Collingwood on philosophical writing

‘Every piece of philosophical writing is primarily addressed by the writer to himself. Its purpose is not to select from among his thoughts those of which he is certain and to express those, but the very opposite: to fasten upon the difficulties and obscurities in which he finds himself involved, and try, if not to solve or remove them, at least to understand them better … The philosophers who have had the deepest instinct for style have repeatedly shrunk from adopting the form of a lecture or instructive address, and chosen instead that of a dialogue … or a meditation … or a dialectical process where the initial position is modified again and again as difficulties in it come to light. The prose-writer’s art is an art that must conceal itself and produce not a jewel that is looked at for its own beauty but a crystal in whose depth the thought can be seen without distortion or confusion; and the philosophical writer in especial follows the trade not of a jeweller but of a lens-grinder. He must never use metaphors or imagery in such a way that they attract to themselves the attention due to his thought; if he does that, he is writing not prose but, whether well or ill, poetry; but he must avoid this not by rejecting all use of metaphors and imagery, but by using them, poetic things themselves, in the domestication of prose: using them just so far as to reveal thought, and no further’.

– R.G. Collingwood, An Essay on Philosophical Method (ed. James Connelly and Giuseppina D’Oro; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 209–214.


  1. This is very interesting. Over the years as a preacher. People have constantly assumed that no one would understand my sermons so I have adopted the opposite of the style that Collingwood suggests, trying to clarify and simplify whatever insights I have at the time. When I try and write other more philosophical stuff I end up doing the same, just not to the same level of simplification and repetition. I am not satisfied with this procedure and feel that it is detrimental both to thinking and style in the end. It makes me wonder whether I have been wrong all along. Thanks for this post.


  2. For myself,it is here that the mind should be soaked with the biblical images. Though I too tend toward the philosophical. That’s just a western thing I guess? But I too have read some Collingwood, though I confess years back now. Jason, would you say that Forsyth had a good balance here? (And yet he so read them Germans?)


  3. Robert: unfortunately, after getting me all excited, it seems that none of those links actually take one anywhere they promise. They are a bit like most politicians, ideologies and religions.


  4. What Collingwood is saying applies to non-philosophical writing as well; novelists often begin a novel in an attempt to come to grips with something they haven’t been able to express previously. The first/second draft can be merely a ‘finding out’ what it is you want to say through the medium of your characters (or sometimes, what *they* want to say!)


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