Academic journal article Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture

Civilizational Sickness and the Suspended Middle: R.G. Collingwood, Christopher Dawson, and Historical Judgment

Academic journal article Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture

Civilizational Sickness and the Suspended Middle: R.G. Collingwood, Christopher Dawson, and Historical Judgment

Article excerpt

Either reality is the immediate flow of subjective life, in which case it is subjective and not objective, it is enjoyed and cannot be known, or else it is that which we know, in which case it is objective and not subjective, it is a world of real things outside the subjective life of our mind and outside each other.... but to accept either horn is to be committed to the fundamental error of conceiving the mind as a mere immediate flow of feelings and sensations, devoid of all reflection and self-knowledge.   R. G. COLLINGWOOD, THE IDEA OF HISTORY (1)  It is always a temptation to the historian to exaggerate the continuity of history, above all when the historian is the representative of a party or a cause. But the past does not exist for the sake of the present, it has its own ends and its own values. Its life is bound up with the life of unique individual personalities, which may seem to be mere fodder for the historical process but which are nevertheless spiritual ultimates.  CHRISTOPHER DAWSON, THE SPIRIT OF THE OXFORD MOVEMENT (2) 

THE TWO VOLUMES of Oswald Spengler's infamous The Decline of the West (1916, 1923), which traced eight high cultures through the cycle of birth, development, fulfillment, decay, and death, were translated into English in 1926 and 1928. Two British historians of note who shared Christian faith, R. G. Collingwood (1889-1943) and Christopher Dawson (1889-1970), felt obligated to review Spengler when the first volume appeared in translation. Typically, a Christian theory of history is understood to be linear in movement, and twentieth-century Christian thinkers largely rejected views like Spengler's. The two historians' individual critiques also drew Dawson into an assessment of Collingwood that Dawson continued to hold for much of his career. Collingwood and Dawson agreed with Spengler that civilizational life and death were historical realities and that past cultures had ideological centers and even some predictable course; at the same time, both men shared a deep distrust of positivist claims for necessary causation. Likewise, they shared a concern for Christian civilization--even to a similar cultural diagnosis before and during World War II, yet when they arrived at their common alarm, it was with different assumptions about historical judgment. Their claims about the sickness of the West might seem to require something like Spengler's tragic cycle, and yet both sought other ways to make this diagnosis than that of a positivist fatalism in which evolved animals rebel against an indifferent universe. (3) Each historian sought an active and creative account of human potential within history. While Collingwood favored an interpretation of historical consciousness that looked toward the subjective, Dawson tended toward the externals and the objective. Their two centers of gravity in terms of theory and practice, not surprisingly, also favored differing accounts of Christian faith: Collingwood's inclining toward immanence and Dawson's toward transcendence. Nevertheless, each moved within what Erich Przywara has called a "suspended middle," a measurement of existence both in and beyond history, that is, one that gives space mutually to universal truths and to historical particulars, and from within this suspension, both historians involved their historical judgments in moral ones, as well.

Realism and Idealism

Collingwood and Dawson have been influential authors, yet, in his lifetime, neither was considered near the disciplinary center of academic history. The Anglican Collingwood, who taught at Pembroke College, Oxford, for fifteen years before becoming Waynflete Professor of Metaphysical Philosophy at Magdalen College, Oxford, was somewhat isolated in his fields of study. Along with his archeological digs at Romano-British sites and his involvement in folklore studies, his chief focus was on the history of philosophy and in turn, the philosophy of history. The posthumous The Idea of Nature (1945) and The Idea of History (1946)--both mostly drafted in the late 1930s--were to become well-known books, the latter creating a conversation that continues until today. …

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