History Man: The Life of R. G. Collingwood by Fred Inglis

History Man is the biography of R. G. Collingwood, a 20th century English philosopher best known for his work on the philosophy of history and aesthetics. Collingwood has been called “the best known neglected thinker of our time”. Although he was Waynflete Professor of Metaphysical Philosophy at Oxford, he stood apart from the main flow of 20th century Anglo-American philosophy. For example, he criticized some academic philosophers for engaging in philosophical parlor games instead of dealing with real-world issues, such as the rise of fascism in Europe. 

In addition to teaching philosophy for many years, Collingwood did historical and archaeological research, especially on the history of Roman Britain. He emphasized the importance of a contextual approach to philosophy in which earlier thinkers are understood to be answering questions of their own time, not necessarily the same questions that current philosophers are interested in. 

Collingwood deserves to have his biography written, since he lead a more active life than most academic philosophers. Unfortunately, he died after a series of strokes at the age of 53. History Man does a decent job of telling Collingwood’s story, but is relatively weak as an explanation of his philosophy. The author is a professor of cultural studies, not a philosopher. The book is marred by some idiosyncratic syntax that requires occasional re-reading, but enlivened by the author’s cultural and political observations.  (3/26/13)