Collingwood and the stasis of Religious Essentialism


There is no one body of practice called ‘art’. There are various arts, various skills used in creative production and those modes of production change and develop over time. A distinction between ‘craft’ and ‘art’ is arbitrary – while the former is demeaned and relegated to the realm of labour,1 the latter is exalted and, wrapped in philosophical interpretation, made the bearer of a visual ideology which conceals, denies the engine of the world – contradiction – and its effects – change.

‘Eternality’, ‘universality’ and the subjectivity of intentionality are employed to freeze transience and set bourgeois domination in place. Philosophy raises art not merely above ‘craft’, but beyond impermanence.

One could explore the writing of Plato and Collingwood on art and craft and find seeming significant differences between the views of the two men – that for Plato art and craft were subsumed under techne and the work of artists was of less worth than that of craftsmen, at third and most distant remove from reality, while Collingwood separated art from craft on the basis of six characteristics he attributed to craft, holding ‘art proper’ in high regard and critical of the latter; that Plato considered the poet’s expression and arousal of emotion so dangerous to the commonwealth that he should be banned from it, while fundamental to the art so valued by Collingwood was not only that same expression but that it should involve an exploration of his emotions by the artist, and that exploration could be ‘overheard’ by his audience.

But to approach Plato and Collingwood thus on the subject of art and craft would be to miss the religious essentialism which applies equally to both, in those particulars – particulars that can only be understood on the basis of that essentialism.2 Plato’s essentialism was built on the realm of Forms – ‘Form’ being not ‘essence of’ but essence itself (the essence beauty etc.). The essence for Collingwood, a Christian Neoplatonist, was God as self and, consistent with Neoplatonism, the impetus of desire for and return to unity with God and the flow of emotion, studied by ‘reason’, carried one back to that source of greatest activity.3

Those areas of the philosophies of Plato and Collingwood which bear on aesthetics and which sustain their views on art and craft exemplify the two great pathways to ‘god’, to stasis, which run through our culture – those of contemplative ‘reason’ with an objective standard and ‘active emotion’ with that standard internalised.4 The former was established by Plato as central to the theory of beauty and the Good and the development of the philosopher. That of emotion, which also occurs in his writing (e.g. the power to convey upwards of desire in the Symposium and of inspiration in the Ion) was developed by Plotinus in his Enneads.

The test of worth, of the (ultimately spiritual) value of art and craft, of his attitude to them for Plato, which was taken over and used by Collingwood, was that of the relationship he perceived between the intentionality of the person and religious purpose. On the one hand there was the philosopher whose contemplative ‘reason’ was focused on the realm of intellect, on the Good, truth and beauty. On the other were the artisans whose creative attention was focused on this world.

Whereas the makers of beds and the makers and users of bits and bridles could lay claim to a degree of knowledge because their honest intention was simply to make and/or use them – they had integrity to those things, the work of the artist was at furthest remove from knowledge and truth because the artist had the intention of deception and manipulation through representation – the likeness of bed, the knowledge of generalship, the drama of theatre. The lack of truth in their intentions was reflected in the lack of truth in their products.

The ‘quarrel’ that Plato wrote of between the philosopher and the poet amounted to his assertion of the supremacy of ‘pure’, essentialist religious belief and its methods and of a claim to the rights that went with them (intellectual and moral guidance – equally Collingwood’s concern)5 over the norms of the philosopher’s society regarding the place of the poet.6

Collingwood made the same claims in his expression theory of art – between the ‘proper’ and pure artist, expressing and exploring his emotions, his only intention that he do so, his reason following them wherever they lead and the artist or craftsperson who represents, who considers all the issues relevant to achieving an end, who deceives and manipulates, who appeals to our ‘lower’ qualities – those who produce pseudo-art: magical art and ‘amusement’ art – both of which Plato warned about,7 both the art of appearances.

Plato and Collingwood tied their theorising on the creators who bring intentionality to the process of creation, who manipulate and deceive (for Plato, the artist and Plato’s particular enemy – because of his significance in the aspects of culture most important to Plato – the poet, for Collingwood the craftsman – the person who consciously and deliberately crafts, usually for financial benefit) to a warning of the danger such work presents to society. In asserting these divisions informed by philosophy on the basis of art and craft, Plato and Collingwood expressed their reaction against their own popular cultures – Collingwood wrote that civilisation itself is the enemy of art.8

In his writing on art, Collingwood is best known for his theory of expression, set out in The Principles of Art published in 1937, but in 1924 in ‘The Philosophy of Art’ he put the same essentialist argument but from the perspective of the Platonic contemplation of beauty: ‘Art, in the sense which we are to discuss it, is not ars = techne in general … We are discussing fine art, that is the special case of production where the production is that of beautiful objects. … art means, for us, the activity by which the beautiful as such is apprehended’.9

In this article he wrote of beauty the same as he wrote later about expression – that an unintended imagining (in the case of emotion, an unintended emotional process) takes possession of the artist and the depiction (or the working through in the case of emotion) of this is art. While both types of essentialist artists are motivated by an intention to engage with their practice, worldly intention (how to attain an end or how to arouse or manipulate their audience in some way) does not besmirch and demean their pure religious purpose once that process has begun.10 With regard to beauty on this basis, even the products of craft such as an undecorated cup, a battleship or train can be beautiful.

The consequences of the involvement of (calculative) intentionality in art, seen in Collingwood’s distinction between ‘art proper’ and ‘pseudo-art’, between ‘art proper’ and craft in The Principles of Art are clear in ‘The Philosophy of Art’, but on a different essentialist basis (one which he was to reject in his book)

‘human artefacts are vehicles of natural beauty when and insofar as they are not designed to be beautiful. The unsophisticated traditional life of a village, with its observations of feasts and fasts, its costumes, it cycle of agricultural and pastoral occupations, is beautiful with a beauty which is at bottom natural beauty. When the villagers dress up to look smart, instead of dressing up because tradition requires it, or when they consciously ornament their cottages with antimacassars and oleographs, the beauty vanishes. They are beautiful so long as they do not try to be beautiful.’11

In The Principles of Art the artist, in exploring his emotions aesthetically, comes to know himself, and as a result of that ‘successful’ exploration he is ‘overheard’ by his audience, his fellow humanity. He does not tell his audience through his work the knowledge he has gained directly, but suggestsindicates and thereby evokes that knowledge through his art – as Proust’s madeleine in the same manner evokes knowledge of the past. Through the flow of emotion and of the sharing, recognition and recollection of knowledge all are carried back to a universal pool of the most intense one-ness.

In a chapter titled ‘The Self-Expression of God in Man’ in Religion and Philosophy Collingwood wrote

‘But if a man has won his union with the mind of god, has known God’s thought and served God’s purpose in any of the countless ways in which it can be served, his monument is not something that stands for an age when he is dead. It is his own new and perfected life; something that in its very nature cannot pass away, except by desertion of the achieved ideal. This is the statue of the perfect man, more perennial than bronze; the life in a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.’12

Plotinus expressed this far more powerfully than Collingwood, not least because of his honesty regarding his mysticism, his writing in the hands of a superb translator

‘But how are you to see into a virtuous Soul and know its loveliness? Withdraw into yourself and look. And if you do not find yourself beautiful yet, act as does the creator of a statue that is to be made beautiful: he cuts away here, he smoothes there, he makes this line lighter, this other purer, until a lovely face has grown upon his work. So do you also: cut away all that is excessive, straighten all that is crooked, bring light to all that is overcast, labour to make all one glow of beauty and never cease chiselling your statue, until there shall shine out on you from it the godlike splendour of virtue, until you shall see the perfect goodness surely established in the stainless shrine.’13

Plato’s condemnation of the poet and his products in the Republic (and of his own artistic nature) is swept aside in the Ion, where he describes the poet as a light thing, winged and holy, a prophet of supremely valuable things from the god.14 In The Principles of Art, where the practical and intentional skills of craft distinguish between people, the expression and exploration of emotions overcomes difference and unites both creator and audience. 

Plato’s demeaning of art and craft in relation to philosophy and Collingwood’s demeaning of ‘pseudo-art’ and craft in relation to the philosophy and practice of ‘art proper’ disguised their religious purpose.

Where Plato argued the knowledge of and unity with the elements of stasis through contemplation – which underlies Collingwood’s ‘The Philosophy of Art’ – Collingwood also argued another current much less developed in Plato’s philosophy but developed in that of Plotinus – knowledge of self and unity with others in stasis (the greatest activity in the greatest stillness)15 via the expression and exploration of emotions.

What Plato hoped for of philosophy, Collingwood hoped for of philosophically informed art – that they might counter the ills they perceived in their societies – ultimately the ‘ill’ of change.16 What was a quarrel between philosophy and poetry for Plato Collingwood rebadged as that between philosophical art and twentieth century capitalist society. In effect, for the two, it was a ‘quarrel’ between the advocacy for religious stasis or for the contradictoriness, change and complexity of life. The most intellectually stimulating creative production is that which aesthetically reproduces the latter.



1.Art is … distinguished from handicraft. The first is called free, the other may be called industrial art. We look on the former as something which could only prove final (be a success) as play, i.e. an occupation which is agreeable on its own account; but on the second as labour, i.e. a business, which on its own account is disagreeable (drudgery), and is only attractive by means of what it results in (e.g. the pay), and which is consequently capable of being a compulsory imposition.’ Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Judgement, trans. James Creed Meredith, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1988, 164

2. ‘Religion has not yet been explored in connection with Plato’s aesthetics to the degree that it should, even though a religious orientation informs what (Plato) has to say about beauty, inspiration, and imitation. … Perhaps Plato’s aesthetics will come together more satisfactorily within Plato’s theology. The question is worth pursing, especially now, for scholarship of recent decades has much advanced the study of Greek religion, providing unprecedented resources for an inquiry into how religious elements enter Plato’s claims about beauty and art.’ Nickolas Pappas, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy/Plato’s Aesthetics. Guthrie correctly referred to Plato as a ‘philosophical theologian’, William K.C. Guthrie, A History of Greek Philosophy, The Sophists, Cambridge University Press, 1971, 247; Collingwood wrote ‘Every philosophy has a God’ Robin. G. Collingwood, Religion and Philosophy, Thoemmes Press, (1916) 1994, 19 and ‘Religion … lies at the very heart of civilisation.’ quoted in David Boucher, The social and political thought of R.G. Collingwood, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1989, 236

3. ‘art unites us with God … It unites subject with object (the unification of the self with God) and the mind discovers its true nature as the creator not only of imaginary worlds but of the real world. The life of the spirit is thus a dialectic whose three terms are art, religion, and thought, or the beautiful, the holy and the true. And the place of art in this life is the place of a foundation and starting point. All else grows out of it, and is a differentiation of it. The life of the spirit is always and eternally a life of art’ Robin G. Collingwood, ‘The Philosophy of Art’ in The Philosophy of Enchantment, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 2005, 79-80, ‘The union with God thus attained does not deprive the individual of all activity. Rather it directs and makes more fruitful and potent this activity’ Robin G. Collingwood, Religion and Philosophy, op. cit., 29

4. ‘Great’ with regard to what has been created and the energy expended on them. On the impact of apophaticism see William Franke’s groundbreaking two volume anthology On What Cannot Be Said, University of Notre Dame Press, Indiana, 2007 which traces its history in the West through the writing of its greats in philosophy, religion, literature and the arts. Mark Cheetham has written on its impact on the advent of modernism in the visual arts. Mark Cheetham, The Rhetoric of Purity, Essentialist Theory and the Advent of Abstract Painting, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1991.

5. In coming to know his emotions (through his art) the artist comes ‘to dominate them, to assert himself as their master.’ He has taken ‘an indispensable step’ towards ‘the life of morality’ ‘He has learnt to acquire by his own efforts a new set of mental endowments. That is an accomplishment which must be learnt first, if later he is to acquire by his own effort mental endowments whose possession will bring him nearer to his moral ideal.’ Robin. G. Collingwood, The Principles of Art, Clarendon, Oxford, (1937) 1967, 291

6. For Plato the philosopher was a ruler and guide, for Collingwood, the artist-philosopher a prophet. The Principles of Art, op. cit., 336

7. Republic 601a

8. Robin G. Collingwood, ‘The Philosophy of Art’ in The Philosophy of Enchantment op. cit., 76

9. Ibid., 49

10. the artist’s activity is a mystery to himself … In a word, he feels himself inspired. … This universal experience is expressed sometimes by saying that the artist is inspired by gods, sometimes by ascribing the origin of art to the unconscious mind … The artist who feels himself inspired feels that the aesthetic activity which goes on in him is not his activity; consequently his correct attitude towards it is not to work hard in the attempt to promote it, but to place himself passively at its disposal.’ Ibid., 57-58

11. Ibid., 60. In The Principles of Art, the book he began with ‘I do not think of aesthetic theory as an attempt to investigate and expound eternal verities concerning the nature of an eternal object called Art’ vi, Collingwood wrote ‘If we go back to the Greek, we find that there is no connection at all between beauty and art’ 37 and ‘aesthetic theory is the theory not of beauty but of art. The theory of beauty, if instead of being brought (as it rightly was by Plato) into connection with the theory of love it is brought into connection with aesthetic theory, is merely an attempt to construct an aesthetic on a “realistic” basis’ 41. In his application of Platonic then Neoplatonic philosophising to art and craft, he was likewise utterly contradictory with regard to the requirement for and tuition of technique (by the most Academic methods) and on the subject of the depiction of likeness – ‘The essence of a portrait is that it does not narrate, it copies.’, ‘The Philosophy of Art’ in The Philosophy of Enchantment op. cit., 68. His expressionist position on this matter is consistent with what Porphyry wrote of Plotinus – that he would not allow a portrait (‘an image of the image’) to be painted of him.

12. Robin. G. Collingwood, Religion and Philosophy, op. cit., 167

13. Plotinus, The Enneads, trans. Stephen MacKenna, Penguin, London, 1991, 54 1.6.9

14. Ion 533e-534d Plato almost never referred to the imitative and divinely inspired types of poetry together – it is as if they are two different accounts of poetry.

15. The One in The Enneads

16. Collingwood wrote of the insatiable craving for amusement and of ‘The decay of our civilisation, a whole world of men, shadows themselves … we are imprisoned in ourselves, becalmed in a windless selfishness.’ The Principles of Art op. cit., 335 In ‘Man Goes Mad’ (1936) he wrote ‘It will be contended in the following pages that what we are now witnessing is not a minor ailment of our civilisation … but its death.’, in The Philosophy of Enchantment op. cit., 306, ‘we know that our civilisation has in it a sickness of the mind, a morbid craving for excitement, a hyperaesthesia of emotion, for which it offers no cure. There is a cure, if only we could get it: the deep, primitive, almost unconscious emotion of the man who, wrestling with the earth, sees the labour of his hands and is satisfied.’ Ibid., 335


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