Collingwood and the Crisis of Western Civilisation: Art, Metaphysics and Dialectic. By Richard Murphy


Pp. 296 . Exeter/Charlottesville , Imprint Academic , 2008 , $49.00.

Murphy gives a masterful overview of Collingwood's philosophy, situating him within the ‘apocalyptic’ strain of process philosophy stemming from the ‘cultural criticism’ of Nietzsche that saw a ‘crisis’ in contemporary Western civilisation, whose outward manifestations were the First World War, the Russian Revolution, and the economic depression of 1929. Embracing an immanentism of the ‘historical’ world which man builds on the base of ‘nature’ in a dialectical or self-correcting fashion, Collingwood tried to avoid pessimism and to remain open to hope. He looked to a solution not in Christianity but in Romanticism. The problem was essentially a suppression of emotion through the corruption of art in industrial society, whereby people are not even aware of what they most deeply desire, even as they are led by capitalism to compensate for the frustrations they experience at this deeper level with the thin, anesthetising pleasures of amusement. His solution is the same in art and metaphysics (which he redefines in Kantian fashion as uncovering of our most basic presuppositions – which are not true or false, but merely ‘presupposed’), and turning to face the Heraclitean flux (rather than ‘static’ Being): expression, defined in Romantic fashion as bringing the hidden noumenal core to phenomenal appearance, will lead to an increase or expansion of self-consciousness. Realizing he is the creative source of value and ‘truth’ in a continually evolving and self-transcending ‘dialectic’ (when he is ‘authentic’) should be enough to bring Western man out of his tailspin. Incremental advances or mid-course corrections are all we need, as Collingwood expands the ‘coherence’ theory of truth into a ‘completeness’ criterion. But is this really complete? And is not this immanent deity with which man is identical possibly too anaemic to ground such a transformation? Is Collingwood not presuming what he is trying to prove – presuming Nietzsche is correct over Schopenhauer? Have we not rather shrunk our ‘desire’ to fit a process view of a universe that may go its own way no matter what we do – so that we have psychological permission either to prefer amusement or simply to bail out? After all, I didn't volunteer to bear the burden of defining the character of the cosmos by my personal decision. Having gotten rid of ‘God’ in one sense, I don't see why I should be expected to fill the vacuum or pick up the role myself, without the weight of inconsistency or a guilty conscience. It should be possible politely to return such an invitation unopened, as Ivan suggests in The Brothers Karamasov. Collingwood's ‘solution’ to the malaise he accurately diagnoses is ambiguous and tendentious; like Hegel's ‘Absolute’, it is a mirage in the desert that continually recedes as we approach it; it remains an I.O.U. note whose redemption is perpetually deferred.