Romantic Possibilities

We may trace something of the cultural shift from the Enlightenment to Romanticism in microcosm in the story of Coleridge's early years. The French Revolution brought the troublesome fact of evil squarely before the face of an optimistic philosophy: what started as the overthrow of ancient irrationalism by a new polity built on reason degenerated into the Terror; and the proud proclamation of liberty and equality that removed a king resulted only in an emperor. Coleridge, like others, was disillusioned; his hymn to the success of "glad liberty" in "The Destruction of the Bastille" gave way to his plea to Freedom in "France: An Ode": "forgive me that I cherished / One thought that ever blessed your cruel foes!"3 With political disillusionment, however, came also philosophical dissatisfaction. Coleridge was learning, like the other early Romantics, to feel the strength and mystery of life, nature, and even art, and so the Enlightened attempt to explain such things as deterministic mechanisms composed of levers and pulleys began to appear not just wrong but also deeply unpleasant.4

Such intuitions inspired the new artistic forms that are the glories of Romanticism, but they bring with them philosophical difficulties. Coleridge saw these latent problems more clearly than many and sought to address them. The world was being understood in mechanistic terms, and empirical data seemed to support this mechanical understanding; gloriously in the case of the advances being made in the sciences, but less so in the social and political spheres in France. If space were to be found for human freedom and life, with all the rich resonance the Romantics wanted that word to carry, a breach would have to be made in this imposing, if now unsatisfying, philosophical edifice. Coleridge's attempts to make that breach are bound up with his advocacy of, and borrowings from, the new German philosophy with which his name became linked for a time in England.5 The critical philosophy of Immanuel Kant had removed the possibility of extrapolating from sense-data to noumenal reality, by consigning all sensedata to the phenomenal sphere. Clearly, if this could be upheld, and a satisfying way of insisting on the possibilities of speaking truthfully about noumenal reality on other grounds be found, the problem was solved. Mechanics might describe the way the world appears, but Romantic intuitions grasp how it really is. Kant's own attempt to construct a positive metaphysics, to speak with content about the noumenal, was centered on what he termed the "practical reason" - reason operating in the moral realm. This concept was borrowed and transformed by Coleridge, whose most basic epistemological distinction is that between reason and understanding. At one point, he writes in a letter, "My philosophy (as metaphysics) is built on the distinction between the Reason and the Understanding. He who, after fairly attending to my exposition of the point ... can still find no meaning in this distinction ... for him the perusal of my philosophical writings, at least, will be a mere waste of time."6

This assertion has been regularly quoted, but its meaning has been too often missed. Coleridge here links his metaphysical program with an episte-mological distinction; indeed, he insists that the former is "built" on the latter. In examining Coleridge's thought we may identify metaphysics with theology, at least approximately, and so, taking Coleridge at his word, assume that we will only be able to comprehend his theological scheme if we first understand his account of epistemology.

Understanding, then, is "a Faculty judging according to sense,"7 which is to say the human mind operating in the phenomenal realm. Some animals have the faculty of understanding, according to Coleridge.8 Understanding may be analyzed into three parts: appropriation of attention, abstraction, and generalization.9 Just so, the understanding can only ever be concerned with symbols -words, names, and images - and never with the thing in itself. It deals with empirical data, and so all natural science lies within its sphere, as the subject entirely built on empirical data. To attempt to apply the understanding to a metaphysical or theological question is simply to make a category mistake. This was Coleridge's dismissive answer to any supposed "Evidences for Christianity."10

To deal with the Ding an sich we need to apply a different mental faculty, that of reason. Reason is, for Coleridge, the faculty of moral and noumenal judgment which comprehends those things that are universal and necessary; its object may be exemplified by mathematical truth.11 He borrows a definition from Jacobi, to the effect that "Reason bears the same relationship to spiritual objects, the Universal, the Eternal and the Necessary, as the eye bears to material and contingent phenomena."12 Truths of the reason carry an implicit "ought," so that in being believed, they demand to be obeyed. Thus far he has not gone beyond the German transcendental tradition.

Coleridge offers an at-first-sight-obscure reflection on how those things that are proper objects of the reason appear to the understanding in the Aids to Reflection.13 First, the thing will be "inconceivable," as conception is the work of the understanding; and, second, it will only appear as two contradictory conceptions when judged by the understanding. No doubt there are echoes of Kant's antinomies here, but why should Coleridge insist on such an unlikely point? It seems that he needs this point to make reason do more than Kant ever could. Only by this move can Coleridge assert what he wants to, that reason may penetrate the noumenal barrier and know things as they are, not merely as they appear to be to the understanding.

Importantly, Coleridge insists on an addition to Jacobi's definition (quoted above): "it must be added, that [reason] is an organ identical with its appropriate objects." This might sound merely comical until Coleridge substitutes "Logos" for "reason." Coleridge used this word in full awareness of its various nuances,14 and sought to gather up all the richness of the concept in his own usage. The Logos is the primal idea in the mind of God, as the Stoics taught;15 it is the rational principle of the universe, the nous of the Pythagoreans;16 it is the mediating principle between God and his creation, as taught by Philo;17 it is God the Son, who was incarnate in Jesus Christ. The reason is at once the presence of God in each human person, and the ultimate ground of reality.

The idea of the moral force of reason, borrowed from Kant, now has a new complexion: if the reason is indeed the presence of God in the person by the Logos, then any dictate of the reason is bound to be framed in the imperative. Coleridge regularly describes conversion in just these terms, the aligning of the will with the reason, the Logos.18 Further, it is clearly inappropriate to talk of "human reason"; Reason is one, the Logos.19 Each of us is already joined to the divine Logos, and so our assent to revelation, to the truths of metaphysics, is not properly described as either subjective or objective. Rather, we discover that within us is already a connectedness to ultimate (noumenal) reality.

The purpose behind Coleridge's insistence on the contradictory nature of truths of reason when viewed by the understanding should now be clear. Kant uses the faculty of reason to preserve space for human freedom in the face of a mechanistic philosophy, but he does this by (effectively) denying the possibility of metaphysics: the poverty of the Critique of Practical Reason and (particularly) the Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone is notorious. Coleridge desires to be far more positive about the possibilities for metaphysical knowledge than Kant, but in so doing opens himself to the possibility of weakening or destroying the foundations of the epistemology he is borrowing: his positive metaphysical proposals are apparently in danger of undermining the negative phenomenal judgment on empiricism that he has borrowed. However, having asserted that truths of reason are simply inconceivable to the understanding, he can retain Kant's negative point (that empiricism is insufficient evidence for the metaphysical claims made by mechanistic philosophy) whilst asserting, on the basis of a doctrine of the indwelling Logos, much more positive metaphysics than Kant felt able to.20 Like Schleiermacher, Coleridge saw that within the new worlds opened up by Romanticism there were possibilities for a revival of Christian piety.

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