Source: An Autobiography by R. G. Collingwood. I don't know the page number.
I first chanced on this quote in The Well-Educated Mind (2 edn 2016), p. 189 Top.

  But, of course, it was no longer a 'closed' subject. It was no longer a body of facts which a very, very learned man might know, or a very, very big book enumerate, in their completeness. It was an 'open' subject, an Inexhaustible fountain of problems, old problems re- opened and new problems formulated that had not been formulated until now. Above all, it was a constant warfare against the dogmas, often positively erroneous, and always vicious in so far as they were dogmatic, of that putrefying corpse of historical thought, the 'information' to be found in text-books. For in the history of philosophy, as in every other kind, nothing capable of being learnt by heart, nothing capable of being memorized, is history. [emboldening mine]
 And if anybody had objected that in what I call 'open' history one couldn't see the wood for the trees, I should have answered, who wants to? A tree is a thing to look at; but a wood is not a thing to look at, it is a thing to live in.

I question this Yahoo Answer, as some history is decided. I've "memorised" the fact of the Holocaust's involving deaths of children like Anne Frank: surely this is history?

  • If you are interested in history and the philosophy of history, "The Meaning of History" by Henri Marrou (Helicon, 1966) is good imo. It is slow going at first though. He has a very good illustrated chart at the beginning of the book tracing some major philosophers and their influence on later historians and philosophers of history.
    – Gordon
    Jul 7 '18 at 22:15
  • Also I think "The Meaning of History" by Erich Kahler is good. (George Braziller, 1964). If you find these books in the library you will probably have to blow the dust off of them, but I think they may be worthwhile if you are interested in this subject.
    – Gordon
    Jul 7 '18 at 22:19

One of Collingwood's major views about history is that while the past no longer exists, it is possible by empathic projection from historical evidence or traces to understand why historical actors acted as they did. There is an unavoidable exercise of imagination but of imagination constrained by the evidence and by the need for coherent explanation. In other words, and for example, the evidence suggests that Gladstone converted to Irish Home Rule in the mid-1880s. There are records of speeches, private and public letters, memoirs of colleagues and so much else that make it reasonable to believe that Gladstone converted. But why ? What explains his change of mind ? The historian's task is to (try to) re-enact Gladstone's reasons : at the limit the propositional content of Gladstone's beliefs will coincide with the beliefs that on the basis of evidence and imagination the historian attributes to Gladstone.

Rex Martin puts the point in his own way :

Collingwood's conception of re-enactment furnishes the blueprint for carrying through his ambitious program. According to Collingwood, historical deeds, to be understood, have to be conceptualized as rational solutions to situational problems facing historical actors. Historical re-enactment means explaining actions by going through the actual thought processes of historical agents. For example, Hitler's puzzling decision to invade the Soviet Union would no longer be perplexing were the historian able to show that, given the situation confronting Germany as Hitler envisaged it, any rational person who had Hitler's goals and espoused his values, would have done the same. Hitler's decision will remain inexplicable unless and until the historian can explain it as rational. Re-enactment, as Collingwood saw it, was a method peculiar to history (and that part of philosophy which was historical) and served to distinguish history from the sciences, both natural and social. The sci-entist pictures human behavior as events controlled by causes; the historian, as actions directed by thought. (Haskell Fain, 'Historical Explanation: Re-Enactment and Practical Inference by Rex Martin', The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Vol. 9, No. 3 (Winter, 1979), pp. 525-527 : 525. Fain is here summarising his understanding of Martin's interpretation.)

I'm inclined to quibble over 'rational' : not only is this a many-ways ambiguous term but I think all the historian is required to do is to put herself in a position in which she understands - takes herself to understand - Hitler's beliefs and values well enough to see why, to Hitler, it made sense to invade the Soviet Union. (Parenthesis : I don't think many historians would describe Hitler's decision to invade as 'puzzling'; what perhaps is puzzling is his decision to declare war on the United States after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.)

In light of this, we can see why for Collingwood historical knowledge is a matter of the historian's making sense for her- or himself of the actions of historical agents; and also why such knowledge, which is embodied in the activity of understanding, can't be learnt by heart or memorised. It has to be created by the historian. You can learn by heart or memorise what the historian tells you of the conclusions she has come to. But then you are not doing history - you are simply borrowing the results, collecting the sediment, of historical inquiry.

There are problems with re-enactment. One is that there is no objective criterion by which one can tell that one has re-enacted correctly the historical agent's reasons, whether Gladstone's or Hitler's. Another is that there are macro-phenomena such as the level of inflation or the behavior of a crowd for which re-enactment of individuals' thinking does not appear to provide an adequate explanation.


Collingwood, R.G., The Idea of History: With Lectures 1926-1928, ISBN 10: 0192853066 / ISBN 13: 9780192853066 Published by Oxford University Press, USA, 1994.

Ridley, Aaron, R G Collingwood (The Great Philosophers), 1998. ISBN 10: 0753805278 / ISBN 13: 9780753805275 Published by Phoenix.

Boucher, David (ed), The life and thought of R.G. Collingwood, ISBN 10: 0952439301 / ISBN 13: 9780952439301 Published by R.G.Collingwood Society, 1994.

Krausz, M., ed., Critical Essays on The Philosophy of R. G. Collingwood, Published by Clarendon Press, 1972.


See R.G.Collingwood : Philosophy of history :

Collingwood thought that history cannot be studied in the same way as natural science because the internal thought processes of historical persons cannot be perceived with the physical senses, and past historical events cannot be directly observed. He suggested that a historian must "reconstruct" history by using "historical imagination" to "re-enact" the thought processes of historical persons based on information and evidence from historical sources.

Collingwood pointed out a fundamental difference between knowing things in the present (or in the natural sciences) and knowing history. To come to know things in the present or about things in the natural sciences, "real" things can be observed, as they are in existence or that have substance right now.

For more information about Collingwood's philosophy, see Robin George Collingwood : History as the study of Mind.

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