Why Re-enactment is not Empathy, Once and for All

In: Journal of the Philosophy of History
Author: Tyson Retz 1
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  • 1 The University of Melbourne


The misconception still circulates that Collingwood’s doctrine of re-enactment is a concept of empathy. This claim typically arises from the belief that his philosophy of history shares affinities with the nineteenth-century tradition of Romantic hermeneutics. It supposes that re-enactment consists in a unidirectional recapturing of past mental contents, in which are said to reside the pristine meanings of past texts as intended by their authors. By emphasising the dialectical character of re-enactment, this article makes plain that re-enactment entails no such one-sided transferal. It is right to conceive of Collingwood hermeneutically, but not in the nineteenth-century, empathy-dependent tradition. Rather, as Gadamer illuminated in acknowledging the service that Collingwood’s theories provided in the development of his hermeneutics, Collingwood is better understood as proposing a Hegelian-style integration of past and present thought. He reacted against the individualising psychologism of the anti-Hegelian German historicists and emphasised instead the shared nature of language and thought. A proper account of the context that historical investigation ought to recover involves shifting attention from a methodologically inadequate epistemological conception of re-enactment and empathy to a metaphysical one concerned with exposing the foundations of discourse upon which past agents believed, thought and acted. The myth that re-enactment belongs to a discredited hermeneutics of recovery is set against Collingwood’s attempt to depsychologise historical thinking and within his project to reconcile history and philosophy, epistemology and metaphysics.


The misconception still circulates that Collingwood’s doctrine of re-enactment is a concept of empathy. This claim typically arises from the belief that his philosophy of history shares affinities with the nineteenth-century tradition of Romantic hermeneutics. It supposes that re-enactment consists in a unidirectional recapturing of past mental contents, in which are said to reside the pristine meanings of past texts as intended by their authors. By emphasising the dialectical character of re-enactment, this article makes plain that re-enactment entails no such one-sided transferal. It is right to conceive of Collingwood hermeneutically, but not in the nineteenth-century, empathy-dependent tradition. Rather, as Gadamer illuminated in acknowledging the service that Collingwood’s theories provided in the development of his hermeneutics, Collingwood is better understood as proposing a Hegelian-style integration of past and present thought. He reacted against the individualising psychologism of the anti-Hegelian German historicists and emphasised instead the shared nature of language and thought. A proper account of the context that historical investigation ought to recover involves shifting attention from a methodologically inadequate epistemological conception of re-enactment and empathy to a metaphysical one concerned with exposing the foundations of discourse upon which past agents believed, thought and acted. The myth that re-enactment belongs to a discredited hermeneutics of recovery is set against Collingwood’s attempt to depsychologise historical thinking and within his project to reconcile history and philosophy, epistemology and metaphysics.

Students of historical method, historiography and the philosophy of history continue to read that Collingwood’s doctrine of re-enactment is a concept of empathy. Peter Johnson’s primer to The Idea of History notes Collingwood’s admiration for Dilthey and suggests that ‘Empathy with the past’, for both, ‘is not a luxury that historians indulge, but a necessity if there is to be genuine historical understanding at all’. Alun Munslow’s introduction to historical theory and practice registers ‘Collingwood’s empathetic rethinking of the past’ – ‘the state of being “in touch with” the thoughts and situation of the historical agent’ – as the basis of a reconstructionist approach whereby ‘it is the empathetic linkage of evidence and context that constitutes history’.1 Others have observed, approvingly or disapprovingly, that the ‘essence of empathy’ is also the essence of Collingwood’s theory: at times he gives the impression that he believes in ‘some kind of direct empathetic understanding’, or that what is needed for explaining why people acted the way they did is ‘some unique method, verstehen, empathy or sympathy’.2 According to Mark Bevir, a ‘weak’ account of empathy is useful for reminding historians that they should not emulate natural scientists in searching for causal laws of events, but a ‘strong’ account based on the idea that they should re-enact the mental processes of those they try to understand is inadequate, on the grounds that it offers them no access to their subjects’ pre-conscious and unconscious beliefs and leaves them unable to transcend the limits their subjects applied to their own work.3 On this account, empathy is the activity of re-enacting past thoughts, but concentrating on thoughts alone constricts historical explanation to what agents knew and articulated themselves, whereas the value of historical inquiry consists in revealing the past in ways unknown to those who inhabited it.

Alongside this tendency to associate re-enactment with empathy is a cognate one that notes the hermeneutical character of Collingwood’s philosophy. ‘Hermeneutics’, in Munslow’s glossary of terms, was extended by Dilthey ‘to include drawing analogies between the likely intentions of the author of the evidence and our own experiences’, which according to him ‘formed the basis of R.G. Collingwood’s notion of empathy’. Bevir writes that Collingwood was ‘a lone voice in Oxford drawing on an elder idealism to address hermeneutic themes’ and the progenitor of an ‘Anglophone hermeneutics’ that challenged attempts in the mid-twentieth century to develop a positivist and naturalist analysis of historical explanation. David Boucher lists ‘a formidable array of intellectual giants in the theory of hermeneutics’ who can testify their indebtedness, a ‘seminal influence’ that for John Hogan ‘provides deep insights into the linkage between the two interpretive operations: the hermeneutical movement from the text forward to the present and the historical movement from the text backward to the event’, which ‘converge to form a single theme’.4 These comments reflect a broader literature on the continental character of Collingwood’s thought, as well as the bonds he shares with Hans-Georg Gadamer, who credited Collingwood fully for the service his doctrines provided in the development of his hermeneutics.

But perhaps nobody has delineated the connexion between re-enactment, empathy and hermeneutics as influentially as Quentin Skinner. While an advocate on the whole for what he calls a ‘Collingwoodian approach to the history of ideas’, Skinner has been a vocal critic of re-enactment, a doctrine he believes belongs to an epistemologically naïve hermeneutics of recovering the contents of past mental events. Critics of this view, he writes,

have complained that the traditional idea of hermeneutics asks for the impossible if it asks us, in Collingwood’s phrase, to think other people’s thoughts after them. This objection certainly seems to me well taken: we can surely never hope to abolish the historical distance between ourselves and our forebears, speaking as though we can spirit away the influence of everything that has intervened, empathetically reliving their experience and retelling it as it was once lived.5

At pains to distinguish his own approach from this empathy-dependent conception of uncovering an author’s intentions, he elaborates elsewhere:

Nothing I am saying presupposes the discredited hermeneutic ambition of stepping empathetically into other people’s shoes and attempting (in R.G. Collingwood’s unfortunate phrase) to think their thoughts after them. The reason why no such conjuring trick is required is that, as Wittgenstein established long ago in criticising the concept of a private language, the intentions with which anyone performs a successful act of communication must, ex hypothesi, be publicly legible.6

As is well known, Skinner’s linguistic contextualism treats speech acts as evidence of what authors were doing with their words. Just as publicly inscribed language allows us to grasp what people are trying to say to us in the everyday sense, so the language used in historical documents is the gateway for an intertextual understanding of the intentions with which authors wrote. The problem with re-enactment, as he conceives it, is that it wants to gain access to a private world of language and meaning. It sets about recapturing mental content in which is said to reside a text’s pristine meaning as the productive force in its creation. In so endeavouring to retrieve this meaning from the past, the task of re-enactment consists in the same ambition to understand past authors in ways that they were unable to understand themselves, ‘in its changing interpretation’, as Gadamer proclaimed in Truth and Method, ‘the whole history of modern hermeneutics can be read’.7 By Skinner’s analysis, the logocentrism of this unidirectional movement back to the event of textual production relegates the doctrine to the earliest stages of this development.

Against Hegel’s a priori construction of the meaning of history, empathy emerged alongside the need in German historicism to overcome temporal constraints to capture the distinct individuality of historical phenomena. Skinner rejects re-enactment on the same grounds that he rejects historicism’s empathy-dependent hermeneutics. No such communion with the past is necessary. The ordinary techniques of historical scholarship suffice because the texts historians study are composed of language that expresses the nature of the contribution their authors made to a pre-existing context it was their purpose to affect. It is by studying texts as actions intended to redefine an aspect of this anterior context that yields insight into the purposes for which they were written, not by reconstructing the act of production.

For the student of Collingwood, the significance of Skinner’s position is that it entails the possibility of taking a Collingwoodian approach without subscribing to his most famous doctrine – re-enactment. To him, as John Passmore, John Pocock, Peter Dunn, John Laslett and he himself held methodologically in common, a ‘Collingwoodian approach’ expressed the commitment to recovering the precise questions to which the philosophical and political texts they study were offered as answers.8 Collingwood never explicitly explained the relation between re-enactment and his twin theories of question-and-answer and absolute presuppositions; in consequence, it has been possible to accept his historical metaphysics as specifying the context that historians ought to investigate while dismissing the re-enactment view of historical knowing as epistemologically naïve. The problem with this position is that it takes too narrow a view of re-enactment, which in fact entails following in one’s own mind thoughts that arose from preceding ideational conditions that made it possible for them to be held as true and acted upon accordingly. In other words, the wider environment in which a past agent thought is drawn into the historian’s re-enactment of that thought.

Hence the need to consider re-enactment in conjunction with Collingwood’s presuppositional metaphysics. The doctrine is best invoked by the imagery of a walker following the bank of a river towards its source, aware of its flow, and thus of the stream of historical development, while holding in sight the opposite bank, and thus alternative routes to historical interpretation. Under the walker’s feet is not an immobile bedrock of knowledge and discourse, but a dynamic and changing riverbed that sustains its different forms of life. Once empathy has been extirpated from Collingwood’s philosophy of history, re-enactment can be regarded as a means of travel to and through this historical context. It does not transport the historian directly to the original source; it describes a dialectical process of identifying a past context different from the present context to be studied as consisting of presuppositions linking thought and action.

Empathy (Einfühlung) emerged in the substantive as a technical term of philosophical analysis in German aesthetics in the late nineteenth century. Yet its formulation as a central category for examining the nature of aesthetic experience is typically overlooked in studies of the German aesthetic tradition. Its omission can be explained largely by the fact that it developed at the periphery of mainstream philosophical aesthetics, in a tributary known as ‘psychological aesthetics’. Robert Vischer and Theodor Lipps, the leaders of this ‘empathy school’, as Paul Guyer has named it, rejected the prevailing position stretching back to Kant that aesthetic experience involves the pleasurable play of our cognitive powers, but remains detached from cognition itself. They argued that aesthetic experience is a form of cognition occurring in symphony with emotions aroused or experienced in the arts particularly.9

Vischer gave birth to the modern noun in his 1873 doctoral thesis, ‘On the Optical Feeling of Form’. Empathy designated the notion that there is a union of subjective response with the perception of objective form; it is a projection of the body’s emotional and physical characteristics, responding to the objective stimuli, onto the perception of the object, creating in his words ‘a harmony between the object and the subject, which arises because the object has a harmonious form and a formal effect corresponding to subjective harmony’.10 His coining of Einfühlung was the latest addition to a patchwork of ideas and prefixal variations to the noun ‘feeling’ (Fühlung), all of which resist translation into a single English word, and all of which carry conceptual distinctions lost in the translation of Einfühlung as empathy.

Lipps expounded his theories on empathy in writings on aesthetics, which he maintained is the study of the psychology of beauty. He defined beauty as ‘the capacity of an object to produce a particular effect in me’, an effect whose aesthetic value is none other than the pleasure it produces. Pleasure arises when the impressions given to the mind in aesthetic experience produce conditions that facilitate the mind’s activities. Lipps borrowed Vischer’s equation of empathy as the projection of human emotions onto external objects, whether human or nonhuman, in virtue of harmonies or resemblances between those objects.11 In close to his own words, my pleasure in an external object, insofar as it is an object of pleasure, is not an object but myself; it is a pleasure in a self, which insofar as it is aesthetically enjoyed is not myself but something objective. ‘This is what is meant by Empathy’, he concluded, ‘that the distinction between the self and the object disappears or rather does not yet exist’.12

In the theory of mind, empathy, in this original context, is to be understood as a means for obtaining knowledge of other minds. Lipps conceived the concept as an alternative to John Stuart Mill’s theory of analogical inference, a division that persists nowadays in the debate between theory-theorists, who claim that our possession of a theory allows us to attribute mental states to others to interpret, explain and predict their behaviour, and simulationists, who view our own mind as a sufficient model for understanding other minds.13

Empathy reached wider attention in the 1910s through Edmund Husserl and his student, Edith Stein, whose doctoral thesis and book, On the Problem of Empathy, contained themes that Husserl explored in Ideas II. The problem was that the knowledge created by empathetic encounters is ‘empty’, ‘blind’ and ‘restless’; it is a mode of knowledge that reaches back to its experience with the other but can never possess it.14 Husserl was unsure how empathy could extend knowledge, for in projecting the other as a subject analogous to my own self, it produces nothing novel over against the self. He classed his own version as a ‘reproductive intuition’, having a role in knowledge by presenting another’s experience as if I were experiencing it myself. Empathy ‘reproduces’ in my experience the sort of experience I take another to have.15

Husserl gave empathy’s emotive quality a cognitive status. He removed the concept from its roots in naturalistic psychology and replanted it in the theory of the human sciences, as developed by Wilhelm Dilthey, whom Husserl knew. Whereas the other of the naturalistic attitude was an ‘invisible soul’ ready to be filled by my own projection, the other of the personalistic attitude was a ‘spiritual being’ in whose life I could now participate. In the same way that words express meaning in a direct intentional manner, so that we do not have to decipher each letter and then add their sense, this ‘ensouled’ body could be apprehended as a public expression of human intentionality. Thus transplanted to the Geisteswissenschaften, empathy was transformed into a kind of concrete intuition operating in the service of understanding (Verstehen).

Given that empathy emerged in aesthetics and theories of beauty, it makes sense that an evaluation of Collingwood’s attitude towards the concept would begin with his Principles of Art, still regarded among aestheticians as an important contribution in the English language. Indeed, his belief that ‘a work of art may be completely created when it has been created as a thing whose only place is in the artist’s mind’, and that ‘what we get out of it is something which we have to reconstruct in our own minds’, bears a striking resemblance to the re-enactment doctrine that history is an act of thinking about a past act of thinking.16 Just as we reproduce in our own minds the thought behind a scientific thesis expressed in the form of spoken or written language, Collingwood explains, so listening at a concert to the noises made by performers with musical instruments involves reproducing for ourselves the imaginary tune that existed in the composer’s head. It is this ‘imaginary object’ that constitutes art proper, not the end product itself. Aesthetic experience occurs through an ‘imaginative experience of total activity’, when we, as spectators, experience all manner of visions and motions associated with the imaginary object. As Louis Mink observed half a century ago, though Collingwood never mentions empathy, he is clearly interested in explaining why we find it natural to describe music or poetry as ‘soaring’ or ‘plodding’, or to regard a Cézanne still-life as suggesting objects ‘that have been groped over with the hands’.17 Unlike the empathy theorists who believed that in these objects exist qualities that produce an aesthetic experience in the viewer’s contemplation of them, Collingwood believed that the aesthetic experience is an imaginative construction actively produced in the process of contemplation.18

Without doubt, elements of Collingwood’s aesthetics unite it with his philosophy of history, namely, the opposition to individualistic psychology and the idea that artists should give voice to the knowledge that a community fails to articulate of ‘its own heart’.19 From the standpoint of his historical metaphysics, this might be considered on the level of the relative and absolute presuppositions held by a community, a theory to which we shall return. Regarding empathy’s place in his philosophy of history, the more instructive point of departure is his repudiation of psychology as the science of immediate experience.

Psychology went astray, he explained in his late book, An Essay on Metaphysics, when it ceased to see itself as a science of feeling and began to see itself as a science of thought. When it arose in the sixteenth century from the recognition that ‘feeling is not a kind of thinking’, that in feeling coldness, seeing redness or hearing shrillness we are not cognising an object, ‘but simply having a feeling’, psychology filled its rightful place between the sciences of bodily function and the sciences of the mind.20 But when it combined with a ‘materialistic epistemology’ in the eighteenth century, the intellectual activities or operations of thought previously the subject matter of the criterio-logical sciences, logic and ethics, became looked upon as ‘aggregations and complexes of feelings and thus special cases of sensation and emotion’.21 Crucial to understanding Collingwood is his belief that this new psychological science of thought removed the criterion of truth and falsehood by reference to which the self-critical sciences of thought had attempted to offer an account of the criteria used in their own self-criticism. Having mistaken feelings for thoughts, which are neither true nor false but simply ‘are’, it did not occur to the psychologist to discuss the functions by which thought distinguishes itself from the things it thinks about.

As history was codifying its methods in the German historicist movement, the rise of this ‘pseudo-science’ in the nineteenth century threatened scientific method and accuracy, concerned as they ought to have been with discussing an object of investigation in terms of its relation to the criteria used in investigating it. Collingwood hailed Germany as the ‘home of historical criticism’, ‘the mother-country of modern historical method’ and ‘of philosophical reflection upon it’. Dilthey, Simmel, Windelband and Rickert laid the foundations of a ‘flourishing school of thought’ and provided an incentive for French, English and Italian thinkers to turn their attention to the theory of historical knowledge. Yet ultimately Collingwood charged the German historicists with having sacrificed inquiry into the objective features of the historical process for questions of exclusively epistemological purport: ‘its real interest is in the historian’s mental processes’, a consequence of its ‘general prejudice against metaphysics’, a prejudice ‘partly neo-Kantian and partly positivistic’.22

A case in point was Dilthey’s attempt to do for history what Kant had tried to do for natural science. By combining psychological and historical thinking into one process in an attempt to specify the categories by which historical knowledge is possible, his Einleitung in die Geisteswissenschaften (1883) represented the apogee of the psychologistic conception of knowing historically.23 Neo-Kantians strove in general to ground history in an epistemology capable of legitimating its study of concrete individualities, which they hoped would supply philosophy with concrete content for its reflections. That they never realised this goal, Collingwood reasoned, was due in no small part to their failure to consider individual historical facts within an integrated process of historical development, that is, within a historical metaphysics.

Specifically, when Dilthey claimed that historians come to know the past from the materials they study by reliving in their own minds the spiritual activity that originally produced them, he may have put forward an account of the historian’s subjective mental processes, but he left unanswered how this process constitutes knowledge of the past. Dilthey described only how it is by virtue of the historian’s own spiritual life, and in proportion to the richness of that life, that he infuses life into the dead materials of the past. Collingwood described this process as ‘an inward experience (Erlebnis) of its own object’; or rather, as a conception of the historian as living in his object, not unlike the subject-object unification theorised by Dilthey’s contemporaries and compatriots, the empathy theorists.24 A theory intended to shore up the status of historical knowledge never illuminated the historical nature of its object. If the actualisations of human individuality studied by historians are taken to exist as categories inhering in themselves, what need would there be for a historical study of people in the past? Psychological self-analysis would do the job just fine.

In spite of Collingwood’s criticisms of the German tradition, it has been common to see him considered among its greatest exponents in the English language. Gadamer’s reception of An Autobiography in the 1950s provided the initial impetus for studying Collingwood in this light. Heidegger’s Habilitand placed the text ‘among the classics of English prose’, produced by a historical philosopher ‘with whom he cannot be classified’. Translated into German, Collingwood spoke ‘like someone coming home … though living and working abroad, never forgot his spiritual home. His homeland is the large expanse of German romanticism and of the historical school – Hegel, Schelling, Humboldt, Ranke, Droysen, Schleiermacher and Dilthey … Collingwood is at home in this tradition, to which Italian Hegelianism and in particular Croce is intimately related.’25

Gadamer found in Collingwood the basis for a repudiation of neo-Kantian ‘problem history’, an approach to the history of philosophy that considered problems as eternal and unchanging, against which the various attempts to solve them throughout history formed the subject matter of inquiry. Against this view, Collingwood raised the question of whether ‘constant’ problems could be more than mere abstractions without a criterion of historical truth, and responded firmly in the negative. Gadamer agreed with Collingwood that the true meaning of a proposition is not to be discovered by taking it as an answer to ‘whatsoever arbitrary question’, a question purported to be pertinent to all peoples at all times, but by discovering the ‘real question’ to which it was offered as an answer. Reflecting on his debt to Hegel, Gadamer credited Collingwood fully for the service that this logic of question and answer played in the development of his hermeneutics. ‘That one only “understands” a statement when one understands it as an answer to a question is compellingly evident … The logic of question and answer proved itself a dialectic of question and answer in which question and answer are constantly exchanged and are dissolved in the movement of understanding.’26

That Gadamer gave thanks to Collingwood as part of a wider acknowledgement of his debt to Hegel is of paramount importance to the argument being developed here. The Hegelian background to the philosophy of each is the prime factor in understanding their rejection of nineteenth-century historicism and its empathy-dependent hermeneutics. Neither Collingwood nor Gadamer believed that gaining historical knowledge involves a kind of retrieval from the past, and that the challenge for historical cognition therefore consists in preventing subjective and present-day ways of thinking from entering into this act of recovery. Early in his career, Gadamer was faced with two alternatives: Hegel’s ‘integration of past thought into one’s own thought’ or Schleiermacher’s ‘psychological reconstruction of past thought’.27 Deciding on Hegel, through the concept of ‘effective history’ (Wirkungsgeschichte) he came to believe that history has an effect or hold on us of which we can and do remain unaware. ‘In fact’, he wrote, ‘history does not belong to us; we belong to it’.28

As for Collingwood, the Hegelian character of the Italian thinkers to whom he owed his greatest intellectual debt separates him from the German historicists. Gadamer’s welcoming of Collingwood into the German tradition is in fact too broad. It ignores the fact that Ranke and the historical school formulated their theories about history’s status as an independent academic discipline against Hegel’s natural-law-inspired philosophical school. They objected to the way Hegel applied a pattern to history before having entered the archive and studied the torrent of individualities that this new breed of historical exegete encountered there. They mounted a philosophical justification for archival research on the idea that the universal that Hegel had already laid down dwelled in fact in the particular, which therefore had to be apprehended in its own right. Their approach was empirical without being empiricist. It was empirical because the school’s charter was its protest against the a priori imposition of history’s meaning, but it was not empiricist because it knew that historical knowledge was more than a matter of taking a close look; on the contrary, it involved some process of going beyond the mere literalness of words to discover their origins in sensation.

In a century that conceived the methods of the natural sciences as exemplary, second-order reflection upon history – its methods, standards and procedures of investigation – held higher priority than first-order, metaphysical speculation about the laws, ends or meaning of history itself. Historicism and neo-Kantianism were epistemological movements. Einfühlung, Verstehen and Transposition grew in the esteem of the practitioners and theorists of a new discipline that, against philosophy and later science’s claim to universal truths, proposed a way of yielding concrete insights into the dynamic and contingent nature of human experience, institutions and practices.

By comparison, Hegelian philosophy survived the nineteenth century relatively intact in Italy. In Germany, it took the revitalisation of Kant’s attempt to develop a system of reason for Hegel’s philosophy to be refurbished towards the end of the century. In Italy, the absolute claim of ‘objective spirit’ was taken as resting on a concrete claim of historical truth. Italian philosophy of history developed less out of a need to assert history’s identity against philosophy’s aggrandising claims than out of an attempt to reconcile the two disciplines under the one banner. This had a profound effect on the direction of Italian storicismo developed by Benedetto Croce. Whereas the empathy-dependent method of German historicism grew from a distinct opposition to Hegelian philosophy and Enlightenment universalism, the Italian variety attached itself to Hegel’s absolute system of historical development. ‘Absolute historicism’ described a process whereby the human world grows out of itself; history is absolute reality – the grounding for all human phenomena and objects of knowledge – not as it had been theorised in Germany as a reality consisting of a series of historically differentiated and incommensurable individualities.

Collingwood’s life’s project consisted in bringing about a rapprochement between history and philosophy. He never shied from voicing his criticisms of the way in which history and philosophy were practised, but his ambition in developing his theories on history and philosophy were synthetic and not adversarial. Collingwood inherited the Hegelian-Italian view that historical thinking and knowledge involves a dialectical movement between something known and something unknown from the past, rather than a unidirectional recapturing of some past mental entity in its original form. Collingwood was clear that a past thought is always re-thought in a context of present thoughts. ‘The past event, ideal though it is, must be actual in the historian’s re-enactment of it. In this sense, and in this sense only’, he wrote in 1928, ‘the ideality of the object of history is compatible with actuality and indeed inseparable from actuality’. But in the process of acquiring this actuality – that is, in its being re-thought by the historian in the fresh context that is the present moment – the thought undergoes a change that disqualifies it from being regarded as a copy of the one thought in the past. The historian ‘must enter into it [a past frame of mind], reconstitute it with his own mind, and at the same time objectify this very reconstitution, so as to prevent it from mastering his own mind and running away with him’.29

That re-enactment is seeing this contrast between past and present thoughts is what allows the past thought to be held up to analysis and criticism; that it involves an untangling of past and present thoughts (insofar as past thoughts are ‘incapsulated’ in the present) is what gives us a fuller conception of mind and its possibilities for deliberate and purposive action in the present. This is the political philosophy at the heart of Collingwood’s philosophy of history.

The claim that re-enactment involves abolishing historical distance and gaining access to a private world of meaning is further contested by Collingwood’s account of evidence and language in The Principles of History, the book he intended to be his final pronouncement on the philosophy of history. Although re-enactment makes no explicit appearance in the text, it is implicit in the way he describes language as expressing the thought embodied in action. ‘Res Gestae’, or the doings or deeds that historians study, ‘are not mere action, they are rational action, action which embodies thought. To embody thought is to express it. To express thought is to be language.’30

Since actions exhibit thought, and since historians read the language that expresses that thought, this shared language provides a direct line to discovering the thought behind Res Gestae, which is to discover what the creators of historical documents meant by or intended by them. To simply know that Diocletian issued an Edict of Prices or that Louis xiv revoked the Edict of Nantes does not qualify as historical knowledge. These ‘dry bones of historical knowledge’ are rather to be regarded as the means for gaining historical knowledge of the situation or context that the statements therein were issued to affect. The ‘special business of the historian’, according to Collingwood, is then to ‘interpret it as implying that he envisaged the situation in which he found himself in a certain manner, was discontented with it for certain reasons, and proposed to amend it in a certain way’.31 Historical documents become evidence only by virtue of the historian’s autonomy: the statements of which they are composed are not evidence in themselves; the evidence with which the historian works is ‘his own autonomous statement of the fact that they are made’. Against the view of re-enactment as passive and uncritical, the historian’s ‘evidence is always an experience of his own, an act which he has performed by his own powers and is conscious of having performed by his own powers: the aesthetic act of reading a certain text in a language he knows, and assigning to it a certain sense’.32

In light of these two facts, first, that re-enactment holds up to analysis and criticism a past that can be known as past insofar as it stands in contrast to the present situation in which it is rethought, and second, that it is only by virtue of shared language that historical knowledge is possible, it is difficult to support the view that Collingwood proffered a naïve theory of empathetic transposition concerned with recovering the pristine meaning of texts by penetrating the act of literary production. It is right to conceive of his theories hermeneutically, but not in the nineteenth-century, empathy-dependent tradition. This Romantic hermeneutics held meaning to be a matter of recognising the genesis of an originator’s thought and mental contents; it was a methodological hermeneutics concerned with the rules, techniques and processes for gaining access into this private sphere.

Initiated by Heidegger and developed by Gadamer, the new hermeneutics of the twentieth century disengaged itself from the problems of psychological transfer into another’s life and shifted attention instead to the ontological problems involved in understanding being-in-the-world. The new hermeneutics no longer concerned itself with establishing the rules and procedures for retrieving past meaning but rather with the relation between past meaning and the happening of history itself. As hermeneutics was thus depsychologised, so Collingwood’s response to the psychologistic epistemology of nineteenth-century historical thought saw him formulate in re-enactment an account of historical knowledge that revealed the distinctions between a bygone past, superseded and dead, and a past incapsulated in the present.

Returning to Skinner’s conception of a Collingwoodian approach, since it involves treating historical contexts as questions to which propositions contained in historical texts were intended by their authors as answers, the more pressing issue confronting the hermeneutical interpreter of Collingwood, now that he has been distinguished from historicism’s empathy-dependent method, concerns the manner in which this past context can be understood from the standpoint of the present-day context in which we investigate it. Like Skinner after him, Gadamer charged re-enactment with overlooking ‘the dimension of hermeneutical mediation which is passed through in every act of understanding’, a consequence of historicism’s legacy of tempting us ‘to regard such reduction as a scientific virtue and to regard understanding as a kind of reconstruction which in effect repeats the process whereby the text came into being’.33 As for the theory that absolute presuppositions form the basis from which thoughts, beliefs and actions spring, Stephen Toulmin could not see how understanding across these self-sufficient and self-enclosed propositional systems was possible. Since all understanding is relative to them, an understanding of their system of reciprocities is only possible when people share them, yet Collingwood’s project for a historical metaphysics consisted in discovering these groundforms of knowledge and discourse in ages different from our own.34

The difficulty is that Collingwood never explicitly stated the relation between re-enactment and the twin theories of question-and-answer and absolute presuppositions. Their seeming incompatibility owes to the fact that re-enactment fixes attention on the purposive and intentional thoughts of historical agents, which must exclude knowledge of what gave rise to their thoughts at a pre-conscious level. Bevir’s criticism, stated at the outset, took this view that simply thinking what other people thought cannot expose the host of things of interest to historians that they did not hold explicitly in mind. Collingwood was clear that absolute presuppositions are logically efficacious insofar as they govern thought and action without our being explicitly aware of them.

Nevertheless, in spite of re-enactment’s unspecified place in his historical metaphysics, there is no reason to consider it as disconnected to the historical investigation of the context in which it was possible for past agents to think, believe and act in the ways they did. In following the arguments that writers propounded in the context of a pre-existing debate or state of affairs – that is, in considering what they were doing with their words, in Skinner’s Austinian sense – the wider environment is drawn into the re-enactment of past thought and in turn orients the historian outwards to an analysis of the system of presuppositions that constituted its undergirding. The hermeneutical repudiation of re-enactment is too literal. It fails to consider that the epistemological account of historical knowing in re-enactment is sired by a metaphysics of belonging to common forms of thinking and language, the foundations of which historians expose by critical and rationative analysis.

In this sense, Gadamer’s praise for the logic of question and answer illuminates Collingwood’s true affinity with the ontological hermeneutics that Gadamer founded to displace the epistemologically preoccupied methodological hermeneutics of his forebears. The metaphysical conception of historical context is not the milieu of actual experience but, as Gadamer observed, the ‘horizon of the question’ through which interpreters preserve an openness to being conducted by the distinct subject matter from the past.35

While Gadamer is often invoked by anti-foundationalists to support the claim that there can be no understanding unmediated by present-day frames of reference, an underappreciated aspect of his hermeneutics retains historicism’s concern with being directed by the distinct meanings and questions that the past puts to us. Well before he discovered Collingwood around the time of the Second World War, Gadamer had taken the view that problems themselves have no histories, only the attempts to solve them do. In the introduction to his 1922 doctoral thesis he made plain his position on the anaemic philosophising and perennialist great problems approach of neo-Kantian philosophy: ‘This is the general problem involved in doing history of problems, namely that it removes a problem from its unique historical context and yet thinks it has comprehended its full content. Actually, though, its content is decisively determined by the context in which the problem emerged, and it is just this uniqueness which cannot be abstracted without loss.’36 The thrust of his hermeneutics is this: by what questions were the texts we study driven?

The study of historical context, formulated upon the conjunction of Collingwood and Gadamer on the importance of the logic of question and answer, takes this foundation of belief, thought and action as the object of its researches, as that which historians need to identify and describe, from which they draw their historical explanations.

But this turn to metaphysics to amend the methodologically inadequate epistemological conception of empathy requires an important qualification: Collingwood and Gadamer approached metaphysics from different standpoints. Collingwood’s commitment to systematic and orderly thinking saw him repudiate in An Essay on Metaphysics the traditional Aristotelian conception of metaphysics as the study of being qua being, for ‘groping blindly for what is not in fact there’.37 Following Kant’s view that ‘being is not a predicate’ and grounding of metaphysics in the objects of experience, he declared that the science needed ‘a definite subject-matter to think about … having special problems of its own that arise out of the special peculiarities of the subject-matter’.38 Metaphysics had to reform itself as the historical science of delineating the ever-shifting foundations of human thought and experience upon which ‘being’ is based.

By contrast, like most post-Heideggerian philosophers, Gadamer preferred the term ‘ontology’, precisely the variety of metaphysics Collingwood rejected. He developed his philosophical hermeneutics in direct response to the inadequacies of the nineteenth-century psychologistic conception of the human sciences, a tradition confident in its belief that through empathetic transposition it could know the past in ways superior to those who inhabited it. The task in the new century consisted not in gaining such ascendancy over the past, but in integrating or coming to terms with a past from which we have a great deal to learn. Gadamer’s hermeneutics was a metaphysics of belonging to tradition, language and being, mindful of the limits of a metaphysics of subjectivity buttressed by the historicist, Romantic hermeneutical and scientistic project of dominating other beings. Although Gadamer preferred not to speak of an ‘object’ of understanding, so eager was he to steer hermeneutics clear of its old concerns with the methods of recovery and towards a conception of humanistic understanding that accounted for the pre-given in every act, without allowing ourselves to be conducted by a subject matter beyond our own self, time and place, there was small chance for him that we would identify anything capable of standing up against our present-day situation and asserting itself as something in need of our attention and interpretation.

Empathetic unification dissolved the lines of demarcation that made this integration an activity to be undertaken; a dialectic of question and answer foregrounded a past context to be treated in its own right. In pursuing their respective aims, both men responded to a psychologistic epistemology through a metaphysics of interconnectedness between past and present. The fact that Hegel was being rehabilitated just as they were beginning their careers was a major factor in their taking this approach.


P. Johnson, Collingwood’s The Idea of History: A Reader’s Guide (London: Bloomsbury, 2013), 14; A. Munslow, Deconstructing History, 2nd ed. (London: Routledge, 2006), 184, 195. For insights into how re-enactment has been used to give a theoretical basis for empathy in history education, see T. Retz, ‘At the Interface: Academic History, School History and the Philosophy of History’, Journal of Curriculum Studies 48, 4 (2016), 503–517; ‘The Structure of Historical Inquiry’, Educational Philosophy and Theory 49, 6 (2017), 606–617; and ‘A Moderate Hermeneutical Approach to Empathy in History Education’, Educational Philosophy and Theory 47, 3 (2015), 214–226.


R. Martin, Historical Explanation: Re-enactment and Practical Inference (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977), 53; W.H. Dray, History as Re-enactment: R.G. Collingwood’s Idea of History (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995), 137; A.R. Louch, Explanation and Human Action (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969), 201.


M. Bevir, The Logic of the History of Ideas (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 157–158.


Munslow, Deconstructing History, 198; M. Bevir, ‘Introduction: Historical Understanding and the Human Sciences’, Journal of the Philosophy of History 1 (2007), 264, 266; D. Boucher, ‘The Life, Times and Legacy of R.G. Collingwood’ in D. Boucher, J. Connelly and T. Modood (eds), Philosophy, History and Civilisation: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on R.G. Collingwood (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1995), 17; J.P. Hogan, Collingwood and Theological Hermeneutics (Lanham: University Press of America, 1989), 1, 3.


Q. Skinner, ‘The Rise of, Challenge to and Prospects for a Collingwoodian Approach to the History of Political Thought’ in D. Castiglione and I. Hampsher-Monk (eds), The History of Political Thought in National Context (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 185.


Q. Skinner, Visions of Politics, Volume 1: Regarding Method (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 120.


H.-G. Gadamer, Truth and Method, 2nd rev. ed., trans. J. Weinsheimer and D.G. Marshall (New York: Continuum, 2004), 191.


Skinner, ‘Collingwoodian Approach’, 176–177.


P. Guyer, A History of Modern Aesthetics: Volume 2: The Nineteenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 378–379, 389.


R. Vischer, ‘On the Optical Sense of Form: A Contribution to Aesthetics’ in R. Vischer et al., Empathy, Form, and Space: Problems in German Aesthetics, 1873–1893, trans. H.F. Mulgrave and E. Ikonomou (Santa Monica: Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities, 1993), 95.


Guyer, History of Modern Aesthetics, 397–398. Quotation from Lipps’ Ästhetik (1903).


T. Lipps, ‘Empathy, Inward Imitation, and Sense Feelings’ (1903) in E.F. Carritt (ed.), Philosophies of Beauty: From Socrates to Robert Bridges, Being the Sources of Aesthetic Theory (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1931), 253.


K.R. Stueber, Rediscovering Empathy: Agency, Folk Psychology, and the Human Sciences (Cambridge, ma: mit Press, 2006), has done much to resurrect the concept of empathy and defend it as a distinctive method of explanation in the human sciences. His notion of a Collingwood-inspired ‘reenactive empathy’ misses the point, however, that Collingwood formulated re-enactment in the context of a rejection of empathy-dependent philosophy of history and hermeneutics of recovery. He wanted to make a conceptual point about the nature of action explanation, which shares affinities with Wittgenstein’s repudiation of private language and Skinner’s Austinian view that authors do things with words, rather than describe a method for predicting/retropredicting agents’ behaviour by accessing their mental states.


E. Stein, On the Problem of Empathy [1917], trans. W. Stein (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1964), 19.


R.A. Makkreel, ‘How is Empathy Related to Understanding?’ in T. Nenon and L. Embree (eds), Issues in Husserl’s Ideas ii (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1996), 200–202; D.W. Smith, Husserl (London: Routledge, 2007), 333.


R.G. Collingwood, The Principles of Art (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1938), 130, 141.


L.O. Mink, Mind, History, and Dialectic: The Philosophy of R.G. Collingwood (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1969), 231.


Collingwood, Principles of Art, 144–153.


Ibid., 336.


R.G. Collingwood, An Essay on Metaphysics, rev. ed. [1940], R. Martin (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998), 109–110.


Ibid., 113.


R.G. Collingwood, The Idea of History [1946], rev. ed., J. van der Dussen (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 165, 184; R.G. Collingwood, ‘Review of Philosophy and History: Essays Presented to Ernst Cassirer’ (eds R. Klibansky and H.J. Paton, 1936), English Historical Review 52, 205 (1937), 142.


Collingwood, The Idea of History, 171–176.


Ibid., 172.


H.-G. Gadamer, ‘Introduction to Denken, the German Translation of An Autobiography’, The Collingwood Journal (Spring 1992), 9–14; R.G. Collingwood, Denken: Eine Autobiography (Stuttgart: K.F. Koehler Verlag, 1955).


H.-G. Gadamer, ‘The Heritage of Hegel’, in his Reason in the Age of Science, trans. F.D. Lawrence (Cambridge, ma: mit Press, 1981), 46–47. This chapter first appeared in German in H.-G. Gadamer and J. Habermas, Das Erbe Hegels: Zwei Reden aus Anlaß des Hegel-Preises (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1979).


Ibid., 40.


Gadamer, Truth and Method, 278.


R.G. Collingwood, ‘Outlines of a Philosophy of History’, in The Idea of History, 441–442 (emphasis mine in second quotation).


R.G. Collingwood, The Principles of History: And Other Writings in Philosophy of History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 50.




Ibid., 54.


Gadamer, Truth and Method, 516, 366.


S. Toulmin, Human Understanding, Volume 1 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972), 73–74.


Gadamer, Truth and Method, 363.


Das Wesen der Lust nach den platonischen Dialogen’ [The Essence of Pleasure according to Plato’s Dialogues], quoted in J. Grondin, Hans-Georg Gadamer: A Biography, trans. J. Weinsheimer (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 84.


Collingwood, Metaphysics, 3–20, 62.


Ibid., 15.

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