Under The Sun

Wednesday, July 16, 2003

"In one oft-criticized passage, [Collingwood] writes that a poor person’s actions cannot be determined by "the fact of his children’s unsatisfied hunger, the fact, the physiological fact, of empty bellies and wizened limbs, but his thought of that fact" (The Idea Of History 315-6; 114). D’Oro defends Collingwood here by saying that he is committed to the idea that "if objective or material conditions are overwhelming, there simply cannot be a history of thought" (114). The statement that 'All history is a history of thought' must be appreciated in the light of the task of IH—to delineate the domain of historical inquiry."
--Gary Ciocco, NDPR

D'Oro's defense is, I think, simply wrong; Collingwood's intention was no such conditional. His point was that events per se are not history: history is the pattern of events, the sense of them, and they only make sense as actions; and to be actions they must be intentional, and to be intentional they must be thought. All historical data are more or less glosses to escape the fact that we have no direct access to historical thoughts.

Is this theory, this description of historiography, accurate? Consider an example: the fact that factory workers in the United States and England in the later part of the 19th century were economically poor. We know this not from any testimonials, not because anyone tried specifically to tell us, but because we know what they had and what they lacked. But the mere fact of what they had and lacked is almost a non-entity; certainly it is not history. The historical fact is that these people were poor because they (and everyone else) thought they were poor, because they saw other people who had more and believed that they deserved more than they had. In judging them poor we agree with that assessment, and I don't find that judgment problematic: they were in fact poor. But not just because of the fact of how little they had: the bushmen of the Kalahari had/have far less but were/are not poor. The essential fact of the laborers' poverty was a cultural fact, which is to say a thought. To consider their poverty as an historical event is to move beyond the realm of the economic data. And it is an essential move, because the dominant effect of the data was precisely on the minds of the workers and the populations around them. It is the macroeconomic equivalent of Collingwood's microeconomic example: the father works to feed his children (by hook or by crook) not because they are hungry but because he knows they are hungry. What we do is based on what we think, and cannot be understood apart from it.

(This formulation ignores the role of the unconscious, but that's a semantic problem; perhaps we need another word than 'think' to encompass the whole of human intentionality. Jacques Barzun refers to "the work of mind-and-heart" ('mind-and-heart' being a translation of a single Chinese character). The work of mind-and-heart is history. Other things happen, but they are quite literally "not of historical interest".

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