Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Does "I Know" Tolerate Metaphysical Emphasis? R. G. Collingwood's Affirmative Answer to Wittgenstein's Rhetorical Question

Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Does "I Know" Tolerate Metaphysical Emphasis? R. G. Collingwood's Affirmative Answer to Wittgenstein's Rhetorical Question

Article excerpt

   One might point to R. G. Collingwood as another philosopher who    seemed more "conservative" than Wittgenstein during their    lifetimes, but whose greater historical sense gives his arguments    an added interest to a later generation. (1)     Wittgenstein largely ignored history, and disliked science.    Collingwood respected science and based his entire philosophy on    history.... Collingwood's emphasis on historical change and    constant tension in absolute presuppositions counteracts ... the    danger of falling into assumptions of functional coherence....    Wittgensteinian accounts of social understanding have, notoriously,    tended to favour a static picture of a fully functioning and    coherent system. (2) 

Only once in his entire oeuvre does R. G. Collingwood mention Wittgenstein's name. In Wittgenstein's writings Collingwood's name nowhere appears. (3) Yet the congeniality between their later writings has often, and from diverse points of view, been mentioned. At first sight, the reasons therefore seem obvious. During the interwar period, both Wittgenstein and Collingwood, both born in 1889, were at work in the two leading English universities, respectively Cambridge and Oxford, where analytic philosophy with a strong neopositivist bent was predominant. In the Oxbridge environment of those days, Collingwood and Wittgenstein, who explicitly disassociated themselves from the dominant realist and neopositivist trends at that time, had the reputation of being "lone wolves." (4)

The resemblance between Collingwood's and Wittgenstein's later work is especially striking. (5) J. A. Martin, Jr. was the very first to put into relief the congeniality between Collingwood's and Wittgenstein's views on language and metaphysics." In the wake of his article, a great number of subsequent articles have highlighted the resemblances between Collingwood's and Wittgenstein's positions in the domains of philosophy of language, anthropology, and logic. In the first part of this essay, I recall some aspects of these resemblances in their writings during the 1930s, namely, their common rejection of realist and neopositivist positions in logic and epistemology, accompanied by their critique of propositional logic. Embroidering upon these salient similarities, I focus subsequently on the relation between On Certainty and An Essay on Metaphysics, in particular with regard to the logical function of what Wittgenstein and Collingwood respectively refer to as "frames of reference" and "absolute presuppositions."

However, in spite of the striking similarities, the main difference between these two writings consists in their attitudes toward metaphysics. In the second part, I concentrate on that difference. Whereas Wittgenstein never uses the term metaphysics, Collingwood defines his historical project explicitly as a project of metaphysics. Put differently, while Wittgenstein's thesis in On Certainty is that "I know" does not tolerate metaphysical emphasis, Collingwood claims in An Essay on Metaphysics that it is the specific task of metaphysics to articulate our basic presuppositions in their historical transformations. In Wittgenstein's perspective, the question whether our basic frames of reference tolerate a metaphysical emphasis is a rhetorical one. In Collingwood's view, this question regarding the need for a metaphysical emphasis of our basic presuppositions gets a frankly affirmative answer. Of course, that significant difference has been noted, but it has never really been examined. Even more, the majority of Collingwood scholars saw no reason at all why his historical study of basic presuppositions should usurp the name of metaphysics and, therefore, they rejected the term as a very unfortunately chosen one. (8)

In the third part of this article I propose in four steps an explanation why Collingwood's term "metaphysics" is not so idiosyncratic as some supposed it to be and in what sense his metaphysics differs from Wittgenstein's approach. …

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