Collingwood’s Opposition to Biography

in Journal of the Philosophy of History
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Biography is usually distinguished from history and, in comparison, looked down upon. R. G. Collingwood’s view of biography seems to fit this statement considering that he says it has only gossip-value and that “history it can never be”. His main concern is that biography exploits and arouses emotions which he excludes from the domain of history. In the paper I will try to show that one can salvage a more positive view of biography from within Collingwood’s work and claim that his explicit attacks against biography target specifically the sensationalist kind. First, I will show that Collingwood, in his later writings, allowed that, not only thought, but also relevant emotions can be the subject matter of history, which means that even if one takes biography to deal with emotions, it can still qualify as history. Second, I will argue, based mainly on Collingwood’s Principles of Art, that biography can be compared to portrait painting, in which case, it can be redeemed as a work of art and not just craft and, thus, have more than entertainment value. It can also be part of history, and more specifically part of the history of art which Collingwood endorses, if one takes the life of an individual, recounted by a biographer, to be an artistic creation, as Collingwood seems to suggest.

Collingwood’s Opposition to Biography

in Journal of the Philosophy of History



  • 3)

    MomiglianoThe Development of Greek Biography103 120.

  • 17)

    G. D’Oro“Collingwood on Re-Enactment and the Identity of Thought”Journal of the History of Philosophy 38:1 (2000) 87–101 99; Dray History as Re-enactment. R. G. Collingwood’s Idea of History 39. In a sheet of paper inserted in the essay “Outlines of a Philosophy of History” and published in note 8 in the revised edition of The Idea of History (IH 442–443) Collingwood recognizing that the re-enactment of past history in the historian’s mind is a difficult conception to clarify asks: “How can the historian genuinely re-enact history in his mind? How can he call the dead to live again and repeat events that have happened once for all and are irrevocably past? And does not the idea of a literal revival of the past in the historian’s mind savour of a crude magical necromancy rather than of a serious theory of knowledge?” (IH 443). This is where the text on the inserted page ends. The editors note that there follow the words “It is easy to answer” crossed out!

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  • 28)

    Cf. E. Colwil“Subjectivity, Self-Representation, and the Revealing Twitches of Biography”French Historical Studies24:3 (2001) 421–437 436): Historians in writing a biography “sculpt a human face from [their] sources”. Momigliano also speaks of “the art of portrayal” in putting together an encomium which he takes to be a forerunner of biography (Momigliano The Development of Greek Biography 102).

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