are in the middle of a problem; the same horse that got you into it, must get you out again. No amount of admiration for some other horse must betray you into the Fallacy of Swapping Horses.

If the wretched horse called Mental Science has stuck you in mid-stream you can flog him, or you can coax him, or you can get out and lead him; or you can drown, as better men than you have drowned before.

But you must not swap him even for the infinitely superior horse called Natural Science.

For this is a magic journey, and if you do that the river will vanish, and you will find yourself back where you started.

(Postscript October 23, 2010: I wrote this review in 1993 for ADD #4, which never appeared.

TNL is, for my money, the most beautiful work in the history of English-language philosophy. Ah, but it's your money that's at issue. An expanded, 1999 edition--which I don't have, either--currently costs $150 in hardcover, and $65 in paperback at Amazon. Thus is there less chance than ever, of the general public reading this masterpiece. However, depending on the politics of copyright law, it may be entering the public domain in 2017, at which point it could be downloaded onto the Internet.)

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