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Summary of R. G. Collingwood, "The Idea of Nature" (1945)

R. G. Collingwood, The Idea of Nature (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1945).

Collingwood’s concern in this little book is to clarify the idea of nature as it underlies both natural science and philosophy. Saying that science is “based” on nature does not mean that the idea of nature is worked out first and all further scientific investigation proceeds from it. Rather, the conception of nature is subject to change along with scientific knowledge. Collingwood does not believe that there is one correct view of nature but rather seems to believe with Hegel that “the true is the whole,” that is, that the entire history of the concept and not just the “bottom line” of our modern understanding is constitutive of the truth.

Collingwood’s affinities with Hegel extend beyond that. While he only sees the idea of nature as worked out by Hegel as an important stepping stone to the modern understanding and finds it bound up with to seventeenth- and eighteenth-century conceptions, he borrows heavily from Hegel’s method. The book has a tripartite structure, and each part deals with one stage or moment in the development of the concept of nature. There is no linear progression from one to the next. In some ways the third stage has more in common with the first than with the second stage. Each of these three parts in turn is broken into three sub-parts that show the process of understanding at each stage.

The first major part is on Greek cosmology. The three sub-stages Collingwood considers are the Ionians, the Pythagoreans, and Aristotle. While there are considerable differences between these three schools and even within the individual schools, Collingwood identifies one common theme: nature as organism. The Greeks’ is a monistic worldview with no differentiation between organic and inorganic matter. All nature is permeated by mind (hylozoism). Since nature is considered a living organism, it is approached as something we might call “enchanted” (my word, not Collingwood’s). But this is too simple a characterization. The Ionians, for example, tried to deduce matter from a single principle, but it was by no means clear whether this single principle was to be considered transcendent (i.e., the differentiation of matter into various forms comes from “outside”) or immanent (self-differentiation of matter). Thales’s philosophy tended toward the transcendent, but wasn’t purely so, while Anaximenes tended strongly toward the immanent principle, but again did not or could not rid his philosophy of a transcendent element.

The second sub-stage are the Pythagoreans, among whom Collingwood interestingly counts Plato. As opposed to the Ionians, the Pythagoreans’ focused not on matter and its differentiation, but on form. Their question when trying to find out the nature of things was not “What is it made of?” but “What is its structure?” Hence Pythagoras used geometry and mathematics as tools to understand essence. Plato extended this and introduced nonmathematical forms. Again, there is a tension between a view of the forms as immanent organizing principles of matter that are always and necessarily embodied, and forms as transcendent and existent in a separate mundus intelligibilis. Pythagoras was closer to the former view, Plato closer to the latter. Collingwood argues, however, that Plato was not a purebred transcendentalist, and again shows that either tendency implies some of its opposite: “it must be understood that immanence and transcendence are not mutually exclusive conceptions” (59). The binary immanence/transcendence is tied to the binary mimesis/methexis which is dialecticized in Plato.

Aristotle, finally, brought Hellenic cosmological thought to its conclusion. He focused on the internal organizing principles of things, their inner push or “nisus.” His thoroughly teleological conception of nature ascribed to nature/matter a desire to embody its forms. This was effected entirely by efficient causes within nature itself. Thus, in Aristotle’s conception, nature is a self-moving, self-causing and self-existing circular process.

The next stage is what Collingwood calls the Renaissance view of nature. Its sub-stages are temporally defined. Thus, Collingwood describes a sixteenth- and seventeenth-century stage, dealing mostly with Renaissance cosmology; an eighteenth-century stage, encompassing the subjective idealism of Berkeley and Kant; and the nineteenth century, the century of Hegel and the turning point toward the modern view of nature.

Early on, Renaissance cosmology is characterized by a strong anti-Aristotelian impulse. Teleology is vehemently opposed, and as a consequence, as Collingwood notes, nature is “lent a new dignity” (95). But the older view of nature as “enchanted” (again, not his word) “only died out by degrees, and died very hard, in the popular witchcraft of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries” (96). At this point, one gets the sense that the Englishman Collingwood wants to downplay the importance of Descartes. He traces the origin of the mind/nature dualism through Copernicus and Bruno to Francis Bacon, in whom he finds ever so small an inclination towards an empiricist position with is duality of knower and known that we’ve come to identify with the Cartesian subject. Descartes’ views on this were only a continuation of a broader trend, however, that led away from the view of nature as organism toward the view of nature as machine. This dualism in the Renaissance view of nature is challenged by early materialists such as Holbach and the cosmologies of Spinoza and Leibniz, but in the last instance they fail to bridge the gulf between mind and matter.

Moving into the eighteenth century, Collingwood renders the inconsistencies of Berkeley’s attempts to account for an “intrinsic connexion between matter and mind” (113), and then, apparently with little sympathy for his system, gives a sketch of Kant’s views on nature. In Kant’s philosophy, nature as an object of scientific inquiry is merely phenomenal, since science cannot deal with things-in-themselves. Kant’s concept of the thing-in-itself, however, is too murky for a proper reconciliation of mind and matter to be possible. The categories of mind and the thing-in-itself remain ruptured since the thing-in-itself is ultimately unattainable.

This leads to Hegel, whose decisive step away from Kant was to reject “the exclusive claim of scientific thought to the title of knowledge, and consequently [to reject] the idea that the thing in itself is unknowable” (121). Refuting the fixity of categories of thought, Hegel shifted the focus on process. Mind, along with all matter (organic or inorganic), is subject to a process of becoming. There is no delineated difference between self-knowledge and knowledge of the external natural world because both are products of the same process. Collingwood seems to imply that Hegel’s subject–object dialectic still retained much of the dualism of this “Renaissance” stage, but his introduction of a third element linking mind and matter, namely process, opened up a path towards the third stage.

The modern view of nature, then, is different from earlier stages because it introduces life as a mediating category between matter and mind. The focus on life leads to the differentiation of biology as a separate science, and the emergence of evolution as a concept for understanding change and constancy in nature. Bergson made life the centerpiece of his philosophy and saw matter as a by-product of the creative life process. This “vitalism” allowed him to overcome many shortcomings of earlier philosophical systems, but eventually he was unable to account for the existence of life prior to matter which his system presupposed. Collingwood puts his finger on this, observing that the problem with Bergsonism “is not the fact that [it] takes life seriously but the fact that [it] takes nothing else seriously” (141).

Shifting from biology back to physics, then, Collingwood inspects the philosophical implications of the criticisms of Newtonian physics in the early twentieth century. The world comes to be seen as finite and dependent on something outside itself again (“big bang”). Furthermore, the categories of time and space were collapsed, so matter/space comes to be seen more as a process than something which is just there. (This new way of thinking about matter is foreshadowed in Hegel’s system.) Collingwood puts this nicely: “matter is what it is because it does what it does: or, to be more precise, its being what it is is the same thing as its doing what it does” (148). This resolves many of the dualisms set up by the Renaissance thinkers and reunified in Hegelian thought. Collingwood finds these tendencies of modern thought continued in the work of Samuel Alexander on the idea of emergence as well as Whitehead’s process-philosophy (which is free of the metaphysical baggage that constrains earlier thinkers but still takes ultimate questions seriously enough). These modern thinkers are able to render a holistic picture of life emerging out of matter and mind emerging out of life. Not entirely convincingly, Collingwood attributes the innovative philosophy of Whitehead to the fact that he was largely unencumbered by the European metaphysical tradition, having been trained as a physicist. If that was such a big factor, why shouldn’t Ernst Mach have come to similar conclusions?

Extrapolating from these tendencies, Collingwood summarizes the modern view of nature as one in which nature is seen in analogy to history. This is not yet entirely manifest in Whitehead’s philosophy which is largely ahistorical because of “a certain relic of positivism” (176), but Collingwood is confident that “We go from the idea of nature to the idea of history” (177). Not surprisingly, then, Collingwood’s most famous work is called The Idea of History, also published posthumously. Little did he realize that positivism would make a big comeback in the wake of Popper’s philosophy and other intellectual currents.

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