NL II: “The Relation Between Body and Mind”

Index to this series

I continue making notes on The New Leviathan (1942) of R. G. Collingwood (1889–1943). Now my main concern is with the second chapter, “The Relation Between Body and Mind”; but again I shall range widely.


Some writers begin with an outline, which they proceed to fill out with words. At least, they do this if they do what they are taught in school:

He showed how the aspect of Quality called unity, the hanging-togetherness of a story, could be improved with a technique called an outline. The authority of an argument could be jacked up with a technique called footnotes, which gives authoritative reference. Outlines and footnotes are standard things taught in all freshman composition classes, but now as devices for improving Quality they had a purpose.

Thus Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, ch. 17. Does anybody strictly follow the textbook method? Collingwood’s first book, Religion and Philosophy (1916), has parts, chapters, sections, subsections, and even some sub-subsections. The parts and the chapters have titles; the sections, subsections, and sub-subsections have descriptions in the table of contents. Did the table of contents exist in full before the writing of the book?

My own writing about Collingwood is my way of figuring out what he is saying, or what I think he is saying, or what I think about what he is saying. When I begin, I do not know where I am going to go. As it turns out, in the present article I am going to end up connecting Collingwood’s resolution of the “mind-body problem” with his interpretation of the Ontological Proof of the existence of God. I find I can divide my article into the following parts:

  1. Morality and Thought. Can and must moral problems be solved by thinking?

  2. Thought and Feeling. Can anybody else tell you how you ought to feel? I recall the controversy of Richard Dawkins’s feelings about having been subjected to pedophilia.
  3. Hospitality and Thought. Thinking, and especially thinking about the novels of Jane Austen: will it make you a better person, or at least a better host?

  4. Education. Academic debates are like tea parties with stuffed animals and empty cups.

  5. The “Mind-Body Problem”. No problem, really. There are sciences of body and sciences of mind, but they are all about the same thing, just as the two onyx spheres on my table that look to my eye like Jupiter are the same things that feel cool and smooth in my hand and that make a clicking sound in my ear when I allow them to collide.

  6. The Ontological Proof. It is not the question-begging proposition caricatured by Graham Priest in Logic: A Very Short Introduction (2000) as being,

    The object which is omniscient, omnipotent, morally perfect,…and exists, exists.

    It is implicit in every scientific argument.

  7. Swapping Horses. Actually the mind-body distinction would seem to be a problem. You cannot use sciences of body to solve problems of mind.

Morality and Thought

The present article follows an earlier article, on the first chapter of The New Leviathan. Reflecting the title of that chapter, which is “Body and Mind,” the earlier article has a twofold conclusion:

  1. Scientists must be free to do their work, and yet
  2. others cannot do for you your own proper work, which is the achievement of self-knowledge.

This is what I infer from Collingwood, and I agree with it.

Since The New Leviathan is Collingwood’s contribution to the war against the Nazis, should we understand its treatment of scientific persecution—persecution of scientists—as a condemnation of Nazi interference with universities? This would be an easy condemnation to make. I suppose Collingwood’s main concern is with what has happened in Britain. However, I have no particular information on scientific persecution there, beyond the indications given by Collingwood himself. I talked about some of these indications in the earlier article. Another indication is found in Chapter II of The New Leviathan; I shall talk about it below.

In An Autobiography (1939), Collingwood expresses a more general concern, over the persecution of thought itself. According to him, university philosophers have failed to do their job of preparing students for a life of thinking outside of academia. Collingwood does address the role of the university in the second chapter of The New Leviathan. For now I want to note what he says about certain university teachers in Chapter VI, “The Decay of Realism,” of An Autobiography. He starts with Plato’s teacher:

Moral philosophy, from the days of Socrates down to our own lifetime, had been regarded as an attempt to think out more clearly the issues involved in conduct, for the sake of acting better. In 1912 Prichard announced that moral philosophy as so understood was based on a mistake, and advocated a new kind of moral philosophy, purely theoretical, in which the workings of the moral consciousness should be scientifically studied as if they were the movements of the planets, and no attempt made to interfere with them. And Bertrand Russell at Cambridge proposed in the same spirit, and on grounds whose difference was only superficial, the extrusion of ethics from the body of philosophy.

The ‘realist’ philosophers who adopted this new programme were all, or nearly all, teachers of young men and young women. Their pupils, with habits and characters yet unformed, stood on the threshold of life; many of them on the threshold of public life. Half a century earlier, young people in that position had been told that by thinking about what they were doing, or were about to do, they would become likely on the whole to do it better; and that some understanding of the nature of moral or political action, some attempt to formulate ideals and principles, was an indispensable condition of engaging creditably in these activities themselves. And their teachers, when introducing them to the study of moral and political theory, would say to them, whether in words or not—the most important things that one says are often not said in words—‘Take this subject seriously, because whether you understand it or not will make a difference to your whole lives’. The ‘realist’, on the contrary, said to his pupils, ‘If it interests you to study this, do so; but don’t think it will be of any use to you. Remember the great principle of realism, that nothing is affected by being known. That is as true of human action as anything else. Moral philosophy is only the theory of moral action: it can’t therefore make any difference to the practice of moral action. People can act just as morally without it as with it. I stand here as a moral philosopher; I will try to tell you what acting morally is, but don’t expect me to tell you how to do it.’

At the moment, I am not concerned with the sophisms underlying this programme, but with its consequences. The pupils, whether or not they expected a philosophy that should give them, as that of Green’s school had given their fathers, ideals to live for and principles to live by, did not get it; and were told that no philosopher (except of course a bogus philosopher) would even try to give it. The inference which any pupil could draw for himself was that for guidance in the problems of life, since one must not seek it from thinkers or from thinking, from ideals or from principles, one must look to people who were not thinkers (but fools), to processes that were not thinking (but passion), to aims that were not ideals (but caprices), and to rules that were not principles (but rules of expediency). If the realists had wanted to train up a generation of Englishmen and Englishwomen expressly as the potential dupes of every adventurer in morals or politics, commerce or religion, who should appeal to their emotions and promise them private gains which he neither could procure them nor even meant to procure them, no better way of doing it could have been discovered.

Now, the “realist” suggestion that you can act just as morally without thinking as with it is surely correct, at least accidentally. Most persons behave decently without having had to study moral philosophy at university. However, most persons do not have great power over people with whom they are not personally close. They are not, say, factory managers or government ministers. When they are, they may use thinking to justify behavior that no ordinary person would find morally acceptable. This is indeed what I remember taking away from Errol Morris’s 2003 documentary on Robert McNamara, The Fog of War. I hardly remember the movie as such, but I remember thinking that McNamara had treated his moral failures as failures of thinking. This would be dishonest, since McNamara was a highly intelligent and capable human being. If the Vietnam War represented a failure of thinking by McNamara, then anybody else would have failed as well: this was McNamara’s implicit message, as I remember hearing it. Perhaps in hearing such a message I was only trying to find in McNamara a fault I have been aware of in myself: the fault of trying to reduce all problems to problems of thinking.

Thought and Feeling

I have been treating thinking too narrowly. Considered as a tool, thought can be used for good or bad. The rule then would be to use thinking for good, or not to use it at all. But thinking in the most general sense is simply who we are. Collingwood says this in Chapter IV of The New Leviathan (and I mentioned it in my overview article):

4. 18. The essential constituent of mind is consciousness or thought (practical and theoretical) in its most rudimentary form…

4. 2. Man as mind is consciousness, practical and theoretical, both in its simplest form and also in specialized forms; he has feeling…

I am not going to pass judgment on this at the moment. My main purpose in studying Collingwood’s book is to examine the distinction, made here, between feeling and thought. For now, I do believe that I am responsible for my thoughts, but not for my feelings. On the other hand, I may use thought to influence my feelings.

Making a statement of one’s feelings can be rude; but in that case, objecting to the statement is probably also rude. Nonetheless, in the summer of 2013, Richard Dawkins was criticized for stating his feelings about pedophilia. Indeed, if I understand correctly, he said two things:

  1. He had not liked having his genitals fondled by a teacher.
  2. However, religious indoctrination about Hell might be more traumatic than such physical abuse as he experienced.

As a result, Dawkins was accused of being insensitive to victims of sexual abuse. However, if he himself had been the victim of one of the most heinous of crimes, despite his protestations to the contrary, then I think one ought to be particularly sensitive to him. If, instead, Dawkins does not deserve sympathy, well, this in a way is his very point: in his experience, there was nothing that terrible to be sympathetic about.

For definiteness, I consider an article in Salon by Mary Elizabeth Williams with the headline

Richard Dawkins doesn’t get to define sex abuse
The author defends the ‘mild’ pedophilia of his youth—and ignores everybody else

I do not know whether the author of the article is the composer of the headline; unfortunately the headline can be misread as saying Dawkins himself was a pedophile, rather then the victim of one. The article itself says:

And Richard Dawkins does not get to dictate what constitutes merely “mild” abuse, or how anybody else gets to remember or feel about it.

Indeed, neither Richard Dawkins nor Mary Elizabeth Williams nor anybody else gets to tell anybody else how they should feel about anything. But as far as I can tell, Dawkins himself never said otherwise.

In a quotation given by Williams, Dawkins says of the teacher who put his hand down his shorts, “I don’t think he did any of us lasting harm.” Concerning teaching children about hell, Dawkins is quoted as saying, “it seems to me to be intuitively entirely reasonable that that is a worse form of child abuse.” Worse than what? The quotation does not answer this question clearly. But another quotation says: “I suspect that research would show belief in hell to be more traumatic than the sort of mild feeling-up that I suffered.”

There is no dictating in these words. “I don’t think,” says Dawkins; “it seems to me”; “I suspect that research would show…”. Nonetheless, when attached to some others, these words were found objectionable. I should like to understand why. When Collingwood says feelings are something that we have, but are not what we are, then I wonder if this kind of attitude is what writers like Mary Elizabeth Williams object to.

Hospitality and Thought

Staying with the question of the morality of thought, I look ahead to the fourth and last part of The New Leviathan. It is mostly a review of four examples of Barbarism:

  1. the Saracens,
  2. the Albigensians or Bogomils,
  3. the Turks,
  4. the Germans.

The Bogomils seem to have been influenced by the Paulicians of Armenia and Anatolia; the latter may also have influenced the Alevis, who constitute a large minority of the population of Turkey today. The barbarous Turks that Collingwood will consider are of centuries past, when they threatened to overrun Europe. Fortunately for Collingwood and his compatriots, the Turks have changed their ways and become friends, even as (in 1942) the Germans have become barbarians.

Throughout the centuries, I suppose Turkish hospitality has remained nearly constant. Perhaps it is not even specifically Turkish, but predates the Turkish invasion of Asia Minor that began with the Battle of Manzikert in 1071. At any rate, I did not understand the first page of Plato’s Republic until I moved to Turkey. The conversation recounted in the Republic takes place across the Aegean Sea in the Athenian port of Piraeus; but it begins with the kind of insistent hospitality that I have experienced in Turkey. Polemarchus wants to entertain Socrates and Glaucon in his house, and he will not take no for an answer.

photo of Piraeus sign, taken July 7, 2007

Piraeus, July 7, 2007

In A Bike Ride: 12000 Miles Around the World (1991), Anne Mustoe writes:

If I had a prize to award to the nicest, kindest people in the world, it would go to the Turks…

Turkish men look very fierce. They have dark, flashing eyes and large bristling moustaches and their smile, on meeting a stranger, is not automatic. Yet beneath this alarming exterior they are real softies at heart. It was not long before two of them pulled up in a van and tried to give me a lift, an offer which would be repeated every day by scores of drivers. My suspicions, born of our more violent Western society, soon melted and I learned to take these persistent offers at face value: they were kindly meant by drivers who simply could not understand that a woman might choose to cycle alone over mountains and plains when motorised transport was available. I always refused their lifts, as gently as I could, and cycled on. And they always stood in the road, watching me go, a mixture of bewilderment and pity on their faces.

The Via Egnatia ran on to Istanbul to finish at Constantine’s ‘milion’, the first milestone in his capital, from which all distances in his empire were calculated…


The Milion on March 1, 2008

The hospitality experienced by Mustoe is of a kind that can be perverted by thought—by thought, for example, of how to take advantage of tourists. And yet hospitality intended as such can only be improved by the thought that people are individuals, with individual conditions and preferences. This is a kind of thought that is encouraged by the works of Jane Austen. Turkish hospitality can impose things on a guest that the host believes everybody should want; but the host may not be sensitive to the individuality of particular guests. A thoughtful reading of Jane Austen might increase this sensitivity.

Collingwood is a fan of Jane Austen. He celebrates her birth in a 1921 lecture included in the posthumous volume The Philosophy of Enchantment (2005):

Strange influences were abroad in the years 1770 to 1775. The French Revolution was brewing, the Romantic movement was unfolding itself, the whole world was coming to a new dawn: and the spirit of the age produced a generation of geniuses that has no parallel in the records of history. Look at the people whose birth falls in these years. At other times there have been giants on the earth; there were great men in Athens in the fifth century and in Florence in the fifteenth; but if you look through history and mark the birth-year of every man who stands unsurpassed in his own line of work, you will find no period when they fall so close together as in the years of which I am speaking. Here, falling within half a dozen years, are the births of Beethoven, the greatest man who ever wrote music: Turner, the greatest man who ever painted a landscape: Hegel, the supreme philosopher: and—Jane Austen.

In the same compilation is another lecture on Jane Austen, possibly from 1934, treating the morality of her work, not quite as I have described it, but in a way to show something of what Collingwood means by thinking:

If novels are to be judged as novels, on their strictly literary merits, judged as pieces of construction and not as stimulants to lachrymatory glands or the philanthropic sentiments or the religious consciousness, then there is some ground for arguing that Emma is the best novel ever written. It is not its author’s most popular work: that is because the average English reader neither knows nor cares when a book is well written, but goes to fiction only for sympathetic characters, and finds that he is not quite sure whether he likes Emma Woodhouse. And the English highbrow is pursued by an even deadlier heresy than the cult of the sympathetic character: I mean the cult of a wide outlook…

…Jane Austen is left, a test case of pure literary genius: anyone who admires her must admire her on literary grounds, for with the austerity of the highest genius she makes no other appeal: she has no meretricious arts, she asks nothing from anyone except the appreciation of her purely literary qualities; and if on irrelevant grounds someone chooses to deny these qualities, one can only say in the immortal words of Thomas Ingoldsby: ‘No doubt he’s a very respectable man, but I can’t say much for his taste.’

…Those who say that her scene is no wider than a middle-class parlour are partly right: her scene is even narrower than that: it is simply the human heart. The problem in all her books is the problem of knowing one’s own mind. Every one of her heroines is placed in a situation where a resolute and fearless facing of her own motives is demanded of her. The catastrophes are one and all caused by failure to distinguish one’s real thoughts and desires from those which one idly supposes oneself to have; and the happy endings take place invariably by a moral crisis in which these illusions are swept away and the heroine is left face to face with her real self. This crisis, tragic as in Emma, or comic as in Northanger Abbey, is the turning-point of all the books, whose common theme is thus conversion of the soul, as Plato would call it, from illusion to reality. If that is not good morals, I do not know good morals when I see them…

Know thyself. Self-knowledge is the root of morality. I would note however that the appearance of self-knowledge may be given by self-labelling, which can be used as an excuse for bad behavior: “I am well-intentioned, so you must forgive the unintended inconvenience I have caused you.” “I am an introvert, so you must forgive my rudeness.” Morality is being able to forget about oneself. And yet one cannot forget what one did not know in the first place.


Through a friend’s blog, I learned of an article maintaining that children should spend less time in school, not more. It is not through enforced studying, but through playing that children learn how to solve the problems of life. The New Leviathan will show Collingwood’s agreement with this proposition. In Chapter II, he praises the university as a playground. He begins as follows.

2. 52. One chief pursuit of the immature animal, human or other, is to prepare itself for the dangers of real life, while its elders are protecting it from them, by making believe to face them; and this is the greater part of education; so that the office of universities in a commonwealth is to provide an unfailing flow of insignificant speech.

By referring to insignificant speech, Collingwood alludes to the end of the first chapter of the original Leviathan, where Hobbes ridicules certain accounts of the causes of sensations:

But the Philosophy-schooles, through all the Universities of Christendome, grounded upon certain Texts of Aristotle, teach another doctrine; and say, For the cause of Vision, that the thing seen, sendeth forth on every side a visible species (in English) a visible shew, apparition, or aspect, or a being seen; the receiving whereof into the Eye, is Seeing. And for the cause of Hearing, that the thing heard, sendeth forth an Audible species, that is, an Audible aspect, or Audible being seen; which entring at the Eare, maketh Hearing. Nay for the cause of Understanding also, they say the thing Understood sendeth forth intelligible species, that is, an intelligible being seen; which comming into the Understanding, makes us Understand. I say not this, as disapproving the use of Universities: but because I am to speak hereafter of their office in a Common-wealth, I must let you see on all occasions by the way, what things would be amended in them; amongst which the frequency of insignificant Speech is one.

Collingwood himself has quoted only the final sentence (in his ¶2. 5). He continues from the passage above:

2. 53. For speech is man’s weapon against the dangers of his own world, and insignificant speech is what he teaches his cubs as his fellow creatures teach theirs to bat without clawing and nip without biting.

2. 54. Man’s world is inhabited by Sphinxes, demonic beings of mixed and monstrous nature which ask him riddles and eat him if he cannot answer them, compelling him to play a game of wits where the stake is his life and his only weapon is his tongue.

2. 55. This is why men teach their offspring to use their tongues in a kind of puppy-play where all speech has to be as insignificant as a doll’s teacup is empty or a boy’s sword harmless; where the talk is only pretence talk or what is called academic discussions and the problems talked about are only pretence problems or what are called academic problems; where the supervisors of these childish sports set for discussion ‘academic’ questions such as: ‘Compare the merits of Psycho-physical Parallelism and Psycho-physical Inter­actionism’, not because they fancy them significant but because they know them for nonsense.

Has Collingwood changed his mind since writing the passage in An Autobiography quoted above? Then he was indignant that the university was failing to prepare its students properly for life; now, by way of coping with his own bitterness, he has decided to present the university as being useful in its vacuousness.

The “Mind-Body Problem”

A general theme of Collingwood’s work is that nothing is simply one way or other, at least not in philosophy. This is developed in An Essay on Philosophical Method (1933) with the theory of the “overlap of classes.” Still, I read Collingwood’s praise of academic discussions ironically. At least, I do not think he would decline to tell his own students what he tells us in The New Leviathan: that there are three “old wives’ tales” about the relation between body and mind:

  1. The mind inhabits the body as a person inhabits a house.
  2. The mind and body are more intimately connected, and this connection can be called Psycho-physical Parallelism.
  3. Mind-events and body-events do not run parallel, but they interfere with one another, and this can be called Psycho-physical Interactionism.

Collingwood ridicules the last two myths. He does so unbecomingly. It is indeed ridiculous to try to dignify a foolish doctrine by means of a Greek name, or even any name at all. But Collingwood does not cut a good figure when he dismisses such a name with a well-known malapropism:

2. 3. One bids farewell to “Psycho-physical Parallelism” with regret. It is a pity that so nice a derangement of epitaphs should turn out to mean simply nothing at all…

Possibly some of Collingwood’s classroom manner has got into his book here. He knows he will never be healthy enough to give a class again.

One can see something of Collingwood’s manner with young people by reading his travel book, The First Mate’s Log: Of a Voyage to Greece in the Schooner Yacht ‘Fleur de Lys’ in 1939 (1940). His companions for the voyage are Oxford students from Canada and the US as well as the UK. I finally bought the Log in the summer of 2013 (in an expensive 2003 hardback reprint) because of the excellence of its Chapter XVIII, “Monks and Morals,” about a visit to the island of Santorini. I knew this chapter from its appearance in the posthumous Essays in Political Philosophy (1989). Unfortunately there was a reason why only the one chapter of the Log was featured among the Essays: the others do not involve grand discussions on such topics as the usefulness of monks or mathematicians to society. Still I am moved by the end of the preface of the Log:

Gentleman and shipmates, thank you for your reception of this book as it was taking its first rough shape among you. Thank you for your reception of myself, an old man among young ones, to whom you were always courteous, always considerate, and always friendly. Those of us who live through this war will meet again. Till then, good-by.

Collingwood did not live through the war.

Going back to the three “old wives’ tales” about the body and mind, having dismissed the tale called Psycho-physical Parallelism, we may turn hopefully to Psycho-physical Interactionism; but no physicist will lend credance to it. The objects of study of physics are simply not subject to mental influences. Nonetheless, a philosopher might insist on the contrary that these objects are subject to mental influences. Such a philosopher is engaging in the kind of scientific persecution that Collingwood inveighed against in Chapter I. Collingwood does not dwell on this point in Chapter II. I do not know how much there would have been to dwell on in Collingwood’s time. There would be a lot to dwell on in our own time, when we have “Intelligent Design” promoted in the United States as an alternative to orthodox evolutionary theory, while Adnan Oktay a.k.a. Harun Yahya can get Richard Dawkins’s website banned in Turkey.

Dawkins’s site is accessible here now. It appears that, because of Yahya’s complaint, all WordPress blogs were inaccessible in Turkey for a while. That was before I started this blog.

The physical production of this blog depends on my thinking about it. Is it a problem to say this? In Chapter II of The New Leviathan, I think Collingwood handles the so-called “mind-body problem” in a clever and correct way:

2. 4. The truth is that there is no relation between body and mind. That is, there is no direct relation; for there is an indirect relation.

2. 41. ‘The problem of the relation between body and mind’ is a bogus problem which cannot be stated without making a false assumption.

2. 42. What is assumed is that man is partly body and partly mind. On this assumption questions arise about the relation between the two parts; and these prove unanswerable…

2. 47. Some who profess to be friends of the human mind, and show their friendship by showing enmity towards natural science, one of the human mind’s most triumphant successes, hope it will stop because, they fancy, whatever in man proves recalcitrant to explanation by the natural sciences will prove itself to be not body but mind; if nothing does, the inference will be that man is all body and therefore has no mind.

2. 48. Nothing could be sillier. In the natural sciences, mind is not that which is left over when explaining has broken down; it is what does the explaining. If an explanation of mind is what you want, you have come to the wrong shop; you ought to have gone to the sciences of mind.

The mind-body distinction is thus a distinction between sciences. We may ask why there are different sciences. But it is obvious that there are different sciences—more obvious than that there is something called body that can be distinguished from something called mind. This is a corollary of a point made in Chapter I. Practically every university has departments of physics, chemistry, biology, and psychology, as well as departments for the study of various literatures. We may ask whether these different departments really study different things; but the fact is that somebody does think that we need these different departments.

The Ontological Proof

“Mind is what does the explaining.” This must be the most important observation in the chapter. I think Collingwood alludes here to Anselm’s “Ontological Proof,” as developed by Descartes. Collingwood talks about the proof in various places in his oeuvre, as for example in Speculum Mentis (1924):

For the greatest discovery that thought has made since the time of Plato is that the way to philosophy from science lies through history. This discovery, which is the key-note of the Christian attitude towards the problem of knowledge, was implicit from the first in the Christian gospel as a philosophy of history, and has been becoming progressively explicit ever since Descartes, in his cogito ergo sum, laid down that historical fact was the absolute object of knowledge (p. 199).

Where was the Ontological Proof here? First let me note a few sentences that immediately precede the passage above, by way of giving it some context:

The quarrel between history and science is whether generalization is a means to knowledge or knowledge itself. In this quarrel philosophy is so far neutral that the issue can and must be fought out on the ground of science and history, which will both refuse, and rightly, to have it settled by a third party; but in one sense philosophy cannot be neutral, because the very existence of philosophy depends on history’s winning the battle. Just as the defeat of science by religion would enthrone an obscurantism in which thought was deposed by faith and philosophy therefore destroyed unborn, so the defeat of history by science would condemn thought to the arbitrary irrationality of the abstract concept, and philosophy—rational knowledge—would be pro­nounced in advance an impossibility.

Mathematicians commonly take somebody else’s theorem—a theorem that may be two thousand years old—, recast it in their own terms, and still attribute it, in the new form, to the originator. I see this practice as an expression of the unity of mathematics. The theorem is not a particular sentence, but a single idea that underlies the many ways of expressing it. Collingwood’s practice is like the mathematicians’. He attributes to other philosophers his own way of expressing their ideas. One could object to this.

Concerning the Ontological Proof, what I understand from Collingwood is that Descartes’s conclusion “I exist” has the same ground as Anselm’s conclusion “God exists.” This becomes more explicit in Collingwood’s later work, quoted below. Meanwhile, still in Speculum Mentis, Collingwood elaborates on Descartes’s “I exist”:

When the Renaissance scientists reflected on their own work and saw into its presuppositions, they realized what the ancients never realized, that the hypotheses or abstractions of science rested on the knowledge of fact. In their discussions of scientific method they made this very clear; but the profoundest statement of it, and therefore the most misunderstood, was that of Descartes. All science, said Descartes, rests upon the one indubitable certainty that I think and that therefore I exist. Now the thought and existence of which Descartes spoke were not abstractions—anything thinking anything, or anything somehow getting itself thought about—as those wiseacres believe who offer to emend his formula to cogitatur ergo est, or cogitare ergo esse or the like. Descartes meant what he said, and what he said was that the concrete historical fact, the fact of my actual present awareness, was the root of science. He was only going one step beyond Bacon, for whom the root of science was natural fact. Descartes, more profoundly, saw that before natural fact can be of any use to the scientist he must observe it, and that the fact of his observing it is the fact that really matters. Science presupposes history and can never go behind history: that is the discovery of which Descartes’ formula is the deepest and most fruitful expression (p. 202).

I suppose it is clear enough that science presupposes history. We have to have some individual observations—historical observations—in order to draw conclusions about them. However, I do not know why we should conclude that science can never go beyond history.

Collingwood takes up the Ontological Proof as such in two subsections of §2 of Chapter VI, “Philosophy as Categorical Thinking,” of An Essay on Philosophical Method. Those subsections are summarized in the table of contents thus:

  • The Ontological Proof, its origin and history.
  • Its significance. The object of philosophical thought cannot be conceived except as existing.

The subsections themselves read as follows.

5. More to the point than a collection of opinions [that the aim of philosophy is…to formulate its thought categorically] would be a consideration of one famous argument which has stood in the forefront of metaphysical discussion for nearly nine hundred years: the Ontological Proof.

Plato had long ago laid it down that to be, and to be knowable, are the same (Rep. 476 E); and, in greater detail, that a thought cannot be a mere thought, but must be a thought of something, and of something real (ὄντος, Parm. 132 B). The neo-Platonists had worked out the conception of God in the metaphysical sense of the word—a being of whom we can say est id quod est, a unity of existence and essence, a perfect being (pulcherrimum fortissimumque) such that nihil deo melius excogitari queat (the phrases are from Boethius, De Trinitate).

Anselm, putting these two thoughts together, the original Platonic principle that when we really think (but when do we really think, if ever?) we must be thinking of a real object, and the neo-Platonic idea of a perfect being (something which we cannot help conceiving in our minds; but does that guarantee it more than a mere idea?), or rather, pondering on the latter thought until he rediscovered the former as latent within it, realized that to think of this perfect being at all was already to think of him, or it, as existing.

Divesting his argument of all specially religious or theological colouring, one might state it by saying that thought, when it follows its own bent most completely and sets itself the task of thinking out the idea of an object that shall completely satisfy the demands of reason, may appear to be constructing a mere ens rationis, but in fact is never devoid of objective or ontological reference…

Of all the legacy of medieval thought, no part was more firmly seized upon than the Ontological Proof by those who laid the foundations of modern thought. Descartes, the acknowledged father of modern philosophy, made it the mainspring of his system; it was the Ontological Proof that gave him the power to move from the pin-point of momentary subjective consciousness to the infinite process of objective knowledge. Spinoza, who has been acclaimed as the purest representative of the realistic scientific spirit of the modern world, placed it even more prominently; and it remained the foundation-stone of every successive philosophy until Kant, whose attempt to refute it—perhaps the only occasion on which any one has rejected it who really understood what it meant—was rightly regarded by his successors as a symptom of that false subjectivism and consequent scepticism from which, in spite of heroic efforts, he never wholly freed himself. With Hegel’s rejection of subjective idealism, the Ontological Proof took its place once more among the accepted principles of modern philosophy, and it has never again been seriously criticized.

6. Students of philosophy, when once they have learnt that the Proof is not to be dismissed as a quibble, generally realize that it proves something, but find themselves perplexed to say what exactly this is. Clearly it does not prove the existence of whatever God happens to be believed in by the person who appeals to it. Between it and the articles of a particular positive creed there is no connexion, unless these articles can be deduced a priori from the idea of an ens realissimum. What it does prove is that essence involves existence, not always, but in one special case, the case of God in the metaphysical sense: the Deus sive natura of Spinoza, the Good of Plato, the Being of Aristotle: the object of metaphysical thought. But this means the object of philosophical thought in general; for metaphysics, even if it is regarded as only one among the philosophical sciences, is not unique in its objective reference or in its logical structure; all philosophical thought is of the same kind, and every philosophical science partakes of the nature of metaphysics, which is not a separate philosophical science but a special study of the existential aspect of that same subject-matter whose aspect as truth is studied by logic, and its aspect as goodness by ethics.

Reflection on the history of the Ontological Proof thus offers us a view of philosophy as a form of thought in which essence and existence, however clearly distinguished, are conceived as inseparable. On this view, unlike mathematics or empirical science, philosophy stands committed to maintaining that its subject-matter is no mere hypothesis, but something actually existing.

The dots of ellipsis stand in place of two paragraphs. Collingwood goes on at such length that perhaps I misunderstand, because the idea seems a simple one. Actually Collingwood’s own account of what metaphysics is will change: in An Essay on Metaphysics (1940) it is argued that there can be no science of pure being, but metaphysics is an historical science, namely the science of the absolute presuppositions made by particular persons at particular times.

As far as the Ontological Proof is concerned, I would observe that you cannot do any kind of science without believing there is a point to it. You can call the point truth, or knowledge, or even God; whatever you call it, it is something, it is there. There is a way of getting your science right, and you can do better or worse at getting it right. Engaging in a science at all means accepting this principle. In ordinary sciences, the acceptance of the principle is implicit. Metaphysics makes the principle explicit.

I borrow the terms implicit and explicit from Collingwood himself. In Religion and Philosophy (1916) he argues that religion, theology, and philosophy are identical; in Speculum Mentis (1924) he retracts this, explaining that he overlooked the distinction between the implicit and the explicit: “theology makes implicit what in religion as such is always implicit, and so with philosophy and theology” (p. 108, n. 1).

In any case, the distinction between metaphysics and other sciences is not important now. I said that in Chapter II of The New Leviathan, the most important statement is that mind is what does the explaining of whatever it is we are trying to explain. In this context, the Ontological Proof amounts to the observation that to try to explain anything is to accept implicitly that there is something doing the explaining. Call this something mind, or oneself, or God. As Collingwood points out, the Ontological Proof does not require this something to respect a particular creed.

Swapping Horses

I remember reading Descartes in college and asserting that he was not proving the existence of God; he was proving that we believed in God. This proof could perhaps be made empirical: Collingwood seems to commit himself to this possibility in the second chapter of The New Leviathan:

2. 44. Not a part of man, but the whole of man, is body in so far as he approaches the problem of self-knowledge by the methods of natural science.

2. 45. Not a part of man, but the whole of man, is mind in so far as he approaches the problem of self-knowledge by expanding and clarifying the data of reflection.

One might be able to draw conclusions about what we really believe by examining the areas of the brain that are active when we are doing thinking of various kinds. Perhaps such examinations have already been made.

2. 46. The natural sciences have already made some progress towards describing man in their own way. Friends of these sciences believe that this progress will continue if natural scientists are allowed to go on working.

Collingwood would seem to be a friend of natural science. On the other hand, at the end of the chapter he warns against the “Fallacy of Swapping Horses”:

2. 65. Of these two different forms of science, the one that has started a hare must catch it.

2. 66. The reason is plain. You can only solve a problem which you recognize to be a problem.

2. 67. The same methods, therefore, which led to the asking of a question must lead to the answering of it

2. 68. If they cannot, at least no others can; for ⟨no⟩ others will involve the recognition that the problem needs an answer.

2. 7. Here you are in the middle of a problem. The same horse that got you into it must get you out again.

2. 71. No amount of admiration for some other horse must betray you into the Fallacy of Swapping Horses.

In ¶2. 68, the word “no” supplied above is missing from the printed text. I suspect another error in ¶2. 6, which says “I have mentioned two approaches to the problem of self-knowledge; the natural sciences and the sciences of man (2. 44–5)”; probably “man” should be mind. Meanwhile, after ¶2. 71, Collingwood grows extravagant with his metaphor:

2. 72. If the wretched horse called Mental Science has stuck you mid-stream you can flog him, or you can coax him, or you can get out and lead him; or you can drown, as better men than you have drowned before.

2. 73. But you must not swap him even for the infinitely superior horse called Natural Science.

2. 74. For this is a magic journey, and if you do that the river will vanish and you will find yourself back where you started.

Thus ends the chapter. I am not sure whether Collingwood has seen the river vanish for himself. I noted above his confessed error of having held religion, theology, and philosophy to be the same. He thought the assertion of their identity solved a problem; but I suppose this “solution” turned out to be merely a denial that there had been a problem in the first place. The “solution” was obtained by switching to a horse that could not see the problem. But it is probably a stretch to say that this is the kind of changing of horses that Collingwood has in mind.

I do think that logic and mathematics are different in origin, but have coalesced through a swapping of horses. The problem of mathematics is to discover and prove theorems. The problem of logic is to explain why the proofs are correct. Modern logic offers symbolism in which to express proofs. The symbolism can be useful for clarifying proofs; but it does not explain our conviction that the proofs are correct. Misused, the symbolism can obscure the correctness of proofs. A proof expressed in excessive symbolism needs another proof to show that it is indeed correct. The symbolic proof then has just become another object of mathematical study.

In saying what I have just said, I am possibly influenced by the passage quoted below from Collingwood’s posthumous volume The Idea of History (1946). Collingwood intended the passage below to be part of a book called “The Principles of History”; but then war came, and his health problems, and he focused his energy on The New Leviathan. Collingwood’s student Knox created The Idea of History out of various sources, including some parts of the existing chapters of “The Principles of History.” It was thought later that the manuscripts of these chapters must have been destroyed after the publication of The Idea of History. Then some of these manuscripts were discovered in 1995 and published as The Principles of History (1999); but the chapter called “Evidence” containing the text below did not form part of the discovery, and so the chapter was just copied from The Idea of History:

One hears it said that history is ‘not an exact science’. The meaning of this I take to be that no historical argument ever proves its conclusion with that compulsive force which is characteristic of exact science. Historical inference, the saying seems to mean, is never compulsive, it is at best permissive; or, as people sometimes rather ambiguously say, it never leads to certainty, only to probability. Many historians of the present writer’s generation, brought up at a time when this proverb was accepted by the general opinion of intelligent persons (I say nothing of the few who were a generation ahead of their time), must be able to recollect their excitement on first discovering that it was wholly untrue, and that they were actually holding in their hands an historical argument which left nothing to caprice and admitted of no alternative conclusion, but proved its point as conclusively as a demonstration in mathematics. Many of these, again, must be able to recollect the shock of discovering on reflection that the proverb was not, strictly speaking, an error about history, history as they were practicing it, the science of history, but a truth about something else, namely scissors-and-paste history.

If any reader wishes to rise here on a point of order and protest that a philosophical question, which ought therefore to be settled by reasoning, is being illegitimately disposed of by reference to the authority of historians, and quote against me the good old story about the man who said ‘I’m not arguing, I’m telling you’, I can only admit that the cap fits. I am not arguing; I am telling him.

Is this wrong of me? The question I want settled is whether an inference of the kind used in scientific history, as distinct from scissors-and-paste history, yields compulsion or only permission to embrace its conclusion. Suppose the question had been not about history but about mathematics. Suppose somebody had wanted to know whether Euclid’s proof of what is called Pythagoras’ theorem compels or merely permits a man to adopt the view that the square on the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares on the other two sides. I speak with submission; but for myself I can think of only one thing that a sensible man in that situation would do. He would try to find somebody whose mathematical education had got as far as Euclid I. 47, and ask him. And if he did not like his answer, he would look for other people similarly qualified to give one and ask them. If all else failed to convince him, he would have to get down to it and study the elements of plane geometry for himself.

The one thing that he will not do, if he is a man of any intelligence, is to say ‘This is a philosophical question, and the only answer I will be satisfied with is a philosophical answer.’ he can call it anything he pleases; he cannot alter the fact that the only way of knowing whether a given type of argument is cogent or not is to learn how to argue that way, and find out. Meanwhile, the second best thing is to take the word of people who have done so for themselves.

Unfortunately I have not personally enjoyed the excitement of discovering a convincing proof of an historical conclusion. I have had the thrill of the flash of insight that leads to the resolution of a mathematical question. I have also had the disappointment of learning, even years later, that my supposed resolution of the question was in error. Thus I believe I can understand Collingwood’s suggestion that historical science and “exact science” are not so different as is traditionally supposed.

Occasionally over the last year or so, I have been beset by a young man who seems to believe that he can reject Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem as being self-contradictory without actually learning what it says mathematically. Thus he is not the “man of any intelligence” to whom Collingwood refers in his last paragraph above.

To try to settle an historical or a mathematical question by appeal to a non-historian or a non-mathematician is at least something like committing the Fallacy of Swapping Horses that Collingwood defines in The New Leviathan.

Supposed failures of rigor in Euclid led to the development of modern symbolic logic and set theory. Given this development, some philosophically minded mathematicians say that mathematics is just the working out of the logical consequences of the so-called Zermelo–Fraenkel Axioms for sets. This is a kind of swapping of horses. It resembles the young Colllingwood’s mistaken identification of Religion, Theology, and Philosophy in Religion and Philosophy. You can indeed translate Euclid into set theory, thus swapping Euclid’s language for another; but if you really want to understand Euclid for himself, you have to read him as he is.

I do not suppose that Collingwood actually has such concerns in mind when he defines the Fallacy of Swapping Horses. The definition is an allusion to the eighth paragraph of the whole New Leviathan (the first paragraph being ¶1. 1, that is, 1. 10):

1. 17. We know, or at least we have been told, a great deal about Man; that God made him a little lower than the angels; that Nature made him the offspring of apes; that he has an erect posture, to which his circulatory system is ill adapted, and four incisors in each jaw, which are less liable to decay than the rest of his teeth, but more liable to be knocked out; that he is a rational animal, a risible animal, a tool-using animal, an animal uniquely ferocious and malevolent towards his kind; that he is assured of God, freedom and immortality, and endowed with means of grace, which he prefers to neglect, and the hope of glory, which he prefers to exchange for the fear of hell-fire; and that all his weal and all his woe is a by-product of his Oedipus-complex or, alternatively, of his ductless glands.

1. 18. Each of these themes would fill this book: but which of them would advance the inquiry whose lines I have laid down?

The answer that Collingwood seems to give in ¶1. 21 is the division between body and mind. This division is not on the list in ¶1. 17, but it is a theme of the list. The problem of dealing with the contemporary German revolt against civilization is a mental problem; to try to deal with it by reference to ductless glands, or perhaps even the Oedipus complex, is to commit the Fallacy of Swapping Horses. How Collingwood himself proposes to deal with the problem is to be inferred from the remaining 43 chapters of The New Leviathan.


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