A warning on fake news from R G Collingwood in 1940

R G Collingwood (1889-1943) was an English philosopher and historian who was obsessed with the rise of communism and state socialism while the sciences were making giant strides. A recurring motif in Collingwood’s later writing is the presence of sinister and destructive forces beneath the surface of civilised life.

In his autobiography he sketched a theory of ‘encapsulation’ to explain the persistence of undesirable attitudes (such as the glorification of violence) despite vigorous attempts to eliminate them. He argued that attempts at censorship or repression are likely to induce in children a fascination with the ‘unacceptable’ impulses and so they survive in a particularly dangerous subconscious form.

One of his central propositions concerns the overwhelming importance of Christianity as the cradle of Western civilisation. In his opinion the mainstream of Christianity provided the framework of metaphysical ideas which made possible the emergence of modern science and liberal democracy as well.

His deepest exploration of the “dark forces” occurs in An Essay on Metaphysics and especially in a chapter titled “The Propaganda of Irrationalism”  on the loss of respect for the truth among academics.

He was concerned with the process that he saw (some decades ago) in courses where the critical faculties of students are systematically destroyed. He first asks us to picture a civilisation where respect for truth is a powerful belief and systematic thinking is prized in intellectual and practical pursuits. Each feature of this civilisation would have characteristics derived from that prevailing habit of mind.

Religion would be predominantly a worship of truth…Philosophy would be predominantly an exposition not merely of the nature of thought, action & etc. but of scientific thought and orderly (principled, thought-out) action, with special attention to method and to the problem of establishing standards by which on reflection truth can be distinguished from falsehood. Politics would be predominantly the attempt to build up a common life by the methods of reason (free discussion, public criticism). Education would be predominantly a method for inducing habits of orderly and systematic thinking. And so on.

And suppose that now within this same civilisation a movement grew up hostile to these fundamental principles…an epidemic disease: a kind of epidemic withering of belief in the importance of truth and in the obligation to think and act in a systematic and methodical way. Such an irrationalist epidemic infecting religion would turn it from a worship of truth to a worship of emotion and a cultivation of certain emotional states…Infecting politics it would substitute for the ideal of orderly thinking in that field the ideal of tangled, immediate, emotional thinking; for the idea of a political thinker as a political leader the idea of a leader focussing and personifying the mass emotions of his community. This movement of thought would need to proceed by stealth because the healthy tissues of thought would strongly resist any open attack on the springs of rationality and scientific thinking.

Let a sufficient number of men whose intellectual respectability is vouched for by their academic position pay sufficient lip-service to the ideals of scientific method, and they will be allowed to teach by example whatever kind of anti-science they like, even if this involves a hardly disguised breach with all the accepted canons of scientific method.

The ease with which this can be done will be much greater if it is done in an academic society where scientific specialisation is so taken for granted that no one dare criticise the work of a man in another faculty. In that case all that is necessary to ensure immunity for the irrationalist agents is that they should put forward their propaganda under the pretence that it is itself a special science, which therefore other scientists will understand that they must not criticise.

Collingwood was concerned about the impact of psychology at that time (pre-1940). Later many other fields possibly led by sociology went down the same track to perform the function he described.

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3 Responses to A warning on fake news from R G Collingwood in 1940

  1. which kind of news are you attacking as “fake”? the left wing news or the right wing news? why?

  2. Alberto Sampaio says:

    Fantastic capability to foreseen. So real…

  3. Alberto Sampaio says:

    “Later many other fields possibly led by sociology”
    it is people from the left, the progres, at least from the 50’s.

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