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Book Announcement: Coleridge and Contemplation

Congratulations to Peter Cheyne and his contributors on the forthcoming Coleridge and Contemplation collection, which Peter describes below.  BARS helped to support a workshop that was part of the book’s development process.

Book announcement: Peter Cheyne (ed.), Coleridge and Contemplation, OUP, 2017

A collection of essays on Coleridge’s contemplative philosophy written by philosophers, intellectual historians, and leading literary authorities on Coleridge.


The editor and authors of Coleridge and Contemplation would like to thank BARS for a grant that assisted a workshop at the University of Cambridge English Faculty, 10–11 August, 2015. The workshop enabled contributing authors of Coleridge and Contemplation to present their research so that internal connections within the overall work could be better understood and developed.

Sarah Hutton, Graham Davidson, and Matthew Gibson were present as auditors, providing the authors with keen interrogations and constructive criticism. Further reviews of papers as they developed into book chapters were provided by romanticists Anthony J. Harding and Alan P. R. Gregory, philosopher Stephen Priest, and the two anonymous Coleridge scholars arranged by OUP.

The book is now available for order, and Oxford University Press have provided a 30% discount code, AAFLY6G, which can be used at the OUP webpage for the book. The remainder of this report is a description of the four parts of the book—I. Poetics and Aesthetics; II. Worldviews: Science, Ethics, and Politics; III. Metaphysics; and IV. Philosophy of Religion—and of its foreword by Mary Warnock.



In her discursive foreword Mary Warnock addresses:

  • the search for meaning and truth ‘in poetry [where the] symbolic or interpretative capacity is sharpened and concentrated’;
  • whether or not we should consider Coleridge as a philosopher;
  • how Coleridge’s theory of ‘Ideas’ as objective realities distances his thinking from Kant’s;
  • the related question of whether his recourse to faith constitutes a relinquishment of philosophy, or is ‘a continuation rather than an abandonment of Reason’.


Part I: Poetics and Aesthetics

Jim Mays’ essay follows the ascent from the technical understanding of a poem and its processes, toward a sense of ‘spiritual contemplation’. Slow-reading a short Coleridge poem, ‘First Advent of Love’, written later in life, and representing lifelong concerns, Mays adopts Adorno’s argument that technique is the way art thinks, to describe the kind of meditation involved in both reading and writing the poem. He contrasts this kind of meditation with the different, analytical process involved in Coleridge’s prose writing. He reveals how in ‘First Advent’ feelings adjust through a web of sounds, images, and allusions (to neo-Platonic ideas about love mediated through Renaissance and contemporary German authors). Inquiry into what is most important in the poem involves the matter of how the poem works: a matter of ‘Understanding’. Mays then looks to higher, numinous qualities in the poem that go beyond the understanding, and are properly imaginative in terms of Coleridge’s diagram of the ‘Order of the Mental Powers’, mediating between ‘Understanding’ and ‘Reason’ in terms of enérgeia, the topic of my own essay.

David E. Cooper’s essay, ‘Meditation on the Move’, relates a mode of meditation with walking in natural environments. This mode is identified by drawing on texts from Coleridge, Bashō, Rousseau, and Thoreau. The style of meditation is a spontaneous, supple and responsive mindfulness of the world through which one moves. The connection is noted between this style of meditation, in which Coleridge too engaged, and the ‘rambling’ or ‘wandering’ kind of thinking encouraged by the Daoist master, Zhuangzi. Relevant considerations of why walking in natural environments seems to be especially conducive to such meditation include rhythmic calm, and an ‘unselfing’ whereby, as Coleridge puts, it, ‘individuality is lost’ when immersed in the environments through which one walks. Finally, Cooper argues that meditation on the move is hospitable to certain conceptions of reality. In particular, it encourages a sense of the world as an integral whole that comes to presence for walkers as a mysterious ‘gift’.

James Kirwan examines Coleridge’s analysis of beauty in the ‘Principles of Genial Criticism’ (1814), which aimed to establish a religious dimension to aesthetic experience. Coleridge’s argument is traced through his Kantian account of aesthetic judgement, and his assertion of unity-in-multiplicity as the formal condition of beauty, to his grounding beauty in that which is ‘pre-configured’ to our faculties. Coleridge’s depends on eighteenth-century aesthetic axioms, despite deliberately avoiding explicit reference to such accounts, electing Plotinus instead as a precursor. Coleridge is therefore reluctant, Kirwan suggests, to explain aesthetic experience in purely psychological and, potentially, exclusively naturalistic terms. The appeal to Plotinus’s traditional notion of beauty as the soul’s recognition of its divine origin, grounds aesthetic experience in religion. Concomitantly, in Coleridge’s reassertion of the claims of religion in the wake of the Enlightenment, aesthetic experience as contemplation of the world as it is becomes proof of the existence of the divine.

Kathleen Wheeler reads Dewey’s Art as Experience as steeped in Coleridge, a constant reference throughout this foundational pragmatist aesthetics. Indeed Dewey said he found ‘spiritual emancipation’ in Coleridge’s Aids to Reflection, calling it ‘my first Bible’ (qtd John Beer Aids to Reflection cxxv). Coleridge’s account of perception as active and creative––not passively receptive, gave Dewey profound insight into human experience, and helped him articulate his philosophy of ‘art as experience’ whereby art originates in imaginative ordinary life. For Coleridge, ‘act’ and ‘activity’ ground both mind and matter in the same natural powers of production/ creation: ‘a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I am’. Dewey’s analogy between the error of separating art from ordinary life, and divorcing imaginativeness from ordinary perception shows how memories of prior acts of imaginative perception usurp the place of actual acts, as dead metaphors do in language.

Roger Scruton reflects on Coleridge’s famous fancy–imagination distinction, which inspired Scruton’s own distinction between fantasy and imagination. The continuing relevance of Coleridge’s distinction lies in recognizing imagination as essentially truth-directed. Importantly, we can venture into the unreal with two quite different intentions––to become lost there, or to find ourselves. We can see the unreal world as a place of escape, fulfilling dreams in cost-free ways that set up channels of reward which so often lead to addiction and psychological enslavement (as in pornography). Or, we can see the world of the unreal as an imaginative construct for deeper epistemological purposes, to know through sympathy the varieties of human life, as life that could be ours. Scruton reserves the term ‘imagination’ for this second approach. This imaginary is the unreal called to judgment by the real, in contrast with the pretence of reality in clichéd, sentimental, or kitsch fantasy.


Part II: Worldviews: Science, Ethics, and Politics

David Knight begins the section on Coleridge’s contemplative worldviews, and chronologically follows Coleridge’s lifetime fascination with medicine as its focus shifted from anatomy, the analysis of structures, towards physiology, elucidating the processes of life. He believed that all sciences should progress from a static to a dynamic world-view, making them worthy of contemplation, feeding Reason rather than just understanding. Through Thomas Beddoes in Bristol he met young Humphry Davy, whose dynamical researches on laughing gas and electrochemistry delighted him. Coleridge became a critic of science as well as literature, rejoicing as Davy isolated new metals, cast light on acidity, and invented the miners’ safety lamp. But after 1820 Davy turned haughty, and Coleridge deplored chemists’ empire-building as science became a professional career; while in medicine French materialism threatened the dynamic vitalism of John Hunter that Coleridge and his host James Gillman favoured. Sadly science, once so promising, looked decreasingly suitable for his kind of philosophical contemplation.

Philip Aherne examines Coleridge’s influence in Cambridge through the nineteenth century, especially as it affected the development of a philosophy he opposed, utilitarianism. Aherne accepts Skorupski’s (1993) assessment of Coleridge as an important precursor of British idealism, finding his philosophy a particular blend of German transcendentalism, Platonic creeds, and Christian ethics representing a distinct school in its own terms. His contemporary significance was undoubtedly influential. In 1890, James Martineau argued for Coleridge’s influence in British philosophy through the nineteenth century, claiming that ‘his Platonic gospel has passed in the heart of our generation’ and declared that ‘empirical psychology and utilitarian ethics are the permanent objects of Coleridge’s hostility’. Martineau was extending Mill’s dichotomous paradigm of Bentham versus Coleridge. Aherne, however, questions the stability of this opposition, claiming that Mill’s development of Utilitarian ethics depended on Coleridge’s epistemological distinction between Reason and Understanding.

Kaz Oishi assesses contemplation in Coleridge’s philanthropic thought in the 1810s. Even after his disillusionment with the French Revolution, he remained preoccupied with welfare issues such as destitution and the condition of labourers. His new stance towards national ‘well-being’ emphasizes the contemplative power of the human mind both in religious and secular spheres. Oishi describes how Coleridge developed it in response to Robert Owen’s welfare and educational programmes as manifested in New View of Society (1813). Coleridge’s The Statesman’s Manual (1816) and A Lay Sermon (1817) can be read as a critique of Owen’s secular and empiricist notion of philanthropy. It is also significant that this contemplative ideal of ‘well-being’ serves as an antithesis to the Utilitarian concept of wealth under a laissez-faire economy. Coleridge’s contemplation as ‘a total act of the soul’ distinguishes itself as a unique politico-religious virtue in the context of the 1810s.

Andy Hamilton assesses Coleridge’s place in conservative and liberal traditions of thought. In the decades after his death, Coleridge was regarded as a conservative. Mill saw him as a ‘Tory philosopher’; he viewed Coleridgean conservatism as some have seen Burke’s, as a Second––not Counter––Enlightenment view. Burke does not figure as a conservative in Mill’s discussion. However, late nineteenth-century constructors of an ideology of English conservatism preferred to appeal to Burke’s scepticism about reason, while Coleridge’s philosophical prestige was waning. Coleridge’s affiliation with Continental-style ‘rational conservatism’ is also assessed. Competing conceptions of reason condition his rationalism. The picture is similar when one considers the relation between his conservatism and his radicalism. With every major conservative thinker––Burke, Coleridge, Oakeshott––this question of progressiveness versus conservatism arises.


Part III: Metaphysics

Peter Cheyne’s essay discusses Coleridge’s ‘Order of the Mental Powers’ (OMP) in the context of what he identifies as the energic–energetic distinction. The OMP diagram is used to show Coleridge as a two-levels theorist, with the higher and lower levels capable of participation across a fundamental difference. Coleridge is thus a thinker communicating the dynamics of thought within an overarching concern for the ‘energies of Reason’. The restless, flowing, and challenging quality of his writings is therefore balanced by, and subordinated to, the higher level of intellection that he held as a spiritual conatus straining towards ultimate ends and meaningful values. In this two-level theory, energetic desire, pleasure, psychological forces of association, and the ‘mechanical’ understanding operate more naturally on the lower level, while the higher understanding, imagination, and ‘Positive Reason’ work within the enérgeia of free will in the higher mind.

Dillon Struwig presents Coleridge as a two-levels theorist of the innate powers of mind, arguing that Coleridge distinguishes (1) a transcendental, Kantian sense of the a priori, consisting in the principles of human discursive cognition (comparable to Plato’s dianoia), from (2) a noetic, Platonic a priori, consisting in the principles of intellectual intuition (or ēsis, an intuitive cognition that apprehends ontological, theological, and ethical truths). Drawing on Logic and Opus Maximum, Struwig demonstrates that Coleridge takes Kantian a priori principles to be ‘subjectively real’ principles of cognition dependent upon the cognitive constitution of finite subjects, whereas Platonic a priori principles are for Coleridge ‘objectively real’ principles of cognition (and of being) that are dependent upon ‘the transcendent and unindividual’ reason (i.e. God, ‘the absolute Self, Spirit, or Mind’). This two-levels theory is framed in terms of Coleridge’s Kantian ‘threefold division’ of the human cognitive capacities into sense, understanding, and reason, and their respective a priori operations and contents.

Cristina Flores explores the influence of Cambridge Platonist Ralph Cudworth’s philosophical system on Coleridge’s notion of contemplation. Coleridge studied Cudworth’s True Intellectual System early in his career, from 1795 to 1797, before his acquaintance with German thought. Flores contends that Coleridge’s theory of contemplative experience has an initial basis in the Cambridge Platonist’s ontological and epistemological tenets. Coleridge’s conversation poems, written during his perusal of Cudworth’s magnum opus, lay the groundwork for a metaphysical theory of contemplation. In these, which he called ‘Meditative Poems in Blank Verse’, Coleridge dramatizes meditative experience as he conceived it at this early stage of his career. Flores establishes a comparison between Coleridge’s early view of contemplative experience, and the related ‘Order of the Mental Powers’ in considering the influence of Cudworth’s philosophical tenets in Coleridge’s Platonist foundations.

Douglas Hedley takes as his theme the deep roots in the Platonic tradition of Coleridge’s view of contemplation as the experience of nóēsis, for Plato the highest form of epistēmē, being the knowledge of ‘Ideas’ beyond dianoia (discursive and conceptual understanding). Coleridge’s theory of the symbol only makes sense within this metaphysical-theological context. Plotinus’s decisive contribution within Coleridge’s metaphysics is often overlooked. Contemplation, for Plotinus, is connected to Gift. Contemplation is always a return to the ‘Giving’ of the One (rooted in Plato’s ‘unbegrudging’ Goodness of the demiurge, Timaeus 29), and this process of gift and return is mirrored throughout different levels of reality. Like the Cambridge Platonists before him, Coleridge furnished this contemplative return with a Trinitarian articulation. Coleridge’s own contemplative theology is especially inspired by the revival of neo-Platonism in German idealism.

James Engell concludes the section on metaphysics with a comprehensive and illuminating treatment of Coleridge’s philosophy as it incorporates what Engell sees as a series of processes, beings, and relations that are contemplative and yet, most fundamentally, active. Giving central place to the ‘originating Act of self affirmation’, which has profound implications for Coleridge’s religious views as well as for his philosophic thought, this essay considers Coleridge’s metaphysics and his philosophy of religion as one. Coleridge holds that the Act links philosophy and religion so that they are inseparable. Moreover, his insistence on a series of related acts, on agency, as central to religious and philosophical thought has implications for his emphasis on the Will and the Trinity, as well as for his principle of the Logos and what he calls the ‘Dynamic Philosophy’ and its ‘polar logic’.  In this manner he may be seen as a modified Platonist, yet also something of a pragmatist, and a trinitarian Christian.


Part IV: Philosophy of Religion

Coleridge tells us that religion passes beyond the ken, the horizon, of reason, with faith its continuation. Michael McGhee reflects on Coleridge’s illuminating metaphor of twilight, night, and the starry heavens to see how the experiential forms it draws on can affect our understanding of terms like ‘reason’ and ‘faith’. Tentatively suppressing the face value acceptance of those terms, McGhee concentrates on the metaphor and the experience, to see where they lead without the leash of orthodox doctrine controlling the interpretation. Preserving ‘the Soul steady and concentered in its Trance of inward Adoration’ is the crucial experience. Twilight stealing into darkness and into night suggests progressing stillness, its associated concentration opening up a real prospect, the starry heavens, ordinarily concealed by the light of day and quotidian clamour. McGhee then reflects on Buddhist meditational traditions, where concentration or samadhi is as a condition of awakening, seeing things as they are, and this is associated with ‘compassion’ or karuna.

Noriko Naohara explores Coleridgean contemplation as ‘an inward Beholding having a similar relation to the Intelligible or Spiritual, as sense has to the Material or Phenomenal’. Though the development of his religious thinking involves much conflict between rationalism and faith, Coleridge retained Christian spirituality and this definition of Reason indicates his confidence about the human mind intuiting God as spiritual substance. His idea of language is similar to St Augustine’s, and he thinks that human speech could denote the divine Word as Augustine shows in The Trinity. He suggests that the generative process of human language is guided by the Will longing for redemption by Christ. Reason will return towards God supported by the aspiring Will that would move towards the divine Word, or Reason in its objective sense. His theology is that of waiting on God and it shows us a significant guide to faith in a post-Kantian era.

Suzanne Webster concentrates on Coleridge’s theological reflections, especially those of his final years. She finds in Coleridge’s notebooks and other key works, including the Theory of Life and Aids to Reflection, generally consistent results in his efforts to define, desynonymize, and establish the ‘Order of the Mental Powers’. By 1830, with regard to the human being on earth (or the earthly human ‘Personal Identity’), he had filled out his perception of the order of these powers in the context of what he called the ‘triple Ichheit’. Regarding Coleridge’s thought about the origins of contemplative acts and their processes, Webster’s essay explores the ‘Order of the Mental Powers’ as Coleridge saw them within the contexts of the triple Ichheit. She further explains how this ordering related to Coleridge’s thoughts on God, the hypostases of the Trinity, and the relationships between Will, Reason, and Faith.

Gerald Janzen’s essay, ‘Notebook 55 as Contemplative Coda to Coleridge’s Work and Life’, is fittingly the final essay in the volume. This essay construes Coleridge’s last Notebook (March–April 1834, which he titled, ‘Faith, Prayer, Meditation’) as the coda to his work and life, on analogy with the concluding lines to Biographia Literaria and to Opus Maximum Fragment 2, lines likewise taken as codas to their respective works. Building on Mays’ characterization of Coleridge’s ‘poetry of the affections’, and on his identification of the arc of Coleridge’s life as arising within the bosom of his father’s so-called ‘simple’ faith, navigating ‘strange seas of thought’, and coming home at the end to his own (more complicated) simplicity, Janzen argues that one ‘Clew’ to Notebook 55 as coda to his work and life lies in the place the affections enjoy in Coleridge’s notebooks of 1827–34, whose entries most deeply constitute exercises in contemplation.