Penn State

On-Cho Ng - professor of East Asian history and religious studies, Penn State University Park

Book Title: The Idea of History

Author: R. G. Collingwood

Book Description:

As an intellectual historian who works at the seams and intersections of the disciplines of history, philosophy, and religious studies, the formative influences of the classic work, The Idea of History, by R. G. Collingwood, are estimable. I first perused it as an undergraduate in a year-long course on historiography, when I read history at the University of Hong Kong. Its central twin-questions—"what is historical knowledge?" and "how is it possible?"—continue to animate my thinking about the roles and functions of ideas in the panorama of the human past. Its thesis that all history is the history of thought—-history, as opposed to the amorphous past, takes shape as it is reenacted in the mind of the historian—-convinced me of the meaningfulness of studying ideas. It showed me the way in which history could be fruitfully pursued in conjunction with philosophy. Even as the book asserts that philosophy is thought about thought, it abhors formal logic and abstract theorizing, seeking in history a reasoned knowledge of that which is transient and concrete. What also struck me, but only vaguely then, was the book’s subtext: the ethical-epistemological argument that thinking and acting, and theory and practice, ultimately could not be categorically distinguished. As an undergraduate history major, I could scarcely grasp the full import of such a philosophical averment. It was only much later, when I began to study Confucian thought and comparative philosophy that I developed deep appreciation for this claim of the intimate linkage between knowledge and action. In short, the book tells us that history is not merely ratiocinative exploration of the facts of the past; it is a reflection on the historian’s endeavor to arrive at truth.

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