Review of The Philosophical Lectures of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Ed. Kathleen Coburn.

[“Coleridge as Philosopher.” Review article on The Philosophical Lectures of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Ed. Kathleen Coburn. Queen's Quarterly 57 (1950): 69-78.]


On December 14th, 1818, Samuel Taylor Coleridge delivered in the Crown and Anchor Tavern in the Strand the first of a course of lectures on the history of philosophy.  This lecture had been postponed a week owing to the death of Queen Charlotte; the second lecture was postponed for a bank holiday, and the seventh through illness; but the whole course was completed with the fourteenth lecture on March 29th, 1819.  By one of those affectionate acts of forethought with which Coleridge’s burdens of anxiety, poverty, and physical incapacity were from time to time lightened, John Frere hired an experienced parliamentary shorthand writer to make a verbatim report of the lectures.  The report was to help Coleridge bring the lectures to publication.  Although Coleridge mentioned the project with enthusiasm in February, 1819, he seems later to have regarded the notes as incomplete and unusable and may never have seen the final transcript.  Frere gave the copy to J. H. Green, Coleridge’s literary executor, but Green found it unsuitable as it stood; it then passed in succession to Derwent and E. H. Coleridge, both of whom reached the same conclusion after doing some editorial work on the notes.  By the 1930’s the transcript seemed to have disappeared; but Miss Coburn found it again in the collection of the late Reverend G. H. B. Coleridge, and from it has reconstructed the lectures.  No shorthand report of Lectures I and XIV survives: these are represented in the text by newspaper reports, a short MS. report, and Coleridge’s own lecture notes.  The text of Lectures II-XIII Miss Coburn has recovered by collating the shorthand report with unpublished notebooks and manuscripts, the profusely annotated volumes of Tennemann’s Geschichte der Philosophie, a brief series of MS. reports, and Coleridge’s published works – particularly Biographia Literaria, The Friend, and the posthumous Theory of Life.  Precise, respectful, and economical editing has extricated from these materials a remarkably continuous and readable text.

Coleridge’s hope of earning some money by his Philosophical Lectures was disappointed.  But the lectures are not hackwork; he had long considered the problems of a history of philosophy, and made detailed and conscientious preparation for his lectures.  By the turn of the century has was expressing dissatisfaction with the work of Brücker and Enfield; by 1815 Stanley’s folio had come under similar strictures; and not even Tennemann, whose twelve volumes supplied most of the factual skeleton and much argumentative resistance for the Lectures, escaped Coleridge’s disapproval.  In 1815 Coleridge had sent Daniel Stuart an outline of his Logosophia, the first book of which was to be devoted to a history of philosophy.  The same scheme in modified form is repeated to Stuart the following year; and in the 1818 riffaciamento of The Friend the substance of the Prospectus of the Lectures makes its first appearance in print.  So at least one part of Coleridge’s philosophical opus maximum reached coherent completion.

After J. H. Green had struggled for years to reconstruct Coleridge’s philosophical system, his editor pronounced that “the existence of any such work was mere matter of moon-shine”; and Dykes Campbell, Coleridge’s most sensitive biographer, was content non-committally to repeat Simon’s gibe.  E. K. Chambers closes his hostile biography with a familiar but facile insinuation: “So Coleridge passed, leaving a handful of golden poems, an emptiness in the heart of a few friends, and a will-o’-the-wisp light for bemused thinkers.”  A few Coleridgeans have made steps towards the exposition of Coleridge’s philosophy, but no philosopher of the first rank has taken Coleridge’s work seriously.  Croce can find only half-a-sentence for him in the Estetica; Russell dismisses him in a footnote; even Whitehead seems not to have considered his published work with care.

Was Coleridge a philosopher?  Or is his metaphysicising to be regarded as at best an amiable lapse, the rickety offspring of a debilitated poetic imagination?  Did that “habit of abstruse research” which ran from his Christ’s Hospital days to the Dejection Ode and occupied much of the last thirty years of his life – did that bear no fruit worth recovering from the amused scorn of some of his contemporaries and most of ours?  These questions spring to mind before we can even open the pages of a substantial philosophical text by Coleridge.

If Coleridge had something valuable to communicate in philosophy why was it not discovered and vindicated long ago?  One reason is that the materials for judging Coleridge as philosopher are still scanty; and those previously available were fragmentary and lacked the orderly appearance expected of works of philosophy.  Biographia Literaria is, on the philosophical side, incomplete and in Coleridge’s view immature.  The Friend has not commended itself to those who prefer their essays easy of digestion.  Aids to Reflection had some popularity in its day, but its preoccupation with theology restricts its influence.  Miss Snyder’s Coleridge on Logic and Learning prints valuable manuscript materials, but its exposition suffers from excessive caution.  Coleridge as literary critic is permanently established: as philosopher he is little known.  Not because he is negligible, but because he left his eggs ostrich-wise for others to hatch.  The bold comprehensiveness of his mind defies the casual editor and the mechanical indexer.  The problems of reconstructing these lectures are typical of those that beset all Coleridge scholarship.  And those problems clamorously need solving: for there is method in Coleridge’s mind, a method which escapes us, not because it is esoteric but because it is synthesising and all-embracing – the method of “the shaping Spirit of Imagination”.  These problems are to be solved only by a sympathetic and intrepid scholarship which rejects irrelevant formulae of interpretation.  This edition of the Philosophical Lectures of 1818 supplies something we have never had before – a continuous projection of Coleridge’s mind engaged in wide philosophical inquiry.

Can a history of philosophy be treated as an ordering of ‘facts’ as other kinds of history purport to be?  Coleridge thought not.  To analyse the common invocation to fact raises some awkward questions about knowing, judging, and evaluating; yet “in an age which labours under the very contrary disease to that of the scholastic age . . . none that I have been able to ascertain knew what the meaning of the word ‘fact’ is, or how it is possible for a man to know how, out of an immense number of circumstances, to decide that one is ‘the fact’, unless he had asked himself simply first, for what he was looking.”  A history of philosophers might be one thing; a history of philosophy was something very different, for it could no more absolve itself of moral judgements than any other kind of human history.  ‘Ethical neutrality’ may be a convenient intellectual discipline, but it too easily leads to academic and political irresponsibility.  Philosophical ‘conclusions’ isolated from the processes which have discovered, tested, and affirmed them are not philosophy – no matter how gnomic or suggestive.  In 1797 Coleridge laid out a scheme of preparation for writing a great epic.

 I would be a tolerable Mathematician, I would thoroughly know Mechanics, Hydrostatics, Optics, and Astronomy, Medicine – then the mind of man – then the minds of men – in all Travels, Voyages and Histories… So I would write haply not unhearing of that divine and rightly-whispering Voice, which speaks to mighty minds of predestinated Garlands, starry and unwithering.

Coleridge never wrote the epic, but in his own time and in his own way he followed that plan and listened for that Voice.  A history of philosophy would be a succession of “facts of mind” – he had coined the phrase in 1796: it could be brought to life only by a single mind entering sensitively and sympathetically into “the minds of men”, guided by comprehensive and flexible principles of interpretation.

Coleridge’s chief quarrel with Tennemann was that his interpretation was too rigidly limited by a too rigid Kantian-ism – “so solemnly does Tennemann wave the plumbe and Sceptre of literal Kantism!  The Rote of a Parrot caged in the Study of that great Modern” – and serious distortions had occurred which could not be rectified by a uniform allowance for the author’s personal aberration.  Coleridge’s principles of interpretation are implied in the complicated title of the Prospectus:

A Course of Lectures, Historical & Biographical, on the Rise & Progress, the Changes & Fortunes, of Philosophy, from Thales and Pythagoras to the Present Times; the Lives & succession of the distinguished teachers in each sect; the connection of philosophy with general civilisation; and, more especially, its relation to the history of Christianity, and to the opinions, language, and manners of Christendom, at different aeras, and in different nations.

Logical subtleties and metaphysical trains of argument were to be excluded; the lectures were addressed to persons qualified only by “a due interest in questions of deepest concern to all”, persons “whose acquaintance with the History of Philosophy would commence with their attendance on the Course”.  Coleridge may have been mistaken in eschewing metaphysics in this course: but the actual performance does not disprove the intuition which would have guided an ideal performance.  He was right to hope for a certain lack of sophistication in his audience; for he wished to reveal a pattern of intense simplicity and enormous scope, “one and the same in all forms of philosophy”.  A mind orientated upon rigid presuppositions would be little inclined to consider the history of philosophy “as if it were the striving of a single mind . . . so that each change and every new direction should have its cause and its explanation in the errors, insufficiency, or prematurity of the preceding, while all by reference to a common object is reduced to harmony of impression and total result.”

The plan falls into two equal parts.  In the first seven lectures Coleridge gives “the history of the human mind in pursuit of Philosophy, or the discovery of the origin and primary laws of the natural world, the moral world, and the human understanding”.  He traces this process to the breakdown of philosophy under Justinian, when philosophy became among the higher classes a substitute for religion.  Before the birth of Christ, he concludes, “all [that] philosophy could do or has done had been really achieved, and as well achieved, if philosophy is confined to the meaning I give it, by the efforts of the reason itself, as it has ever since been done”.  The second seven lectures are concerned to show “the reappearance of philosophy no longer as the substitute, or as the guide [for religion], but either as the mark or the direct antagonist of the same”.  The final cause of philosophy was “to prepare the way for religion”: but religion and philosophy are complementary – “religion never can be philosophy, because the only true philosophy proposes religion as its end and supplement; so on the other hand there can be no true religion without philosophy, no true feelings and notions of religion among men at large without just notions of philosophy in the higher classes”.  In pursuing this distinction he seeks to discover the limits to which the unaided human reason may be pressed, to determine the function of knowledge, to indicate the interrelations of knowing and believing.  Coleridge’s later conception of the term Reason would not commend itself to a narrowly ‘rationalistic’ age.  A slight accident of emphasis, of preparation, or of physical circumstance might well have made him one of the most brilliant scientists of his time.  He brings to his philosophical inquiry a mind stored with an exceptional range of knowledge.  He has an unerring eye for the germinal idea, the essential detail; his knowledge is shaped and assimilated by the patient quietness of long gestation.  The greatness of that “hooded eagle among blinking owls” is his ability to suddenly penetrate below disparities in language and the opaque surface of chronology to reveal hitherto unrecognised relations.

To “the modern sceptic” – and Coleridge uses the term with withering contempt – his second theme may seem to carry us beyond the just limits of philosophy.  It is worth noticing, however, that he develops it through an examination of the Neoplatonists, the Schoolmen and Alchemists, Erasmus and Luther, Bacon, Behmen, Bruno, and Kepler, the rise of nineteenth century materialism and the scientific philosophy; Liebnitz is briefly considered, but Kant and Schelling are not discussed at length.  And at the end it would seem that, for all his firm grasp of the minutiae of his material, his purpose has been not so much dogmatic as huristic.  He might almost have been working consciously to Reinecke’s dictum that every age is equidistant from eternity.  Here we find no cyclical schema, none of the condescension that so often accompanies the exposition of teleological process.  The mind, he seems to say, does not advance, does not progress: it is centripetal, seeking a centre of value from which to determine the limits of significant human endeavour and knowledge.  For, he counsels, “we must learn to search and know our internal selves”: the end of that search of “our inward goings-on” is “to reconcile all the powers of our nature into one harmony and to gather that harmony round the cradle of the moral will”.

Throughout the lectures Coleridge had in mind a germ clarified by, if not picked up in, Goethe: that there are two kinds of men – the Aristotelian and the Platonist; or the partial and the integrated man, the obscurantist and the man of faith and vision.  He recognises two primary psychic organisations, two patterns of thought, of response, even of perception.  There is no doubt on which side Coleridge stands, despite his admiration for Bacon and Kepler and for the sciences achieving eminence in his own time.  In his concern for the contemporary conflicts – revolution and ministerial oppression, unbridled industrial ‘progress’ and social cruelty – he saw that widening schism in the mind which breeds aridity and apathy.  As a young man he had renounced Hartley’s mechanism to range himself for a short time with Berkeley, the first penetrating analyst of scientific presuppositions.  Then by way of the Schoolmen he arrived at Kant, with the cast of whose mind he felt uneasy long before he found the root of his unrest.  Now he takes a yet wider view, embracing philosophy, science, history, comparative religion, psychology, to anticipate views which in our own time have gathered way only slowly since the work of Bergson and Whitehead.

This, however, suggests rather what the Philosophical Lectures might have been than what they are.  Perhaps one has to read them with a sensitive eye to detect the pure gold.  To explain that Coleridge lectured under difficulties, that there was no definite prospect of publication, that Biographia Literaria had just dropped still-born from the press, that he was beset by ill-health and financial anxiety, that he was caught by a difficult theme between his own intractable style and the desire to make himself intelligible – to explain these difficulties will not provide us with the lectures Coleridge was capable of giving.  His editor does not conceal that the Lectures do not make either easy or attractive reading.  Coleridge regarded the tenth lecture as the worst he had ever given.  There are tracts of unclarified generalisation, and when his mind flags there is needless obscurity.  The analysis of Kant and Schelling was announced, elaborately postponed, and then dismissed – though for very good reason.  Coleridge was not unaware of the incorrigible involuteness of his prose style.  In the lectures we come upon no immortal passages like the account of imagination in Biographia Literaria.  Yet we are convinced of acuteness and originality of the highest order; we watch a mind move in regions unfamiliar and seldom accessible yet guided by the specificity of the poet’s eye.

Miss Coburn has edited a complicated and difficult text with unobtrusive thoroughness.  The Introduction is compact and astringent.  Sensitive appreciation of Coleridge’s thought and a steady critical energy prevent the editor from indulging those uncontrolled extrapolations to which the exponent of an unjustly neglected author is sometimes liable.  Miss Coburn’s notations not only clarify abstruse allusiveness and lacunae in the original, but at times recover the intonation of voice which more than once fascinated even the shorthand writer out of his work.  Her exceptional knowledge of Coleridge is turned to elucidating the text, leaving the reader’s mind open to receive without dogmatic bias what is in the original.  Convinced that Coleridge at his best cannot fail to make his point, she is content to stand back with Coleridge’s own apology:

“Instead of a covey of poetic partridges with whirring wings of music . . . up came a metaphysical bustard, urging its slow, heavy, laborious, earth-skimming flight over dreary and level wastes.”  The reader will feel at times that he is following a metaphysical bustard and crossing some deserts; it can be promised him, however, that he will come upon the sacred river and, now and then, the measureless caverns.  In addition . . . the journey will take him close to “the animating principle” . . . of one of the great minds, not only of England and not only of his own time, but of a mind that makes one think of the greatest, of Goethe and Leonardo.

For in these lectures Coleridge’s purpose is less narrowly didactic than a summary can suggest.  In the end he supplies no formula, no ‘answers’.  He wishes us to appreciate that the permanent values cluster in a constantly shifting here-and-now, and that the permanence of those values for each of us depends upon our ability to create them in the flux of the human situation.  Quite simply, he wishes us to see.  By processes of great delicacy and patience he seeks to desynonymise words and ideas until their tyranny is gone, and the instruments of tyranny.  He seeks to sketch out and teach respect for the limits of reason and faith, so that the intellect and “the moral will” may take their just place in the integrated person.  His single imperative is “Know thyself”; his guiding principles that “Extremes meet” and that “the way up and the way down are one and the same”.  For he sees that the end of true knowledge is not power, but awareness.