Philosophy and Literature (Collingwood)

I am hip-deep in course prep.  As I try to do each term, I took a few minutes today to review Collingwood’s Essay on Philosophical Method.  Collingwood’s next-to-last chapter is “Philosophy as a Branch of Literature” and he provides some very useful helps for students and teachers there (and passim of course).

The language of philosophy is therefore, as every careful reader of the great philosophers already knows, a literary language and not a technical.  Wherever a philosopher uses a term requiring formal definition, as distinct from…expositional definition…, the intrusion of a non-literary element into his language corresponds with the intrusion of a non-philosophical element into his thought:  a fragment of science, a piece of inchoate philosophizing, or a philosophical error; three things not, in such a case, easily to be distinguished.

The duty of the philosopher as a writer is therefore to avoid the technical vocabulary proper to science, and to choose his words according to the rules of literature.  His terminology must have that expressiveness, that flexibility, that dependence upon context, which are the hallmarks of a literary use of words as opposed to a technical use of symbols.

A corresponding duty rests with the reader of philosophical literature, who must remember that he is reading a language and not a symbolism.  He must neither think that his author is offering a verbal definition when he is making some statement about the essence of a concept–a fertile source of sophistical criticisms–nor complain when nothing resembling such a definition is given; he must expect philosophical terms to express their own meaning in the way in which they are used, like words of ordinary speech.  He must not expect one word always to mean one thing in the sense that its meaning undergoes no kind of change; he must expect philosophical terminology, like all language, to be always in the process of development, and he must recollect that this, so far from making it harder to understand, is what makes it able to express its own meaning instead of being incomprehensible apart from definitions, like a collection of rigid and therefore artificial technical terms.

I commend the essay and especially its penultimate chapter to all.

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