What happens?

What happens?

What happens when a researcher finally knows about, has reached an understanding of, something that happened in the historical past? This is not a question about method, about how to get evidence, what is the most appropriate evidence, how much evidence is needed, how to analyse this etc. It is a question about something more elusive, which is closely connected with interpretation. What has this investigation told you about? how should you understand this? and what is it that goes on that produces your understanding?

In working out the elements of a philosophy of history covering the processes and fundamental procedures involved, Collingwood wrote about this in his autobiography as well as in a manuscript that was unfinished at his death and published posthumously as The Idea of History. The latter was mucked around rather by an editor. The former, called An Autobiography and mentioned in earlier blogs, was completely produced by Collingwood during his life time and provides an excellent introduction to his key ideas. So what does it say about understanding the past?

Although not calling at this, it says quite a lot about the fundamentals involved. History in the sense of a historical investigation is concerned with the history of the lineage of thought. It is not just ‘what and when’, but what motivated the people involved and what the meanings were that they gave to their resulting activities. There are six aspects that are particularly important for Collingwood.

The past is not dead. In so far as it can be investigated, there are traces of it that remain embedded in the present.

Investigate the past around something you want to know, and look for the reasons why it turned out as it did. This is what he calls the logic or complex of question and answer.

Work back from the answer, what happened, to how this came about and why people were motivated to do what they did.

In doing this, strive to understand it in the way that people at the time understood it, for this will be what motivated them, not the standards of truth or falsity, sensible or not, etc that prevail now.

Their past thoughts and motivations (what Collingwood calls ‘secondary life’, them living their lives in the past) are thereby incapsulated in the thinking process of the historical researcher (which he calls ‘primary life’, the researcher carrying out their research and thinking about this in the present). [nb. By incapsulated he means something different from the everyday word encapsulated.]

This is what Collingwood calls re-enactment. He is not using this word in its everyday sense of something being repeated. It is being done instead around and through the relevances of the present and the historical researcher using the traces of the past that remain. And it can always be overturned or re-thought by others when new traces come to light and/or new interpretations and understandings are produced.

Last updated:  24 July 2021