Collingwood, Idealism, Realism, and the Possibility of Historical Knowledge

Collingwood argued that most theories of knowledge in English, up to his time, had been based on perception and scientific thinking; thus, if true, they made history impossible. So how is historical knowledge possible? Collingwood argued that only an idealistic philosophy can account for the possibility of historical knowledge. Consequently he integrated with his idealist theory of history a forceful and damaging critique of the “naive realism” of his day. In this paper I defend Collingwood’s idealist answer to this question, demonstrating how he hoped to broaden the scope of English epistemology through his anti-realist philosophy of history. I also analyze a recently theorized and purportedly more sophisticated form of historical realism which has been theorized by Chris Lorenz. Lorenz borrows Putnam’s notion of internal realism to argue for a historical realism which can account for knowledge of the real past. I argue that internal realism fails as historical realism. Collingwood’s idealism is a better response to relativism as well as naive realism than is internal realism. I conclude that Collingwood’s answer to the question of historical knowledge – which as I show, is Kantian in character – demanded of him, and perhaps demands of us today, a break with the dominant philosophies of perception, truth, and logic.