Coleridge, Hume, and the principles of political knowledge.
--G. W. Hegel, Science of Logic (1)
Being impelled or inspired by an image is not the same as knowing a world. We do not need to postulate a world beyond time which is the home of such images in order to account for their occurrence, or for their effects on conduct.
--Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (2)
THE CONDITIONS OF KNOWLEDGE WERE, FOR S. T. COLERIDGE, THE CONDItions on which the practical affairs of this world were required to stand. What sorts of things counted as knowledge, and how the human mind comes to know certain things, determined both the legitimacy of social structures and the nature of political obligation, In much of his prose, Coleridge denies the autonomy of epistemological discourse, emphasizing instead the necessary connection between how the mind functions, on the one hand, and the validity of particular political arrangements, on the other. This belief in the social reality of what constitutes knowledge led Coleridge to pursue a relatively sustained, at least by Coleridgean standards, analysis of what he calls the "principles of political knowledge," It is under this heading that the political essays of the 1818 The Friend, Coleridge's first real attempt to formulate his own political philosophy systematically, are gathered. Political knowledge, like any other form of knowledge, must satisfy certain conditions if it is to be trusted as any sort of guide in practical affairs, especially those in which the welfare of large numbers of people is concerned, Coleridge's specific interest is in the source of this knowledge, and he thus engages with the faculty psychology of the period (in both its British form and as modified and extended by transcendental thought). The relationships among the various mental faculties form the basis of his theory of political knowledge, just as they form the basis of his literary criticism, his metaphysics, and much of his best poetry.
In this essay, I argue for the centrality of the understanding in Coleridge's mature political thought. A faculty often overlooked in Romantic studies, which tends to focus on the dialectic between reason and the imagination, the understanding is for Coleridge the operative faculty in judging and applying the principles of political knowledge. (3) I first examine Coleridge's relationship to Hume, arguing that Coleridge's rejection of Humean epistemology reveals what is perhaps the most essential aspect of Coleridge's own theory of knowledge, the status of the "idea." The political consequences of Humean epistemology provide more problems for Coleridge, whose ideas of the social contract and political obligation differ sharply from Hume's. I then provide a reading of The Friend (1809-10, 1818), with attention also paid to The Statesman's Manual (1816) and the Lectures on the History of Philosophy (1818-19), pursuing the implications of Coleridge's revaluation of the understanding as the faculty of "suiting measures to circumstances" and the foundation of all political knowledge. (4) The significance accorded to the understanding is shown to have the following related purposes: 1) to address the possibility of metaphysics in the face of Hume's critique of causality; 2) to demonstrate the necessity of the unequal distribution of property; 3) to secure the autonomy of the moral will in the context of political obligation; 4) to establish that a philosophy reliant upon the senses is no longer suited to the material conditions of the nation; and, finally, 5) to define knowledge in such a way as to make room for faith.
The terms of this argument require perhaps some clarification, as "epistemology" is our word, entering the language near the middle of the nineteenth century, and not Coleridge's. The most direct justification for its use is the fact that Coleridge is explicitly concerned with the "principles of political knowledge" in the sense of the grounds or conditions of this knowledge. I argue that the necessary condition of political knowledge is, for Coleridge, a particular configuration, or hierarchy, of the mental faculties under the chairmanship of the understanding. In presenting us with a theory of how the mind functions, Coleridge presents us with a theory of knowledge. The two projects, up until the late nineteenth century, were necessarily connected, if not co-extensive: forming an idea of what constitutes knowledge typically demanded forming an accurate picture of the mind. It is not until Frege's, and then Husserl's, rejection of "psychologism" from philosophy that the two projects formally diverge.
What, then, is given to us in an analysis of "the principles of political knowledge?" Beginning in the fourteenth century, "principle" in English signified much the same as its root (L. principium), i.e. "origin" or "source." "Principle" develops a secondary sense of "general law or rule" in the sixteenth century (a general law or rule "of nature" in the nineteenth) and another sense of "elementary constituent" in the seventeenth century. (5) Coleridge invokes these related meanings of "principle" in The Friend when he speaks of his desire "to refer men to PRINCIPLES in all things" (F 2: 13), to "refer men's opinions to their absolute principles" (F 16); when he speaks of principles as "fundamental truths" (F 19) and "fundamental doctrines" (F 21), of "ABSOLUTE PRINCIPLES or necessary LAWS" (F 157) and "scientific principles (or laws)" (F 462). Coleridge also uses "principle" in The Friend to signify "ground" or "condition:" "a man's principles, on which he grounds his Hope and his Faith, are the life of his life" (F 97); in the important epigraph from Spinoza to be discussed later, "to demonstrate from plain and undoubted principles, or to deduce from the very condition and necessities of human nature, those plans and maxims which best square with practice" (F 166); "the full exposition of a principle which is the condition of all intellectual progress" (F 446); "the grounds and essential principles of their philosophic systems" (F 487); "the condition or principles of method" (F 513), etc. These kinds of principles, then, are quite clearly distinguished from "maxims" or general rules of conduct: "[God] gave us PRINCIPLES, distinguished from the maxims and generalizations of outward experience by their absolute and essential universality and necessity" (F 112). These are, in effect, pure principles, the formal a priori grounds or conditions of knowledge generally. (6)
The other, practical definition of "principle," here a kind of knowledge and not simply one of its conditions, relevant to The Friend is Kantian: "Practical principles (Prinzipen, or Grundsatze)," according to Kant, "are propositions that contain a general determination of the will, having under it several practical rules.'' (7) They are subjective maxims "when the condition is regarded by the subject as holding only for his will; they are objective laws "when the condition is cognized as objective, that is, as holding for the will of every rational being" (CPrR 158). Coleridge adopts Kant's definition of practical principles (a kind of knowledge that may, in fact, take the form of a subjective maxim or an objective "general law or rule"), arguing in The Friend that political knowledge, to be discussed in greater detail below, is a form of propositional knowledge--specifically, inferential (demonstrative) knowledge--that is not derived from either experience or reason alone, but from the mediating faculty of the understanding.
Romantic studies has, for the past three decades or so, been keen on subverting the "Kantian/Coleridgean" version of Romanticism, suggesting that we may be able to learn more about British literary culture following the French Revolution by focusing on its internal tensions and affiliations rather than its dubious importation of a foreign philosophic tradition (that Coleridge never quite "got" Kant is still, lamentably, a lingering suspicion in Coleridge studies). (8) At its best, critical resistance to the traditional Kantian/Coleridgean line provides a salutary corrective to monolithic interpretations of Romanticism which invariably return to, as Stanley Cavell puts it, "something called uniting subject and object." (9) The foundational works in Romantic studies, though, and specifically in the Coleridge criticism that relates metonymically to the larger field, are extraordinarily sensitive to the debt of the Romantics to native intellectual traditions. This essay does not propose to espouse a particular "version" of Romanticism, either Kantian/Coleridgean or, say, one focusing on Byron or Waker Scott, nor does it presume to negotiate between supposedly competing versions. Its aim is to follow a particular line of Kantian thought in Coleridge in order to understand more fully his most fundamental epistemological and political assumptions.
In his excellent contribution to Scotland and the Borders of Romanticism, "Coleridge, Hume, and the Chains of the Romantic Imagination," Cairns Craig argues that Coleridge, in the Biographia, neglects to engage fully with Hume's theory of association, focusing instead on Hartley, because Humearl association makes room for the imagination in a way that Hartley's materialism does not. The Kantian imagination offered a way out of Hartley's materialism for Coleridge; but, according to Craig, "Humean associationism presents a more anguished conception of the imagination since, for Hume, the imagination is both the foundation of all our experience and, at the same time, its inevitable dissolution." (10) In his review of Craig's essay, Seamus Perry reminds us that, at least in terms of the personal philosophical development depicted in the Biographia, Hume simply does not play much of a role--that, in Craig's terms, the "historical and philosophical suppression involved in this substitution of Hartley for Hume" may have less to do with Coleridge's anxiety regarding Hume (attracted to his theory of association and, at once, repulsed by his alleged atheism) and more to do with the fact that Coleridge simply did not devote as much thought to Hume as to Hartley or, Perry notes, to Joseph Priestley. (11) Even if one were to grant the relative inattention to Hume in the Biographia, the vitriol with which Coleridge speaks of Hume throughout his prose suggests that there is much at stake here--namely, I argue, a picture of the mind with political consequences. Where Craig sees a historical and philosophical suppression of Hume for the sake of the transcendental imagination, at least in the Biographia, I argue for a more direct engagement with Hume on ideational and ideological grounds--in other words, one centered on the status of the idea and the social consequences of that status.
Evidence of Coleridge's antipathy towards Hume is not difficult to find. The tenor of the antagonism is perhaps best expressed in Coleridge's remark that, in his planned History of Metaphysics, Hume was to be given considerable attention and that he would be "besprinkled copiously from the fountains of bitterness and contempt.'' (12) Criticisms typically fall into three related categories: theological, philosophical, and cultural. Coleridge, like many others, objected to Hume's agnosticism in the strongest possible terms. The Biographia Literaria (1817) refers to "the impious and pernicious tenets defended by Hume, Priestley, and the French fatalists or necessitarians; some of whom had perverted metaphysical reasonings to the denial of mysteries and indeed of all the peculiar doctrines of christianity." (13) The Statesman's Manual unsympathetically refers to "the same Scotch philosopher, who devoted his life to the undermining of the Christian religion; and expended his last breath in a blasphemous regret that he had not survived it." (14) The charge of blasphemy is repeated in the 1818-1819 Lectures on the History of Philosophy, in which Coleridge dismisses, as he would throughout his Marginalia, the "spider" argument from Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779). (15)
These theological objections stem, of course, from more fundamental objections to Hume's philosophy, particularly his epistemology. Coleridge offers his most concise and direct statement of the link in the Biographia. "The process, by which Hume degraded the notion of cause and effect into a blind product of delusion and habit, into the mere sensation of proceeding life (nisus vitalis) associated with the images of the memory; this same process must be repeated to the equal degradation of every fundamental idea in ethics or theology" (BL 1: 121). The degrading ethical and theological effects of Hume's critique of causality are countered in The Statesman's Manual, where Coleridge contends that the necessity of causal relations "depends on, or rather inheres in, the idea of the Omnipresent and Absolute: for this it is, in which the Possible is one and the same with the Real and the Necessary" (SM 32). For Hume, we remember, "necessity is something, that exists in the mind, not in objects.'' (16) While the necessity of causal relations in the idea of the "Absolute" is slightly obscure in its details--it is difficult to imagine such a process without resorting to something approaching Malebranche's occasionalism or Berkeley's idealism--Coleridge clearly and consistently posits God, the infinite I AM, as the ground or foundation of all reality. Coleridge is thus acutely aware not only of the standard skeptical arguments forwarded in Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion and Natural History of Religion (1757), but he is also sensitive to how the reduction of causal knowledge to habitual belief in Hume's Treatise (1739-40) threatens every "fundamental" ethical and theological idea.
There are also more purely philosophical objections to Hume's epistemology, although these, too, almost always contain the trace of theological suspicion. Perhaps the most technical objection is found in the Notebooks (1804):
How opposed to nature & the fact to talk of the one moment of Hume; of our whole being [as] an aggregate of successive single sensations. Who ever felt a single sensation? Is not every one at the same moment conscious that there co-exist a thousand others in a darker shade, or less light; even as when I fix my attention on a white House on a gray bare Hill or rather long ridge that runs out of sight each way (How often I want the German [']unubersehbar[']?) the pretended single sensation is it in anything more than the Light-point in every picture either of nature or of a good painter; & again subordinately in every component part of the picture? And what is a moment? Succession with interspace? Absurdity! It is evidently only the Licht-pun[k]t, the Sparkle in the indivisible undivided Duration. (17)
This notebook entry from Christmas Day 1804 registers Coleridge's main philosophic complaint against Hume. The "copy principle" of Hume's Treatise--the notion, derived from Locke, that complex ideas are composed of simple ideas, which are fainter copies of the simple impressions from which they ultimately derive, to which they correspond and exactly resemble--was formulated so that irreducible complex ideas, such as the soul, God, or substance could be shown to lack cognitive content. Its premise is that one can reduce a complex idea into its constituent simple ideas and that these simple ideas, in turn, could be reduced to the simple impressions from which they derive. Coleridge repudiates the whole notion of a single impression, suggesting the indivisibility of what Kant would call the manifold of intuition, thus allowing the irreducibly complex idea of God to have some other epistemological basis.
Hume's critique of causality, Coleridge worries, threatens the possibility of metaphysics itself. In the Biographia, he writes that "after I had successively studied in the schools of Locke, Berkeley, Leibnitz, and Hartley" (a trajectory familiar to readers of Coleridge) and "could find in neither of them an abiding place for my reason," he began to ask whether "a system of philosophy, as different from mere history and historic classification, [is] possible?" (BL 1: 141). As Coleridge sees it, the possibility of metaphysics is threatened by the empirical claim, originating in Aristotle and finding its fullest expression in Book I of Locke's Essay, that "there is nothing in the mind that was not before in the senses." It is also threatened by Hume's analysis of cause and effect, which, Coleridge argues, "will apply with equal and crushing force to all the other eleven categorical forms, and the logical functions corresponding to them" (BL 1: 142). As James Engell observes, Coleridge "is saying that once a strictly empirical premise is conceded, none of Kant's categories may be trusted as objective operations of the mind" (BL 1: 141n). Coleridge will, of course, concede neither the foundational empirical premise nor Hume's claims regarding causality. He will concede neither because, as he puts it, "Truth is correlative of Being," or "intelligence and being are reciprocally each other's Substrate" (BL 1: 142-43). Coleridge quickly makes it clear that "being" here refers specifically to a Supreme Being, the (possibility of the) idea of which dictated the philosophical development, described with proper names, he has just outlined. "An abiding place for my reason," offered by none of the philosophers mentioned, is first and foremost a system in which the idea of God is able to rest. (18)
The status of the idea, so obviously crucial in Hume's philosophy, is precisely what is at stake in Coleridge's negotiations with Hume. It is, as Coleridge would say in the final sentence to The Statesman's Manual, "the highest problem of philosophy, and not part of its nomenclature" (SM 114). Hume in the Treatise defines the "idea" as "faint images of [impressions] in thinking and reasoning." He explains in a note that he is restoring the word "idea" to its "original sense, from which Mr. Locke had perverted it, in making it stand for all our perceptions" (THN 7). (19) Coleridge shares with Hume his rejection of Locke's overly broad definition, and offers his own, poorly worded definition in the Statesman's Manual, quoted here in full because of its importance and untranslatability:
A Notion may be realized, and becomes Cognition; but that which is neither a Sensation or a Perception, that which is neither individual (i.e. a sensible Intuition) nor general (i.e. a conception) which neither refers to outward Facts nor yet is abstracted from the FORMS of perception contained in the Understanding; but which is an educt of the Imagination actuated by the pure Reason, to which there neither is or can be an adequate correspondent in the world of the senses--this is and this alone is = AN IDEA. Whether Ideas are regulative only, according to Aristotle and Kant; or likewise CONSTITUTIVE, and one with the power and Life of Nature, according to Plato, and Plotinus is the highest problem of Philosophy, and not part of its nomenclature. (SM 114)
Coleridge claimed that the appendix from which this passage comes is "by far the most miscellaneous and desultory of all my writings"; but, he adds, "it had a right to be such." It had a right to be such because, as R. J. White observes, this passage is perhaps "the best statement of Coleridge's philosophical position" (SM 114n). However much we may object to it on literary grounds, it condenses into a relatively short space the complexity of the Coleridgean idea. An idea, according to Coleridge, is a notion necessarily engaging with all three major faculties: it is abstracted from the understanding, an "educt" (i.e. an inference or development) (20) of the imagination actuated by the reason. Coleridge is intent on having the idea interact with as many aspects of the mind as possible because his desire is to widen the range of things that may possibly be considered "ideas." If the ideas of God or substance cannot exist in an empirical system of sense impressions, then surely they can exist in the slippery space known as the "play of the mental faculties." (21) Their status as regulative or constitutive is left undetermined, but, given Coleridge's theory of the symbol and his other writings on the idea in the Biographia and elsewhere in the Statesman's Manual, one may assume the latter. (22)
The Biographia offers a less definitive, but more suggestive discussion of the idea. Its chapter on the history of associationism complicates and extends the claims made in the Notebooks regarding the indivisibility of sensation. Intending to demonstrate that Hobbes contributed nothing original or substantial whatsoever to this history, Coleridge describes Hobbes' theory of association in Humean terms: "Whenever we feel several objects at the same time, the impressions that are left (or in the language of Mr. Hume, the ideas) are linked together. Whenever therefore any one of the movements, which constitute a complex impression, are renewed through the senses, the others succeed mechanically" (BL 1: 96). Hobbes (and, Coleridge contends, the materialists such as Hartley who followed him) thus reduces all the forms of association to "the one law of time." This is an untenable philosophical position for Coleridge, for whom contemporaneity is only part of the law of association: "For the objects of any two ideas need not have co-existed in the same sensation in order to become mutually associable" (BL 1: 96-97). Memory, that is, works with sensation in providing the materials of association. More interesting, however, than the rejection of claims regarding Hobbes' lasting contributions to the history of associationism---a judgment not at all surprising for someone who had long since rejected materialism in all its forms--is what Coleridge says in a lengthy footnote amended to the sentence just quoted. In it, Coleridge grudgingly justifies his, and Hume's, use of the word "idea":
I here use the word "idea" in Mr. Hume's sense on account of its general currency among the English metaphysicians; though against my own judgment, for I believe that the vague use of this word has been the cause of much error and more confusion. The word idea, in its original sense as used by Pindar, Aristophanes, and in the gospel of Matthew, represented the visual abstraction of a distant object, when we see the whole without distinguishing its parts. Plato adopted it as a technical term, and as the antithesis to eidola, or sensuous images; the transient and perishable emblems, or mental words, of ideas. The ideas themselves he considered as mysterious powers, living, seminal, formative, and exempt from time. (BL 1: 97)
This Platonic use of the term is essentially the one Coleridge adopts in his most sustained and thorough writing on the subject, The Statesman's Manual: "But every principle is actualized by an idea; and every idea is living, productive, partaketh of infinity, and, (as Bacon has sublimely observed) containeth an endless power of semination" (SM 23-24). (23) What is conspicuously absent here is the concept, the division of which into a priori and a posteriori classes by Kant left little room for the kind of idea Coleridge viewed as "exempt from time." "[A]n Idea is equi-distant in its signification from Sensation, Image, Fact, and Notion: [it] is the antithesis not the synonyme of eidolon" (SM 101). The operative relationship here is the actualizing one between the idea and the principle, to be discussed shortly.
The crucial issue, as far as Coleridge's relationship to Hume is concerned, is the possibility of an idea not derived from sense experience. The instances of the ideas of God and substance have already been mentioned, but the idea as it relates to political knowledge is Coleridge's other concern, and our primary one here. Coleridge warns against the abuse of the idea, speaking nostalgically of the "genial reverence" with which Algernon Sydney "commune[d] with Harrington and Milton on the Idea of a perfect state; and in what sense it is true, that the men (i.e. the aggregate of the inhabitants of a country at any one time) are made for the state, not the state for the men" (SM 102). The influence of materialism and Lockean psychology, however, has produced a new breed of philosophers, "and these too have their Ideas!" They include those who have "an Idea, that Hume, Hartley, and Condillac have exploded all Ideas, but those of sensation" (SM 102). The suggestion is that the complex idea of a perfect state, here defined in fairly reactionary terms, cannot rest on ideas derived from sensation, but must have some other source.
These assertions from The Statesman's Manual, in which an English literary and political tradition is threatened by Scottish and French influences (and from within by materialists such as Hartley and Priestley), reflect Coleridge's anxiety about the status of English literary culture, broadly defined, at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth century. (24) These "cultural" objections constitute the third major category of Coleridge's criticisms of Hume, existing alongside and frequently engaging with more purely theological and philosophical objections. Coleridge laments in his Notebooks that "[T]he flashy modems seem to rob the ancients of the honors due to them/& Bacon & Harrington are not read because Hume and Condillac are. This is an evil" (CN 2: 2193), a claim he would repeat in the Biographia thirteen years later. In an entry from 1805, "Let England be Sir P. Sidney, Shakespeare, Spenser, Milton, Bacon, Harrington, Swift, Wordsworth, and never let the names of Darwin, Johnson, Hume, furr it over!" (CN 2: 2598). In his marginalia to Pepys's Memoirs, Coleridge observes: "But alike as Historian and as Philosopher, Hume has, meo saltem judicio, been extravagantly overrated.--Mercy on the Age, & the People, for whom Lock is profound, and Hume subtle." (25) Criticism is often directed towards Scotland and Scottish writers at large, reflecting an anti-Scottish sentiment even Wordsworth would share at times. In his marginalia to Anderson's British Poets: "Damn this Scotch Scoundrel of a Biographer" (CM 74) and "Is it possible that a man should have written this? O Lord! Yes! any thing is possible from a Scotchman" (CM 75). In an 1816 letter to Thomas Boosey: "The Scotch appear to me dull Frenchmen, and superficial Germans.--They have no Inside" (CL 4: 667). (26) Alexander Dyce, the Scottish editor and literary historian, suspected in Coleridge a "mortal antipathy to Scotchmen." The source of this anti-Scottish sentiment is unclear, but there is, at best, an uneasiness, more than a century after the Act of Union, about the role Scotland is to play in British cultural life. At worst, there is mere prejudice along national or ethnic lines.
These objections by Coleridge to Hume on theological, philosophical and cultural grounds are significant, and they form the basis of Coleridge's fundamental attitude towards Hume. Of equal importance and interest, however, are the rare moments when Coleridge defends Hume. In his Lectures on the History of Philosophy, Coleridge argues that Hume has been attacked unjustly, singling out the opponents of Hume whom Kant dismisses in his Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics (1783): Joseph Priestley, James Oswald, and James Beattie. "No one will suspect me of being an advocate of Mr. Hume's opinions," Coleridge writes, "but I most assuredly do think that he was attacked in a very illogical, not to say unhandsome manner, both by Priestley and Oswald, and, I grieve to say for the beauty of the book in other respects, by Beattie.'' (27) Their attacks were "illogical" and "unhandsome" because they were too easily alarmed by the consequences of Hume's critique of causality: "'Here is a man denying all cause and effect. What will become of all our religion?' If it stopped there there would be some sense in it, but they went on. 'What was to become of all society? If such opinions were to prevail, men would not use their spoons to put their soup into their mouths!'" (LHP 260). Coleridge warns against this vulgarizing, overly literal interpretation of Hume. He is shrewd enough not to reduce Hume to the caricature of the skeptic--someone unable to avoid running into posts, etc., as was said of Pyrrho. For Coleridge, a philosophy such as Hume's becomes "pernicious" when it serves as an epistemic foundation not only for theological claims (from what impression do we derive our idea of God?), but also for political claims (from what impression do we derive our idea of contract or fight?). The relations between these branches of thought were clear enough for Hume. As Knud Haakonssen observes, "The task he set out for his political theory was to explain why [superstition and enthusiasm] were philosophically misconceived, empirically untenable, and, in their extreme forms, politically dangerous." (28)
Hume's political philosophy proceeds logically from the same basic assumptions and premises he employs in the rest of his philosophy. Just as the Treatise confidently proposes a science of human nature, so do Hume's political essays contend "that politics may be reduced to a science"; "So great is the force of laws and of particular forms of government, and so little dependence have they on the humors and tempers of men, that consequences almost as general and certain may sometimes be deduced from them as any which the mathematical sciences afford us.'' (29) The "universal axioms," "maxims," and "eternal political truths" of Hume's politics are uttered on this basis. In its negative component, Hume's politics deny the contract theory associated with Hobbes and Locke and its attendant claim that consent is the source of political obligation. "But would these reasoners look abroad," Hume writes in "Of the Original Contract," "they would meet with nothing that, in the least, corresponds to their ideas, or can warrant so refined and philosophical a system" (PE 46). Again, from what impression or impressions do we derive our idea of an original contract? "On the contrary, we find everywhere princes who claim their subjects as their property and assert their independent right of sovereignty from conquest or succession" (PE 46). Political obligation does not have its source in an original contract, real or imagined, but in historically situated power relations. "Is there anything discoverable in all these [historical] events but force and violence? Mere is the mutual agreement or voluntary association so much talked of?" (PE 48). The claim that the historicity of the contract is irrelevant--that it gains its force through a process of analogy (we have certain social obligations as if such a contract had existed)--is, for Hume, "false philosophy": we are thrown, as it were, into societies that are already subject to authority and find ourselves obliged to obey its laws, without the choice that is necessary in any contractual relationship. In more positive terms, Hume's politics extend the empirical methods of experience and observation to make claims about property, law, and justice:
In general we may observe that all questions of property are subordinate to the authority of civil laws, which extend, restrain, modify, and alter the rules of natural justice, according to the particular convenience of each community. The laws have, or ought to have, a constant reference to the constitution of government, the manners, the climate, the religion, the commerce, the situation of each society. (30)
Having demonstrated the insufficiency of the contract theory in his political essays, where he concludes that "some other foundation of government must also be admitted" (PE 50), Hume continues in the second Enquiry to argue for a foundation of interest:
Property is allowed to be dependent on civil laws; civil laws are allowed to have no other object, but the interest of society: This therefore must be allowed to be the sole foundation of property and justice. Not to mention, that our obligation itself to obey the magistrate and laws is founded on nothing but the interests of society. (EPM 197n)
The ease with which Hume reaches this foundational claim comes from the empiricist's faith in his own experience and observation (the unacknowledged origins of our impressions) as the bases of his ideas; no rationalist claim about the volonte generale is attempted with such sangfroid. The briefest reflection on our own experience, for Hume, indicates that our allegiance to governmental authority comes from a collective interest in the protection (specifically, of property and contracts) given to us by the administration of justice. (31) Hume's inspiration here is nonetheless French, as it is Montesquieu's L'Esprit des Loix (1748) that has "prosecuted this subject [the fitness of the law to the historical circumstances of a society] at large, and has established, from these principles, a system of political knowledge, which abounds in ingenious and brilliant thoughts, and is not wanting in solidity" (EPM 196-97, Hume's emphasis).
This language returns us to Coleridge and the "principles of political knowledge" examined in The Friend. Hume's epistemology of impressions and ideas, and the strict correspondence between them, yielded a political philosophy that subordinates questions of property to questions of law, places the source of political obligation in interest, and maintains that basic social and political institutions are fundamentally artificial: "those impressions, which give rise to this sense of justice, are not natural to the mind of man, but arise from artifice and human conventions." (32) These are unacceptable premises for Coleridge, for whom the structure of the mind itself determines both political organization and what constitutes political knowledge. This is not to say that the ideas of justice, property, right, obligation, and the perfect state--in short, the most important and basic kinds of "political knowledge"--are, for Coleridge, innate to the mind; but rather that the structure of the mind, and not its impressions, determines their status as knowledge.
The earliest reference to what would become The Friend occurs in an 1804 notebook entry, where Coleridge writes, "I should like to dare to look forward to the Time, when Wordsworth & I with some contributions from Lamb & Southey--& from a few others ... should publish a Spectator" (CN 2: 2074). In a letter to Thomas Poole of the same year, he describes the work in noticeably different terms: "Consolations and Comforts from the exercise and right application of the Reason, the Imagination, and the Moral Feelings, addressed especially to those in Sickness, Adversity, or Distress of mind, from Speculative Gloom, etc." (CL 2: 1036). This description, which would be repeated five years later in the Prospectus to The Friend, declares the renovating and fructifying purpose of the work. It is no accident that this project would be undertaken in the midst of Coleridge's so-called "dark years," when the effects of his failed marriage, his strained relationship with Wordsworth, his persistent depression, his financial troubles, and his opium addiction demanded the assistance of some "friend" to rescue him from his dejection, Given that no friend--not Wordsworth, Southey, Gillman, or even the steadfast Poole--was capable of the task, Coleridge in a truly impressive act of an often paralyzed will, assumed the role of aid-giver so that he might heal himself. The agent of this healing is not the idea or the concept, but the principle: "It is my object to refer men to PRINCIPLES in all things; in Literature, in the Fine Arts, in Morals, in Legislation, in Religion. Whatever therefore of a political nature may be reduced to general principles ... this I do not exclude from my scheme" (F 2: 13). The Friend is an effort to return to firm principles so that the detritus of false metaphysics may be discarded.
Twenty-eight numbers were produced between June 1809 and March 1810. An "1812 edition" reprinted the numbers in a single volume. The 1818 rifacimento altered and rearranged the essays so as to form a more coherent whole, divided into three volumes. All three volumes contain much that is interesting, covering a wide range of subjects with Coleridge's characteristic bursts of imaginative insight. Throughout there is an emphasis on the return to pure principles, an effort to establish a foundation for judgment more firm than the one provided by discursive reasoning. It is, however, the first proper section, beginning towards the end of the first volume and continuing all the way through the second, that is our primary concern. This section, "On the Principles of political Knowledge," contains Coleridge's most sustained and explicit analysis of the relationship between political theory and the conditions of knowledge.
The first essay on the principles of political philosophy begins with an epigraph from Spinoza's Tractatus Politicus. In it, Spinoza criticizes both the "mere practical Statesman" and the "mere Theorists" for neglecting to do the actual work of "conceiv[ing] a practicable scheme of civil policy." Spinoza proposes, in contrast, "simply to demonstrate from plain and undoubted principles, or to deduce from the very condition and necessities of human nature, those plans and maxims which square best with practice." (33) This, as we shall see, is essentially the political model of expediency espoused by Coleridge later on in the work. It is important, however, to note here the significance of beginning his most sustained discussion of political history with a lengthy epigraph from Spinoza. By the time Coleridge had begun writing The Friend, he had rejected the fundamental claims of Spinoza's Ethics and had already immersed himself in the Kantian-Schellingian phase that would dominate his mature philosophic thought. By beginning with Spinoza, Coleridge signals two central themes of The Friend: 1) a philosophically radical metaphysics such as Spinoza's may be consistent with a fairly conservative political philosophy (politically, Spinoza largely follows Hobbes, with some important qualifications regarding the theory of sovereignty); and 2) in some important ways, the Coleridge of 1818 is much the same as the Coleridge of 1795. This is nowhere more evident than in his decision to reprint some of his 1795 Bristol lectures in The Friend. As Barbara Rooke points out, "In republishing in 1818 a large section of his political lectures originally delivered in Bristol in 1795 during his period of pro-revolutionary enthusiasm, Coleridge was doing more ... than trying to prove that, contrary to satirists and caricaturists, he had been no seditionist at that time and was no reactionary now" (F xcix), He is asserting his own fidelity to pure principles. Just as Burke had opposed the French Revolution while supporting American conciliation, so had Coleridge maintained a consistent principle throughout his seemingly incongruous philosophic allegiances. The principle is ultimately a pragmatic one: a political proposition is justified so long as it proves useful in a specific set of circumstances, what Coleridge would call the "theory of expediency." This is not, one may justifiably object, true of Coleridge across the entire range of his thought, It does, however, apply particularly well to what he calls "political knowledge."
The political essays of The Friend are predicated on a division of "all the different philosophical systems of political justice, all the Theories on the rightful Origin of Government" into three classes. What is absolutely crucial, for our purposes, is that each class is attended by an assumption about how the mind functions or what it can know. The first class is the system of Hobbes, which ascribes the origin and continuance of government to fear, "or the power of the stronger, aided by the force of custom" (F 106). This theory corresponds to the view that "the human mind consists of nothing, but manifold modifications of passive sensation" (F 106). Coleridge follows both Harrington and Cudworth here in objecting to Hobbes' debasement of men into brutes, possessing some degree of understanding but utterly devoid of the moral will. (34) The reality and legitimacy of the moral will is the first principle of Coleridge's ethics, just as the principle of irreducible unity is the first and guiding principle of his metaphysics. Any theory of government which denies it is therefore untenable. This objection aside, the whole theory is, Coleridge contends, "baseless" on more empirical grounds:
We are told by History, we learn from experience, we know from our own hearts, that fear, of itself, is utterly incapable of producing any regular, continuous and calculable effect, even on an individual; and that the fear, which does act systematically upon the mind, always presupposes a sense of duty, as its cause. (F 167)
Fear may provide us with an inclination to behave in certain ways, but it is always preceded, and ideally subjugated, by a dominant sense of duty. This sanguine view of things, influenced by his reading of Kant, fails to inquire into the causes of the sense of duty. Knowledge of the sense of duty is not derived from any particular impressions, but, it seems, from more universal principles under which historical and personal particulars are subsumed. It is in this state that the conscience, which Coleridge defines earlier in The Friend as a "spiritual sense or testifying state of the coincidence or discordance of the free will with the reason" (F 159) may be said to operate.
The "sense of duty" translates easily and predictably into the "Spirit of Law," the "true necessity, which compels man into the social state" (F 167). This is as close as Coleridge comes to asserting an original contract, which for him is an absurd theory insofar as it neglects to assign a "moral force" to the contract. In Coleridge's sense, the word "contract" simply is the "sense of duty acting in a specific direction, i.e. determining our moral relations, as members of a body politic":
If I have referred to a supposed origin of Government, it has been in courtesy to a common notion: for I myself regard the supposition as no more than a means of simplifying to our apprehension the ever-continuing causes of social union, even as the conservation of the world may be represented as an act of continued Creation. (F 174)
The analogy Coleridge presents between the preservation of social union and the divine preservation of the world itself recalls not only the conclusion of Berkeley's argument of esse est percipi, but also the Biographia's definition of the primary imagination as a "repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM" (BL 1: 304). The "origin" of government is not an isolated historical event, but is continually created by the "moral force" of our "sense of duty." This subjective sense of duty, and the objective "Spirit of the Law" to which it corresponds, is the guiding principle of the second theory of government, what Coleridge acknowledges as his own theory of expediency: "according to this theory, every institution of national origin needs no other justification than a proof, that under particular circumstances it is expedient" (F 176). The assumption of this theory is that the human being is an "animal gifted with the understanding," defined here by Coleridge as "the faculty of suiting measures to circumstances" (F 176).
The faculty of suiting measures to circumstances is the most prominent definition of the understanding in The Friend's analysis of the principles of political knowledge, although there are others. The political essays of The Friend are preceded by a section on the distinction between the reason and the understanding, a distinction on which Coleridge claims to base his entire metaphysics. (35) Coleridge here presents authentically Kantian definitions of the two faculties. The understanding is "the faculty by which we generalize and arrange the phenomena of perception; that faculty, the functions of which contain the rules and constitute the possibility of outward experience." In a note to the political section itself, Coleridge writes that "by the UNDERSTANDING, I mean the faculty of thinking and forming judgments on the notices furnished by the sense, according to certain rules existing in itself, which rules constitute its distinct nature" (F 177n). For Kant, the understanding (Verstand), "whose province alone it is to make an objective judgment on appearances," compares perceptions and connects them in consciousness. (36) It is none other than the faculty of thinking, for thinking "is the same as judging, or referring representations to judgments in general" (Prolegomena 304). In the first part of the Transcendental Logic in The Critique of Pure Reason (1781), he defines the understanding as the faculty of rules.
Kant distinguishes the understanding from the reason in the Transcendental Dialectic: "here we will distinguish reason from understanding by calling reason [Vernunft] the faculty of principles" (CPR 387); again, "If the understanding may be a faculty of unity of appearances by means of rules, then reason is the faculty of the unity of the rules of understanding under principles" (CPR 389). In The Friend, Coleridge defines reason as the "organ of Super-sensuous," that which subordinates the notions of rules of the understanding to "ABSOLUTE PRINCIPLES or necessary LAWS" (F 156-57). In the note to the political section; "By the pure REASON, I mean the power by -which we become possessed of principle, (the eternal verities of Plato and Descartes) and of ideas, (N.B. not images) as the ideas of a line, a circle, in Mathematics; and of Justice, Holiness, Free-Will, &c. in Morals" (F 177n). As he does in the Biographia, he is careful to emphasize the Platonic idea in opposition to eidola, or "sensuous images," that are further removed from cognition and knowledge.
Coleridge begins to make stronger claims on behalf of reason with his introduction of Jacobi's definition of reason as the organ concerned with "spiritual objects, the Universal, the Eternal, and the Necessary." Reason, Coleridge insists, is in fact an organ identical with its objects: "Thus, God, the Soul, eternal Truth, &c. are the objects of Reason; but they are themselves reason" (F 156). He appeals to Milton: "We name God the Supreme Reason; and Milton says, 'Whence the Soul Reason receives, and Reason is her Being" (PL 5: 486-87). Animals may possess understanding (what Hooker, Bacon, and Hobbes called "discourse, or the discursive acuity"), but they entirely lack reason: "an understanding enlightened by reason Shakespear gives as the contra-distinguishing character of man, under the name discourse of reason" (F 156; Hamlet 1.ii.50). "The human understanding," he concludes, "possesses two distinct organs, the outward sense, and 'the mind's eye" which is reason" (F 156). Coleridge appeals, then, to the authority of Milton and Shakespeare to argue for 1) the identity of reason with its objects and 2) the subsumption of the reason under the understanding. The section on "Reason and Understanding" does not simply distinguish between the two faculties along Kantian/Jacobian lines but, significantly, subordinates reason (the only faculty capable of making Kant blush: "Since I am now to give a definition of this supreme faculty of cognition, I find myself in some embarrassment" [CPR 387]) to the understanding. (37) What is to be gained by this subordination of reason to the higher faculty of understanding? Coleridge provides a clue when he says "If the reader therefore will take the trouble of beating in mind these and the following explanations, he will have removed before hand every possible difficulty from the Friend's political section" (F 157). The answer, I think, is that in redeeming the understanding from the penury of bureaucratic middle-management, elevating it to what Deleuze would call the "chairmanship" of the mental faculties, Coleridge provides a new necessary condition of political knowledge. With this condition in place, the perceived mistake of his own radicalism, and perhaps even the excesses of the Revolution, may have been averted.
The Kantian definition of the understanding used by Coleridge--" the faculty of thinking and forming judgments"--does not by itself justify or explain the definition of the understanding in the political section as "the faculty of suiting measures to circumstances." These appear to be two vastly different operations, one being a basic act of perception (or a comparison of perceptions) and the other an active engagement with the objective world or even a refined skill in the art of policy-making. Kant suggests a link when he posits two species of judgment: theoretical and practical. Theoretical judgment applies a concept to a determinate given object; practical judgment determines how to produce an object (in this sense a goal or purpose). The understanding, though, is for Kant not responsible for practical judgment. Coleridge's placement of both of them in the understanding, suggesting that they are the same sort of thing, is perhaps justified by the impossibility of assigning these operations to any other faculty. The reason, we have seen, has its eye on the super-sensuous, operating outside the realm of "circumstances" altogether, and the imagination's duties, conspicuously absent in The Friend, are defined elsewhere in more vital and esemplastic terms. So to the understanding are left the seemingly mundane tasks of making connections between appearances and forming judgments about them. Coleridge extends the sense of "forming judgments," allowing the phrase to signify the recognition of appropriateness or "suitability." It is necessary for Coleridge that this ability is denied to reason. Reason alone is insufficient in the art of governing and being governed. It can only provide principles which the understanding must apply to particular circumstances. The cautious moderation of this theory, precisely the attitude Hume promotes towards the end of his Treatise, is predicated on a critique of reason as the guiding faculty in political affairs. The position, though, is ultimately Kantian: pure political ideas and ideals are not things that have validity in their own right, but are relevant insofar as they regulate an approach to politics that is grounded in experience. The understanding, furnished by sense experience and enlightened by reason, is the means of this regulation.
The third and final political system adumbrated by Coleridge in The Friend is that which "denies all rightful origins to government, except insofar as they are derivable from principles contained in the REASON of Man, and judges all the relations of man in society by the laws of moral necessity, according to IDEAS" (F 178). The fundamental principle of the theory is that "Nothing is to be deemed rightful in civil society, or to be tolerated as such, but what is capable of being demonstrated out of the original laws of the pure Reason" (F 178). The assumption of the theory is that "Whatever is not every where necessary, is no where right" (F 178). It is the system of, most notably, Rousseau and the "French economists," presumably physiocrats such as Quesnay, Turgot, and de Nemours. It insists that the only rightful form of government "must be framed on such principles that every individual follows his own Reason while he obeys the laws of the constitution, and performs the will of the state while he follows the dictates of his own Reason" (F 194). Coleridge's objection to this theory of "pure rationality" is based on a suspicion of the general will. He sees no necessary reason why the general will must reflect either the reason or the interests of the people from whom it supposedly originates. There is a "mere probability" that it does; "and thus we already find ourselves beyond the magic circle of the pure Reason, and within the sphere of the understanding and prudence" (F 193). The apotheosis of reason in France, Coleridge argues; ended disastrously because pure reason, unaided by the understanding, is incapable of making judgments based on perception. It can provide only the principles which the understanding must apply to specific circumstances.
If all of this seems like the safe, common-sense politics of a former radical coming to terms with his own apostasy, it is because it is. There is, of course, limited political value in insisting that things must be judged in the specificity of their circumstances (the claim itself is so general and self-evident as to resist critical inquiry); and a prudential politics based on the understanding hardly makes for inspiring ideology, radical or reactionary. Throughout Coleridge's analysis is the suggestion that he is no longer prone to unmanly excess, but is a mature, practical political thinker capable of suiting measures to circumstances. Behind this familiar, even predictable, rhetoric of moderation, though, is a hierarchy of mental faculties in political affairs that runs counter to both eighteenth-century rationalism and critical assumptions about the Romantic view of the mind. The reason and the imagination are here subordinated to a faculty almost all thinkers of the period acknowledged in animals and idiots. The privileging of the understanding in The Friend is part of a project to secure a moderate cast of mind and an increasingly conservative political agenda. As John Morrow observes, Coleridge develops in The Friend a philosophical defense of property-based politics. This defense involves a remarkable link between the possession of property and the mental faculties. Coleridge writes:
[W]here individual landed property exists, there must be inequality of property: the nature of the earth and the nature of the mind unite to make the contrary impossible. ... Now it is impossible to deduce the Right of Property from pure Reason. The utmost which Reason could give would be a property in the forms of things, as far as the forms were produced by individual power. In the matter it could give no property. ... Rousseau himself expressly admits, that Property cannot be deduced from the Laws of Reason and Nature; and he ought therefore to have admitted at the same time, that his whole theory was a thing of air. (F 200, my emphasis)
Coleridge's misreading of Rousseau aside (Barbara Rooke helpfully points out that Rousseau nowhere makes such an admission in his Social Contract), this passage makes explicit what is at stake in the hierarchy of faculties. One simply cannot deduce, Coleridge argues, the right of property from pure reason. The argument presumably is that pure reason operates in an autonomous world of concepts and ideas, dealing with the objective world only through the mediation of the understanding and, in turn, sensation. The cynic may be tempted to view this conclusion--the impossibility of deducing the right of property from pure reason--as the first principle of Coleridge's entire analysis, the assumption motivating the whole system. In this view, Coleridge's mental hierarchy exists so that the right of property--that is to say, the necessity of the inequality of property--may have some other, more secure epistemological basis. The cynic would, I think, be fight in taking this view, but it is limited insofar as it suggests that Coleridge's primary concern is the world of matter and not the world of spirit. At the same time, I do not wish to suggest the opposite, if only because Coleridge's place in the pantheist tradition implies that he did not always find such a dualistic vocabulary useful, even if it was the dominant vocabulary of the time or the one most readily available to him. I do wish to suggest that Coleridge's philosophiCal defense of property-based politics may have been as much in the service of philosophy as it was in the service of property. An appeal to the material interests of his readers, in a work persistently charged with "obscurity," is thus part of a larger strategy which included the rejection of French rationalism and the exposition of a uniquely Coleridgean brand of English conservatism rooted in transcendentalism. Coleridge, we remember, declared that he had snapped his "squeaking baby-trumpet of Sedition" in 1798, the same year he began his life-long study of Kant. (38)
If one accepts, as Coleridge does, that the nature of the mind is such that it entails the inequality of property--or even more generally, that there exists a direct relationship between how the mind functions and how societies are structured--then one requires a sufficiently generative psychology, i.e. one capable of producing changes in the physical world by virtue of its very structure. The partitioning of the mind in faculty psychology, essentially the construction of a set of mental enclosures, provided such a structure. Faculty psychology is, if one allows the term, the "natural" psychology of property-based bourgeois culture. In Coleridge's version of it, the unequal endowment of mental faculties, the rejection of Rousseau's claim that "Reason is not susceptible of degree," makes the necessity of inequality more plausible. It is perhaps here that Coleridge's relationship to the Enlightenment, at least the pre-Kantian Enlightenment, is most evident. It is only from the reason that we can derive principles, and it is left to the understanding to apply these principles. "This however gives no proof that Reason alone ought to govern and direct human beings, either as Individuals or as States. It ought not to do this, because it cannot" (F 199, my emphasis). The laws of reason, Coleridge argues, are unable to satisfy the "first conditions of Human Society" (F 199). The "first conditions" of human society must rely on the understanding, "enlightened by past experience and immediate observation, and determining our choice by comparisons of expediency" (F 196). This is the second, correct theory of government, only briefly discussed by Coleridge before he attacks the third theory of "pure rationality." The relative inattention given to this theory of expediency suggests that Coleridge's purposes are more proscriptive than prescriptive. The principles of political knowledge should not, because they cannot, be deduced from reason alone. Just as "Dejection: An Ode" exhibits something resembling a real fear of the imagination in its seventh stanza, so do The Friend's political essays exhibit something resembling a real fear of the untethered reason.
This apprehension about the potentially devastating effects of pure rationalism is occasioned not only by the threat it poses to private property, but also by the political consequences it had in France. The reliance on principles derived from reason alone, such as the general will, was for Coleridge, as it was for Burke, the precondition of the Terror and Napoleon's rise to power.
With a wretched parrotry [the National Assembly] wrote and harangued without ceasing of the Volonte generale--the inalienable sovereignty of the people: and by these high-sounding phrases led on the vain, ignorant, and intoxicated populace to wild excess and wilder expectations, which entailing on them the bitterness of disappointment cleared the way for military despotism, for the satanic Government of Horror under the Jacobins, and of Terror under the Corsican. (F 194)
The targets here are the framers of the 1791 constitution, although claims made on behalf of the volonte generale and the "natural, inalienable, and sacred rights of man" were voiced in considerably stronger terms in the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. The 1791 constitution is, in fact, a much more sober document than Coleridge suggests, with the debates leading up to it dominated, at least in the beginning, by the moderate monarchiens. Intoxication, "wild excess and wilder expectations" may have been the result of the new political culture that emerged between 1789 and 1791, but one would be hard pressed to find them in the constitution itself. Similarly, Coleridge's claim that the framers of the 1791 constitution "deduce, that the people itself is its own sole rightful legislator, and at most dare only recede so far from its right as to delegate to chosen deputies the power of representing and declaring the general will" (F 195) is misleading. The phrase "general will" is never explicitly mentioned in the document, the most objectionable article being perhaps the now modest republican claim that "the nation, from which alone all powers emanate, may exercise [sovereignty] only by delegation." (39) So Coleridge, in his effort to establish a direct link between the ideas of philosophes such as Rousseau and the terror of the Robespierre-led Jacobins and Napoleon, constructs a reading of the constitution in which phrases such as "clear the way" perform a fair amount of work. Coleridge, following Burke, here remains committed to the social and political efficacy of ideas, confident in their ability to determine material conditions and not the other way around.
The displacement of reason by the understanding as the paramount political faculty has ethical implications as well. Specifically, Rousseau's theory of pure rationality, the idea that one can derive fundamental political principles from the reason alone, seems to jeopardize the moral judgment. "Apply his principles to any case, in which the sacred and inviolable Laws of Morality are immediately interested, all becomes just and pertinent" (F 194). This is so because each man is compelled to act according to the dictates of his own conscience, which, as we have seen, is no more than the "testifying state of the coincidence or discordance of the free will with the reason." Since neither free will nor reason is susceptible of degree, the dictates of conscience are universally irreproachable. Coleridge follows Kant in declaring the categorical imperative to be the "one universal and sufficient principle and guide of morality" (F 194). The justification of this claim, Coleridge argues, is the fact that "the object of morality is not the outward act, but the internal maxim of our actions" (F 194). "And," Coleridge concedes, "so far it is infallible" (F 194). Coleridge thus rejects consequentialist or utilitarian ethics in favor of a virtue ethics in which the inner "purity of our motives" is the basis for all moral judgment. Laurence Lockridge, Coleridge's greatest ethical critic, correctly situates this purity of motives--or, more broadly, the will--at the center of Coleridge's thought. "Among the many foundational concepts in Coleridge," Lockridge claims in his review of the Opus Maximum, "the most fundamental is Will--the Absolute Will of God as the source of all that is, and the finite personal Will of human beings, the source of our individuality and, if conjoined with Reason, our goodness and wisdom." (40) The conjunction of the finite personal will with the principles derived from reason results in "virtuous habits," which, for Coleridge, are formed "by the very means in which knowledge is communicated" (F 171). Coleridge devotes the majority of the first volume of The Friend to "detail and ground the conditions under which the communication of truth is commanded or forbidden to us as individuals" (F 166). The communication of truth is, not surprisingly, commanded more frequently than forbidden, as the conditions of communicating a "right though inadequate notion" are few and rare. As he asserts in the essay entitled "Virtue and Knowledge," "[T]he essence of virtue consists in the principle" (F 167) and "with clearer conceptions in the understanding, the principle of action would become purer in the will" (F 168). Virtue and knowledge are so intimately linked that to take care of the one is to ensure that the other will follow. There is a contradiction here, as Lockridge notes in Coleridge the Moralist, between the "formalism" of an individual virtue ethics ("probable consequences and personal inclination are of little to no import in determining what is right and wrong") and the prudential model of expediency Coleridge prescribes for the state: "In The Friend, he often seems to say that the affairs of the state should proceed on the basis of prudence alone; the only thing the state must consider is the outward act. This muddles, of course, his position as a moral critic of social and political affairs. How can he continue to denounce the expediency he seems in these instances to be recommending?" (41) One resolution of the contradiction is perhaps to concede the incommensurability of public and private morality. The "main office" of government is for Coleridge the regulation of social organizations according to particular circumstances, a responsibility that perhaps demands no greater morality than that of its constituent members. "Public" morality, not far removed from the alleged interests of the general will, may too easily slip into the "wretched parrotry" Coleridge abhorred in the National Assembly.
To concede the incommensurability of public and private morality--or to deny the existence of a public morality above and beyond a number of disparate private moralities--does not, however, solve the problem of moral action in the public sphere. Coleridge, as noted, admits the possibility that reason is capable of formulating a principle of moral action, such as the categorical imperative. Yet, he argues, it remains entirely incapable of deducing "the form and matter of a rightful Government, the main office of which is to regulate the outward actions of particular bodies of men, according to their particular circumstances" (F 195-96). Rousseau, then, is mistaken in believing that reason, which Coleridge acknowledges to be a sufficient guide in individual morality, is equally capable of determining moral action in the public sphere. Coleridge tacitly invokes the traditional morality-prudence distinction, arguing that the former is the domain of the individual conscience (and therefore the reason) and the latter the domain of public decision-making (the understanding). (42) The two converge most conspicuously in the case of political obligation, in which the claims of the individual and those of the state must achieve some sort of rapprochement. As Morrow notes, obligation for Coleridge has a moral basis: it springs "from a sense of duty which reflected an acknowledgment of the appropriateness of particular arrangements" (79). In Coleridge's terms, "the whole Duty of Obedience to Governors is derived from, and dependent on" the idea, as opposed to the fact, of a social contract. Again, "[I]n my sense, the word Contract is merely synonymous with the sense of duty acting in a specific direction, i.e. determining our moral relations, as members of a body politic" (F 173-74). That political obligation, described here and elsewhere as a "sense" or "feeling," should be derived from the "idea" of a contract may seem surprising; but Hume, for one, readily granted the ability of complex ideas (such as a social contract) to produce new impressions. For Coleridge, though, the word "contract" signifies merely this "sense of duty." There is an apparent tautology here, with the "whole Duty of Obedience to Governors" being derived from an idea of a contract, or "the sense of duty acting in a specific direction." Coleridge is not presenting the sequence in any systematic way, but one may conclude that political obligation is predicated on a particular form of political knowledge, namely the idea of a contract. The "idea" of a contract and a "sense of duty" appear to arise contemporaneously. There is no impression from which we derive our idea of duty; but rather this "sense," or feeling, of duty simply is the "idea" we have of a contract. As we have seen, Coleridge rejects the entire notion that all our ideas are faint copies of our impressions, arguing instead that, as far as political knowledge is concerned, feelings, or impressions, and thoughts, or ideas, are not so easily distinguishable.
The political essays of The Friend, then, situate the understanding at the center of an epistemology appropriate to the application of the principles of political knowledge. It is only through the understanding that the theory of expediency, of prudential politics, may be said to operate. Coleridge's argument ultimately takes a middle ground on the status of the principle-i.e., Coleridge is, as Lockridge puts it, "attracted to principles in principle," but is skeptical of thinkers, such as Rousseau (or even, one may say, people like Godwin and Thelwall), who rely exclusively on principles derived from pure reason--and grants priority to the idea. The principle, we have seen, merely actualizes the idea, and the idea itself "is living, productive, partaketh of infinity, and, as Bacon has sublimely observed, containeth an endless power of semination" (SM 23-24). By granting such a mysteriously generative power to the idea, as far removed from Hume's copies of impressions as possible, Coleridge makes room for a highly adaptable political system, one capable of applying principles to constantly changing circumstances.
It is precisely in light of this fact that we can begin to understand more fully Coleridge's rejection of Hume, with which we began and with which we will conclude. Just as Coleridge had to repudiate Hardey in order to make room for the creative imagination, so does he have to reject Hume in order to make room for the endlessly disseminating idea. The status of the idea is strategically important in the formation of an epistemology that is to have political consequences. Because the structure of the mind is such that it demands a particular form of social organization, Coleridge is careful to delineate a mind capable of applying principles derived from pure reason and, at once, not so utterly reliant on those principles as to impair its ability to react to changing circumstances. The Coleridgean idea, actualized by principles but not determined by them, is thus able to remain both living and autonomous. This autonomy is realized in the flexibility of the understanding, the faculty on which practical and political affairs must depend. The attitude which corresponds to the proper functioning of the understanding is one of cautious moderation, which, as we have noted, is the one Hume ultimately prescribes in the conduct of practical affairs. This, of course, would have resonated with the political attitudes Coleridge inherited from Burke.
Yet despite what Hume says at the end of his Treatise, Coleridge is unable to accept the political consequences of the theory of knowledge expounded in Book I, "Of the Understanding." Specifically, Hume radicalized Locke's empiricism (thus making it ridiculous) and, in doing so, continued a tradition that was appropriate for a particular phase in English history insofar as it served the interests of "national pride." This phase, Coleridge suggests, is over. In his Lectures on the History of Philosophy, Coleridge refers to the beginning of Hume's essay on causality (THN 1.3.1415). "Everywhere it is, you have no real truth but what is derived from your senses, it is in vain to talk of your ideas of reflection for what are they? They must have been originally in our senses or there is no ground for them" (LHP 2: 572). This is a mostly fair assessment of Hume's position, although Hume readily admits the reality of ideas derived from "impressions of reflection" (THN 1.3.2). What follows is of greater interest:
So many circumstances combined together as to make it a kind of national pride in the first place, and secondly, the interest of almost each of the parties to cry [up] Mr. Locke. ... I can therefore say this finally with regard to Locke, that it was at the beginning of a time when they felt one thing: that the great advantage was to convince mankind that the whole process of reacting upon their own thoughts or endeavoring to deduce any truth from them was mere presumption, and henceforward men were to be entirely under the guidance of their senses. This was most favorable to a country already busy with politics, busy with commerce, and [in] which yet there was a pride in nature [so] that a man would not like to remain ignorant of that which had been called the queen of sciences, which was supposed above all things to [elevate] the mind, which had produced a word which a man had overthrown, had ... that of "philosopher." What a delight to find it all nonsense, that there was nothing but what a man in three hours might know as well as the Archbishop of Canterbury! This exactly suited the state of the nation, and I believe it was a symptom of that state of providential government of the world which observed the nearer union of the kingdoms of Europe to each other. (LHP 2: 572-73)
Coleridge is especially prescient here, anticipating the symptomatic reading of philosophy and ideology that has come in and out of fashion since Marx. Coleridge sees the end of the seventeenth cent, then, as the beginning of empiricism's dominance in British philosophy and attributes that success to two conditions: I) the limited leisure time available to an incipient British middle-class in an increasingly commercial society and 2) a desire, the residue apparently of a theologically-dominated superstructure, on behalf of that class to attain particular kinds of knowledge. Empiricism "exactly suited the state of the nation" because it required nothing other than the evidence of one's senses while granting that evidence the sort of solidity formerly granted to faith-based theological claims. It was a "symptom" of a state of European society in which a continent-wide division of philosophical labor sponsored the growth of philosophies suited to the soil of individual nation-states, specifically empiricism in Britain, rationalism in France, and transcendentalism in Germany, Locke inaugurated the movement in England and, Coleridge suggests, Hume carried it to its absurd and pernicious conclusion. Coleridge seems unsympathetic to the claim that Hume, in an important and direct sense, made German transcendentalism possible, focusing instead on his association with Locke and the overreliance on the senses.
Coleridge's narrative is perhaps too schematic for our tastes, but it does reveal his conception of how philosophies are "suited" to the needs of a nation, even if an explicitly causal relation is never established or specified. My repetition of Coleridge's "suited" here is deliberate, if only because it recalls the language used in his definition of the understanding in The Friend: the "faculty of suiting measures to circumstances." It also recalls his contention, cited above, that there is a correspondence between the structure of the mind and the structure of the social or political world: the mind is somehow structurally suited to the world (an idea that would find frequent expression in Wordsworth's poetry of "fitting and fitted"). The nature of this correspondence is perhaps necessarily vague, although I have attempted to sketch some of its outlines above. The correspondence, I have argued, hinges on the operation of the understanding, which is the only faculty capable of mediating between subject and object, the reason and the world of practical affairs. It is also the only faculty capable of resolving the theological doubts posed by Hume's skepticism, however mitigated it may finally be. These are the doubts with which we began: the precarious status of the idea of God in a system whereby all our ideas are derived from impressions, "which are correspondent to them, and which they exactly resemble" (THN 1.1.1). Hume and skeptics like him, Coleridge argues, take refuge in the claim that the "principle of Faith was utterly out of their scope" (LHP 1: 332). This is not an option for Coleridge, and his response has at times been understood as an embrace of the certainty promised by the transcendental imagination. As Cairns Craig argues, "The Kantian/ Coleridgean conception of the imagination is one which seeks--or, indeed, already assumes--the possibility of certainty" (32). The alleged certainty of the transcendental imagination, or the possibility of this certainty, does not, however, apply to the kinds of knowledge Coleridge would refer to as "sacred truths." In the face of Humean skepticism, Coleridge asks, in his lectures on the history of philosophy, "What shall we do?":
It is most certain that the subjects most interesting to our best hopes, most entitled to our Faith, are not within the domains of faculties the stuff of which is given by the Senses--and if this be granted, how are we to distinguish between dreams and sacred truths?--The mid way seems plain--. Congruity with Reason--that which the Understanding convinces itself to be above the Understanding, or beyond it--but not contradictory to it--Still it must be of universal validity--for instance, the Categorical Imperative of the Moral Law--not pretending to any nostrum the Rule being this--We affirm that truths there are higher than those of the understanding deduced from experience of the senses; but that those who faithfully exert their Understanding without sophistication from passion and appetite will be the first to see and admit this--Hill above Hill--First surmount the first--& then/ (LHP 1: 332)
The halting, hesitant cadence of the passage--perhaps only par@ explained by the transcription from Frere's shorthand--suggests an exhausted Coleridge, covering familiar, tiresome philosophic terrain so that the prospect of the next hill may become visible. It is as if only now, in 1818 and under financial duress, that Coleridge is able to overcome the charge laid against him by Carlyle: that instead of decidedly setting out, "he would accumulate formidable apparatus, logical swim-bladders, transcendental life-preservers and other precautionary and vehiculatory gear" (J. S. Mill, Complete Works 10: 56). Here he has finally set out; but it is not with the dialectical zigzaggery of 1798, when Hazlitt anecdotally observed that "he continually crossed me on the way by shifting from one side of the footpath to the other." (43) Now, for Coleridge, "the mid way seems plain." The "mid way" is precisely that of the understanding, the faculty capable of recognizing what is above or beyond it, but not contradictory to it. The dispassionate exertion of the understanding is necessary in the acquisition of "sacred truths" above and beyond it.
These pedestrian metaphors appear to have led us from political to theological concerns, but Coleridge, in his philosophical lectures of 1818, broadens the centrality of the understanding from the kinds of political knowledge discussed above to sacred truths that are "most interesting to our best hopes." In short, Coleridge by 1818 had developed a conception of the understanding in which it is the central and dominant faculty in what one may call his political epistemology, with profound effects on his conception of the conditions of knowledge more generally. For the mind to know certain things--more precisely, for the mind to have an idea of an-] real importance, such as substance, God, property, obligation, contract, or the perfect state--it must rely on the essentially mediating capacity of the understanding. In this faculty, which is none other than the prudential faculty of "suiting measures to circumstances," the oppositional tensions which mark Coleridge's thought are suspended: subject and object, reason and imagination, principle and policy, individual and state. Coleridge's own self-representation as a transcendental thinker in the dialectical tradition is, in this view, subsumed into a larger picture of the practical application of particular kinds of knowledge. The aim of this essay has not been to systematize Coleridge, but, by attending to his conception of political knowledge, to study some of the epistemic structures that support the wide range of his thought.
The University of Chicago
(1.) G. W. F. Hegel, Science of Logic, trans. A. V. Miller (London: G. Allen and Unwin, 1976) 755.
(2.) Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1989) 154.
(3.) This is not to say that the focus in Romanticism on the dialectic between reason and imagination is not without its own justification. One only needs to think of Wordsworth's claim in the Mt. Snowdon episode that the imagination is "reason in her most exalted mood" (The Prelude 14); or, of the many instances in Coleridge's philosophical development, his fascination with Lessing during his 1798 stay in Germany, when it was precisely the "mingling and interpenetration of reason and imagination" that attracted him to Lessing. The understanding may fit uneasily into a conflict of mental faculties--where, in a Blakean context, the struggle between Urizen and Orc contains the most drama--but this incongruity reveals, I think, what is most interesting and distinctive about Coleridge's political thought.
(4.) Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Friend, ed. Barbara Rooke in The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Vol. 4 (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1969) 176. Unless noted otherwise, all quotations from The Friend come from the 1818 version (Vol. 1 of The Friend in the Collected Works), hereafter cited as F in the text, as this was the last edition Coleridge saw through the press.
(5.) Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, ed. C. T. Onions (Oxford: Clarendon, 1966).
(6.) See Kant's discussion of "principles" in the Critique of Pure Reason (CPR), trans, and ed. Paul Guyer and Allen Wood (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998) 387-88.
(7.) Immanuel Kant. Critique of Practical Reason (CPrR) in Practical Philosophy, trans, and ed. Mary J. Gregor (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996) 153.
(8.) This "Kantian/Coleridgean" version of Romanticism is hardly the result of a generation of philosophically-minded critics. It extends to some of Coleridge's earliest critics, such as J. S. Mill: "Now the Germano-Coleridgean doctrine is, in our view of the matter, the result of such a reaction. It expresses the revolt of the human mind against the philosophy of the eighteenth century. It is ontological, because that was experimental; conservative, because that was innovative; religious, because so much of that was infidel; concrete and historical, because that was abstract and metaphysical; poetical, because that was matter-of-fact and prosaic. In every respect it flies off in a contrary direction to its predecessor...." Complete Works of John Stuart Mill, Vol. 10, ed. J.M. Robson (Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1969) 125.
(9.) Stanley Cavell, In Quest of the Ordinary: Lines of Skepticism and Romanticism (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1988) 41.
(10.) Cairns Craig, "Coleridge, Hume, and the Chains of the Romantic Imagination" in Scotland and the Borders of Romanticism, ed. Leith Davis, Ian Duncan, and Janet Sorensen (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2004) 32.
(11.) Seamus Perry, "Enlightened Romantics" in Times Literary Supplement (5920, August 20, 2004): 7-8.
(12.) S. T. Coleridge, Collected Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (CL), ed. Earl Leslie Griggs (Oxford: Clarendon, 1956--) 2: 928.
(13.) S. T. Coleridge, Biographia Literaria (BL), Vol. 1, ed. James Engell and W. Jackson Bate (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1983) 291.
(14.) S. T. Coleridge, The Statesman's Manual (SM) in Lay Sermons, ed. R. J. White (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1972) 22.
(15.) David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779), Part 7. Philo, the hardlined skeptic, relates to Cleanthes, the more cautious skeptic, the Brahmin theory that the "world arose from an infinite spider, who spun this whole complicated mass from his bowels, and annihilates afterwards the whole or any part of it, by absorbing it again and resolving it into his own essence." The argument that a possible world exists wholly inhabited by these spiders prompts Philo to assert "Why an orderly system may not be spun from the belly as well as from the brain, it will be difficult for [Cleanthes] to give a satisfactory reason" (DCNR 51). The argument did not convince Cleanthes, nor did it convince Coleridge.
(16.) David Hume, Treatise on Human Nature (THN), ed. David Fate Norton and Mary J. Norton (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000) 112.
(17.) S. T. Coleridge, The Notebooks of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Vol. 2, 1804-1808, ed. Kathleen Coburn (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1961) 2370.
(18.) See the discussion of necessity in SM: "Suffer me to inform or remind you, that there is a threefold Necessity. There is a logical, and there is a mathematical, necessity; but the latter is always hypothetical, and both subsist formally only, not in any real object. Only by the intuition and immediate spiritual consciousness of the idea of God, as the One and Absolute, at once the Ground and Cause, who alone containeth in himself the ground of his own nature, and therein of all natures, do we arrive at the third, which alone is a real objective, necessity. Here the immediate consciousness decides: the idea is its own evidence, and is insusceptible of all other" (SM 32, final emphasis mine).
(19.) For Locke, ideas are those things furnished to the understanding through either sensation or reflection (Essay Concerning Human Understanding, ed. Peter H. Nidditch [Oxford: Oxford UP, 1975] 1.ii.3-4). Knowledge is "nothing but the perception of the connexion and agreement, or disagreement and repugnancy of any of our Ideas" (EHU 4.1.2).
(20.) The OED cites Coleridge as the first to use "educt" in this way ("educt," The Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed., 1989, OED Online: Oxford UP, 4 Apr. 2000).
(21.) I use this phrase, used by Kant in The Critique of Judgment to signify the feeling of aesthetic pleasure, in the more general sense of an "interaction" among the various faculties. It is
significant, though, that the language used by Kant to describe aesthetic pleasure may apply equally well to the formation of the Coleridgean idea. In both cases, there is a reaction against the perceived rigidity of dogmatic rationalism or empiricism and a willingness to recognize the reality of certain mental events that would ordinarily be subordinated to propositional or discursive reasoning.
(22.) In the now classic definition from The Statesman's Manual: the symbol "always partakes of the Reality which it renders intelligible; and while it enunciates the whole, abides itself as a living part in that Unity, of which it is representative" (SM 30).
(23.) As R. J. White notes in his edition of the Lay Sermons, this idea is untraced in Bacon.
(24.) See John Guillory's widely influential analysis in Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1993).
(25.) S. T. Coleridge, Marginalia IV (CM), ed. H. J. Jackson and George Whalley (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1998) 75.
(26.) The phrasing here is reminiscent of Coleridge's claim, derived from Schelling, in the Biographia that "Matter has no Inward" (BL 1: 133). The language of surface and depth, appearance and reality, to describe both the Scottish and matter is suggestive: it was Hume, after all. who banished the ideas of substance, self, and essence from philosophy altogether. Scots like Hume, then, appear to be all surface and no depth, acutely aware of their own ideas but resolutely determined not to inquire into their origin.
(27.) S. T. Coleridge, Lectures 1818-1819: On the History of Philosophy (LHP), ed. J.R. de J. Jackson (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2000), Vol. 1: 259.
(28.) Knud Haakonssen, "The Structure of Hume's Political Theory" in The Cambridge Companion to Hume, ed. David Fate Norton (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1993) 182.
(29.) David Hume, Political Essays (PE), ed. Charles W. Hendel (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1953) 13.
(30.) David Hume, Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (EPM) (Amherst: Prometheus, 2004) 196.
(31.) Hume would revise his position in ''Of the Origin of Government" (1777), where he contends, much as he does in "Of the Original Contract," that authority is established first by force, then gradually by a mixture of force and consent, and maintained by habits of submission.
(32.) David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, ed. L. A. Selby-Bigge (Oxford: Clarendon, 1978) 496.
(33.) Benedict de Spinoza, Tractatus Politicus in The Chief Works of Benedict de Spinoza, trans. R. H. M. Elwes (London: George Bell and Sons, 1889) 1.1.1-6.
(34.) See John Morrow, Coleridge's Political Thought: Property, Morality, and the Limits of Traditional Discourse (New York: St. Martin's, 1990).
(35.) S. T. Coleridge, Letter to Rev. Joseph Hughes, Nov. 24, 1819 in CL 6: Appendix B, 1049.
(36.) Immanuel Kant, Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics, trans. Paul Carus (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1977) 291.
(37.) It should be noted that Kant, in the Analytic of Principles, suggests something similar to Coleridge's subordination of the understanding to reason: the "Understanding-in-General" (Verstandes uberhaupt) consists of the understanding (Verstand), the power of judgment (Urteilskraft), and reason (Vernunft). Kant's "Understanding-in-General" does not, however, perform the intuitive acts of apprehension and identification Coleridge assigns to the "discourse of reason," or the understanding enlightened by reason.
(38.) S. T. Coleridge, Letter to George Coleridge, March 10, 1798 in CL 1: 397.
(39.) Constitution of 1791 in A Documentary Survey of the French Revolution, ed. John Hall Stewart (New York: Macmillan, 1951) 234.
(40.) Laurence Lockridge, Review of Coleridge's Opus Maximum in The Wordsworth Circle (Fall 2002): 133.
(41.) Laurence Lockridge, Coleridge the Moralist (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1977) 268.
(42.) In upholding this distinction, Coleridge most clearly diverges from the kind of pragmatist ethics suggested by his repeated endorsement of a prudential politics of expediency.
(43.) William Hazlitt, "My First Acquaintance with Poets" (1823) in The Selected Writings of William Hazlitt (London: Picketing and Chatto, 1998) 9: 100.
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|Title Annotation:||Samuel Taylor Coleridge|
|Publication:||Studies in Romanticism|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2010|
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