NL V: “The Ambiguity of Feeling”

Index to this series

Feeling differs from thought. Thought is founded in feeling; thought is erected on feeling; thought needs feeling. Thought needs feelings that are strong enough to support it. But thought itself is not strong (or weak); it has (or can have) other properties, like precision and definiteness. Thought can be remembered and shared in a way that feeling cannot.

The New Leviathan is a work of thought. It might be said that a work of thought cannot properly explain feeling. Collingwood more or less says this in Chapter V, even in its very title: “The Ambiguity of Feeling.” I analyze this chapter into sections and subsections as follows; links are to my notes (found below) on the sections.

  1. Thought is precise and definite; feeling is not. As a foundation for thought, feeling needs strength, of two kinds: vividness and tenacity. (¶¶1–19)
  2. Nobody knows whether there are objects of feeling. Locke says there are, Descartes says there are not. “Either view fits the facts.” Using Occam’s Razor, we shall on “methodological” grounds say that there are no objects of feeling. (¶¶2–39)
  3. Feeling is indeterminate in various ways:
    1. Feeling is neither active nor passive, though one can argue plausibly for either side. (¶¶4–49)
    2. Feelings are evanescent and cannot be remembered. (¶¶5–57)
    3. “Feeling is ambiguous with regard to the Kantian “categories” of unity, plurality, and totality, which are the “categories of quantity”. Feelings are also ambiguous with regard to the categories of relation and modality. (¶¶6–66)
    4. Feelings are indeterminate in quality as well, not just in our language for them, but in themselves. (¶¶67, 7–73)
  4. The principle that “forms of consciousness are the only constituents of mind” is quite compatible with Freud’s theory of the “unconscious.” (¶¶8–94)

Something treats or responds to feeling. A feeling is a sensation with an emotional charge. Art is the expression of emotion: this is the burden of The Principles of Art (1938). It is discovered in that book that art and language are ultimately the same thing. Chapter VI of The New Leviathan is called “Language” and will take up these matters. The point for now is that Collingwood does not denigrate feeling; rather he deprecates the treatment of thought as what it is not, which is feeling.

Thinking on what Collingwood is about, there comes to my mind the story that the world rests on the back of an elephant, which stands on the shell of a tortoise. In “Why I am Not a Christian” (1927), Bertrand Russell uses the story to dismiss the proof of the existence of God qua first cause:

…one day, at the age of eighteen, I read John Stuart Mill’s Autobiography, and I there found this sentence: “My father taught me that the question ‘Who made me?’ cannot be answered, since it immediately suggests the further question ‘Who made god?’” That very simple sentence showed me, as I still think, the fallacy in the argument of the First Cause. If everything must have a cause, then God must have a cause. If there can be anything without a cause, it may just as well be the world as God, so that there cannot be any validity in that argument. It is exactly of the same nature as the Hindu’s view, that the world rested upon an elephant and the elephant rested upon a tortoise; and when they said, “How about the tortoise?” the Indian said, “Suppose we change the subject.” The argument is really no better than that. There is no reason why the world could not have come into being without a cause; nor, on the other hand, is there any reason why it should not have always existed. There is no reason to suppose that the world had a beginning at all. The idea that things must have a beginning is really due to the poverty of our imagination. Therefore, perhaps, I need not waste any more time upon the argument about the First Cause.

“If there can be anything without a cause, it may just as well be the world as God.” Of course. Why should Russell presume (as he seems to) that the world is not God? In any case, I am not aware that Russell has accurately described anybody’s mythology about what the world rests on. However, I remember being taught as a child that everything in the world is made of atoms: consider these as an elephant supporting the world. Atoms are in turn made of protons, neutrons, and electrons: these are the tortoise that the elephant rests on. What does the tortoise rest on? Apparent now it rests on the “elementary particles” called fermions and bosons. What do these rest on? Shall we dismiss modern physics because there is no answer to this question?

Does it explain thought to say that it rests on feeling, if one does not also explain what feeling rests on? There is no explaining everything, simply because every explanation brings into existence something new that needs explaining. Here I have in mind another story, told to Gottlob Frege by Bertrand Russell in 1902. It is the Russell Paradox, actually a theorem: there is no collection that consists precisely of all collections that do not contain themselves, for if there were, then it would contain itself if and only if it did not.

In my set theory course (this year’s version of which began last week), I explicate the Paradox as follows. We accept the notion of a “collection” as understood: it is something that can be described with a collective noun. Every collection has members or elements. We somehow construct or otherwise identify certain collections, calling them sets. It is convenient, though not essential, to assume that every member of a set is itself a set. We allow an empty set, called 0. There is a set called 1, whose only member is 0; a set called 2, whose only members are 0 and 1; and so on. There is a collection of all sets that are not members of themselves. If this collection were a set, then it would be a member of itself if and only if it were not. Thus this collection cannot be a set. It is a new collection, which we did not have before we had the sets. It consists of sets, in a sense; but its oneness—its being one thing—is not derived from any set, for it is not a set.

By thinking on anything, we create something new, namely our thought on that thing. Such anyway is my attempt at an analogy between Collingwood’s work and some of the mathematics of his time. A similar analogy with Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem (1931) is possible as well.

Strength of feeling as a foundation for thought

As is so often the case, a selection of Collingwood’s own words seem best at saying what he is about:

5. 1. Knowledge ‘rests on a foundation of feeling’ (4. 85), and this is possible because feeling, though indefinite (4. 8), is strong (4. 86). This chapter will elaborate those statements.

5. 12. All thought has a certain degree of difficulty; that is, it sets up emotional strains in the mind. In extreme cases these lead to the condition called insanity, which is compatible with a high degree of intellectual precision and clarity, but involves sensuous hallucinations and emotional disturbances so violent that the mind is disorganized.

5. 13. The intellect’s ability to do its proper work does not depend solely on its horse-power and on the accuracy with which it is made and assembled. It depends also on the engine’s being so solidly bolted down on so strong a foundation that it cannot shake itself to pieces.

5. 19. There is a saying, nihil est in intellectu nisi quod prius fuerit in sensu. If this were true, the precision or definiteness which is characteristic of thought would already be characteristic of feeling. Many people try to persuade themselves that it is; but they are mistaken. They regard feeling as a constituent of knowledge; but it is only an apanage of knowledge: an indispensible apanage, but an apanage and no more.

In the notes on Chapter III, I considered Collingwood’s distinction between hunger and curiosity. Collingwood says he has never suffered from curiosity to the degree that he has suffered from hunger. And yet now in Chapter V he seems to acknowledge that thinking involves some suffering. For he observes that thinking is difficult, and I take the undergoing of difficulty to be a kind of suffering.

In the sectional summary above, I alluded to Collingwood’s explicit inability to decide whether feeling is active or passive. In the last paragraph, I suggested that the difficulty of thinking is something that is undergone, or suffered in the original sense. This would make thinking passive. Now, surely thinking is something active. We engage in it by act of will. Indeed, this need for willpower is part of what makes thinking difficult. And yet sometimes I cannot help but think. I wake up well before dawn, and cannot sleep again, because thoughts race in my mind, seemingly unbidden. I compose sentences in my mind. I am not trying to compose them; I just do it. Something is trying to compose them; but it is not quite myself. In 1996, the key insight of my doctoral dissertation came to me in bed one Sunday morning; I was not particularly trying to work things out, but it just happened. In An Autobiography, Collingwood himself recalls his childhood compulsion to think: I noted this, again in the notes on Chapter III of The New Leviathan.

What Collingwood suffered for thinking as an adult is also recorded in An Autobiography, in Chapter X, “History as the Self-knowledge of Mind” (which is quoted from further below):

The ideas very briefly summarized in this chapter and the two preceding it were being worked out for nearly twenty years after I became a teacher of philosophy. They were repeatedly written down, corrected, and rewritten; for whenever I have had a cub to lick into shape, my pen is the only tongue I have found useful. None of these writings has ever been intended for publication,1 although much of their substance has been repeatedly given in lecture form; but I am publishing this short summary because the main problems are now solved, and publishing them in full is only a question of time and health.

Thinking them out was laborious, because of the method used. Every detail arose out of reflection on actual historical research, in which I had therefore to be incessantly engaged, and was tested over and over again by fresh pieces of research devised to that end. By about 1930 my health was beginning to suffer from long-continued overwork. Whether luckily or unluckily, I have never found any illness interfere with my power of thinking and writing, or with the quality of what I think and write. When I am unwell, I have only to begin work on some piece of philosophical writing, and all my ailments are forgotten until I leave off. But this does not cure them. If they are due to overwork, it may aggravate them.

1 Points out of them might have been published piecemeal in short articles, and now and then I did print such articles; but the only place for them was in philosophical periodicals, where they were rendered useless by the fixed determination of the persons who read such periodicals not to think about history. When I was elected to the British Academy in 1934, and was invited to contribute to their Proceedings, I found a more open-minded audience, and wrote them a paper on ‘Human Nature and Human History’ (Proc. Brit. Acad., xxii) in which some of the ideas referred to in this chapter are discussed.

Thinking sets up emotional strains, says Collingwood now in Chapter V of The New Leviathan. I suppose that, as in Chapter III, these strains are to be distinguished from the bodily strains involved in, say, digging a ditch at an archeological site. Still, Collingwood now makes a physical analogy to the strains set up by a whirring engine. To be of any use, the engine has to be bolted down to something solid, be it the factory floor or the frame of the car. Likewise, the engine of thought must be bolted down to feelings. According to Collingwood, the requisite solidity of these feelings lies in their vividness and tenacity.

I am not quoting Collingwood’s paragraphs of description of vividness and tenacity of feelings. He talks about the vividness of a color, or a musical note, or a toothache. He gives no example of a tenacious feeling, but notes that tenacity is not what makes a feeling memorable, but is what makes it linger.

Something that should probably be emphasized, although Collingwood does not do it, is that not all feelings are vivid and tenacious. Vividness and tenacity are not properties like weight or temperature, which every body has on earth; they are like heaviness or hotness, which some bodies have more than others.

What makes vivid and tenacious feelings necessary for thought? Collingwood does not address this question either. Perhaps the answer is supposed to be clear, or a discussion would be premature. Thinking requires holding things in mind. The mind has to be able to pull them along as it continues on its way. Thus the objects of thought need something like tensile strength; and this is just the metaphor that Collingwood uses for tenacity (¶5. 14).

However, what the mind is pulling may not be feeling. Tenacity of feeling is not power of memory (¶5. 17); rather, memory requires tenacity in its objects. However, these objects are never feelings: this point will be addressed later in the chapter and in these notes.

A tenacious object of thought must also hold up to the pressure of being thought about; this ability would be the compression-strength that is Collingwood’s metaphor for vividness (¶5. 14).

The Latin saying in ¶5. 19, quoted above, seems to be due originally to Thomas Aquinas, although his formulation, according to Wikipedia, is nihil est in intellectu quod non prius in sensu. The difference does not seem to be great: “There is nothing in the intellect but what was first in the senses,” as opposed to, “There is nothing in the intellect that [was] not first in the senses.” The saying is wrong, because thoughts have (or can have) precision and definiteness, while feelings do not. Thus thinking creates something new, which is not found in feeling.

Thinking creates something new. This is important. A thought is something precise and definite; a feeling is not. This distinction between thought and feeling has to do with the distinction between the sciences of mind and the sciences of body in Chapter I. I have written about these matters elsewhere as well. Their importance is also shown by a passage from Chapter IX, “The Foundations of the Future,” of An Autobiography:

…[Psychology] had been deliberately created, as any one might guess who knew enough Greek to understand its name, in order to study that which is neither mind in the proper traditional sense (consciousness, reason, will) nor yet body, but ψυχή, or such functions as sensation and appetite. It marched on the one hand with physiology, and on the other with the sciences of mind proper, logic and ethics, the sciences of reason and will. And it showed no desire to encroach on its neighbours’ territories until, early in the nineteenth century, the dogma got about that reason and will were only concretions of sense and appetite. If that was so, it followed that logic and ethics could disappear, and that their functions could be taken over by psychology. For there was no such thing as ‘mind’; what had been called so was only ‘psyche’.

This is what underlies the modern pretence that psychology can deal with what once were called the problems of logic and ethics, and the modern claim of psychology to be a science of mind. People who make or admit that claim ought to know what it implies. It implies the systematic abolition of all those distinctions which, being valid for reason and will but not for sensation and appetite, constitute the special subject-matter of logic and ethics: distinctions like that between truth and error, knowledge and ignorance, science and sophistry, right and wrong, good and bad, expedient and inexpedient. Distinctions of this kind form the armature of every science; no one can abolish them and remain a scientist; psychology, therefore, regarded as the science of mind, is not a science. It is what ‘phrenology’ was in the early nineteenth century, and astrology and alchemy in the Middle Ages and the sixteenth century: the fashionable scientific fraud of the age.

In Chapter V of The New Leviathan, we are at a more basic level. If there are going to be distinctions as between true and false, known and unknown, and so forth, then these distinctions have to apply to something precise and definite, which is what a feeling is not. Again, what a feeling is is strong. Rather, this is what a feeling needs to be, to serve as a foundation for thought.

Collingwood notes (in ¶5. 12, quoted above) that “sensuous hallucinations and emotional disturbances” can inhibit thought. Sensuous hallucinations and emotional disturbances can presumably be strong; indeed, the stronger they are, the worse they are for thought. Thus they must not be feelings, in Collingwood’s sense. Still, they must also be founded on feelings, like everything else in the mind. So I more work will be needed to clarify how thought depends on strong feelings.

Feeling as indeterminate

Feeling is different from that which we remember. Even the most tenacious feeling will go away. If you remember the feeling, what you remember is not the feeling itself, but that you felt it. This is how I understand Collingwood’s argument, and it would seem uncontroversial to me; but when I tried once to articulate it to a friend, he strongly disagreed. We had been discussing T. S. Eliot’s “Burnt Norton.” Now I look again at the argument about feeling and memory.

I can consider only my own experience. I recall for example a particular feeling of humilation: nothing too serious, but something I can talk about here. My spouse and I were in France, travelling from Lyons to Marseilles. There was a long queue for tickets at the gare. We finally reached the head of the queue. The agent said we would have reserved seats. We rushed to the platform; only then did we see that there were no seat assignments on our tickets. We got on the train and sat somewhere. Later another passenger boarded and told us to move. I was reluctant, displaying my ticket. The other man pointed out that we could sit in any seat that was disponible, but “Cette place n’est pas disponible!” If the reader is not sure what this means, I myself was not sure at the time either. The man was telling me that my seat was not available, presumably because he had reserved it for himself.

Recalling the experience now, I feel again a nervousness, a quickening of the heart, a warmth in the skin. I am not positive that these physiological effects are detectable by medical instruments; but still I feel as if I am back on the train. Am I not then remembering the feeling of being humiliated by the other passenger? In a loose manner of speaking, I am. Strictly, according to Collingwood, I am remembering propositions about my feeling, propositions that I was able to enunciate while I was actually having the feeling (¶5. 54).

This too seems like a loose way of speaking. My memory did not record a sequence of words that I can now draw forth and type up. My memory recorded something that enables me now to describe my experience in words. In composing this description, I come to have certain feelings—feelings that I recognize as resembling the feelings I actually had on the train. But how can I recognize this, unless I remember my feelings on the train? Again, the argument must be that what I am comparing is not my feelings then and now, but propositions about my feelings.

Honestly, I am not even sure I really remember what it was like to be on that train. Perhaps by thinking on this little incident, I become more flustered than I actually was at the time. I have the idea that people do things that will lead to unpleasant feelings, again and again, because they do not actually remember the unpleasantness. The trick is to remember the appropriate propositions about the unpleasantness; but this takes some work.

Perhaps we should consider Collingwood’s words on tenacity, back in the first section of Chapter V:

5. 17. Tenacity is the quality in a feeling which does not so much make it hard to forget and easy to remember (for no feeling can be remembered, 5. 54), as make it linger in the mind, be slow to vanish, and be easily revived when occasion permits. This is not the same as vividness; many feelings which are notably vivid are notably brittle. Nor is it the same as the power of memory, which is an activity of thought presupposing in its objects (which are never feelings) a certain degree of tenacity.

What is this reviving of a feeling? Apparently it is not a remembering of the feeling. It would seem to be a continuation of the feeling itself. A feeling does have extent in time:

4. 4. A feeling is a here-and-now. What I feel is something that exists when I feel it and where I feel it. There are place-differences and time-differences within what I feel but they are differences within my here-and-now, not between what is inside it and outside it.

4. 43. Within my here-and-now there are place-differences and time-differences (4. 4); it is not a point-instant; it has spatial and temporal bulk; it contains distinctions of there and there, distinctions of then and then, positional differences as well as qualitative differences—between colour and sound and between one colour and another, intensity-differences between louder and softer sounds, brighter and dimmer colours, and so forth.

Within a feeling there are, or can be, time-differences. But if a feeling lasts, this is something else: it concerns differences between what is in the feeling and what is not, as in “Yesterday I did not have this feeling; today I do; tomorrow I may not.”

There are some relevant observations in The Idea of Nature, published posthumously in 1945. The point is that things, even feelings, need time to exist:

(b) The principle of minimum time. An evolutionary science of nature will maintain that a natural substance takes time to exist; an appropriate amount of time, different kinds of substances taking each its own specific amount…

If the suggestion made above was correct, that evolutionary natural science is based on analogy with historical science, and if history is the study of human affairs, human affairs should present us with analogies for this principle, just as they present us with analogies for the principle of minimum space in, for example, the fact that a given type of human activity involves as a minimum a certain number of human beings: that it takes two to make a quarrel, three to make a case of jealousy, four or five (if Plato is right, Republic, 369 d) to make a civil society, and so on. And these analogies in human affairs for the principle of minimum time should have been commonplace long before that principle began to affect the work of natural scientists.

This is in fact the case. A typical and famous example is Aristotle’s remark (Eth. Nic. 1098a18) that being happy is an activity which requires a whole lifetime, and cannot exist in less. So, notoriously, with activities like being a strategist or statesman or a musical composer…

Evidently music must exist in time. The feeling of music has elements that are distinct in time—at least the underlying sensation does; whether the emotional charge has time distinctions is perhaps not so clear. But then the whole point of Chapter V of The New Leviathan is that feelings are ambiguous:

5. 6. Another ambiguity is a numerical ambiguity. No feeling is ever a single feeling, none is a complex consisting of a determinate number of feelings. Nor is it ever a whole; for a whole would have edges and a feeling has none.

5. 61. Feeling as we are actually conscious of it is a field, a here-and-now extended in space and time (4. 43), having a focal region and a penumbral region (4. 44), but no edge.

5. 62. Sensations with their emotional charges (whether one emotional charge goes to one sensation or to one complex of sensations is a nonsense question of the type to which I am now objecting) interpenetrate all over this field.

5. 63. How selective attention cuts up such a field into distinct feelings (sensations distinct from emotions, visual sensations distinct from auditory sensations, red patches distinct from green patches, and so on ad infinitum) I have already said (4. 5 seqq.).

5. 64. I will repeat it only so far as to say that anybody who supposes ‘this red patch’ to be immediately given in or by sensation to consciousness has overlooked the numerical ambiguity of feelings.

5. 65. The red is actually given in feeling to consciousness as a quality transfusing all the rest of the same field; only a man who indulges in the practice of selective attention segregates it into a patch.

5. 66. I have just shown that feeling is ambiguous with regard to the Kantian ‘categories’ of unity, plurality, and totality, the ‘categories of quantity’…

Collingwood seems to be begging the question in ¶5. 64. But it hardly needs argument that feelings are ambiguous in quantity. Our language gives us different forms for the singular and the plural of most nouns; but this does not mean that the distinction allowed by the forms is appropriate for feelings. I cannot say that I have had five feelings today. I might say that I have had a feeling, one feeling; but this oneness is not like the oneness of, say, one of a pair of baoding balls.


The oneness of a feeling might be dispelled by thinking, as in the 75th story among the 101 Zen Stories (transcribed by Nyogen Senzaki and Paul Reps), called “Temper”:

A Zen student came to Bankei and complained: “Master, I have an ungovernable temper. How can I cure it?”

“You have something very strange,” replied Bankei. “Let me see what you have.”

“Just now I cannot show it to you,” replied the other.

“When can you show it to me?” asked Bankei.

“It arises unexpectedly,” replied the student.

“Then,” concluded Bankei, “it must not be your own true nature. If it were, you could show it to me at any time. When you were born you did not have it, and your parents did not give it to you. Think that over.”

Hallucination and re-enactment

I return to my humiliation on the train in France. I could possibly hallucinate that I was back on the train. But in that case, I am not remembering being on the train. Remembering involves a recognition that something happened in the past. A hallucination would lack this recognition. Another passage from An Autobiography is relevant here, again from Chapter X, “History as the Self-knowledge of Mind.” I think it is relevant, because I suppose that to remember is to be an historian of oneself:

I expressed this new conception of history in the phrase: ‘all history is the history of thought.’…

This gave me a second proposition: ‘historical knowledge is the re-enactment in the historian’s mind of the thought whose history he is studying.’

When I understand what Nelson meant by saying, ‘in honour I won them, in honour I will die with them’, what I am doing is to think myself into the position of being all covered with decorations and exposed at short range to the musketeers in the enemy’s tops, and being advised to make myself a less conspicuous target. I ask myself the question, shall I change my coat? and reply in those words. Understanding the words means thinking for myself what Nelson thought when he spoke them: that this is not a time to take off my ornaments of honour for the sake of saving my life. Unless I were capable—perhaps only transiently—of thinking that for myself, Nelson’s words would remain meaningless to me; I could only weave a net of verbiage round them like a psychologist, and talk about masochism and guilt-sense, or introversion and extraversion, or some such foolery.


But this re-enactment of Nelson’s thought is a re-enactment with a difference. Nelson’s thought, as Nelson thought it and as I re-think it, is certainly one and the same thought; and yet in some way there is not one thought, there are two different thoughts. What was the difference? No question in my study of historical method ever gave me so much trouble; and the answer was not complete until some years later. The difference is one of context. To Nelson, that thought was a present thought; to me, it is a past thought living in the present but (as I have elsewhere put it) incapsulated, not free. What is an incapsulated thought? It is a thought which, though perfectly alive, forms no part of the question–answer complex which constitutes what people call the ‘real’ life, the superficial or obvious present, of the mind in question. For myself, or for that which at first sight I regard as myself, the question ‘shall I take off my decorations?’ does not arise. The questions that arise are, for example, ‘shall I go on reading this book?’ and later, ‘what did the Victory‘s deck look like to a person thinking about his chances of surviving the battle?’ and later again, ‘what should I have done if I had been in Nelson’s place?’

I note the curious disclaimer here: “For myself, or for that which at first sight I regard as myself.” Something seen “at first sight” sounds like something immediately given to consciousness, so that there can be no arguing about it, by the Fallacy of Misplaced Argument (¶4. 73). Is Collingwood then committing the fallacy, or begging the question? The question concerns the difference between Nelson’s thought and Collingwood’s rethinking of it. The answer is that only Collingwood is immediately given to Collingwood’s consciousness. If there is no arguing about what is immediately given to consciousness, then there is no arguing about what is not so given, or at least about whether it is not so given. Nelson is not immediately given to Collingwood’s consciousness. But then how could this have caused Collingwood so much trouble?

These matters are causing me trouble. As usual, I cannot resist continuing with the quotation from where it was left, in the middle of a paragraph:

No question that arises in this primary series, the series constituting my ‘real’ life, ever requires the answer ‘in honour I won them, in honour I will die with them’. But a question arising in that primary series may act as a switch into another dimension. I plunge beneath the surface of my mind, and there live a life in which I not merely think about Nelson but am Nelson, and thus in thinking about Nelson think about myself. But this secondary life is prevented from overflowing into my primary life by being what I call incapsulated, that is, existing in a context of primary or surface knowledge which keeps it in its place and prevents it from thus overflowing. Such knowledge, I mean, as that Trafalgar happened ninety years ago: I am a little boy in a jersey: this is my father’s study carpet, not the Atlantic, and that the study fender, not the coast of Spain.

So I reached my third proposition: ‘Historical knowledge is the re-enactment of a past thought incapsulated in a context of present thoughts which, by contradicting it, confine it to a plane different from theirs.’

Trafalgar happened in 1805, so if Collingwood is being precise with his dates, he is recalling being a boy of six. As that boy became Nelson beneath the surface, so, presumably, as he writes his memoirs, the fifty-year-old Collingwood becomes the boy. But he does not remember the boy’s feelings as such; he remembers the boy’s thoughts. These thoughts have an emotional charge that, on reflection, can be recognized as resembling the feelings of the boy.

But the feelings as such are not remembered. It is important to maintain this, if we are make the distinction, in the earlier quotation from An Autobiography, between psychology and the true sciences of mind. The importance of not remembering feelings is shown too in the first section, “The Two Contrasted,” of the first chapter, “Thinking and Feeling,’ of Book II, ‘The Theory of Imagination,” of The Principles of Art:

…The experience of feeling is a perpetual flux in which nothing remains the same, and what we take for permanence or recurrence is not a sameness of feeling at different times but only a greater or less degree of resemblance between different feelings. The only motive one can have for denying this, and conjuring up the metaphysical fairy-tale of a limbo in which all possible feelings are stored when nobody feels them, is the panic caused by sophistical attempts to reduce the whole of experience to feeling and consequently the whole world to a phantasmagoria of feelings. The right answer to these sophistries is not ‘then we must confer on feelings the attributes proper to thoughts’, but, ‘there is more in experience than mere feeling; there is thought as well’.

In the perpetual flux of feelings, even to say that nothing remains the same, or that [two] feelings are different, is to suggest that categories of quantity apply.


We cannot generalize about feelings, although we can “think inductively” about them. A universal proposition about feelings would answer a question, such as “Does every feeling have an emotional charge?” Collingwood has already told us (¶4.11) that he does not know the answer; he assumes that the answer is Yes. Thus he makes an induction, namely an assumption that, because some things are a certain way, others will be too. Collingwood’s induction is not about feelings as such, but about our thoughts of them: the assumption is that, when we reflect on our feelings, we shall find them analyzable as emotional charges on sensations. Induction about feelings as such is possible, but unwise, as Collingwood shows by example:

5. 57. And though it is quite easy to think inductively about feelings (‘I shall always love this woman as I love her now, and indeed I always did; and so, no doubt, does everybody else’), it is impossible to do so sensibly; for that, one has to think not about feelings but about propositions about feelings.

Collingwood had been divorced and remarried when he wrote this.

The unconscious

Can feelings be unconscious? Collingwood ends Chapter V of The New Leviathan with this question. I understand Collingwood’s answer as follows.

Unnamed nineteenth-century psychologists spoke of feelings that “lay below the threshold of consciousness” because they were so weak. This is nonsense (¶5. 85). At least it conflicts with Collingwood’s assertion that “all a man can find out about his feelings is derived from his consciousness of them” (¶5. 82). If there can be no consciousness of a feeling, then on “methodological grounds,” by Occam’s Razor, there is no point in saying that unconscious feelings exist.

Freud used the term “unconsious” to mean repressed. Obviously we can repress feelings: this is just a declining to give them our attention. The feeling is still there, in a sense: otherwise we could not be repressing it. In particular, its strength can still be felt. Thus “the methodological grounds (5. 82) for denying that there can be unconscious feelings disappear and we can agree with Freud that there is valid experimental reason for believing in them, which there can be just because ’unconscious’ no longer means what it says” (¶5. 89).

Freud also used “unconscious” to mean “that which is latent but capable of becoming conscious” (¶5. 9). Obviously being conscious of a feeling does not require one to be conscious that one is conscious. The consciousness of the feeling can itself be unconscious. Human babies are conscious in the sense of being aware of their surroundings; they are probably not aware that they are seeing and smelling and touching their surroundings.

Collingwood ends with a curious disclaimer:

5. 93. I called this question [whether there can be unconscious feelings] peculiarly difficult (5. 8) out of deference to Freud because he says that a person who thinks of mind as constituted solely by forms of consciousness should find it so. Why he says this I do not know. That is how I think of mind myself, and I find no difficulty.

Is Collingwood really showing deference to Freud? In any case, I find no difficulty in Collingwood’s argument here. It avoids a kind of “homunculus problem,” the problem of treating the unconscious as a little man that sometimes takes control of our actions.

Objects of feeling

For Collingwood, the distinction between being conscious of a feeling and being conscious of the being conscious has already come up in the methodological rejection of objects of feeling (¶¶5. 2–39). If you assume that there are such objects, then you have to decide whether their esse is percipi. Berkeley said it was; G. E. Moore said it was not. But it is not even clear what Berkeley meant:

5. 23. The doctrine is this. Seeing is an activity which has a proper object, namely colours. Hearing has a proper object, namely sounds. As a general name these objects may be called sense-data or sensa.

5. 27. It is commonly believed (whether correctly or not I do not know; because I do not know whether by the word percipere Berkeley meant seeing, hearing, and so forth, as most of his readers suppose, or consciousness of seeing, hearing, and so forth, as a comparison of his terminology with that of the Cartesians from whom he was borrowing would suggest) that Berkeley found this doctrine implicit in Locke and having made it explicit, proceeded to ask a question arising out of it: namely (as people say nowadays) ‘what is the status of objects of sense-perception?’

Collingwood prefers the Cartesian line: “for Descartes the grammar of the sentence ‘I see a blue colour’ is not like the grammar of ‘I kick a bad dog’ but like the grammar of ‘I feel a transient melancholy’ or ‘I go a fast walk’. The colour, the melancholy, the walk, are not objects of an action, they are modes of an action; their names have an adverbial function in the sentences in which they occur” (¶5. 35).

Collingwood might have said that the color, the melancholy, the walk are cognate objects of a verb. Some sources may say or suggest that a cognate object must literally be cognate with the verb, as in “I walk a fast walk.” In A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926), H. W. Fowler is not so restrictive:

cognate (Gram.); ‘akin’. A noun that expresses again, with or without some limitation, the action of a verb to which it is appended in a sentence is distinguished from the direct object of a transitive verb (expressing the external person or thing on which the action is exerted) as the cognate, or the internal, or the adverbial, object or accusative:

  • is playing whist (cognate);
  • I hate whist (direct);
  • lived a good life (internal or cognate);
  • spent his life well (direct);
  • looked daggers (adverbial or cognate).

In the last example daggers is a metaphor for a look of a certain kind, & therefore cognate with the verb.

Thus grammar does not require feelings to have objects.

In disagreeing with his insular compatriots on this matter, Collingwood ridicules them for “inculcat[ing] an attitude of submission” to “a faculty in man called ‘common sense’” (¶5. 32); “the admission of such a faculty always opens the door to scientific persecution (1. 57), and if nothing slips through no thanks are due to those who opened it” (¶5. 33).


One Trackback

  1. By Collingwood, The New Leviathan (1942) « Polytropy on February 27, 2014 at 3:41 pm

    […] NL V: “The Ambiguity of Feeling” […]

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