return to religion-online

R.G.Collingwood and A.N. Whitehead on Metaphysics, History, and Cosmology

by Guido Vanheesvijck

Guido Vanheeswijck is Professor at the University of Antwerp, B-2000 Antwerp, and Guest Professor at the Catholic University of Louvain. The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp.215-236, Volume 27, Number 3-4, Fall-Winter, 1998. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.

Whitehead, of course, was well aware of the problem of historical knowledge, of the impossibility of "mere knowledge", without taking into account the presuppositions or standards of the historian. But Whitehead did not dwell on it, as Collingwood did, or let it warp his overall view. (F.L.Baumer, Modern European Thought Continuity and Change in Ideas, 1600-1950, 1977, 496)

When Whitehead left for the United States, where he would write his major metaphysical works, Collingwood lost a major ally.1 The philosophical climate in England between the two wars was characterized by an anti-metaphysical attitude which manifested itself first in Cambridge, from the thirties onwards became dominant in Oxford, and eventually found a programmatic expression in A.J. Ayer’s Language, Truth and Logic. In this analytic and in part even neo-positivistic climate, Robin George Collingwood, appointed professor in metaphysics at Magdalen College in 1935, was, in fact, a "lone wolf." Hence, it cannot be surprising at all that in this period he felt more related to Whitehead’s metaphysical thinking than to the ideas of his "Oxbridge" colleagues.2 In this context, it is very surprising that no analysis has emerged which has elaborated the relationship between Whitehead and Collingwood, and more specifically their concept of metaphysics.

The only article known to me which has explicitly linked the two authors was Ramchandra Gandhi’s "Whitehead on the Distrust of Speculative Philosophy," wherein Gandhi focuses on the differences between their concepts of metaphysics. Gandhi interprets Collingwood’s concept of metaphysics as a thinking about thinking. In confining the attention of the metaphysician to the descriptive analysis of changing absolute presuppositions, Collingwood has, on his view, reduced metaphysics to all-too-modest proportions. Such a concept of metaphysics has nothing to do with what is traditionally understood as metaphysics. In this context, Gandhi stresses the analogy between Collingwood’s reformed metaphysics and Strawson’s descriptive metaphysics, two conceptions that, on Gandhi’s view, have to be rejected.3 A concept of metaphysics such as that of Whitehead necessitates, on the contrary, "the analysis and critical evaluation of scientific presuppositions in connection with presuppositions of other domains of civilized thought (moral, religious, sociological, aesthetic, etc.), so as to arrive at a satisfactory conception of the most fundamental characteristics of all that we encounter in our experience."4

In this article my aim is to show in four stages that the kinship between Collingwood’s concept of metaphysics and Whitehead’s is much stronger than Gandhi claimed. To show this, I shall make use not only of Collingwood’s published works, but also of his unpublished manuscripts released in 1978. First, I shall outline the evolution of Collingwood’s thinking on metaphysics since 1933. Against this background I then discuss Collingwood’s interpretation of, respectively, Alexander’s and Whitehead’s concepts of metaphysics. Collingwood’s preference for Whitehead’s concept of metaphysics has to do especially with the transcendental justification Whitehead gives of his concept of metaphysics. It is at that level that both the analogies and the differences between both thinkers must be situated. These differences eventually explain why Collingwood’s metaphysics is a historical one, while Whitehead’s metaphysics is a cosmological one.

I. Evolution in Collingwood’s Thought on Metaphysics

On 22 February 1935, Collingwood wrote his "draft of appreciation for the Waynflete Professorship" from which I quote the following sentences:

My chief interests lie in the region of metaphysics, and I desire to devote myself more particularly to these interests in the future, and especially in the following directions. 1) Hitherto, I have spent a good deal of time on historical study. My aim in so doing has always been to prepare myself for an attack on the philosophical problems (metaphysical and epistemological) connected with the idea of history (historical process and historical knowledge). I regard this preparation as now complete ... in order to develop the philosophical ideas to which they have led me. 2) At the same time, bearing an mind the relation between historical process and natural process, I should try to develop in my own way the metaphysical inquiries concerning nature which have lately been brought into fresh prominence by Alexander and Whitehead. I regard inquiries of this kind as an essential part of metaphysics and desire that Oxford should make its contribution to their progress. For the last 18 months I have been working almost exclusively on this subject, and lectured on it last term.

The first results of these metaphysical inquiries can be found in the five books of the manuscript "Notes towards a Metaphysic" (written from September 1933 till May 1934), in which he makes an endeavor to construct a cosmological-metaphysical system of his own,5 following the example of Whitehead’s and Alexander’s description of reality as a process, but based on his method elaborated in An Essay on Philosophical Method,6 and in "Sketch of a Cosmological Theory," the first (never published) cosmology conclusion to The Idea of Nature. Less than one year later, however, Collingwood qualified the impact of cosmology on his metaphysical project.

I.1. Development of a Metaphysical System

This qualification had to do entirely with the distinction Collingwood gradually introduced between what he calls history in the proper sense, and cosmology or "pseudo-history." The starting point for this distinction is the meaning of the terms "evolution" and "past." These terms, Collingwood wrote after 1934, have a different meaning in relation to their reference to the level below or of human consciousness.7

On both levels, there is an evolution in which states from a previous phase turn into those of a subsequent phase. Hence, on both levels, the past plays a prominent role in this evolutions the contemporary state is always inconceivable without the previous one. Yet, in both cases the past plays a completely different role. With regard to the level below human consciousness the previous phase out of which the current state has originated is irreversibly past. Once the new phase has started, the past is "dead." On the level of human consciousness, however, the evolution manifests itself in a different way. Human thought can retain the past, because the mind has the capacity to recall events by consciously re-thinking ("re-enacting") them. Precisely because of this capacity one can speak of development. Only on this conscious level does history in the proper sense of the word occur.8

In the manuscript "Method and Metaphysics," delivered as a lecture for "The Jowett Society" on June 19, 1935,9 this distinction plays a central role in the elaboration of his metaphysics. Collingwood distinguishes here three kinds of reality: "abstract entities," "minds" and "bodies." Abstract entities are merely potentialities, logically preceding both material reality and human thought. Apart from "minds" and "bodies," they remain pure potentialities, which can only be actualized in both. Before going into Collingwood’s view on the different ways in which abstract entities are actualized in "minds" and "bodies," I shall first go into the specific meaning of what Collingwood calls "abstract entities." For the way in which Collingwood in this manuscript defines abstract entities suggests a strong analogy between them and what Whitehead calls "eternal objects," as interpreted by Collingwood both in ‘Sketch of a Cosmological Theory" and The Idea of Nature.10

In the manuscript "Realism and Idealism" (1936), Collingwood elucidates the meaning of the term "abstract entity"-- for which he uses the term "a priori-idea" as a synonym -- within the context of what he calls objective idealism: "In saying that reality consists of ideas, [objective idealism] is saying that there is a distinction between the ideas or principles exemplified in natural things and these things themselves; that the principles are not mere abstractions and processes .... Thus it conceives the world of nature as something derived from and dependent upon something logical prior to itself, a world of immaterial ideas; but this is not a mental world or a world of mental activities or of things depending on mental activity although it is an intelligible world or a world in which mind, when mind comes into existence, finds itself completely at home."11 A priori ideas are no abstractions of the human mind, but form an immaterial world of potentialities, that are not only preconditions of the sensible reality, but also of human thought itself.

In the manuscript, "The Nature of Metaphysical Study," in which Collingwood develops a view on metaphysics corresponding to his later concept of metaphysics as the science of absolute presuppositions, it is clear as well that, for Collingwood, pure being is such an a priori idea: "Pure being Is not an existing object, but an abstraction.... In thinking about pure being, therefore, we are not thinking about existing objects or things, we are thinking about what, in Platonic language, are called forms, or ideas, or in modern terminology concepts" (TNMS 13).

This definition, however, is immediately followed by a proviso: "after all those metaphysicians were right who said -- you simply can’t think about pure abstract being; they were right in this sense, that when you do think about it (which in effect they admit you can do, or the words pure abstract being, which they themselves use, would be words without any meaning whatever) you find that it won’t stay pure" (TNMS 10). In other words, being is never entirely devoid of peculiarities: "Pure being becomes its own determinations, or develops them, for becoming or development is a process of change initiated from within. Pure being is thus not only identical with nothing, it is also identical with becoming.... The idea of metaphysics in general cannot be grasped in abstraction by a purely formal definition unless we allow this abstract idea to sprout determinations of its own in the shape of particular metaphysical problems."12

As being can never be studied as an independent object, the history of metaphysical thought cannot be without implications for the history of being: "[E]very science goes through a process of historical development in which, although the fundamental or general problem remains unaltered, the particular form in which this problem presents itself changes from time to time; and the general problem never arises in its pure or abstract form, but always in the particular or concrete form, determined by the present state of knowledge or, in other words, by the development of thought hitherto. This is a universal rule governing all forms of human thought; there can be no reason why metaphysics should be an exception. And indeed the attempt which I have made to formulate the fundamental problems of metaphysics is an attempt which could have been made, in exactly that way, only at the present stage in the history of the world" (TNMS 14-15).

Of decisive importance for the development of his metaphysical system and his concept of metaphysics from 1934 onwards is the ascertainment that the abstract entities are actualized in the world of "bodies" and "minds" in a different way. In the world of the "bodies," what has once happened has forever disappeared. In the world of the "minds," the past can always be called up again. Hence, a distinction must be made between cosmology (i.e., the study of material changes) and history proper (i.e., the study of human thinking). Metaphysics, then, is primarily the study of the general characteristics of reality by means of an inquiry into the changing absolute presuppositions of human thought, of which cosmology is an important part.

This interpretation of the development of Collingwood’s concept of metaphysics is reinforced, when we compare manuscript, "Sketch of a Cosmological Theory’ (the first cosmology conclusion, 1934),to manuscript B (the second cosmology conclusion, 1935 or 1937). In the first conclusion, in which he explicitly addresses Whitehead, Collingwood largely identifies natural processes with historical processes.13 The second conclusion moves away from this position:

I have referred to Alexander’s phrase, the historicity of things, as describing the main conception of this new philosophy. The question that remains is how far this phrase is strictly justified. It is intended to express the fact that natural reality, like human reality, is now regarded as consisting altogether in process. But is this one kind of process or two? (B 3)

Now, before making a further comparison between Collingwood’s and Whitehead’s concept of metaphysics, I first intend to go into another explanation why Collingwood seemed to have moved from one conception of metaphysics (framing metaphysical principles of the world) to another one (examining historical presuppositions of human thought).

I.2. Transcendental Justification of his Concept of Metaphysics

In "The Nature of Metaphysical Study" Collingwood writes that, with regard to the status of a priori concepts, the metaphysician has to cope with a twofold question: "What are they, and what is the nature of the way in which we know them? That is just what we hope to find out if we pursue our metaphysical studies"(TNMS 12-13). The distinction between these two questions may help us explain the difference between Collingwood’s approach towards metaphysics in the manuscripts on metaphysics before 1936, on the one hand, and in An Essay on Metaphysics and the manuscripts on metaphysics after 1936, on the other.

Between 1933 and 1936 Collingwood wrote in the manuscripts "Notes Towards a Metaphysics," "The Nature of Metaphysical Study," ‘Method and Metaphysics," and "Realism and Idealism," that metaphysics was an attempt to find out what we can about the general nature of reality. After 1936, however, Collingwood defined metaphysics as the historical study of absolute presuppositions, first in the manuscript The Function of Metaphysics in Civilization (1937), afterwards in An Autobiography and An Essay on Metaphysics. What, at a first glance, seems to be a flat renunciation of his earlier view is to be explained, if the two different questions are taken into account. Before 1936, Collingwood’s aim is to answer the first question: what are a priori ideas and how do they manifest themselves in human thought? Answering that question is tantamount to constructing a metaphysical theory, in particular the theory of objective idealism. After 1936, he no longer works at the elaboration of a metaphysical theory, confining to the second question: what is the nature of the way in which we know a priori ideas? Answering that question is tantamount to the identification of metaphysics to the historical study of changing absolute presuppositions. In his preface to An Essay on Metaphysics, Collingwood explicitly underlines this distinction: "This is not so much a book of metaphysics as a book about metaphysics. What I have chiefly tried to do in it is neither to expound my own metaphysical ideas, nor to criticize the metaphysical ideas of other people; but to explain what metaphysics is ... and how it is to be pursued."14

Why then this seemingly drastic evolution in Collingwood’s thought on metaphysics? To answer this question, one has to take into account A.J. Ayer’s Language, Truth and Logic, published in 1936, of which the first chapter, The Elimination of Metaphysics, is devoted to the destruction of the possibility of metaphysical knowledge. This chapter appears to have been, at least in some degree, the spur to the writing of An Essay on Metaphysics.15 Ayer’s programmatic assault on the possibility of metaphysics could not leave Collingwood, the current Waynflete professor in metaphysics at Oxford, unaffected. If the possibility of the metaphysical project itself is not accepted, then the endeavor to elaborate a metaphysical theory does not seem to be very effective either. So, Collingwood takes the counteroffensive: from now on he concentrates on the question of a transcendental - epistemological justification of metaphysics. The discussion between Ayer and Collingwood is situated on this level.

Collingwood’s method in arguing his case against Ayer is to accept his premises while denying his conclusions. In brief, Collingwood argues that Ayer fails to eliminate metaphysics for the simple reason that metaphysical propositions are not, as Ayer assumes, propositions but are, on the contrary, presuppositions and hence not amenable to the same treatment. For Ayer, metaphysical statements are nonsensical because they are not verifiable; for Collingwood, metaphysical statements are not verifiable because they are not propositions, directly describing empirical reality but presuppositions, causing by "logical efficacy" verifiable propositions to arise. Hence, metaphysical statements can never be empirically verifiable, analogous to empirical propositions. For Collingwood, Ayer’s neo-positivist attack on metaphysics, which is closely connected with a propositional logic based on a realistic epistemology,16 is an attack not on metaphysics, but on pseudo-metaphysics.17

A metaphysician’s aim, on Collingwood’s view, is to describe and elucidate the general characteristics of reality. But how is such an inquiry to be pursued? It is not situated on the logical level of empirically verifiable or tautological propositions, but on a different logical level. As a matter of fact, what the metaphysician examines are the logical relations between empirically verifiable/tautological propositions and their underlying presuppositions. The last or absolute presuppositions he thus finds form the only access to being, the proper object of metaphysics. Only by re-thinking! re-enacting the historical evolution of different absolute presuppositions can the metaphysician raise the question of being.18

Collingwood’s definition of the task of the metaphysician in The Elimination of Metaphysics must be understood against this background: "Metaphysics is primarily at any given time an attempt to discover what the people of that time believe about the world’s general nature; such beliefs being the presuppositions of all their "physics," that is, their inquiries into its detail. Secondarily, it is the attempt to discover the corresponding presuppositions of other peoples and other times, and to follow the historical process by which one set of presuppositions has turned into another" (A 66).

This definition does not imply that metaphysics does not deal with reality and only refers to thinking about reality.19 As stated above, in An Essay on Metaphysics, Collingwood does not intend to expound his own metaphysical ideas, but to give a justification of the metaphysical project. In other words, Collingwood answers Ayer by emphasizing that metaphysical language about being is never situated on the level of empirically verifiable or tautological propositions but on the level of absolute presuppositions. Only from that insight can the possibility of metaphysical thought and speech be justified.

Hence, we may safely conclude that Collingwood did not move from one conception of metaphysics to another; he only made, in response to logical positivism, a shift in strategy towards the problem of metaphysics. Furthermore, it is obvious that this shift in strategy has been facilitated by his change of view on the relation between the historicity of natural processes and human affairs. And so, we can return to the question of Collingwood’s interpretation of Whitehead’s concept of metaphysics, as elaborated in the two unpublished cosmology conclusions to The Idea of Nature and in The Idea of Nature itself.

II. Collingwood’s Interpretation of Whitehead

In the final pages of The Idea of Nature, Collingwood extensively discusses Whitehead’s concept of metaphysics. He first emphasizes there the resemblances between Whitehead’s and Alexander’s metaphysics: both thinkers consider reality as an evolving process, in which the Whiteheadian "events or occasions," and the description of the structures of reality, correspond to Alexander’s "point-instants" and his description of patterns of reality (IN 165-166).

Furthermore, this evolving process is characterized by what Whitehead calls "extensiveness" and "aim." "Extensiveness" implies that the cosmic reality develops upon a stage of space and time: every event in the temporary world is spread over space and goes on through time. In that respect, Whitehead agrees with Alexander. "Aim" implies that cosmic processes do not change at random, but can be explained in terms of teleology. Alexander rejects an anti-teleological vision on evolution as well. With regard to the explanation of the teleological character of the evolution, however, the most important difference between Whitehead’s and Alexander’s cosmology becomes obvious.

II. 1. Alexander versus Whitehead

For Alexander the whole cosmic evolution is based on one single foundation: a continuum that has both a space-aspect and a time-aspect. When new qualities emerge, these qualities, belonging to that pattern of the space-time continuum, are wholly immanent in the new event in which they are realized.

Whitehead’s cosmology is based on a double foundation: time-space, on the one hand, and what he (in Process and Reality) calls "eternal objects," on the other. "Eternal objects" are potentialities, which as forms of determination can enter into the becoming of actual entities and without which actuality is impossible. Hence, new qualities that emerge are not merely empirical qualities of new "occasions," they are also "eternal objects," belonging to a world of what Plato called forms or ideas; they are both immanent and transcendent: "Here Alexander inclines towards an empiricist tradition ... which identifies that which is known with the fleeting sense-datum of the moment; Whitehead, with his mathematical training, represents a rationalist tradition which identifies that which is known with necessary and eternal truths. This leads Whitehead back to Plato, and to asserting the reality of a world of eternal objects as the presupposition of the cosmic process" (IN 169; cf. SCT par. 33 and following). This double foundation enables Whitehead to solve certain fundamental problems which, according to Collingwood, remain unsolved for Alexander.

First, there is the question why nature should have in it a nisus towards the production of new things, and why specific new qualities do emerge and others do not. For Alexander, there is no answer: we cannot but accept the fact in a spirit of natural piety. For Whitehead, the answer is clear: "the answer is that the peculiar quality belonging to those things is an eternal object which, in his own phrase, is a ‘lure’ for the process: the eternal object, exactly as for Plato or Aristotle, attracts the process towards its realization."20

Secondly, there is a question of what relation holds between God and the world. For Alexander, God is the world as it will be when it comes to possess that future quality which is deity; in Collingwood’s view, such a concept of deity renders nonsensical the ordinary religious meaning which we attach to the word "God" (IN 163-164; 169). For Whitehead, God is an "eternal object," but an infinite one: "therefore He is not merely one lure eliciting one particular process but the infinite lure towards which all process directs itself" (IN 169; cf. SCT par 40, 41).

The improvements Whitehead introduces to the cosmological system of Alexander make him, according to Collingwood (IN), the most prominent cosmological thinker of his era. His thought is not only innovating and challenging, but also incorporates the great philosophical tradition.21

II.2. Collingwood and Whitehead

It is no surprise that Collingwood, in a number of places in his works, formulates his great admiration for Whitehead’s thought. As stated above, in the neo-positivist and "irrationalist" Anglo-Saxon philosophical climate of the inter-bellum period, there was no philosopher to which he was more closely related. Like Collingwood, Whitehead not only underlined the limits of rationality, but also its possibilities. Like Collingwood, Whitehead had the intention to construct a metaphysics in terms of which the nature of being could be interpreted. Like Collingwood, Whitehead rejected a non-cognitive interpretation of the meaning of human life.

In the passages in which Collingwood refers to Whitehead, two characteristics, apart from the always admiring tone, are conspicuous. First, Collingwood qualifies the thesis that Whitehead elaborates a realistic metaphysics. In that respect, Collingwood stresses the importance of the transcendental aspect of Whitehead’s metaphysical project. Secondly, it is striking that Collingwood himself, after 1934, always made a distinction between Whitehead the cosmologist and Whitehead the metaphysician. These two characteristics enable us to elucidate the affinities between their respective concepts of metaphysics.

II.2.1. Whitehead and the Transcendental Turn

Whitehead and Kant are often said to have completely different metaphysical projects. Kant’s metaphysics is identified with a transcendental philosophy, aware of the limits of rationality. Whitehead’s metaphysics is considered to be a realistic one, leaving aside the insights of the Copernican revolution. To underpin this realistic interpretation, one may refer to Whitehead’s magnum opus, Process and Reality, where, on several occasions, he explicitly objects to a Kantian epistemology, presenting his philosophy of organism as a return to a pre-Kantian mode of thought.22

Collingwood’s philosophy developed out of an opposition to the realistic epistemology, which he stigmatizes as the undischarged bankruptcy of modern philosophy (A 45). At first sight, such an anti-realist attitude seems to contradict his admiration for the work of metaphysicians like Alexander and Whitehead. How can one simultaneously reject a realistic starting point and approve of the elaboration of a metaphysics based on a realistic epistemology?

With respect to Alexander, the answer to this question is clear. The criticism already given of Alexander’s concept of metaphysics in The Idea of Nature (IN 163) becomes even more radical in An Essay on Metaphysics. It is precisely his empirical-realistic starting point, Collingwood writes in An Essay on Metaphysics, which prevents Alexander from seeing the distinction between absolute presuppositions and empirically verifiable propositions. As a consequence, the promising endeavor of Alexander to elaborate a contemporary metaphysics ultimately results in a pseudo-metaphysics: "Thus considered, Alexander’s metaphysics would seem to be a variety of positivistic metaphysics, whose difference from the commoner varieties consists chiefly in being the work of a very rich, very wise, and very profound thinker" (EM 176).

With respect to Whitehead, the same question receives a completely different response. While Collingwood is explicitly affirmative about the realistic standard of Alexander’s starting point, he is reserved concerning Whitehead’s. Already in The Idea of Nature, he made a distinction between Whitehead’s realism and that of the analytic philosophy.23 In An Autobiography, he radicalizes that distinction, interpreting Whitehead’s realism as contradictory to the realistic epistemology of the neo-positivists.24 Hence, he concludes that Whitehead’s cosmology is in fact constructed on an anti-realistic principle (EM 176).

In the manuscript "Realism and Idealism," Collingwood states in a no less polemical way that the term "realism" may be retained with regard to the theory of perception, on the condition that it is qualified in Whitehead’s way:

whether my view of perception is to be called realist or not will, I think, vary according to the taste of different persons using the word. Whitehead would call it realistic, as I gather from the fact that he calls his own view realistic and that my view is in essentials much the same as his. Others would refuse it the name because they regard as realistic only a theory of perception which asserts that what we perceive exists just as we perceive it independently of its being perceived, whereas I, like Whitehead, think that the object of perception really is what we perceive it to be only as what Whitehead calls an element in an actual situation that includes as other constituents not only the context but also the perceiver. (RI 54)

Thus, according to Collingwood, Whitehead obviously is no naive realist, constructing a metaphysics as if the transcendental turn had never taken place. The question is not whether Whitehead has transcendentally justified his metaphysical project, but how he has done it. It is precisely on the transcendental level that the differences and the affinities between Collingwood and Whitehead are to be situated.

II.2.2. Collingwood and Whitehead versus Kant

Kant had situated the conditions for the possibility of the understanding of reality in the transcendental structures of the human mind. In that way he had made explicit the central presupposition founding every form of scientific inquiry, the conviction that reality is rational and to a certain extent susceptible to human understanding. For Kant, this theory did not imply the end of an epistemological objectivity; on the contrary, it functioned as its guarantee. For there was the one and only one transcendental subjectivity, measuring all phenomenal appearances and so constituting all laws of all knowledge.

Collingwood is one among many thinkers who demonstrated the untenability of such a theory. Being an heir to the "Copernican revolution," he has undermined the universal claims of the Kantian transcendental subjectivity: the historian Collingwood is fully aware of the historicity of this "transcendental" subjectivity.

Once the historicity of the transcendental subjectivity is accepted, a cognitive relativism seems the only alternative. For if "the" subjectivity does not exist, no ground can be found in the structures of "the" human mind for the universal validity of our knowledge. In order to evade cognitive relativism, one cannot but resort to an answer that takes into consideration more than only the transcendental structures of our thought.

In discussing the manuscript "Method and Metaphysics," I have already pointed to the striking similarity between the concepts of reality in Collingwood and Whitehead: for both authors, reality consists of formative elements and actual entities. It is precisely in the introduction of formative elements as conditions of the possibility of actual entities, according to Collingwood, that Whitehead differs from Alexander.25 Furthermore, the status of one of these formative elements, the "eternal objects," is analogous to that of the "abstract entities":26 both are situated between the realism of ideas and pure nominalism. Starting from this concept of reality, both authors repudiate the Kantian project of a metaphysics as transcendental philosophy (Kant’s metaphysics of nature or "Erscheinungsontologie").

For Collingwood, objective reality is not constituted by the subjective ideas of a transcendental subject (cf. SCT par. 37). Hence, within the context of the metaphysical theory of the objective idealism, as elaborated in "Realism and Idealism," the term "a priori" receives a different meaning: a priori ideas function as abstract entities, as potentialities that are gradually actualized in the evolving reality. However, this metaphysical objective idealism is compatible with an epistemologic realism, as interpreted by Whitehead: "Objective idealism is epistemologically realistic; it believes we know the object itself as it really is." (RI 104)

In the preface to Process and Reality, Whitehead repudiates the Kantian doctrine which considers the objective world as a theoretical construct of the human experience. In the third chapter of the second part, he elucidates this repudiation:

The philosophy of organism is the inversion of Kant’s philosophy. The Critique of Pure Reason describes the process by which subjective data pass into the appearance of an objective world. The philosophy of organism seeks to describe how objective data pass into subjective satisfaction, and how order in the objective data provides intensity in the subjective satisfaction. For Kant, the world emerges from, the subject; for the philosophy of organism, the subject emerges from, the world. (PR 88 [135-136], italics mine)

The transcendental foundation is broader for Whitehead than for Kant. As conditions of the possibility of our experience -- whatever that experience may contain -- he postulates three formative elements: the realm of forms ("eternal objects"), creativity, and the Principle of limitation or definiteness of becoming ("God").

III. Collingwood’s Criticism of Whitehead

In spite of his admiration for Whitehead’s metaphysical system, Collingwood formulates two objections in "Sketch of a Cosmological Theory" and The Idea of Nature. I will not assess Collingwood’s criticism on Whitehead’s theory of "eternal objects" here (IN 171-173; SCT par. 33 and following), but will examine Collingwood’s evaluation of Whitehead’s view on the creative advance. The distinction between them concerning this issue determines to a considerable extent the distinction between both concepts of metaphysics. In this respect I do not only refer to The Idea of Nature but to the two unpublished cosmology conclusions (SCT, B) as well.

The crucial question for Collingwood is this: how do we have to understand the transitions from nature to life and from life to mind? It is Whitehead’s merit to have described the fundamental continuity running all through the world of nature, from its most rudimentary forms to it most complicated and highest development known to us in the mental life of human beings. "But when we ask him whether this series of forms represents a series really developed in time he seems uncertain of his answer; and if we go on to ask the precise nature of the connection between one form and the next, he has no answer to give except to insist that in general all such connections are formed by the creative process which is the world itself." 27 In this respect Collingwood refers to the ambiguity of the term "prehension."28

Preliminary conclusion: Whitehead remains, in Collingwood’s view, vague concerning the distinction between change on the level below consciousness and development on the conscious level. In a letter to Alexander (dated February 13, 1935), Collingwood put this criticism in a nutshell:

There is still one point in which I think (though I am not sure) Process and Reality fails to take up and develop a leading point in Space, Time and Deity. Your world seems to me a world in which evolution and history have a real place. Whitehead’s world is indeed all process, but I don’t see that this process is in the same way productive or creative of new things (e.g.. Life, Mind) arising on the old as on a foundation. Whitehead seems rather to deny that these things really are new at all -- at least he seems to say so explicitly in the little Nature and Life .... I don’t believe that matter is really alive, and all that business. I think it’s only a dodge to evade the question, how does anything generically new come into existence?29

As stated above, it is precisely this distinction between both levels that Collingwood elaborates after 1935. On the basis of this distinction, he assigns a central role to the history of human thought in his metaphysical inquiry, at the expense of cosmology.

This interpretation of Collingwood’s changing concept of metaphysics is reinforced by the information in the two unpublished cosmology conclusions. The first conclusion largely identifies natural processes with historical processes, although Collingwood here tentatively adumbrates his criticism on Whitehead’s lack of historical insight.30 The second conclusion, as already indicated, dearly moves away from this position (B 3).

III.1. The Inadequacy of Collingwood’s Criticism

In the quoted letter to Alexander, Collingwood writes: "I think I understand most of Space, Time and Deity, but God knows if I shall ever understand more than half of Process and Reality .... All of it that I do understand (with very small reservations) I accept with gratitude and enthusiasm." In several manuscripts, he simultaneously underlines his enthusiasm for Whitehead’s thought and his wavering in its interpretation.

As a matter of fact, Collingwood’s criticism is insufficient on several points. His statement that Whitehead’s cosmology is founded upon a double pillar, the time-space continuum and the "eternal objects," is much too simple. For Whitehead, reality consists of the actual temporary world and three formative elements (creativity, eternal objects and God). Against the background of the relationship between these three formative elements, Collingwood’s criticism concerning Whitehead’s description of "eternal objects" misses the point.31

Furthermore, Whitehead nowhere describes God as an infinite "eternal object." By virtue of the ontological principle, "eternal objects" are not actual. For Whitehead, God is the non-temporary actual entity ordering the "eternal objects" by his conceptual understanding, giving the potentialities "graded relevance" and in this way structuring the realm of potentialities. Whitehead modifies the Aristotelian concept of God by giving room to becoming in his own concept of God.32 Finally, Whitehead introduces in the concept "prehension" subtle distinctions (physical and mental prehensions,

"comparative feelings," "propositional feelings," etc.), which all emphasize the distance he takes from certain forms of panpsychism.33

III. 2. The Importance of Collingwood’s Criticism

Although Collingwood’s reading of Whitehead was superficial on crucial points, this insufficient criticism marks the point where both thinkers follow divergent paths. The resemblance between their concepts of reality is obvious: for Whitehead and Collingwood, reality consists of formative elements and actual entities. It is precisely the introduction of formative elements as conditions for the possibility of the actual world that is, according to Collingwood, the greatest merit of Whitehead. Furthermore, the status of the eternal objects" as identical to that of the "abstract entities" entails a middle course between a Kantian subjective idealism and a naive realism.34

The decisive difference, however, between both authors is situated on the level of the actual entities. Whitehead’s ontological principle implies that everything is an actual entity (in the strictest sense of the word) or combination of actual entities: both mental experiences and events on the subatomic level are actual entities. For Collingwood too, both mental and physical events are actual. But because of their different relation to the past, Collingwood makes a distinction between "bodies" and "minds." Only mental entities are capable of retaining their past in such a way that it can live on in the present situation. In that way "minds" are more real than "bodies."

Hence, in the work of both authors we find actual entities and formative elements. Whitehead introduces, within the formative elements, a clear distinction between creativity, eternal objects and God. Collingwood introduces, within the actual world, a clear distinction between "bodies" and "minds."

This divergent view on the constitution of and the relation between formative elements and actual entities has far-reaching consequences for both their concepts of metaphysics and especially the relationship of cosmology to metaphysics in their thought. In Whitehead’s thought, there is a direct link between cosmology and metaphysics: cosmology describes the general characteristics of reality we are living in, metaphysics the most general characteristics of all possible reality (cf. Whitehead, ER 76). For Collingwood, this link is less direct: in order to find the general characteristics of reality, we must follow how the abstract entities are actualized in the world of "bodies" and "minds." Because of this divergent process of actualization -- the material past is dead, the mental past is alive -- a distinction must be made between cosmology or pseudo-history and history proper (i.e., the study of human thought). Metaphysics, in that respect, is the study of the general characteristics of reality by means of the description of changing presuppositions of human thought, of which cosmology is a part.

Only when we understand the specific relationship between abstract entities, on the one hand, and material and mental entities on the other, as elaborated in his theory of objective idealism, does the true meaning of the concluding chapter of The Idea of Nature become clear. I once cite "Realism and Idealism," the passage about objective idealism in which Collingwood clearly states his conception of the world of nature: "Thus it conceives the world of nature as something derived from and dependent upon something logical prior to itself, a world of immaterial ideas; but this is not a mental world or a world of mental activities or of things depending on mental activity although it is an intelligible world or a world in which mind, when mind comes into existence, finds itself completely at home."35 We cannot but hear the echo of this metaphysical theory in the final words of The Idea of Nature, in which Collingwood maps the distinction of two kinds of science (natural science versus history):

if nature is a thing that depends for its existence on something else, this dependence is a thing that must be taken into account when we try to understand what nature is; and if natural science is a form of thought that depends for its existence upon some other form of thought, we cannot adequately reflect upon what natural science tells us without taking into account the form of thought upon which it depends (italics mine). What is this form of thought) This is a question which Alexander and Whitehead have not asked. And that is why I answer the question, "Where do we go from here?" by saying, "We go from the idea of nature to the idea of history." (IN 176-177; emphasis added)

With regard to the meaning of the last sentence, I do agree with David Boucher’s interpretation of reducing its meaning to being a reference to the following term’s lectures.36 In my view, however, it is the last but one sentence which is of utmost importance here, referring as it does to Collingwood’s concept of objective idealism, as elaborated in "Realism and Idealism" and adumbrated in "The Function of Metaphysics in Civilization."37

III.3. Collingwood Versus Whitehead: The Impact of the Historical Turn

Once we see this difference in the two concepts of metaphysics, we can go back to the question of its transcendental status. Common to both authors is their repudiation of the Kantian transcendental constitution of reality. But it is precisely in their divergent interpretation of the cosmology-metaphysics relation that their positive definitions of a more-than-Kantian transcendental constitution differ.

While constructing his concept of metaphysics, Collingwood takes into account the data brought in by the historical and linguistic turns.38 In fact, both turns can be considered as variables of the transcendental turn: whether you accept one epistemological center (Kant) or different and irreducible centers (Wittgenstein), the common starting point is that a description of reality is always determined by the way we look at it. In other words, however variable, the limits of the world will always be linked to the limits of speech and thought.

Collingwood thus underlines after 1935 that a metaphysics can only be constructed by means of an analysis of human experience. Now, according to Collingwood, Whitehead has, as already mentioned, neglected to make use of this distinction between human and non-human experience. In one sense, this criticism is undeserved: Whitehead does make a distinction between a conscious and a non-conscious level of experience. On the other hand, one can not deny that this distinction plays a minor role in his metaphysical methodology. For Whitehead calls his transcendental principle a "reformed subjectivist principle," which implies that all actual entities are subjects of experience.39 By means of this principle, he can insist that his philosophy of organism does not reject the transcendental turn, but expands it.40

In order to think reality both authors not only take into account the events, but also the potentialities that are actualized in the events. In respect to the way these potentialities or "abstract entities" are actualized, Collingwood, however, makes a distinction between actualization on the conscious level of thought and on the non-conscious level of material reality. In other words, in opposition to the "reformed subjectivist principle," Collingwood takes as a methodological starting point the distinction between "minds" and "bodies."41 On the basis of this divergent methodological starting point, Collingwood’s project is called an historical metaphysics and Whitehead’s project a cosmological metaphysics.

However, this formulation might suggest Collingwood is ruling out the cosmological aspect of a metaphysical inquiry, which is, of course, not the case. Both history and cosmology play a role in metaphysics, but the historical study of human thought is primordial, cosmology or the study of nature being itself a product of human thought. Collingwood holds this view of the relation cosmology-history, elaborated from 1935 onwards, in The New Leviathan as well. This is the conclusion of the first part, On Man:

18.91. The object of scientific study, for a man who has taken part in the progress of human thought down to the present time is history. The world of Nature, first the law-abiding Nature of modern science and second the end-seeking Nature of Greco-medieval science, is as real as you will; but it is not history, it is the background of history. 18.92. It is in the world of history, not in the world of Nature, that man finds the central problems he has to solve. For twentieth-century thought the problems of history are the central problems: those of Nature, however interesting they may be, are only peripheral.

IV. Identical Inspiration, Distinct Elaboration

At first sight, Collingwood’s and Whitehead’s concepts of metaphysics do not have much in common. By means of the foregoing comparative analysis, I have tried to show that both authors in fact have the same purpose. Their basic inspiration is identical: to elaborate a metaphysics in terms of which the nature of being can be interpreted. The differing appearance of their concepts of metaphysics has especially to do with a different background and, consequently, a different methodology.

Collingwood, being an historian, is especially interested in the question how being manifests itself in the history of thought. To answer this question he shows by means of a historical-logical description of the evolution of absolute presuppositions how the eternal philosophical questions in every epoch have manifested themselves in a different way, and how the different metaphysical answers can only be understood as answers to these questions. Hence, the metaphysician’s task is twofold: he has to trace the absolute presuppositions of different epochs, and to reconstruct the historical process by which one constellation of absolute presuppositions turns into another. Only in that way can it be made clear how being manifests itself in the evolution of human thought.

In Whitehead’s thought, this historical aspect comes less to the fore. Trained in logic, mathematics and positive sciences, his main intention was to bring philosophy once again in touch with the sciences of his era (quantum mechanics, relativity theory, non-mechanical biology) and to elaborate a cosmological-metaphysical theory on the basis of the analysis of their presuppositions.

I call their differing concepts of metaphysics complementary for two reasons. First, Whitehead complements Collingwood by not only constructing a concept of metaphysics, but also by elaborating a metaphysical system. Collingwood did not elaborate a metaphysical system of his own, making some tentative endeavors in the manuscripts, "Notes Towards a Metaphysics," "Method and Metaphysics,’ and "Sketch of a Cosmological Theory." After 1936, he confined himself to the justification of the possibility of the project of metaphysics, without being able to elaborate that project himself. Second, Collingwood complements Whitehead by stressing the question of the transcendental conditions of the possibility of a metaphysical project.42 It is particularly in this domain that the importance of Collingwood for current metaphysical thought is to be found.

On the one hand, Collingwood participates in (and has undoubtedly contributed to) what may be called the contextualism of the twentieth century, i.e., the idea that reason does not function as the external criterion of culture, but is to be attributed to the culture in which it operates. On the other hand, and in this way unlike contextualismCollingwood thinks that this culture bound rationality has to be criticized time and again by rationality itself. History does not evolve as a continuous process determined by eternal rational principles. Nor is it true that history would be unreasonable because reason itself is historical. Precisely in following the inner process of historically changing absolute presuppositions, the metaphysician follows the way in which the "abstract entity" being evolves.

Hence, the kinship between Collingwood and Whitehead becomes most obvious in those writings in which the status of philosophical rationality is discussed. There is a particularly strong resemblance between Whitehead’s small and suggestive work in the philosophy of science, The Function of Reason, and Collingwood’s methodological treatise, An Essay on Philosophical Method.43

In The Function of Reason, Whitehead makes a distinction between practical and speculative reason, the reason of the foxes and the reason of the gods (FR 10-11). Practical reason is bound by factors in the world, looking for efficient methods to grasp them. But human life transcends the urge to dominate the world; it wants a "better life." That is why another function of reason is needed: theoretical reason looking for an insight into the complexity of reality. This theoretical or speculative reason, anarchist in its search for transcending the existing methods to deal with reality, is itself bound to method: even in transcending (practical) methods, reason is bound by a (speculative) method.

This method is twofold: on the one hand, speculative philosophy builds systems of abstractions in terms of which all elements of our experience can be interpreted. Simultaneously, there is the acute awareness of the incompleteness of every abstraction and the endlessness of the philosophical search for always more perfect abstractions. Hence, it is typical of speculative reason to criticize again and again its own abstractions. Speculative reason only transcends itself by criticizing itself.

However, speculative reason is inhibited by the massive "obscurantism" of human nature, the refusal to speculate freely about the limits of traditional methods. Because the obscurantism of every generation finds its primary spokesmen in those who maintain the dominating methodology, in the first part of the twentieth century, positivists were its paradigmatic representatives (FR 44).

In An Essay on Philosophical Method, Collingwood defines a philosophical system as a scale of forms, in which every form differs in kind and in degree. In conformity to this definition the historical development of metaphysics is also seen as a development of a scale of forms. Such a definition implies that no metaphysical system is applicable to every situation, in all instances. On the contrary, every new situation demands a modification of the system.

Hence, an unchangeable method by means of which all philosophical problems can be solved is completely out of question. But admitting this does not imply that philosophy/metaphysics is without method: its own method consists precisely in the repudiation of a rigid method. Philosophy! metaphysics demands "not a random flexibility, a mere looseness in the application of a method nowhere quite appropriate; it is a uniform or methodical flexibility, in which the method changes from one topic to another because form and content are changing pari passu as thought, traversing its scale of forms, gradually approximates to the ideal of a perfectly philosophical subject-matter treated by a perfectly philosophical method" (EPM 192).

Collingwood, like Whitehead, refers to the positive scientists as "obscurantists" who repudiate the methodology -- transcending thought of metaphysics:

Throughout the [19th] century the tendency of European thought was increasingly to deny and neglect metaphysics. Natural science, by the mouth of positivism, presented itself not only as a natural science, but as a substitute for history (under the name of sociology), a substitute for religion (under the Comtian name of "la religion de l’humanité") and a substitute for metaphysics (under the name of positive philosophy). The contempt for metaphysics, openly expressed on all sides, as e.g. in the slogan of the German positivists, keine Metaphysik mehr, did not mean that natural science was not to be allowed any presuppositions. Whatever, it did not mean that no metaphysical propositions were to be accepted. It meant that such propositions were not to be catalogued or codified. It meant that they were to be kept hidden and not promulgated.

They were to do their work in the dark. The ruling class of natural scientists, like so many tyrannies in the course of history, regarded a refusal to publish the laws by which it ruled as an indispensable instrument of its own tyranny (italics mine). The class of persons on whom by the tradition of centuries the task fell, of bringing to light the hidden presuppositions of everyday thought, whether scientific or historical, (I refer of course to the official teachers of philosophy) were treated with a contemptuous neglect. (FMC 29-30)

In the manuscript "Notes Toward a Metaphysics," the terminological resemblance with Whitehead is most striking. There Collingwood defines philosophy as a thought systematically fighting against its own abstractions (NTMe 58), describing the development of metaphysics as appealing "to a world of ideal objects towards which the world of experience has an asymptotic nisus,"44 a metaphor Whitehead also makes use of in The Function of Reason (FR 53).

In sum, like Whitehead, Collingwood insists that metaphysics lives on systematic thought: to understand is to see connections. At the same time there is the acute awareness of the incompleteness of each metaphysical system: it is supported by an unlimited background of presuppositions, out of which it arises and to which it continuously refers. Still, it offers a matrix to interpret all the elements of our experience. Each metaphysical system is an endeavor to elucidate the inner meaning it already possesses. At the same time, its primary task consists in criticizing the elucidation achieved.

The historian Collingwood explicitly situates his own concept of metaphysics within the great metaphysical tradition:

To a person who does not understand what philosophy is, or by what processes it moves, the history of sixty generations appears as a chaos, the record of random movements hither and thither by wandering planets, which no theory of epicycles can reduce to reason. But this appearance of irrationality, I make bold to say, cannot survive the discovery that philosophical thought has a structure of its own, and the hypothesis that in its changes it is obeying the laws 0f that structure. Thus, from the point of view of a rational theory of philosophy, the past history of philosophical thought no longer appears as irrational; it is a body of experience to which we can appeal with confidence, because we understand the principles at work in it, and in the light of those principles find it intelligible. (EPM 224)

Whitehead’s metaphysics is greeted by Collingwood as a new stage, in continuity with that metaphysical tradition:

In Whitehead’s work all the leading conceptions of these new sciences have been fused into a single view of the world which is not only coherent and simple in itself but has also consciously connected itself with the main tradition of philosophical thought; Whitehead himself, [...] claims continuity with the philosophical tradition. Whitehead has escaped from the stage of thinking that the great philosophers were all wrong into the stage of seeing that they were all right; and he has achieved this, not by philosophical erudition, followed by an attempt at original thought, but by thinking for himself first and studying the great philosophers afterwards (IN 170).



1.Cf. W. M. Johnston, The Formative Years of R.G. Collingwood (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1969), 138; S. Toulmin, "Conceptual Change and the Problem of Relativity, "Critical Essays on the Philosophy of R. G. Collingwood, edited by M. Krausz (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972), 202.

2. "This kinship is especially clear in the last pages of his The Idea of Nature and in both the manuscripts "Notes towards a Metaphysic" and "Sketch of a Cosmological Theory."

3. R. Gandhi, "Whitehead on the Distrust of Speculative Philosophy," International Philosophical Quarterly 12 (1972), 402 [cited as IPQ72].

4. 1PQ72 402.

5. "The science which I am discussing is cosmology .... For reasons which I partly stated in my Balliol lecture in Bradley (January 1934) I regard cosmology as the main subject at present demanding attention from serious philosophers" (NTM 1d).

6. NTM, a, 4-5; cf. D. Boucher, "The Principles of History and the Cosmology Conclusion to The Idea of Nature," Collingwood Studies 2 (1995), 148.

7. Cf. the manuscripts "Reality as History" (1935) and the so-called B-manuscript, the second unpublished conclusion to IN; the articles "The Historical Imagination" (1936) and "Human Nature and Human History" (1936) and different sections from IN and IH.

8. "Whereas, for bodies, time always gives with one hand and takes away with the other, for minds, the passing of time means the acquiring of experience and the consequent enrichment and development of mind’s various activities" (MM 23). It is now clear why historians habitually restrict the field of historical knowledge to human affairs. A natural process is a process of events, an historical process is a process of thoughts" (IH 216).

9. This manuscript is a sequel to EPM as well. He here explicitly applies to metaphysics the philosophical method elaborated in EPM.

10. See MM 3-14; IN.169-173; SCT par.33 and following.

11. RI 104. An identical concept has been elaborated in IN 174-177.

12. TNMS 11, 13. It is to be noted that the criticism which Collingwood here formulates is identical to his criticism on the concept of pure being in EM 14.

13. See especially par. 38-39: "Par.38: Historical knowledge is not empirical knowledge, it is not perception or observation; it is essentially inferential. The historian argues to his conceptions he argues that because the data are thus and not otherwise the past event must have been of such and such a kind. His object, therefore, the past event, is not only an eternal object but also a necessary object, an object that must be what it is, and is known rationally in apprehending this necessity; Par.39: Applying these results to our knowledge of nature: we regard nature as a self-creative process and therefore creative of eternal objects."

14. EM, vii. The manuscript The Nature of Metaphysical Study shows that, on Collingwood’s view, both definitions of metaphysics are complementary. See W. J. Van der Dussen, History as a Science. The Philosophy of R G. Collingwood (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1983), 193-195;J. Connelly, ‘Metaphysics and Method: A Necessary Unity in the Philosophy of RG. Collingwood," Storia, antropologia e scienze del linguaggio (1990), 112-120.

15. See EM 163, footnote; A.J. Ayer, Philosophy in the Twentieth Century (London, Allen & Unwin, 1982), 197.

16. "But if the "realism" of my youth is dead, it has left not only a heritage of general prejudice against philosophy as such, but a partial heir. Its propositional logic.. has inspired a school of thought which is continuing the work of jettisoning whatever can be recognized as positive doctrine by reviving the old positivistic attack on metaphysics" (A 52).

17. EM 163. This argument heavily relies on J. Connelly, 82-83.

18. Collingwood’s concept of absolute presuppositions is very complex. A detailed elaboration of this issue is beyond the scope of this article. For more information, see G. Vanheeswijck, "The Function of ‘Unconscious Thought’ in RG. Collingwood’s Philosophy," Collingwood Studies. edited by David Boucher, Collingwood Society (1994), 108-123; G. Vanheeswijck, "Metaphysics as ‘A Science of Absolute Presuppositions’: Another Look at R.G. Collingwood," The Modern Schoolman (1996), 333-350.

19. See G. Vanheeswijck, "The Function of ‘Unconscious Thought’ in R.G. Collingwood’s Philosophy," Collingwood Studies (1994), 108-123.

20. IN 169. In SCT par.36, Collingwood makes a distinction between eternal objects of historical thought and Whitehead’s eternal objects and examines their relation: "The eternal objects of historical thought are concrete eternal objects, e.g., the revolution of 1688; Whitehead’s eternal objects are abstract eternal objects, e.g. a certain kind of blueness, or (returning to 1688) the exact configuration of the splash made when James II threw the Great Seal into the Thames. What is the relation between these? I suggest that the abstract eternal object is merely one element in a concrete eternal object taken by itself in abstraction. The real eternal object here is the event as a whole James II throwing the Great Seal into the Thames; the configuration of the splash owes its eternity not to the fact that a splash with exactly the same configuration might happen again at any time, if that is a fact (which I suspect it is not), but to the fact that it was part and parcel of the event.

21. Although his rather Platonic cosmology ends in a rather Aristotelian concept of God, this recapitulation is obviously not a mere repetition: "Whitehead, following out his own train of thought, has thus reconstructed for himself Aristotle’s conception of God as the unmoved mover, initiating and directing the entire cosmic process through its love of Him. And it is curious to observe that the identity of his own thought with Aristotle’s, which Whitehead gladly admits, had to be pointed out to him by a friend, Whitehead having apparently never read Aristotle’s Metaphysics for himself. I mention this not to ridicule Whitehead for his ignorance of Aristotle --nothing could be farther from my mind-but to show how in his own thought a Platonic cosmology may be seen, in the pages of Process and Reality, turning into an Aristotelian" (IN 170). The friend in question was Collingwood himself (I am indebted for this information to Lewis S. Ford).

22. "in the main the philosophy of organism is a recurrence to pre-Kantian modes of thought" (PR xi [vi]). "These lectures will be best understood by noting the following list of prevalent habits of thought, which are repudiated, in so far as concerns their influence on philosophy: . . . (vii) The Kantian doctrine of the objective world as a theoretical construct from purely subjective experience" (PR xiii [x]). "The philosophy of organism is the inversion of Kant’s philosophy" (PR 88 [135]).

23. "His work in philosophy forms part, and a very important part, of the movement of twentieth-century realism; but whereas the other leaders of that movement came to it after a training in late-nineteenth-century idealism, and are consequently realistic with the fanaticism of converts and morbidly terrified of relapsing into the sins of their youth, a fact which gives their work an air of strain, as if they cared less about advancing philosophical knowledge than about proving themselves good enemies of idealism, Whitehead’s work is perfectly free from all this sort of thing, and he suffers from no obsessions; obviously he does not care what he says, so long as it is true. In this freedom from anxiety lies the secret of his success" (IN 165).

24. Cf. Whitehead’s own characterization of his cosmology as "a transformation of some main doctrines of Absolute Idealism onto a realistic basis" (PR xiii [viii]). Collingwood interprets this characterization as follows: "In Whitehead the resemblance is more with Hegel; and the author, though he does not seem to be acquainted with Hegel, is not wholly unaware of this, for he describes the book as an attempt to do over again the work of "idealism," "but from a realist point of view." "Actually, however, if ‘realism’ means the doctrine that the known is independent of, and unaffected by, the knowing it, Whitehead is not a ‘realist’ at all; for his ‘philosophy of organism’ commits him to the view that everything which forms an element in a given ‘situation’ is connected with everything else in that situation, not merely by a relation of compresence, but by interdependence. It follows that, where one element in a situation is a mind, and a second element something known to that mind, the knower and the known are interdependent. This is precisely the doctrine which it was the chief aim of the ‘realists’ to deny" (A 45-46).

25. The lack of "formative elements" is, in Collingwood’s opinion, also the weak point in the philosophy of Bergson (IN 141).

26. "When I call [the abstract entities] abstract I do not mean that we in any sense make them by an act of abstraction; I mean rather that we are thinking about them when we do what is called thinking abstractly The abstract entities of which we have universal and necessary or a priori knowledge, are in that knowledge contemplated by us not merely as instanced here or there in the world of body or mind, but in themselves; and on the principle, or if you like the assumption, that we know things as they are, when I am satisfied that we know them not merely as instanced in bodies or minds but in themselves, I say that they are not merely instanced in bodies or minds but are in themselves" (MM13-14).

27. IN 174. The reason why Collingwood’s question is not answered might be that Whitehead sees the emergence of life and mind as necessarily contingent matters, outside the scope of metaphysics.

28. "Everything enjoys what he calls ‘prehensions,’ that is to say, somehow absorbs what is outside itself into its own being ... but once more, as in the case of life, he is on the horns of a dilemma. Either mind is at bottom the same as these elementary prehensions, in which case there is no creative advance, and life is a mere abstraction from mind as matter is from life, or else it is something genuinely new in which case we have to explain its relation to that out of which it grew. And once more Whitehead does not appear to see the dilemma" (IN 173-174).

29. See M. Hampe & H. Maassen, editors. Die Gifford Lectures und ihre Deutung. Frankfurt Suhrkamp, 1991, 16f. I thank Lewis S. Ford for this reference.

30. SCT par. 33: "The concept of process implies, if properly considered, that one and the same thing can be the product of a process and also an eternal object. Thus the dualism which Whitehead thinks the only way out of this problem is avoided, and we can say that the world of process is the world of eternal objects. Whitehead does not realize this, possibly because he has not considered the nature and implications of history"; par. 35: "Thus all historical events become eternal objects; and if this is the case with history, it is the case with all self-creative processes. If the entire process of nature is a becoming, as Whitehead sees that it is, then this becoming must generate eternal objects. It does not presuppose them all, as Whitehead thinks, nor does it generate merely transient objects, as both he and Alexander assume."

31. Cf. J. Van der Veken, ‘Whiteheads filosofie van de creativiteit. Samenhang van de grondcategorieën," Tijdschrift voor Filosofie (12), 1980, 11-47.

32. For Collingwood’s elaboration of his concept of God, see SCT par. 40 and following, in which he identifies God with pure being. Here, I will not go into the question of this rather problematic identification. The elaboration of the problem of the God-concept in Collingwood’s thought would require another article. With regard to a comparison between Whitehead’s and Collingwood’s views on the relation metaphysics-religion, I wish to refer to SCT par. 54 in which Collingwood makes a distinction between objective and subjective immortality. Also this distinction might elucidate the difference between both authors’ concept of metaphysics. The elaboration of this question would require another article as well.

33. The term panpsychism needs to be nuanced as well. If by panpsychism is meant pluralistic idealism in the sense of Leibniz, Whitehead is not a panpsychist. If it is used to mean that all actuality has both mental and physical poles, it is difficult to deny that Whitehead would be a panpsychist. A better term in this respect would be "pansubjectivist."

34. See RI 102-104; FMC 51-52.

35. RI 104. An identical concept has been elaborated in IN 174-177.

36. D. Boucher, 154. ‘The concluding sentence to The Idea of Nature may well be a reference to the following term’s lectures: "I answer the question ‘Where do we go from here?’ by saying, ‘We go from the idea of nature to the idea of history’." This was the title of the lectures for the Trinity Term.

37. FMC 51-52: "But [to think that all people share the same basic presuppositions] was possible only because no one had yet sufficiently studied the history of thought to have discovered that metaphysical presuppositions are variables. With that discovery it becomes impossible even for a moment to take seriously either a realistic metaphysics according to which metaphysical propositions state our empirical knowledge of the categorical characteristics of reality, or an idealistic or psychological metaphysics according to which these depend upon the way in which the human mind as such is always and everywhere constructed ... We must start again at the beginning and construct a new metaphysical theory which will face the facts revealed by history. This has never yet been done." It is clear that Collingwood in this last sentence refers to the theory of objective idealism. For more information cf. G. Vanheeswijck, "Metaphysics as a ‘Science of Absolute Presuppositions’: Another look at R.G. Collingwood. A Reply to Rosemary Flanigan," The Modern Schoolman (1996) 333-350.

38. Cf. JA. Martin, "Collingwood and Wittgenstein on the Task of Philosophy," Philosophy Today 25 (1981), 12-23.

39. "The reformed subjectivist principle adopted by the philosophy of organism is merely an alternative statement of the principle of relativity .... This principle states that it belongs to the nature of a "being" that it is a potential for every "becoming." Thus all things are to be conceived as qualifications of actual occasions" (PR 166 [2531).

40. "The philosophy of organism aspires to construct a critique of pure feeling, in the philosophical position in which Kant put his Critique of Pure Reason. This should also supersede the remaining Critique’s required in the Kantian philosophy" (PR 113[172-173]). "It follows that the philosophy of organism entirely accepts the subjectivist bias of modern philosophy" (PR166 [253]).

41. Without explicitly naming Whitehead, in the article "The Historical Imagination" Collingwood rejects Whitehead’s definition of "ingression": "Nor is it possible to give an account of knowledge by combining theories of these two types. Current philosophy is full of such combinations: eternal objects and the transient situations in which they are ingredient" (IH 234).

42. Still one may not forget that Whitehead too treats the concept of history and the conditions of the possibility of metaphysics in his discussions with Descartes, Locke, Hume and Kant, without making them a central issue.

43. In this respect I also refer to the resemblance between Whitehead’s concept of metaphysics, as elaborated in the first chapter of the first part of Process and Reality, "Speculative Philosophy," and in the second part of Adventures of Ideas, "Cosmological," and Collingwood’s concept of metaphysics in the manuscripts "Correspondence with Gilbert Ryle," "Notes Towards a Metaphysic," and "The Function of Metaphysics in Civilization."

44. "[Theoretical reason] does not abolish consciousness or experience, but it appeals to a new world which is not and never can be experienced: a world of ideal objects towards which the world of experience has an asymptotic nisus" (NTM d 87).


References [Collingwood]

A An Autobiography. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978.

B Second unpublished conclusion so The Idea of Nature, 1935 or 1937.

EM An Essay on Metaphysics. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1940.

EPM An Essay on Philosophical Method. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1933.

FMC "The Function of Metaphysics in Civilization," unpublished manuscript, 1937-1938.

IH The Idea of History. Edited by T.M. Knox. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1946.

IN The Idea of Nature. Edited by T.M. Knox. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1945.

MM "Method and Metaphysics," unpublished manuscript, 1935.

MTM "Notes Towards a Metaphysics," unpublished manuscript, 1933-1934.

RI "Realism and Idealism," unpublished manuscript, 1936.

SCT "Sketch of a Cosmological Theory," unpublished manuscript, 1934.

TNMS "The Nature of Metaphysical Study," unpublished manuscript, 1934.

Viewed 9061 times.