Giuseppina D’Oro: Scientism and Historicism: Collingwood and the Philosophy of History


Giuseppina D’Oro is Reader in Philosophy at Keele University. She is the author of Collingwood and the Metaphysics of Experience); the editor (with James Connelly) of Collingwood’s An Essay on Philosophical Method; (with Constantine Sandis) of Reasons and Causes: Causalism and Anti-Causalism in the Philosophy of Action and (with Søren Overgaard) of The Cambridge Companion to Philosophical Methodology. She is the author of numerous papers on Collingwood’s philosophy of history, action and metaphilosophy and principal investigator (with Paul Giladi and Alexis Papazoglou) on a Templeton funded project “Idealism and the Philosophy of Mind”.


Beyond Scientism and Historicism: Collingwood and the Philosophy of History (abstract)

This paper revisits the philosophy of R.G. Collingwood with a view to suggesting a solution to two problems that are often discussed in the philosophy of history. The first concerns the conflictual relation between science and the history of the philosophy of science. Science aims to be delivering timeless truths about the structure of reality while the history of the philosophy of science seems to show that the timeless truths that science aims to uncover are relative to historical paradigms. Since it cannot be the case both that there are and there are not timeless truths the claims of science conflict with those of the history of the philosophy of science. I argue that for Collingwood the conflict between science and the history of the philosophy of science is an instance of the more general case concerning the relation between history and science understood as forms of inquiry governed by different absolute presuppositions.

By locating Collingwood’s philosophy of history against the background of his conception of metaphysics as a science of absolute presuppositions the paper aims to show that while the presuppositions of historical inquiry and of natural science are incompatible there is no deep ontological conflict between the two and the choice between history and natural science can be made on the basis of pragmatic considerations concerning which explanatory framework is best suited to address the question one wants answered. To understand
Collingwood’s handling of the conflictual relation between history (including the history of the philosophy of science) and science it will be necessary to undermine the widespread view that the primary goal of Collingwood’s metaphysics was to historicise knowledge, including, scientific knowledge. If Collingwood’s metaphysics is understood as arguing that there is no presuppositionless knowledge (rather than as claiming that all knowledge is time-bound) the possible co-existence of history and natural science is defended not by reducing scientific knowledge to historical knowledge (which would make historicism into a topsy-turvy version of scientism), but by showing that the methodological practices at work in these different forms of inquiry provide answers to different kinds of why-questions.

The second problem concerns whether the past can be objectively known. It has often been claimed that since history is written retrospectively, from a later point in time, there can be no such thing as access to the past as it is in-itself because the historian will view the past through the lens of his own zeitgeist. Collingwood would agree that there is no such thing as knowledge of the past in its immediacy wie es eigentlich gewesen, but denied that one can infer from the impossibility of knowing the past in its immediacy the impossibility of knowing the past from the perspective of historical agents with a different mindset from that of the historian. For to view reality from the point of view of historical agents with very different epistemic, moral and aesthetic norms is not equivalent to knowing the past initself or in its immediacy; it is rather to understand it through a different form of cultural mediation. His re-enactment doctrine is meant precisely to show that there is no principled barrier to understanding reality as the Greeks or the Romans did. The claim that it is at least in principle possible to adopt the perspective of past agents does not therefore entail that the past can be known wie es eigentlich gewesen or in-itself.

It is one thing to deny that the past can be known in-itself; it is another to assert that we cannot understand the world as it was understood by the Greeks, Romans and so on. The task of understanding past agents is not different in kind from that of understanding agents from other cultures that mightbe contemporaneous to the historian. Thus, unless one is willing to commit to the view that it is impossible to understand other (contemporaneous) cultures in their own terms there is no reason to hold, as Gadamer did, for example, that each new generation of historians necessarily must understand the past in a different way or, as Quine claimed, that there is no identity of meaning and that translation from past cultures must remain necessarily indeterminate.

Last updated: 16.10.2017