R. G. Collingwood


Historical Imagination

With his contemporary, the philosopher R. G. Collingwood, Barfield would agree that history is a process in which man creates for himself this or that kind of human nature by recreating in his own thought the past to which he is heir" (quoted in RM 258).

Barfield has stressed his desire "not to think about the past, as it were, but to look at it," and this can be done best through the medium of language, for words may well be "the best telescopes" for seeing the past (HEW 21). Such a "looking back" is what Barfield means by historical imagination: "the habit of mind which endeavors to approach a past epoch by seeing the world through its eyes instead of seeing it through the eyes of the twentieth century" (RM 238).1 "In assessing the contribution of [a past] epoch to the history of human consciousness," Barfield counsels, we must always 'refrain from judging it by later standards--especially if the creation of those standards is part of the very contribution to be assessed" (RM 238).

Barfield is under no illusion about the difficulty of acquiring such a habit of mind. As he admits in Saving the Appearances,"To depict the kind of consciousness which prevailed at still earlier periods requires, it seems to me, a different method and a different terminology. It may well also demand the extension of historical imagination into a manner of clairvoyance" (105). But he has remained confident since the publication of his first book about the success of our mission: "For while the nineteenth century spends itself prodigally in multitudinous endeavors to know what the past was, it is now possible for us, by penetrating language with the knowledge thus accumulated, to feel how the past is" (HEW 21).

See in particular History in English Words, passim.
1In "The Rediscovery of Allegory (II)," Barfield provides a fine example of the failure to use historical imagination by quoting art historian E. H. Gombrich on our understanding of the art of earlier eras:
    We cannot but look at the art of the past through the wrong end of the telescope. We come to Giotto on the long road which leads from the impressionists back via Michelangelo and Masaccio, and what we see first in him is therefore not lifelikeness but rigid restraint and majestic aloofness. (106)