Is Collingwood a Historicist? Remarks on Leo Strauss’s Critique of Collingwood’s Philosophy of History

In: Journal of the Philosophy of History
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  • 1 Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of Political Science, University of Toronto


In this paper, I examine Strauss’s critique of Collingwood’s interpretive approach and argue that Strauss’s accusation of historicism partly misses its target. While Collingwood can be said to be a “historicist” thinker insofar as he pursues the project of the German historicist tradition and attempts to establish the autonomy and specificity of philosophy of history as a discipline, he does not endorse the premises of radical historicism according to which all thought is historically relative. Although many of Strauss’s arguments against interpretive historicism are valid, they do not apply to Collingwood’s enterprise. In creating a dialogue between the two thinkers, I demonstrate that their respective theories of interpretation are as a matter of fact closer than they appear at first sight. Both philosophers defend the possibility of understanding past authors as they understood themselves, they maintain the importance of the quest for philosophical truth in interpreting the past texts and make the case for the necessity of history for philosophy.


In this paper, I examine Strauss’s critique of Collingwood’s interpretive approach and argue that Strauss’s accusation of historicism partly misses its target. While Collingwood can be said to be a “historicist” thinker insofar as he pursues the project of the German historicist tradition and attempts to establish the autonomy and specificity of philosophy of history as a discipline, he does not endorse the premises of radical historicism according to which all thought is historically relative. Although many of Strauss’s arguments against interpretive historicism are valid, they do not apply to Collingwood’s enterprise. In creating a dialogue between the two thinkers, I demonstrate that their respective theories of interpretation are as a matter of fact closer than they appear at first sight. Both philosophers defend the possibility of understanding past authors as they understood themselves, they maintain the importance of the quest for philosophical truth in interpreting the past texts and make the case for the necessity of history for philosophy.


The interpretation of past texts in the history of political philosophy always involves, implicitly or explicitly, a reflection on the nature and presuppositions of the interpretive process as such.1 What type of question should the reader ask in interpreting the writings of past philosophers? What importance should one attribute to the historical distance between the interpreter and the work he or she attempts to understand? Can one access and recover the ultimate intention of an author? Interpretive approaches in the history of political thought seem to convey a philosophy of history or, rather, a philosophy for history; namely, a reflexive analysis on the conditions and aims of studying the past.

One of the pivotal issues is related to the significance of historical context in recovering the intention of an author. There seem to be two different approaches: the historian can either focus on the political and social background of a philosopher’s work or on the text itself. However, beyond the (often overplayed) opposition between contextualism and textualism, there is a more fundamental dichotomy: that of historicism and antihistoricism. In Strauss’s view, the perspective according to which historical questions about the past must take the place of philosophical interrogation is called historicism. And the historicist doctrine, in its interpretive version, ultimately leads, in Strauss’s view, to historical and moral relativism.

In an article published in 1952, Strauss offers a critical analysis of The Idea of History and accuses Collingwood of defending a historicist view of historical understanding.2 The aim of this paper is thus to examine the implications of Strauss’s accusation and to assess whether these criticisms actually apply to Collingwood’s philosophy. Is Collingwood really a historicist? What does Strauss mean by that?

There is one clear sense in which the term “historicism” accurately describes Collingwood’s project. As he himself states in his Autobiography, he aims at a “rapprochement” of philosophy and history.3 In an article entitled “Political Philosophy and History,” Strauss defines historicism as the fusion – or the attempt at a fusion – of philosophy and history.4 In that sense, Collingwood indeed corresponds to the description of what being a “historicist” thinker means: he seeks to pursue the project of 19th-century German philosophers of history, such as Rickert and Dilthey, to establish the philosophical foundations of historical inquiry as a privileged mode of understanding reality. However, he is not exactly a historicist if we understand this concept – as Strauss does – as a form of historical relativism that originates in the belief that all thought is historically relative.

As a matter of fact, the two thinkers have more in common than it appears at first sight. Both authors defend a rationalistic conception of interpretation in which the pursuit of historical and philosophical truth drives the attempt at recovering the author’s intention. In what follows, I demonstrate that Strauss’s accusation of historicism aims at refuting a perspective that he wrongly attributes to Collingwood in his 1952 article and that he will later revise. However, many of Strauss’s arguments remains valid if we distinguish between two versions of historicism, only one of which Collingwood espouses.

To examine these issues, I shall proceed in three steps. In the first section, I expose the roots of Collingwood’s “historicism”, understood in the sense of the German tradition of the Geisteswissenschaften as a philosophical inquiry into the presuppositions and aims of historical writing and historical experience. In the second section, I propose a critical analysis of Strauss’s commentary in order to challenge two of his objections; namely that the logic of question and answer leads to historical relativism, and that Collingwood’s rejection of the idea of permanent philosophical problems does not rely on a serious philosophical foundation. In the last section, I aim to demonstrate that the two thinkers share some similarities that Strauss fails to recognize.

Strauss’s Interpretation: Context and Sources

While the discussion between the two authors is one-sided – Strauss published his commentary a decade after Collingwood’s death – their paths had crossed in the 1930s. As James Connelly points out, Collingwood knew of Strauss’s work, evidenced by a letter Collingwood wrote to his colleagues after he had evaluated the German philosopher’s proposal for a book on Hobbes (which Strauss published a few years later).5 Strauss seemed to have discovered Collingwood’s thought with The Idea of History, published posthumously in 1946. Here Connelly makes the argument that the limits of Strauss’s critique stem from two elements: he did not read any of Collingwood’s work besides The Idea of History and he was not aware that this specific book was in fact a collection of posthumous essays that were not to be considered as a coherent whole.6

While it is fair to say that Strauss was not familiar with all of Collingwood’s writings, the transcripts from his seminars provide enough material to challenge these two claims. Not only did Strauss propose an in-depth reading of Collingwood’s philosophy of history in his 1956 seminar on historicism – a fact Connelly highlights – but he also put forward a detailed analysis of Collingwood’s Autobiography in his 1961 seminar entitled The Basic Principles of Classical Political Philosophy.7 Although this seminar is supposed to be devoted to Greek thought, Strauss gives the first seven lectures on what he refers to as the “problem of history”. He suggests that reading the Autobiography might be the most efficient way to treat the question, insofar as Collingwood is “by far the most interesting writer”8 in the contemporary literature on the subject.

The transcripts also indicate that Strauss was aware that the plan of The Idea of History was not of Collingwood’s making. In fact, he calls it an “unfortunate book”: an unfinished manuscript for which the “executor did his best”, but did not succeed in achieving a “satisfactory” result.9 The Autobiography, on the other hand, receives Strauss’s praise. He describes it as “sprightly book”, which, “as a very genuine incentive to philosophy, and a practical proof of the necessity of philosophy”, is “unique in the English language in our century”.10 Because of its briefness and clarity, he prefers it to The Idea of History. Therefore, not only did Strauss know about the circumstances in which the posthumous book was written, but he also proposed to discuss at length – and in a much more sympathetic tone – another central book: the Autobiography. Consequently, one can suppose, at least provisionally, that Strauss was not an inattentive reader and that given the importance he places on the problem of historicism, he took Collingwood’s philosophy seriously.

I argue that the shortcomings in Strauss’s interpretation are the result of his vendetta against historicism. According to him, Collingwood represents a doctrine, which, in its radicalized form, could lead to existential historicism, and ultimately, to nihilism.11 Because of Collingwood’s elective affinity with some of the presuppositions of historicism, Strauss tends to disregard the nuances of his theory of history and to create a historicist straw man instead. Although some of his criticisms remain valid, they leave aside some important anti-historicist elements in Collingwood’s thought.

The Roots of Collingwood’s “Historicism”

Before getting into the substance of Strauss’s criticism, it is crucial to highlight the contextual difference that partially informs their opposite point of departure and subsequent judgment on the value and use of history for philosophy. Collingwood evolved in an academic world where theory and philosophy of history were close to non-existent.12 In contrast, Strauss spent his formative years in Germany, the country par excellence of historicism and historical thinking.13

The background of Strauss’s charge against Collingwood’s thought is a philosophical tradition with origins in Vico, Hegel the German historical school, and the neo-Kantian critique of historical reason. The distance between the two thinkers is most noticeable if we look at their respective interpretation of the development of philosophy of history during the second half of the 19th century.14 While Collingwood considers the rise of a new historical outlook as the coming of age of scientific history and philosophical methodology, Strauss sees the triumph of historical thought in Germany as a decisive proof of the failure of modern philosophy. This specific moment in the history of thought is thus of decisive importance for both the English and the German philosophers, and illuminates a concern that they share about the meaning of the modern historical turn for philosophy, as well as its consequences for the interpretation of past texts.

From his early writings to Persecution and the Art of Writing and Natural Right and History, the so-called “problem of history” remained one of Strauss’s main concerns. The “return” to classical political thought – leaving aside the question of what this means exactly – presupposes a refutation of historicism in order to reach a nonhistoricist understanding of past thought.15 Strauss’s undertaking thus implies an ahistorical, and therefore philosophical, analysis of historicism. But historicism is a complex notion. Not only is there a stark opposition between what the proponents and opponents of the historicist doctrine understand by the term, but even among its advocates, there are numerous, and sometimes contradictory, definitions of the concept.16 The aim of this paper is not to settle the debate – a task that would require, given the long polemical history of the term, hundred, if not thousands, of pages – but rather to clarify how Strauss uses the term in the “Collingwoodian case”.

Strauss considers historicism, especially in its 20th-century “radical” version, as a form of historical relativism. According to him, it is not simply a way of approaching the past or the expression of a new epistemological theory; it is a comprehensive philosophical doctrine, a complete view of the world, a Weltanschauung. As he explains, its basis is “a philosophic analysis allegedly leading to the result that thought, knowledge, truth, philosophy, political things, political ideals, and so on, are essentially and radically ‘historical’ ”.17 This historical turn means that human affairs are constantly changing, that every epoch is new, unprecedented and different from earlier periods and that all knowledge is bound to become obsolete with the passage of time. As a result of this diagnosis, the traditional view of philosophy must be abandoned in favour of a doctrine which states that philosophy is essentially historical and that history, to be more than “a mere collection of data, must be philosophic.”18

In the eighth chapter of his Autobiography entitled “The Need for a Philosophy of History”, Collingwood unequivocally states his ambition, which resembles what Strauss describes as radical historicism: to redefine the essence of philosophical activity in light of historical thinking.19 Like his German predecessors, his fundamental ambition is to provide philosophical arguments in favour of the autonomy and specificity of historical thinking against two prevalent views: the positivistic account of science and the moral philosophy of the Realist school, both of which did not recognize history as the basis of a new philosophical outlook. The positivists believed that, for the Geisteswissenschaften or Kulturwissenschaften to become truly scientific, they had to conform to the proven methods of the natural sciences.20 The Realist school contended that since history is concerned with the individual and the changing, and that genuine science is about the universal, there could not be any science of history. Against such claims, philosophers such as Dilthey, Rickert and Collingwood sought not only to determine the foundations of history as a discipline and method, but also to establish the legitimacy of “historical consciousness” as the fundamental mode of understanding reality.

Drawing on the work of the Neo-Kantian Heidelberg School, Collingwood’s ambition is thus to uncover the philosophical and normative assumptions of historical thinking. As he specifies in The Idea of History, he uses the expression “philosophy of history” neither in the Hegelian sense, nor in the positivistic sense, but rather as it was understood by the German historicist tradition: as a philosophical reflection on the foundations – and limits – of our knowledge of social and political things.21 Collingwood thus endorses a “minimal” version of historicism, inherited from the German tradition of Geisteswissenschaften, according to which historical understanding is an autonomous philosophical domain in its own right, but does not seem to support the assumption of radical historicism, namely that the historicity of human existence leads to abandon the quest for philosophical truth.

Strauss’s Critique of Collingwood’s Philosophy of History

According to Strauss, the first version inevitably leads to historical relativism and to the loss of the essence of philosophy, defined as thinking about what is understood as what is always. From his perspective, the historicist view is based on the thesis that “human thought rests on premises which differ from epoch to epoch, premises which are not self-evident simply, to man as man, but only for the epoch in question”.22 Thus the problem of historical relativism arises: how are we to consider any philosophical proposition as universally valid if it is necessarily bound to a specific historical context? In the case of the interpretation of past thought, how are we to preserve historical objectivity if the historian himself, as well as the conclusions he reaches, are equally part of an ever-changing historical stream? These are some of the problems posed by the historicist position. But it is not clear whether Collingwood is as radical a historicist as Strauss believes him to be.

In Strauss’s view, the Collingwoodian interpretive theory embodies three specific claims of historicist thought: first, that political and moral philosophy is necessarily historically bound to a place and time and is therefore limited in the validity of its conclusions; second, that the historian’s work relies on the idea of a somewhat harmonious relationship between a thinker and his time; finally, that it presupposes the superiority of historical thought over non-historical thought. These three assumptions constitute what we might call a “hermeneutic historicism”, to be distinguished from radical historicism.23 According to Strauss, this type of interpretive perspectivism leads to historical relativism and, ultimately, to the rejection of criteria of truth in the interpretation of the past.

1 The Logic of Question and Answer and the Impermanence of Fundamental Problems

To understand Strauss’s point of departure in reading Collingwood, one needs to go back to another article, “Political Philosophy and History”. There Strauss distinguishes between two main forms of historicism that have an effect on the interpretation of past texts. The first is to hold the view that any response to a fundamental question is “historically conditioned”; namely, that the answers to the questions of the good life or the best regime are always particular and will vary in accordance with of the societies in which these interrogations are raised. In that case, the search for universally valid moral and political principles or laws regulating human conduct appears to be out of reach. However, this form of historicism is not altogether condemnable. Strauss recognizes that the diversity of views concerning morality and politics can be seen as the “convincing truth of historicism”:24 there can be permanent problems, but the ways in which they are understood and treated indeed do change.

The second type of historicism is more radical: it presupposes that the questions themselves are dependent on historical context. Consequently, each historical situation would give rise to unique philosophical interrogations. In this configuration, the potential validity of philosophical doctrines is restricted to a certain epoch, and so are the questions from which they arise. According to Strauss, Collingwood’s theory of historical understanding stands between the two types of hermeneutic historicism. Is Strauss’s judgment too severe on this point?

Collingwood is indeed sceptical of any philosophy that pretends to be completely detached from historical reality, and thus doubts the existence of permanent philosophical questions. In his Autobiography, he explains: “During the War, in the course of my meditations on the Albert Memorial, I set myself to reconsider this ‘realist’ attitude towards the history of philosophy. Was it really true, I asked myself, that the problems of philosophy were, even in the loosest sense of that word, eternal? Was it really true that different philosophies were different attempts to answer the same questions? I soon discovered that it was not true; it was merely a vulgar error […]”.25

Collingwood recalls that this revelation came to him in broad daylight from a specific case in political theory, namely the comparison between the “theories of State” in Plato’s Republic and Hobbes’ Leviathan. Both works are indeed about politics. But Collingwood asks himself and the reader: “do they represent two different theories of the same thing?”.26 Although there is a clear relation between the two philosophical works – they are, after all, both about how human beings ought to live together – the historian of thought is nonetheless faced with two incommensurable notions. To pretend, as some philosophers do, that we can put the two works side by side in order to confront their doctrines and try to decide which one is right would be, in his view, to commit a philosophical and historical nonsense.27

The paradigm shift that Collingwood suggests is drastic. In the practice of history of philosophy, the historian should start with the assumption that there are no permanent questions or problems. In more specific terms, this means that any general history of philosophy that proposes to trace a specific theme – beauty, the good, freedom, justice – by means of a survey of what past philosophers have said about it would be based on erroneous premises, for it presupposes the stability of these concepts throughout history. The radical character of his critique is best understood in light of what he was up against. In fact, analytical philosophy is to him what historicism is to Strauss: a perspective to refute in order to restore a genuine conception of philosophical inquiry.

What the British philosopher actually defends is the idea that, in contrast with the usual “ahistorical” practice of philosophy in his time, historical analyses can demonstrate the close ties between a philosopher and the social and political world in which he writes. This in turn would allow the historian to see that philosophy is not simply a theoretical pursuit, but also a practical matter. According to this historical approach, one cannot understand Plato without understanding the Greek polis and one has to know the English Revolution in order to understanding Locke’s writings; a perspective that Strauss would certainly share.

Collingwood expands on this idea through what he calls the “logic of question and answer”. This method of recovering an author’s fundamental intention is most systematically developed in his charge against the Realist school. The prevalent theories of knowledge at that time were all based on propositional logic, the result of which was, in Collingwood’s view, a complete ignorance of the complexity of language. He criticizes four different conceptions. The first is internal logical truth: one can determine if a proposition is true or false by evaluating the statement itself insofar as it contains its own criteria. The second one is the correspondence theory: the truth of a proposition is assessed by means of its correspondence or non-correspondence with an external source (“sense data”, “objective facts”, etc). The third theory of truth is coherentism. In this perspective, the validity of a proposition is evaluated in relation to other propositions: a statement will be true only if it is coherent with a particular set of propositions.28 The fourth and last position is pragmatism, a view according to which the truth of a proposition is a function of the usefulness of believing in it.29

According to Collingwood, all these conceptions are erroneous because they consider the indicative sentence as the model of a proposition. In other terms, in order to constitute a “unit of thought” that could be true or false, a proposition must take the form of “subject – copula – predicate.” However, language does not consist exclusively in indicative sentences. It contains a wide array of what J. L. Austin will later call “speech acts”,30 such as an order, a wish, a question, to name a few. Against the conceptions mentioned above, Collingwood argues that knowledge does not simply reside in the “assertive acts of thought”, but also in the questions that generate the propositions. Therefore, all philosophical utterances are not isolated, but are rather entangled in a vast complex of questions. The logic of question and answer thus serves the purpose of correcting the perspective of the realist philosophers who, until then, had ignored the context of linguistic affirmations.31 In criticizing the historical myopia of the Realist school, Collingwood contests the non-historical or strictly normative pretence of moral and political philosophy.

The question the historian should ask himself when seeking to recover the intention of an author is, for Collingwood: “to what question did So-and-so intend this proposition for an answer”.32 In this respect, the force of the logic of question and answer relies in its capacity to explain apparent contradictions found in the works of philosophers and therefore to shed a light on their true intent. When reading past philosophers, one could reconcile two seemingly conflicting arguments by demonstrating how they are in fact meant to answer two different questions. For example, if Machiavelli writes in a certain way about politics in a certain book (the Principe) and says something completely different in another book (the Discorsi), Collingwood’s methodology would lead to assert that the Florentine sought to answer two different questions.

What is most surprising about Strauss’s treatment of the logic of question and answer in his seminar is the fact that he agrees with Collingwood on several important points. When Strauss exposes the prevalent conception of philosophy at Oxford at that time, he seems to side with Collingwood against Bradley, Wilson and the other analytic philosophers. He makes the following statement: “The ordinary schools of philosophy in his time asserted that there are things which they called permanent problems […] These are the problems of philosophy, and every interesting or self-respecting thinker, of any time and place, has of course dealt with these problems. Now he says that is nonsense, and in this I entirely agree with him”.33 Strauss cites as an example a contemporary scholar who published a book about Aquinas’s aesthetics and used the term in its modern sense. In a similar fashion, although one can speak of an epistemological theory in of Plato’s work, it does not refer to the same thing as what the 19th-century German philosophers mean by the term.

Strauss gives credit to Collingwood on another crucial point. It would be factually wrong, he argues, to say that “nothing fundamental has changed in the opinions regarding the most general and fundamental things”.34 There are undisputable differences between political regimes and social organizations through time, and acknowledging these transformations is a condition of knowledge of past and present societies. In the Straussian perspective, this is the strong point of the historicist doctrine that makes it superior to other views (such as analytic philosophy), “which are more or less blind to the importance of these differences”.35 However, the problem with the historicist doctrine is that it takes the empirical observation of diversity as a philosophical conclusion. The fact that there are changes in history does not systematically result in a failure of philosophy to find, beyond these similarities, unchanged features or transhistorically valid principles.

According to Strauss, what Collingwood fails to see is that the belief in the persistence of fundamental problems is the condition of possibility of history of philosophy as such. For history of philosophy to exist, there must be some kind of continuity; namely permanent problems.36 In rejecting the idea of a shared horizon of human thought, historicism simultaneously denies what “makes possible ‘objectivity’ and therefore in particular ‘historical objectivity’”.37

In sum, Strauss’s view is more nuanced than it appears in earlier texts on historicism. He acknowledges the importance of historical differences in opinions about the most fundamental things as a condition of truth in historical inquiry; but claims that historicism, by focusing solely on historical change, goes too far in that direction and becomes blind to the elements that are perhaps not eternal, but at least transhistorical. Ultimately, Strauss’s position is that “historicism has a relative merit by reminding us of these very great differences in opinions, of the very profound differences of opinions which are possible among humans and which make it only all the more necessary to see how a possible agreement, a rational agreement, can be reached”.38

In that regard, Collingwood is not the radical historicist that Strauss depicts, for he seems to share Strauss’s calling for a philosophical quest beyond the study of history. As a matter of fact, Collingwood never explicitly claims that the philosophers’ doctrines must be reduced to their historical background or that we should study them only to learn about a particular historical period. On the contrary, he too argues that the most important part remains the philosophical evaluation.39

2 The Relationship Between the Philosopher and His Time

The second charge against interpretive or hermeneutic historicism concerns the relationship between a thinker and his epoch. What I wish to examine is the type of argument one can make in order to contest the historicist claim that the philosophers are always, in a way, “sons of their time” and that their views are therefore moulded by the existing conventions and vocabulary available at a certain period. One of these arguments is that if philosophers are linked to their own epoch, it is by choice and not by necessity.

In this regard, Strauss’s art of reading demonstrates that there are cases in which the philosopher seeks to align his discourse with the preoccupations of his own time. In fact, one can imagine many scenarios in which an author would deliberately attune his teaching to his epoch, whether it is to gain more recognition, to be heard by a wider audience or even to better dissimulate his true doctrine. In other terms, one cannot disregard, without a thorough examination, the hypothesis that the writer has the capacity to distance or to detach himself from his historical environment. One can push the argument further and argue that the historicist position has envisioned only one type of relationship between the thinker and his time: that of a pre-existing harmony between thought and society or a submission of thought to context. Yet there are many possibilities that are left unexamined. For example, one could evoke the figure of the “unzeitgemäße” philosopher who, like Nietzsche, remains at the margins of his own epoch or the figure of the political thinker who addresses his remarks to a future reader and writes for posterity.40 To use Kracauer’s expression, one can recount many cases of “chronological extraterritoriality”.41 What the historicist position fails to see is the opposite relationship, namely a situation in which the relationship between the political philosopher and his environment is conflicting rather than harmonious.

One could also oppose a sceptical argument to the historicist view: it is impossible to give a definitive proof that an author was, in a way, the “possession” of his own time. On this point, it is important to underline that Strauss never excludes the possibility that the political philosophers were in a dialogue with their contemporaries; but one of his contributions is to indicate that it was not necessarily their unique or their main concern.42 To say that the thought of a philosopher is inseparable from the political problems of his time is not the same as arguing that the political context constitutes the unique source of an author’s thought. Collingwood seems to stand closer to the first proposition than to the second; in that regard, his theory is more similar to Strauss’s than Strauss himself seems to acknowledge.

3 Re-Enactment, Interpretation and Evaluation

A third line of criticism in Strauss’s article concerns the relation between interpretation and evaluation. According to him, there is a contradiction, in The Idea of History, between Collingwood’s interpretive theory and his practice as an historian.

One of the most discussed notions in Collingwood’s writings is the idea of “re-enactment”.43 The historian who wishes to know the past must attempt to recreate in his own mind the patterns of thought of the “agent”. Collingwood thus sees the historian’s task as an active work, for he does not simply receive and treat historical facts, but rather participates in their reconstitution. From this perspective, the aim of the interpretive process, in the case of political philosophy, is to recover the motives and intentions of the authors.44

This conception seems to stand much closer to Strauss’s view than it appeared at first glance; the Collingwoodian theory of “re-enactment” is similar to the Straussian idea that we must understand past thinkers as they understood themselves. The same process is at work in Strauss’s method: the historian of philosophy must put aside his own preconceived notions in order to fully engage in the activity of understanding (Verstehen), and not only explaining (Erklären), an author’s intention in writing what he wrote.

It is precisely through this process of reactivation that the historian develops a critical judgment, which is, for Collingwood, the ultimate task of a philosophy of history. According to him, there are always two objectives in studying past thought: to recover the intention of a thinker on the one hand, and to assess the truth of the claims he makes on the other. The historian must seek to evaluate and, in some cases, to correct the mistakes he discerns.45 As Collingwood explains, “History did not mean knowing what events followed what. It meant getting inside other people’s heads, looking at their situation through their eyes, and thinking for yourself whether the way in which they tackled it was the right way”.46

Presented this way, his theory appears closer to an antihistoricist perspective than a historicist one; what matters in the end is whether or not the philosophical doctrines are valid. Collingwood makes this point very clear: the history of philosophy is ultimately subordinated to philosophy as such, for the first is governed by the question “what view So-and-so held”, whereas the second is ruled by the question of what is true.47 Therefore, to achieve a valid interpretation of past thought, one must be a historian, but more importantly, one must also be a philosopher. The evaluative aspect of the historian’s work indeed requires a critical distance that only philosophy can provide.

According to Strauss, the problem is that Collingwood does not draw a clear separation between interpretation and evaluation. While both authors agree on the fact that the two are connected, Strauss specifies that “that does not mean that they are identical”;48 the evaluative part comes too soon in Collingwood’s work as a historian of thought. According to Strauss, his appraisal of past philosophies results from the prejudice that they are inferior to present-day philosophy. Criticism, as Strauss points out, can lead to rejection, but also to acceptance. The most important fact is that the historian’s journey must remain open:

By the very fact that he seriously attempts to understand the thought of the past, he leaves the present. He embarks on a journey whose end is hidden from him. He is not likely to return to the shores of his time as exactly the same man who departed from them. His criticism may very well amount to a criticism of present day thought from the point of view of the thought of the past.49

In other words, he accuses the English philosopher of not being sensitive enough to the “foreignness” of the past.50 The problem, it seems, is that Collingwood believes in the superiority of the present; or at least in the superiority of modern historical methods. Strauss argues that this position relies on a view of history as a march towards progress. The thesis Strauss accuses Collingwood of defending is that the historicist perspective is superior simply because it comes after non-historical thought. To put it another way, “history” itself would have ruled in favour of the historicist conception.51

It is fair to say that Collingwood’s conception of the role of history is turned towards the present. Contrary to the general view according to which history is concerned with what happened in the past, he maintains that historical inquiry ultimately deals with our own historical experience: its finality is self-knowledge of present-day man. Strauss maintains that this conception is in tension with the very principle of re-enactment. For Strauss, re-enactment of past thought cannot be properly put into practice unless the interpreter makes a serious attempt to understand the writers as they understood themselves; and this, for Strauss, also implies some kind of permanence of human nature. The difference between Collingwood and Strauss is that the former considers that the historian must assume the same standpoint as the agent he is attempting to understand, while the latter seems to seek a standpoint outside history (i.e. in a timeless, eternal universal truth about human nature).52

Strauss’s criticism seems partly valid, especially in the case of The Idea of History, in which Collingwood displays a strong preference for modern philosophy of history. In his historical inquiry, he traces the steps in the evolution of European historical consciousness and proceeds by identifying what was lacking in earlier conceptions of history. The Greeks possessed very little historical consciousness, the philosophers of the Enlightenment only began to grasp the meaning of the historical turn but failed to see its importance, and the German thinkers of the 19th century stood at the “threshold” of scientific history.53 In Strauss’s view, this way of imposing a theme that was not necessarily present in the history of philosophy prior to the 18th century constitutes a historical blunder. Collingwood, he contends, did not consider the possibility that many philosophers, before the 18th century, were the least concerned with history.54 Furthermore, Collingwood’s implicit conception of progress has a major consequence when applied to the history of political philosophy in Strauss’s view: it excludes the possibility that a philosophical doctrine from an earlier time might have expressed the truth about human affairs.

Conclusion: On the Necessity of History for Philosophy

The preceding remarks lead to two conclusions. First, that there is an important distinction between two versions of historicism: one that seeks to establish the philosophical foundations of history as a privileged mode of understanding, and one that claims that we are trapped in our own Zeitgeist and thus that historical relativism is the only “truth” admissible. While Collingwood certainly belongs to the historicist tradition in the first sense, it is far from clear that he supports the second assumption. In fact, his theory of re-enactment points towards a quest for philosophical truth in history beyond historical context.

The second conclusion is that in spite of the criticisms I just sketched, the two thinkers are, in one important matter, on the same side: they both make the case for the necessity of history for philosophy. On a methodological level, Strauss and Collingwood agree on the main points. They share similar views on the necessity of value judgment in historical understanding.55 They both believe that the study of the history of political philosophy requires not only to raise the historical question of what the intention of the author was, but also to raise the question of whether or not the doctrine examined is true. In that sense, both also maintain a rationalistic conception of interpretation in which the intention of the author can be recovered.

As I have demonstrated, the disagreement between the two philosophers does not concern historical methods as such, but rather the philosophical premises of historical thinking. Ultimately, both Strauss and Collingwood hold an ambiguous position with regard to the relationship between philosophy and history. While the two thinkers assert – to various degrees – the superiority of philosophy over history,56 they both make the case for the necessity of history in philosophical inquiry.

In the end, if Collingwood and Strauss consider the study of the past as essential, it is for different – or perhaps even opposite – reasons. For the former, history takes on a philosophical significance because the truth about the human condition reveals itself through historical consciousness. For the latter, it becomes important only because we live in a period of decline. According to Strauss, the “bankruptcy of the present57 ” calls for the pursuit of truth in other times and places, insofar as present thought does not provide satisfactory teaching about the most fundamental things. The study of past political philosophies thus appears as a negative necessity, as a means to another end, which is to recover the original and true sense of philosophic inquiry. But is it really the case that the study of past thought is only a detour, a “desperate remedy for a desperate situation”,58 as Strauss sometimes argues? In fact, his position is paradoxical: he criticizes “History” as a modern concept on the one hand, and is a historian of political philosophy on the other.

Political philosophy, Strauss contends, is not a historical discipline. But while he argues that the traditional view of history as a Hilfswissenschaft – as a complementary resource, as it was for law, theology and philosophy prior to the 18th century – must be restored, he also seems to recognize, to some extent, the nobility of history as a discipline. Furthermore, Strauss presents a strong argument for the relevance of history in philosophy. In his view, there is one “convincing truth” of historical thinking: if we define philosophy as the attempt to replace opinions about fundamental things with knowledge, then it becomes crucial to clarify what these opinions are. However, the opinions one holds are, most of the time, inherited; if we want to replace them with knowledge, it is therefore essential to track their origins and their development. While this is primarily a philosophical task, it becomes, as Strauss points out, intertwined with historical inquiry. Historical studies present themselves as necessary because the meaning of modern concepts has become obscure to us; that is to say, not directly intelligible by means of philosophical inquiry. In a sense, then, history appears as an integral component of political philosophy. There is also one aspect in which the philosopher and the historian seem to face the same challenge: they both ought to accept that the pursuit of the truth – whether philosophical or historical – is bound to be a challenging journey. One should start to wonder, Strauss writes, “whether the historical truth is not as difficult of access as the philosophical truth”.59

To sum up, Strauss’s work as a commentator of the philosophical tradition illustrates his conviction that the study of the past is of the utmost importance on a philosophical level. Therefore, he could have understood and shared Collingwood’s concern for the lack of historical sense in analytic moral and political philosophy. In this regard, their intentions seem to converge: they both, by different means, highlight the practical and concrete nature of the philosophical interrogation against analytical perspectives in moral and political philosophy. Inquiries into the past, in their respective philosophies, constitute the best way to preserve a conception of philosophy as a practical pursuit.


I am grateful to Pierre Manent for his comments on an earlier version of this paper, and to Emma Planinc and the anonymous reviewer for their careful reading and insightful remarks.


See L. Strauss, “On Collingwood’s Philosophy of History”, The Review of Metaphysics, Vol. 5, No. 4 (1952), 559–586.


R. G. Collingwood, An Autobiography (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 2002 [1939]), 77.


L. Strauss, “Political Philosophy and History”, Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 10, No. 1 (1949), 30.


See J. Connelly, “Strauss’s Collingwood”, in Burns and Connelly (ed.), The Legacy of Leo Strauss (Imprint Academy, 2010), 87–102.


See Connelly, “Strauss’s Collingwood”, 102.


See L. Strauss, Notes from Seminar on the Basic Principles of Classical Political Philosophy, Fall, 1961, University of Chicago, 266 p.


Ibid., 84.




Ibid., 85.


See L. Strauss, “The Living Issues of German Postwar Philosophy” [1940], in H. Meier, Leo Strauss and the Theologico-Political Problem (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2006), 115–140.


On that point, see Collingwood, “Minute Philosophers”, An Autobiography, 15–21.


Strauss, Seminar on the Principles of Classical Political Philosophy, 82.


See Collingwood, “Part IV. Scientific History”, in The Idea of History (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1956), 151–201; Strauss, “Progress or Return ?”, in The Rebirth of Classical Political Rationalism (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1989), 245.


See Strauss, Natural Right and History (Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 1953), 33.


For a more thorough examination of the notion and its history, see G. Iggers, “Historicism: The History and Meaning of a Term”, Journal of the History of Ideas, 56, 1 (1995); F. Ankersmith, “Historicism: an attempt at synthesis”, History and Theory, 34, 3 (1995), 143–161; A. Wittkau, Historismus. Zur Geschichte des Begriffs und des Problems (Göttigen, Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1994).


Strauss, “Political Philosophy and History”, 42.


Strauss, Seminar on the Principles of Classical Political Philosophy, 83.


Collingwood, Autobiography, 77; “The Nature and Aims of a Philosophy of History”, Essays in Philosophy of History.


The “sciences of spirit” or “cultural sciences”, as designated by Dilthey and Rickert respectively, which include, among other disciplines, philosophy, sociology, psychology, political economy, and history.


On Collingwood’s fundamental intention, see The Idea of History, 7.


Strauss, Seminar on the Principles of Classical Political Philosophy, 83.


In Strauss’s thought, “radical” historicism has more to do with moral and political relativism and with the problem of judgment about the good rather than with theoretical concerns such as the interpretation of texts.


L. Strauss, Lectures on Historicism and Modern Relativism, Fall, 1956, University of Chicago, 42.


Collingwood, An Autobiography, 60.


Ibid., 61.


Ibid., 62.


The analytic philosopher Donald Davison will later defend this epistemological theory of truth (See Davidson, “A Coherence Theory of Truth and Knowledge” (1983)).


For a more detailed exposition, see Collingwood, An Autobiography, 33–37.


On this point, see J. L. Austin, How to do Things with Words (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1962).


See Collingwood, An Autobiography, 41.


Ibid., 39.


Strauss, Seminar on the Principles of Classical Political Philosophy, 94.


Ibid., 94.


Ibid., 94.


See Strauss, “On a Forgotten Kind of Writing ”, 228–229.


Strauss, “On Collingwood’s Philosophy of History”, 586.


Strauss, Seminar on the Principles of Classical Political Philosophy, 95.


In The Idea of History, Collingwood argues that “the only question that matters about a philosophy is whether it is right or wrong” (The Idea of History, 173).


On that point, see Strauss, Persecution and the Art of Writing, 160.


Siegfried Kracauer, L’Histoire. Des avant-dernières choses (Paris, Stock, 2006), 128.


See Persecution and the Art of Writing, 142–201.


See in particular Collingwood, “History as the Self-Knowledge of Mind”, in An Autobiography. For an in-depth discussion of the theory of re-enactment as a non-methodological conception, as well as an analysis of the question of identity of thought, see Giuseppina D’Oro, “Collingwood on Re-Enactment and the Identity of Thought”, Journal of the History of Philosophy, Vol. 38, No. 1 (2000), pp. 87–101.


See Collingwood, The Idea of History, 215.


Ibid., 215.


Collingwood, An Autobiography, 58.


See Collingwood, “The Nature and Aims of a Philosophy of History”, 49.


Strauss, “On Collingwood’s Philosophy of History”, 583.


Ibid., 583.


See ibid., 575.


Strauss, “Political Philosophy and History”, 35.


I wish to thank Giuseppina d’Oro for pointing out this important distinction.


See for example The Idea of History, 5, 27, 86.


Strauss, “On Collingwood’s Philosophy of History”, 575–576.


See Collingwood, The Principles of History, 214–216; Strauss, Natural Right and History, 40, 52, 62.


See, for example, Collingwood, Essays in Philosophy of History, 48–49; Strauss, “Political Philosophy and History”, 31.


Strauss, “The Living Issues of German Postwar Philosophy”, 125.


Strauss, Persecution and the Art of Writing, 154.


Strauss, “On a Forgotten Kind of Writing”, 232.