Et Cetera, Et Cetera: Note on Wight on Collingwood on Kant on History

Simply put, the purpose of this short note is to ensure that R.G. Collingwood’s grasp of Kant’s philosophy of history is recorded for future reference. This is significant, first and foremost, as a result of the influence Collingwood had on Wight. Indeed, whilst educated at Oxford, Wight would have of come into contact with Collingwood, by this time nothing short of a philosophy don, lecturing on what would become The Idea of Nature and The Idea of History itself. Wight himself contends that Collingwood’s The Idea of History is an “obligatory book” for any student of international affairs or philosophy,– a view shared with Hans-Georg Gadamer, Roger Epp reveals.[1] Yet, at one point Wight is as equally critical as he is flattering. In his review, Wight reveals a concern with Collingwood’s central, and now most famous, onto-epistemological position that “all reality is history and all knowledge is historical knowledge,” setting historico-philosophical thought down a sceptical and relativist path.[2] Nonetheless, this critique aside, it appears to be the experience of peering into Collingwood’s “exciting mind,” an activity which Wight rejoices in, citing the work as an “continual simmer or mental stimulation.”[3]

As such, given the philosophical impact of Collingwood upon Wight, it is significant that certain aspects of his thought are recorded for later reference when thinking about the philosophy of history in Wight’s own work. This is no more significant than for that of Kant, whose 1784 essay Idea for a Universal History With Cosmopolitan Intent’ is subject to the examination of both Collingwood – as a modern philosopher of history – and Wight – as the namesake of ‘Kantian’ Revolutionist international thought. Subsequently, it is pertinent to note Collingwood’s thoughts on Kant’s grasp of history so to inform our understanding of how Wight cast Kant.


The following are taken from Collingwood’s The Idea of History:[4]

p. 97

This view of history Kant took for granted, and for him it could have only one meaning. If history is a spectacle, it is a phenomenon; if a phenomenon, it is nature, because nature, for Kant, is an epistemological term and means things seen as a spectacle. No doubt Kant was only adopting a commonplace of his age; nevertheless, he was wrong, because history is not a spectacle. The events of history do not 'pass in review' before the historian. They have finished happening before he begins thinking about them. He has to re-create them inside his own mind, re-enacting for himself so much of the experience of the men who took part in them as he wishes to understand. It is because the eighteenth century did not know this, but falsely regarded history as a spectacle, that it reduced history to nature, subordinating historical processes to laws of geography and climatology, as in Montesquieu, or to laws of human biology, as in Herder.

pp. 102-104

And the consequences of this exaggerated gloom about the past are seen in Kant's exaggerated hopes for the future. In the last section of his essay, he looks forward to a time when man shall have become rational, when the blind forces of evil which have hitherto driven him along the path of progress shall have been conquered. There will then be a reign of peace, when the problem of working out a sound and reasonable political system shall have been solved and a political millennium achieved through the creation of a rational system both of national life and international relations. He half realizes that in human affairs a millennium like this is a contradiction in terms; but yet the prediction is no mere excrescence on his doctrine; it is a logical consequence of it, an exaggerated optimism on one side balancing, and due to, an exaggerated pessimism on the other. This exaggerated division of history into a wholly irrational past and a wholly rational future is the legacy which Kant inherits from the Enlightenment. A profounder knowledge of history would have taught him that what has brought progress about has not been the sheer ignorance or the sheer badness but the concrete actuality of human effort itself, with all its good and bad elements commingled

In spite of his exaggerations, Kant has made a great contribution to historical thought. At the end of his essay, he outlines a programme for a kind of historical inquiry which, he says, has not yet been undertaken, and, he modestly adds, could not be undertaken by one so little learned in history as himself: a universal history which shall show how the human race has gradually become more and more rational, and therefore more and more free: a history of the self-development of the spirit of man. Such a task, he says, will need two qualifications: historical learning and a philosophical head. Mere scholarship will not do it, and mere philosophy will not do it; the two must be combined into a new form of thought owing something to both of them. Similarly, Vico, at the beginning of the century, demanded what he described as a union of philology and philosophy, a scholarly attention to detail and a philosophical attention to principles. I think we may say that in the next hundred years a serious and sustained attempt was made, certainly not always successful, to carry out Kant's programme, and to consider history as the process by which the spirit of man has come to the fuller and fuller development of its original potentialities

Kant's 'idea', as he calls it, may be summarized in four points: (i) Universal history is a feasible ideal, but demands a union of historical and philosophical thought: the facts must be under stood as well as narrated, seen from within and not only from outside. (ii) It presupposes a plan, i.e. it exhibits a progress, or shows something as coming progressively into being. (ii) That which is thus coming into existence is human rationality, i.e. intelligence, moral freedom. (iv) The means by which it is being brought into existence is human irrationality, i.e. passion, ignorance, selfishness.

I will summarize my criticisms of Kant in a few brief comments on these points. The essence of these comments is that throughout, as in other parts of his philosophical work, he has drawn his antitheses too rigidly.

i(a) Universal history and particular history. The antithesis is too rigid. If universal history means a history of everything that has happened, it is impossible. If particular history means a particular study which does not involve a definite conception of the nature and significance of history as a whole, that too is impossible. Particular history is only a name for history it in its detail: universal history is only a name for the historian's conception of history as such.

i(b) Historical thought and philosophical thought. Again, the antithesis is too rigid. The union of the two which Kant desiderates is just historical thought itself, seeing the events it describes not as mere observed phenomena but from within

ii(a) All history certainly shows progress, i.e. it is the development of something; but to call this progress a plan of nature as Kant does is to use mythological language.

ii(b) The goal of this progress is not, as Kant thought, in the future. History terminates not in the future but in the present The historian's task is to show how the present has come int existence: he cannot show how the future will have come into existence, for he does not know what the future will be.

iii. That which is coming into existence is certainly human rationality, but this does not mean the disappearance of human irrationality. Once more, the antithesis is too rigid.

iv. Passion and ignorance have certainly done their work, and an important work, in past history, but they have never been mere passion and mere ignorance; they have been rather a blind and blundering will for good and a dim and deluded wisdom.


Interestingly, following reading Collingwood’s chapter on Kant, I posted onto Social Media [x- formerly Twitter] a picture of the quote listed above on Page 97, followed by the comment “Current mood: ‘Well, that’s my day gone! I’ll be thinking about this until Coronation Street now!”[5] 

In response to this, Seán Molloy commented. Molloy stated that: “History isn’t _just_nature for Kant though, history is also providential and it is through providence that it attains a measure of meaning and rationality when viewed from a point in the future.”[6] I think that this is a significant point to raise here, precisely as the very concept of providence – divine or otherwise – is not one that Collingwood recognises at all in Kant, yet this is something that Wight does see in Kant’s revolutionist tradition international theory, be that through religious, evangelical doctrine, or in its secularised ideological counterpart.

[1] Martin Wight (1947) ‘Review of: The Use of History. by A. L. Rowse; The Idea of History. by R. G. Collingwood’, International Affairs, 23(4): 575-577, p. 577; Roger Epp (1998) ‘The English School on the Frontiers of International Society: A Hermeneutic Recollection’, Review of International Studies, 24(5): 47-63, p. 52.

[2] R.G. Collingwood (1946) The Idea of History. Oxford: Clarendon Press. p. 197; Martin Wight (1947) ‘Review of: The Use of History. by A. L. Rowse; The Idea of History. by R. G. Collingwood’, International Affairs, 23(4): 575-577, p. 576.

[3] Martin Wight (1947) ‘Review of: The Use of History. by A. L. Rowse; The Idea of History. by R. G. Collingwood’, International Affairs, 23(4): 575-577, pp. 576-577.

[4] R.G. Collingwood (1946) The Idea of History. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

[5] Kieran O’Meara (21st February 2024) ‘X Status’. Available From: jomeara/status/1760236531506143269. [Accessed 21/02/2024 1:30pm].

[6] Seán Molloy (21st February 2024) ‘X Comment’. Available From: MolloyIR/status/1760247967087280466 [Accessed 21/02/2024 1:30pm].