He defines metaphysics as the historical science of absolute presuppositions. An absolute presupposition, like it sounds, is a "presupposition... which stands, relatively to all questions to which it is related, as a presupposition, never as an answer" (31). We must presuppose certain things absolutely if we are to continue thinking at all. The study of absolute presuppositions, however, must be accomplished through historical study. This is "because the question is not one that can be settled by introspection alone. Introspection can do no more than bring into the focus of consciousness something of which we are already aware" (43). This is why the study of absolute presuppositions, metaphysics, must be a historical science. If we want to know the absolute presuppositions of our own thought, or of other thought, we must be willing to compare our mode of thinking to other's. "It is only when a man's historical consciousness has reached a certain point of maturity," Collingwood asserts, " that he realizes how very different have been the ways in which different sets of people have thought. When a man first begins looking into absolute presuppositions it is likely that he will begin by looking into those which are made in his own time by his own countrymen, or at any rate by persons belonging to some group of which he is a member" (56). Thus, it should be clear that"Every metaphysical question either is simply the question what absolute presuppositions were made on a certain occasion, or is capable of being resolved into a number of such questions together with a further question of further questions arising out of these" (49). And this study of absolute presuppositions must be accomplished through historical study.
This is difficult to think about personally, however. How I discover my own absolute presuppositions and how do I go about thinking once I have discovered them? I wrote this last night while i was very tired. 'How to know what one absolutely presupposes and still continue thinking? I was brushing my teeth, thinking about my body, water, and heartburn. I presuppose absolutely that my body can be exposed to germs, that my stomach is full of acid that might cause me pain, that Tums will make me feel better. Yet I continue to think. I struggle with this idea of knowing an AP and continuing to think.' How to study your absolute presuppositions and yet continue to think?
Well, I think that last night I was aware of my absolute presuppositions but I was still thinking. As I said, I had heartburn, and I immediately thought 'oh I'll eat some Tums'. That thought absolutely presupposes the existence of stomach acid and the capacity of Tums to quell the stomach acid that has been irritated. I washed my hands after I used the toilet, which absolute presupposes the existence of germs. I went to brush my teeth and I was careful not to touch the bristles of the brush, because I knew that if I touched that part it would go into my mouth and germs might get into my mouth. Absolutely presupposing the relationship between germs and illness. So, in that case, last night, I felt like I was thinking about my absolute presuppositions, yet still letting them do the business of structuring my thought. I still followed all those thoughts, performed all those actions, but I was aware of my absolute presuppositions.
This type of historical work on absolute presuppositions, that is, metaphysical work, can never be "carried to completion, for it is a work which in the nature of it can never be complete, but done as required, piece by piece, when the need arises" (85). So what am I to do with this work, then? If metaphysics is a constant project, what is its purpose? What is it to help me do if I can never complete it?
Well, I think that the task of metaphysics is really to help us pay attention better. Collingwood explains how scientist's can fail to make a certain observation if they are 'too clever'. That metaphysics ultimately deals with the "simple and familiar, visible to the eyes of a child, and perhaps hidden from clever men because they are too clever" (172). One might be so wrapped up in a constellation of absolute presuppositions and the conclusions that it leads us to that we are entirely ignorant of our presupposing at all. Absolute presuppositions, however, are indispensable. They are the basic constituents of thought and "unless we have them already arguing is impossible to us" (173).
So if we can't get rid of our absolute presuppositions, what are we to do with our knowledge of them? Well, like I hinted above, I think that metaphysical study can be an aid to mindfulness. If we know what we are presupposing absolutely we open ourselves up to different types of observation. We can then be sure that we are not being too clever, having an obvious reality hidden from us by a certain absolute presuppositions. If we know what we presuppose absolutely we can examine reality more easily.
His conclusions in that Essay are much like Foucault's in The Order Of Things. Thats why I was able to write about Foucault as enabling a mindfulness. There is a lot to be said for historical study and the cultivation of mindfulness.
This explication of Collingwood is merely a part of my idea of Modern Zen, in which mindfulness is achieved by embracing historical ontological study.
More will be said of this in Part IV.4 of AZI, I suspect.
I've got lots to say about these issues of history, philosophy, self-knowledge, mindfulness, etc..