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Product details

  • Paperback: 191 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press (Dec. 1960)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0195002172
  • ISBN-13: 978-0195002171
  • Product Dimensions: 20.3 x 1 x 13.5 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 237,786 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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This is a delicious piece of scholarly writing. Collingwood discusses the way mankind's conception has changed over three period - the Classical, the Enlightenment and the post-Darwinian. The first two are, in my opinion, the strongest. Collingwood was writing a bit too early to really be able to get a long-view of the post-Darwinian period, which is still playing out.

It is an easy read but addresses some really big questions.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 5 reviews
18 of 21 people found the following review helpful
A worthy study, at times illuminating. 20 Nov. 2003
By Frank Bierbrauer - Published on
Format: Paperback
R. G. Collingwood has produced a little book detailing how the concept/idea of nature changed throughout western history (notably any Chinese or Indian construction is left out). Collingwood has a very deep understanding, especially of the Greek philosophers, and one feels his familiarity with their work in contrast to later philosophers such as Spinoza or Descartes. He bases his study of this change on three fundamental principles he has singled out to describe "nature" within each period. These periods are defined by the Greek/middle ages period extending from 500BC to around the 14th Century, the Renaissance period extending from the 15th Century to the late 19th and the modern one from there onwards. In each case he characterises the conception of nature as, (in a book of 180 pages)
1. Greek period: nature as a living organism, 70 pages.
2. Renaissance period: nature as a machine, 20 pages.
3. Modern period: nature viewed as evolving, 60 pages.
the remaining pages are introduction of the main trends. Collingwood in each case analyses the general view within the period and provides examples in each case although his treatment of Aristotle is meagre when compared to Plato. the Renaissance view is not as developed as the other two and many philosophers of note are not discussed. In the 18th Century Locke is briefly mentioned as is Hume but Berkeley and Kant are given the floor. Of the 19th Century Hegel is the main one although other German idealists are barely mentioned eg Fichte, Schelling, Schopenhauer; in fact the other contributers to this trend such as Schiller and Goethe are not mentioned even when they often gave the original impetus to such an approach. In the modern period no philosophers other than Alexander and Whitehead are really discussed with the main drive being allocated to the physicists who developed quantum mechanics and relativity although Bergson is briefly discussed more as an aside and brief sojourn away from the modern trend a kind of throwback to an earlier time.
Collingwood criticises the main theories of each period and once again it is the ancient philsophers who he understands best and his description of their ideas is the fullest. His critiques appear just in this era but varies as he discusses the other periods. In some cases I feel his criticism is unjust especially when it does not seem that his statements apply. Overall the study is in depth and justified and much can be learned from this book instead of having to read each philosopher in turn. Nonetheless Collingwood is one man and the book represents an opinion with good justification throughout. A fuller study would have taken years to write and been produced in several volumes, instead Collingwood cuts it down as much as possible and looks at the bare bones. A worthy study, at times illuminating.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
A powerful, clear, and illuminating study of Western conceptions of nature 26 Oct. 2009
By Nathan Andersen - Published on
Format: Paperback
R.G. Collingwood (1889-1943) is perhaps best known for his aesthetics and for his distinctive approach to the philosophy of history. His interests and background ranged much more widely, and a consistent feature of his work is to clarify the relations between domains of thought held to be distinct, such as religion, art, history, science and philosophy. In this work, he aims to clarify the aims and scope of natural science, by examining the historical development of the idea of nature. He identifies three broad historical periods in which investigations into the natural world coincided with philosophical reflections on the methods and presuppositions of such investigations. Nature, he argues, was conceived along radically different lines in each of these periods, with the implication that natural science must be understood in light of and in relation to history.

Perhaps this thought has become a commonplace since the appearance of Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, and given the rise of "History and Philosophy of Science" departments at major research universities around the world. It was a radical insight in Collingwood's time, when the positivist assumption that natural science and its results and proper methods are independent from history tended to dominate philosophy departments, even if it was at odds with what Collingwood took to be a growing recognition among some scientists that the natural world and its processes are themselves historical and evolving.

In rough outline, Collingwood argues that the ancient Greeks conceived of nature along the lines of a living organism - or considered that the living organism was the paradigm of a natural thing. To understand Thales' proclamation that "all is water" requires that we not think of water as a dead, inert, material stuff, but as a kind of dynamic, self moving substance (or how else could we reconcile that claim with another famously cryptic claim by Thales that "all things are full of gods"?). He argues, by contrast, that the early modern or renaissance thinkers responsible for the "scientific revolution" conceived of nature mechanistically, as a kind of machine, an aggregate of parts that exert forces on other parts. Note that this is a radical shift: whereas for the Greeks (as Aristotle put it) things in nature are self moving, for the Renaissance thinkers nature is inert, which means it can't move itself but has to be pushed. To read Aristotle with a mechanistic conception in mind, is to radically misread him. The modern or twentieth century conception of nature, Collingwood argues, was pointing in a new direction, towards a conception of nature as an evolving historical system. Not only Darwin, but quantum mechanics and ecology can be thought of along these lines. To understand a natural system or process rightly according to these (then) new approaches is to recognize it as having come to be what it is as a result of an ongoing history of interactions with other systems or processes.

Collingwood's study is obviously of historical interest, but also for its methodology, for exemplifying a rigorous philosophical approach to the history of ideas, and for its important implications regarding the relations between history, science and philosophy. Scientists, he argues, need to understand the methods and teachings of history as much as historians and philosophers need to be attentive to the results of natural science, which can only be understood properly in light of history.
By Steven H Propp - Published on
Robin George Collingwood (1889-1943) was an English philosopher and historian, who wrote other books such as An Essay on Metaphysics, The Idea of History, An Autobiography, etc.

This book was published posthumously, and was mostly written in 1933-1934; he presented much of the material in lectures in 1934 and 1937. He had begun revising the manuscript for publication at the time of his death.

He wrote in the first chapter, "in the nineteenth century a fashion grew up of separating natural scientists and philosophers into two professional bodies, each knowing little about the other's work and having little sympathy with it. It is a bad fashion that has done harm to both sides, and on both sides there is an earnest desire to see the last of it and to bridge the gulf of misunderstanding it has created. The bridge must be begun from both ends; and I, as a member of the philosophical profession, can best begin at my end by philosophizing about what experience I have of natural science." (Pg. 3)

He states, "This new conception of nature, the evolutionary conception based on the analogy of history, has certain characteristics which follow necessarily from the central idea on which it is based. It may be useful to mention a few of these. i. Change no longer cyclical, but progressive... ii. Nature no longer mechanical. A negative result... was the abandonment of the mechanical conception of nature. It is impossible to describe one and the same thing ... as a machine and as developing or evolving. Something which is developing may build itself machines, but it cannot be a machine. On the evolutionary theory... there may be machines in nature, but nature itself cannot be a machine, and cannot either be described as a whole or completely described as to any of its parts in mechanical terms... iii. Teleology reintroduced. A positive corollary of this negative result is the reintroduction into natural science of an idea which the mechanical view of nature had banished: the idea of teleology." (Pg. 13-15)

He argues, "The conception of development is fatal to materialism... development implies an immaterial cause. If a seed is really developing into a plant, and merely changing into it by pure chance owing to the random impact of suitable particles of matter from outside, this development is controlled by something not material, namely the form of a plant... which is the Platonic idea of the plant as the formal cause of the full-grown plant and the final cause of the process by which the seed grows into it." (Pg. 83-84)

He asserts, "On the ground of philosophy, I think it is fair to say that the conception of vital process as distinct from mechanical or chemical change has come to stay, and has revolutionized our conception of nature. That many eminent biologists have not yet accepted it need cause no surprise. In the same way, the anti-Aristotelian physics ... was rejected by many distinguished scientists of that age... who were making important contributions to the advancement of knowledge." (Pg. 136)

He observes, "But although the doctrine expressed by scientists like Eddington and Jeans that nature or the material world depends on God is welcome as marking their rejection both of materialism and of subjectivism, these are merely negative merits. If the doctrine is to stand for anything positive, we must know not only that God is something other than either matter or the human mind, but what that other is. For Eddington... the non-material reality on which material nature depends is mind: that is to say, he conceives God as mind." (Pg. 156-157)

He says, "This evolutionary process is theoretically infinite. At present, it has reached the state of mind; but it only goes forward at all because at every stage there is a forward movement or impulse... towards the realization of the next... This next higher order of quality, as yet unrealized, is deity, and thus God is the being towards whose emergence the evolutionary nisus of mind is directed." (Pg. 161) He concludes, "that is why I answer the question, `Where do we go from here?' by saying, `We go from the idea of nature to the idea of history.'" (Pg. 177)

Although the work is somewhat disjointed, it will be of keen interest to anyone studying Collingwood's philosophy.
0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
A must-read book (at least the Introduction) for scientists and philosophers 1 April 2011
By Lev Goldfarb - Published on
Format: Paperback
The author died before the manuscript has been completely prepared for publication, so you will have to cope with some minor language deficiencies. However, although the book was mostly written in the 1930's, the abundance of original and unfortunately unnoticed important ideas just in the Introduction itself (the first 27 pages) will more than repay your efforts.

To wet your appetite here are some fragments from the end of the Introduction.


"If an historian had no more means of apprehending events that occupied more than an hour, he could describe the burning down of a house but not the building of a house; the assassination of Caesar but not his conquest of Gaul; ... the performance of a symphony but not its composition. If two historians gave each his own answer to the question: 'What kind of event happen, or can or might happen, in history?' their answers would be extremely different if one habitually thought of an event as something that takes an hour and the other as something that takes ten years; and a third who conceived an event as taking anything up to 1,000 years would give a different answer again.

... In general, making things takes longer than destroying them. The shorter our standard time-phase for an historical event, the more our history will consist of destructions, catastrophes, battle, and sudden death. But destruction implies the existence of something to destroy; and as this type of history cannot describe how such a thing came into existence, for the process of its coming into existence was ... too long to be conceived ..., its existence must be presupposed as given, ready-made, miraculously established by some force outside history.

... I have quoted late Mr. Sullivan's remark that the second law of thermodynamics applies only from the human point of view and would be unnecessary for an intelligent microbe. ... [A]n intelligent organism whose life had a [much] longer time-rhythm than man's might find it not so much unnecessary as untrue.

The natural processes that come most easily within ordinary human observation, it may be, are predominantly of a destructive kind, like the historical events that come most easily within the knowledge of the historian who thinks of an event as something that takes a short time. Like such an historian, the natural scientist, it may be, is led by this fact to think of events in nature as in the main destructive: releases or dissipations of energy ...; to think of the natural world as running down like a clock or being shot away like a store of ammunition. ...

May it not be the same in the world of nature? May it not be the case that the modern picture of a running-down universe, in which energy is by degrees exchanging a non-uniform and arbitrary distribution (that is, a distribution not accounted for by any laws yet known to us, and therefore in effect a given, ready-made, miraculously established distribution ...) for a uniform distribution, according to the second law of thermodynamics, is a picture based on habitual observation of relatively short-phase processes, and one destined to be dismissed as illusory at some future date, when closer attention has been paid to processes whose time-phase is longer? Or even if these long-phase processes should continue to elude human observation, may it not be found necessary to dismiss the same picture as illusory because, according to the principles of evolutionary physics, we shall find ourselves obliged to postulate such processes even though we cannot directly observe them?"
1 of 8 people found the following review helpful
A Great Book from a Great Philosopher 25 Feb. 2004
By Matthew Bradley - Published on
Format: Hardcover
I recommend this book to anyone who has ever tried to think about "nature". This book shows how the concept of nature has changed in Western Civilization, and how we can best think about this abstract concept today.
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