Book Review: The Idea of History (Collingwood)

The Idea of History: With Lectures 1926-1928The Idea of History 
by R.G. Collingwood

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As emotional and subjective beings we never simply look to raw history, rather, we look to history and think about history through our own presuppositional lenses.  Collingwood calls this the second degree of reflective philosophy.  We typically think about the thoughts that we are having about history.  In other words, we tend to interpret history through our cultural environments.  What we highlight and what we see in history is dictated by our cultural, anthropological and philosophical view of history.

To establish a context for this paper I am going to lay out a bird’s eye view of each period’s main tenets or could I say, “Worldviews.”  More specifically, I believe that it would be beneficial to look more specifically at each time period’s view of mankind.  I will begin with the Greeks and progress toward our present contemporary context of the enlightenment and romanticism.  The material below has been fleshed out by Collingwood.

Greco-Roman Historiography:
This era was framed within a context of humanism.  It was based on the idea of man as essentially a rational animal, by which I mean the doctrine that every individual human being is an animal capable of reason.  The Greeks had a lively and indeed a naïve sense of the power of man to control his own destiny and thought of this power as limited only by the limitations of his knowledge.

Pendulum Shift:
According to Collingwood there was a pendulum shift where the historical philosophy and narrative shifted from a one-sided humanistic perspective to a one-sided theocentric view.

Medieval Historiography:
With the advent of Christianity in the Constantinian Era came a new historiography, or rather a shift.  As noted above the pendulum shifted.  Rather than an overt view of mankind with the Greco-Roman History, the optimistic idea of human nature was replaced with an understanding of mankind’s downfall of original sin.  Rather than seeing sin as an action, it was seen as an inherent part of natural man.  This de-emphasis of man’s power, intellect and abilities shifted the narrative from mankind to the working of God.  

According to Collingwood the second major shift happened as a revolt not only against the religious institution but also against the meta-narrative of the Medieval times.

Enlightenment Historiography:
The philosophical theory in this movement was that certain forms of mental activities are primitive forms, destined to perish when the mind arrives at maturity.  Mankind may be limited and irrational but certainly capable of being converted from the weak view of medieval times to an enlightened state.

While Collingwood did spend time on how each period of time viewed history (i.e. as progress, as continuation, etc…), I believe assessing how each period viewed mankind really captures the bedrock foundation of how one conducts their history.  Collingwood continuously reinforces that a historian cannot simply report the outward activities and expressions of a historical event.  Rather the historian’s job is to exegete and ascertain the psyche behind the historical events, so as to communicate the thoughts of the historical period to the present.  However, where this gets tremendously difficult is twofold.  The first is the challenge of assessing the historical time period’s view of mankind and his/her relationship to the events around him, as previously expressed.  Secondly, things are also complicated depending on the historians own anthropological presuppositions of himself and the audience that he is attempting to communicate to.  Take for example the Enlightenment.  Individuals from the Enlightenment had an overly inflated view of mankind in his/her supposed enlightened state.  According to Collingwood, due to the overly optimistic view of mankind in the enlightenment, many rejected and had no sympathy for the non-rationalistic period of human history within the Medieval period.  In fact, many of them began to be interested in history at the point where the modern enlightened spirit appeared on the stage.

While the enlightenment’s view of mankind certainly undercuts and usurps the historiography and meta-narrative of the Medieval age, it is also at odds with modern Christian historiography.  While each period’s historiography and view of mankind is formed from pendulum swings and revolts, as students of the Bible we need to keep in mind that the scriptures form and inform our anthropology and our presuppositional lenses in which we assess and understand history.  It is extremely valuable for the church to understand the ancient historiographical presuppositions of each age, not only when reading history, but also in interpreting it (i.e. good exegesis of history).  Furthermore, it is essential for the church to understand the modern historiographical presuppositions in our day in age in order to assess the possible eisegesis of modern historians.

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