History Man: The Life of R. G. Collingwood

History Man: The Life of R. G. Collingwood

History Man: The Life of R. G. Collingwood

History Man: The Life of R. G. Collingwood


This is the first biography of the last and greatest British idealist philosopher, R. G. Collingwood (1889-1943), a man who both thought and lived at full pitch. Best known today for his philosophies of history and art, Collingwood was also a historian, archaeologist, sailor, artist, and musician. A figure of enormous energy and ambition, he took as his subject nothing less than the whole of human endeavor, and he lived in the same way, seeking to experience the complete range of human passion. In this vivid and swiftly paced narrative, Fred Inglis tells the dramatic story of a remarkable life, from Collingwood's happy Lakeland childhood to his successes at Oxford, his archaeological digs as a renowned authority on Roman Britain, his solo sailing adventures in the English Channel, his long struggle with illness, and his sometimes turbulent romantic life.

In a manner unheard of today, Collingwood attempted to gather all aspects of human thought into a single theory of practical experience, and he wrote sweeping accounts of history, art, science, politics, metaphysics, and archaeology, as well as a highly regarded autobiography. Above all, he dedicated his life to arguing that history--not science--is the only source of moral and political wisdom and self-knowledge.

Linking the intellectual and personal sides of Collingwood's life, and providing a rich history of his milieu, History Man also assesses Collingwood's influence on generations of scholars after his death and the renewed recognition of his importance and interest today.


A preface has always seemed a happy convention. For one treats a book something like the way one does another human, as being trustworthy or not, as being engaging or haughty or tedious or revisitable, as becoming a friend, a teacher, a bore, an old misery, a cheerful companion on long journeys, a master. So the author’s preface bids the reader greet the book, tells him or her, briefly and with modest ceremony, what sort of person it is, and leaves the interlocutor to get on with it.

Yet readers mostly skip prefaces. This time I hope you won’t. For I have adopted a particular device by way of dramatising one very important aspect of my subject’s thought. in each chapter the biography is told, naturally, according to the chronology of the life, as well it might be. a biography is the story of how an individual came through time to be what he or she was. Disrupting biographical chronology in the name of postmodernism or literary theory is merely mannerism. However, each chapter is closed by a section in which assorted topics arising from a narrative of the past are reconsidered in the light of the present.

This minor dislocation of the history is intended by way of drawing attention to Collingwood’s prime lesson, that the past, completed as it must be, nonetheless may be found living in the present, in his word, “encapsulated,” and releasing its force into the later moment from within that capsule. the concluding sections, that is, are intended to dramatise such a contention, to keep in motion the surge and withdrawal of the tide of past time.


A recent piece in the London Review of Books started out with some malicious animadversions on the whole convention of prefatory acknowledgements, suggesting that they were merely a boastful record . . .

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