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Understanding History

Human Nature - mind and behavior, R. G. Collingwood

"History is for human self-knowledge ... the only clue to what man can do is what man has done. The value of history, then, is that it teaches us what man has done and thus what man is."
R. G. Collingwood

Robin George Collingwood was Waynefleet Professor of Metaphysical Philosophy at Oxford University from 1935 to 1941.

During his career Collingwood attempted to integrate and understand human experience and knowledge, and to bring together history and philosophy. He considered that worthwhile historical studies must take on board, as a key aspect of their proper function, the goal of self-knowledge of the mind.

He sought "to vindicate history as a form of knowledge distinct from natural science and yet valid in its own right."

In major work, "The Idea of History," Collingwood included a supportive sub-topic entitled Human Nature and Human History.

The following text outlines something of Collingwood's views on a relationship between History and Human Nature.

THE SCIENCE OF HUMAN NATURE

Man, who desires to know everything, desires to know himself. Nor is he only one (even if, to himself, perhaps the most interesting) among the things he desires to know. Without some knowledge of himself, his knowledge of other things is imperfect: for to know something without knowing that one knows it is only a half-knowing, and to know that one knows is to know oneself. Self-knowledge is desirable and important to man, not only for its own sake, but as a condition without which no other knowledge can be critically justified and securely based.

Self-knowledge, here, means not knowledge of man's bodily nature, his anatomy and physiology; nor even a knowledge of his mind, so far as that consists of feeling, sensation, and emotion; but a knowledge of his knowing faculties, his thought or understanding or reason. How is such knowledge to be attained? It seems an easy matter until we think seriously about it; and then it seems so difficult that we are tempted to think it impossible. Some have even reinforced this temptation by argument, urging that the mind, whose business it is to know other things, has for that very reason no power of knowing itself. But this is open sophistry: first you say what the mind's nature is, and then you say that because it has this nature no one can know that it has it. Actually, the argument is a counsel of despair, based on recognizing that a certain attempted method of studying the mind has broken down, and on failure to envisage the possibility of any other.

It seems a fair enough proposal that, in setting out to understand the nature of our own mind, we should proceed in the same way as when we try to understand the world about us. In studying the world of nature, we begin by getting acquainted with the particular things and particular events that exist and go on there; then we proceed to understand them, by seeing how they fall into general types and how these general types are interrelated. These interrelations we call laws of nature; and it is by ascertaining such laws that we understand the things and events to which they apply. The same method, it might seem, is applicable to the problem of understanding mind. Let us begin by observing, as carefully as possible, the ways in which our own minds and those of others behave under given circumstances; then, having become acquainted with these facts of the mental world, let us try to establish the laws which govern them.

Here is a proposal for a 'science of human nature' whose principles and methods are conceived on the analogy of those used in the natural sciences.

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In 1831 Ralph Waldo Emerson, who later became enduringly famous and influential as an essayist and lecturer, was much influenced by a work by a French philosopher named Victor Cousin.

If we turn to Cousin, (Victor Cousin's Introduction to the History of Philosophy), for insight as to what kind of content impressed Emerson we read such things as:
What is the business of history? What is the stuff of which it is made? Who is the personage of history? Man: evidently man and human nature. There are many different elements in history. What are they? Evidently again, the elements of human nature. History is therefore the development of humanity, and of humanity only; for nothing else but humanity develops itself, for nothing else than humanity is free. … But if there can be in history no other elements than those of humanity, and if we can possess ourselves of all the elements of humanity by anticipation, before we enter into history, we shall have gained much; for in beginning history, we shall know that it can have neither more nor less than certain elements, although these may clothe themselves in different forms. Assuredly we shall have made great progress towards the attainment of our object, when we shall know beforehand all the pieces which compose the machine whose play and operation we would study.
Moreover, when we have all the elements, I mean all the essential elements, their mutual relations do, as it were, discover themselves. We draw from the nature of these different elements, if not all their possible relations, at least their general and fundamental relations. …
We must begin with seeking the essential elements of humanity, and proceed by deriving from the nature of these elements their fundamental relations, and from these the laws of their development; and finally we must go to history and ask if it confirms or rejects our results.
Victor Cousin - Introduction to the History of Philosophy, translated by H. G. Linberg, Boston: Hilliard, Gray, Little and Wilkins, (1832), pp. 101-104

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In Emerson's essay "History" of 1841 we read such statements as:
In old Rome the public roads beginning at the Forum proceeded north, south, east, west, to the centre of every province of the empire, making each market-town of Persia, Spain, and Britain pervious to the soldiers of the capital: so out of the human heart go, as it were, highways to the heart of every object in nature, to reduce it under the dominion of man. A man is a bundle of relations, a knot of roots, whose flower and fruitage is the world. His faculties refer to natures out of him, and predict the world he is to inhabit, as the fins of the fish foreshow that water exists, or the wings of an eagle in the egg presuppose air. He cannot live without a world. …

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"Mankind are so much the same, in all times and places, that history informs us of nothing new or strange in this particular. Its chief use is only to discover the constant and universal principles of human nature."
David Hume
History is not the story of strangers, aliens from another realm; it is the story of us had we been born a little earlier.
Stephen Fry

Ralph Waldo Emerson


RALPH WALDO EMERSON (1803-1882) was, in his time, the leading voice of intellectual culture in the United States. He remains widely influential to this day through his essays, lectures, poems, and philosophical writings.

Even before he had first read Cousin's Introduction to the History of Philosophy Emerson had expressed views in his private Journals which suggest that he accepted that Human Nature, and Human Beings, tend to display three identifiable aspects and orientations:
Imagine hope to be removed from the human breast & see how Society will sink, how the strong bands of order & improvement will be relaxed & what a deathlike stillness would take the place of the restless energies that now move the world. The scholar will extinguish his midnight lamp, the merchant will furl his white sails & bid them seek the deep no more. The anxious patriot who stood out for his country to the last & devised in the last beleagured citadel, profound schemes for its deliverance and aggrandizement, will sheathe his sword and blot his fame. Remove hope, & the world becomes a blank and rottenness. (Journal entry made between October and December, 1823)

In all districts of all lands, in all the classes of communities thousands of minds are intently occupied, the merchant in his compting house, the mechanist over his plans, the statesman at his map, his treaty, & his tariff, the scholar in the skilful history & eloquence of antiquity, each stung to the quick with the desire of exalting himself to a hasty & yet unfound height above the level of his peers. Each is absorbed in the prospect of good accruing to himself but each is no less contributing to the utmost of his ability to fix & adorn human civilization. (Journal entry of December, 1824)

Our neighbours are occupied with employments of infinite diversity. Some are intent on commercial speculations; some engage warmly in political contention; some are found all day long at their books … (This dates from January - February, 1828)

The quotes from Emerson are reminiscent of a line from another "leading voice of intellectual culture" - William Shakespeare.
There's neither honesty, manhood, nor good fellowship in thee.
William Shakespeare: Henry IV (Pt 1), Act I, Scene II

Such celebrated "Men of Literature" as Emerson and Shakespeare have accepted that Human Nature is 'Tripartite' and Emerson accepted that there was an investigable association between History and Human Nature.

Should we actually become persuaded that an understanding of what Victor Cousin suggested of as being "the elements of Humanity" is fairly directly linked to insights into Historical Developments we will surely also become to some degree persuaded that we have made progress towards Understanding History through the study of the Human Nature - mind and behavior.

"The first glance at History convinces us that the actions of men proceed from their needs, their passions, their characters and talents; and impresses us with the belief that such needs, passions and interests are the sole spring of actions."
Georg Hegel, 1770-1831, German philosopher, The Philosophy of History (1837)


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