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Collingwood and anthropology as a historical science

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This paper explores R.G. Collingwood's argument that a new type of archaeology, taking fairy tales as its subject matter, is capable of expanding our historical knowledge of cultural practices. I suggest that it is interesting from the point of view of current discussions about cosmopolitanism and communitarianism and also for understanding past practices, such as magic, without having to attribute failure of reasoning or a breakdown in mentality to the participants, as Le Roy Ladurie does. Collingwood maintains that the natural sciences are unsuitable models for the human sciences. They are incapable of distinguishing between the inside and outside of an event. They do not acknowledge that a historical process is very different from a natural process. In addition, the natural sciences cannot take account of the self-critical or criteriological aspect of thought. Human sciences are criteriological in that they are capable of taking individuals who formulate intentions and purposes, and employ criteria to judge the extent to which they succeed or fail. Thought is self-critical, and to say that a certain thought conforms to a type of neurosis is to ignore its criteriological character. The implication is that when magic is viewed as bad science, or a failure in rationality, the criteriological character of magical thought is being denied. When magic is understood as an integral part of fairy tales and as a practice designed to arouse specific emotions to be channelled into practical effects, such as to inspire courage in warriors in battle, its character as purposive and intentional thought is being acknowledged.

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: School of European Studies, Cardiff University, PO Box 908, CF10 3YQ.. Email:

Publication date: January 1, 2002


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