Five Questions: Peter Cheyne on Coleridge’s Contemplative Philosophy

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Peter Cheyne is an associate professor at Shimane University, where he teaches British Literature, Culture and Philosophy. He has published widely on intellectual history and Romantic and post-Romantic thinking, including articles in the Heythrop Journal, Intellectual History Review, the Journal of Romanticism, the Coleridge Bulletin and the Journal of Scottish Thought. His edited collection Coleridge and Contemplation was published by Oxford University Press in 2017. His first monograph, Coleridge’s Contemplative Philosophy, which we discuss below, was published by OUP earlier this year.

1) How did you first become interested in Coleridge’s philosophy?

My previous research, on nineteenth- and twentieth-century existential philosophy, led me to the poetics of thought in articulating meaning and value in relation to mood and intuitions of one’s general situation. While Kierkegaard, Heidegger, and Sartre commenced from analyses of despair, anxiety, and nausea, I grew interested in how Wordsworth and thinkers he influenced, such as A. N. Whitehead and C. S. Lewis, discovered joy as an encompassing state that perceives transcendent value in immanent and often otherwise ordinary contexts. Making notes on how writers found ways to communicate apparently ineffable or elusive experience, Keats also seemed very promising, and I kept a box of jottings on the poetics of thought in an abstract, philosophical sense illustrated by concrete instances drawn from poetry and poetic prose. From here, I went to F. H. Bradley, the British idealist, and his idea that the ‘sensuous infinitude’ of any perceived object always reveals relations. I also recalled reading something in Mary Warnock’s foreword to Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, where she claimed that Coleridge, more than any other writer in English, demonstrated the belief that careful observation and detailed description in a philosophic mind could somehow reveal the meaning of existence at large. So that’s the circuit of how I was drawn to Coleridge’s philosophy. I soon found Coleridge as Philosopher, by J. H. Muirhead, another British idealist, and Owen Barfield’s What Coleridge Thought, both luminous in their different ways, as I read through Shedd’s old multi-volume edition of Coleridge’s Complete Works—which I later replaced with the more complete and better-edited Bollingen edition. Books on Coleridge by S. V. Pradhan, James Cutsinger, and Alan Gregory were also very helpful in illuminating the dynamics of Coleridge’s thought in its own terms, as were those by Douglas Hedley, Mary Anne Perkins, and James Vigus, in relating his thought to Platonic, pagan, and Judeo-Christian sources.

Unlike many writers on ideas that transcend conceptual comprehension, Coleridge avoided trailing off prematurely into shrouds of mystery through his commitment to the ‘enlightened understanding’ as illuminated by the higher reason and articulated in the ‘discourse of reason’ (The Friend, 1: 156). This was what I was after: not a noble sigh given up to the negativity of apophasis, but a positivity that pushed to the edge of what could be described or intimated and which understood the poetics of thought in the search for meaning in life and its communication. My research initially explored Coleridge’s philosophy primarily in terms of imagination, and towards to the end of that process I moved on to what became Coleridge’s Contemplative Philosophy, progressing more fully into reason and the ideas.

2) How did you come to pick ‘contemplative’ as a key term for your analysis?

This term arose in connection with a well-known aspect of Coleridge’s thinking, namely, his version of the distinction between the understanding (and its concepts) and the reason (and its ideas). While this distinction has been much discussed, what is generally less well attended to is his insistence that the ‘Understanding is the faculty of Reflection. Reason of Contemplation’ (Aids to Reflection, 223). Readers who even loosely synonymize reflection and contemplation will miss this crucial point of his later thinking.

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The Difference in Kind of Reason and the Understanding: Autograph manuscript reproduced courtesy of the University of Iowa Library (Special Collections, MS, corresponding to Aids to Reflection, 223–4.

Coleridge’s philosophy is characterized by the pursuit of ideas, which he also calls noetic powers, ‘eternal verities’ that include God, freedom, beauty, truth, the soul, and the infinite. ‘Ideas’, as he wrote in a notebook entry of December 1825, ‘are not conceived but contemplated. They may be apprehended but cannot be comprehended’. However imperfectly we behold them, he claims in On the Constitution of the Church and State (47 fn.), their apprehension is essential to human dignity and moral being. Concerning the understanding, its concepts, and its categories, Coleridge shares much with his contemporaries, such as Schelling and Hegel, and with recent forebears, such as Kant, and even with empiricists such as Locke, Hume, and Hartley. His view of the imagination, too, is worked out from tangles with contemporaries, especially Schelling and Wordsworth, and he overlaps here in some important points with Blake. But it is with his thinking on the reason and the ideas that Coleridge steps further back into his Christian, Platonic, neo-Platonic, and even Pythagorean, Orphic, and Eleusinian sources. Contrary to thinkers for whom the ideas of reason arose from the human mind, as Kant held, or from an immanent Absolute, with the early Schelling, Coleridge consistently argued for the ‘the transcendency of the Nous’, i.e. of the transcendence of reason and its ‘ideas’, as that ‘more than man which is one and the same in all men’ (‘Lecture on the Prometheus’; ‘Ideal of an Ink-stand’).

The ideas in this sense increasingly intrigued Coleridge. An idea is not something one can contemplate in the ordinary sense, he argued, as a subject contemplates an extraneous object. Rather, an idea can only be beheld as a living subject in self-contemplation, as a subject that is its own object, the human mind realizing in this activity what was earlier only potential in its being. To apprehend an idea, that is, the human mind must realize the idea in self-intuition; it must create in itself what it will contemplate. As Coleridge puts it, ‘the νους [noûs] is that in which the idea is at the same time the reality; the knowing is the thing known’ (Logic, 93). This advances a very specific sense of contemplation which goes back to what Plato called noesis. Coleridge, acknowledging this tradition, calls his own higher logic ‘Noetic’ and describes his schema of it as the ‘universal Form of Contemplation’ (Marginalia, 5: 631, on Jeremy Taylor). As he says in Aids to Reflection, such contemplation is an ‘inward Beholding’, ‘a direct Aspect of Truth’, being an intellectual ‘relation to the Intelligible or Spiritual’ that is analogous to the sensible intuition of the material or phenomenal. That passage paraphrases Richard Hooker, in one among many instances where his recourse to the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Anglican divines reflects his commitment to what he called, in his beloved notebooks, ‘the spiritual platonic old England’, which had in a sense gone underground, still cultivating, but now concealed by the largely empiricist and ‘commercial G. Britain’ (Notebooks, 2: §2598).

In that passage in Aids to Reflection, he starkly contrasts, in two parallel columns, the understanding versus the reason. His sense of contemplation as opposed to reflection is at the nub of my reconstruction of Coleridge’s contemplative philosophy. He firmly holds apart reflection, as a discursive, mediating, and analytic function of the understanding, from contemplation, as the fixed, immediate, and intuitive act of the reason. Because his philosophical aim was to behold the ideas of reason and to come to terms with their role as constitutive powers not only in the human mind but in the cosmos at large and, ultimately, in the divine Logos, his was a contemplative philosophy.

This reading brings into focus Coleridge’s identifying intuitive reason with contemplation, his preoccupation with immediate beholding, and his placing ‘Noetic’ at the apex of his hierarchy of the sciences, where the ‘Empiric’ deals with sense and phenomena; ‘Mathematics’ with the same but more abstractly, in the a priori conditions of space and time; ‘Logic’ with the categories of the understanding; with ‘Noetics’ being the highest science, beyond ordinary logic, treating of ideas and first principles as ‘the evidence of reason’ (Logic, 44). This sense of contemplation is synonymous with reason, understood as the human access to Logos, and with noesis, as the inward beholding of ideas as formative, divine powers that order the moral and physical cosmos. So, my book could have been titled Coleridge’s Noetic Philosophy, although I think that Contemplative Philosophy better conveys the Christian frame of his thinking that is not at the fore in the more Platonically oriented term, ‘Noetic’.

3) Many studies of Coleridge focus on his early poetry, and while your book pays due attention to what you call his ‘imagination period’ (1795–1816), your focus is on the later part of his life (a second phase, stretching from 1816–30, examining the philosophy of ideas, and an overlapping third phase, covering 1822–34, focusing on theology).  What do you think are the main things that scholars have to gain from paying more attention to the later Coleridge?

One of the main things to gain, I think, by greater attention to the later writings is progression into Coleridge’s own project after he launches, with the symbols of the imagination, into the sea of ideas and then onto the ocean of a spiritual realism where he plumbs the depths of a cosmically aboriginal will and charts the skies of a philosophical theology of the ‘divine Ideas’. Twentieth-century Coleridge studies were dominated by his early imagination period, from John Livingston Lowes’ Road to Xanadu and his more-or-less associationist study of poetic process, and I. A. Richards’ secularized reduction in Coleridge on Imagination, to more thoroughly Coleridgean accounts that acknowledge symbolism beyond scientistic naturalism, such as Robert Penn Warren’s essay, ‘A Poem of Pure Imagination’, and Robert Barth’s sacramentalist study, The Symbolic Imagination. Lowes’ and Richards’ works were tours de force in terms of their authors’ aims, but they stripped Coleridgean theory of the metaphysics that motivated it, in line with the Anglophone philosophy of their time. Also, while volume 1 of Biographia Literaria remained entangled in an attempt to deduce and define the imagination, Coleridge was more at ease to move beyond this in The Statesman’s Manual, where the symbols of the imagination aim towards the ideas, the ‘self-circling energies of the reason’. His subsequent works continue this pursuit of reason and the ideas, the objects of contemplation. Coleridge insisted that while the imagination remained important for him, it was not an end point, but rather a means of reaching or anticipating the ideas of reason, the living powers, or rays of the Logos, as he sometimes puts it, that exist beyond the human mind and which give moral purpose and physical shape to the universe. I hope the thrill of this pursuit comes across in the book.

Regardless of one’s own philosophical outlook, Coleridge’s idealism is profound and fascinating. I think there is much good work to be done on how Coleridge uses his various modes of prose and poetry to pass on a spark or awaken readers to what he says cannot be contained within comprehension, and how he develops the ‘discourse of reason’ as a conceptual space that can be, as he puts it, enlightened by reason. This research area is fruitfully interdisciplinary, requiring analysis in terms of literature, linguistics, philosophy, history, and religion.

Coleridge’s aim through and beyond imagination, into reason and the ideas, did not come from an abrupt swerve after the Biographia, but already exists as a sensibility in the high points of his earlier writings, though it took him the rest of his life to work out his terms and arguments. I am thinking of sublime moments as when he gazes on the ‘moon dim-glimmering thro’ the dewy window-pane’ of his ‘sky-chamber’ in Valetta and is overtaken by an intuition of the deep connection of outer perception and inner significance as the ‘dim Awaking’ within of ‘Λογος [Logos] the Creator’ (Notebooks, 2: §§2370, 2546). And, going back to his poetic annus mirabilis, one finds numerous images of this sense of profound, noetic contemplation, such as the revelation or intimation of the soul and nature itself reflecting back to its supernatural source, in the symbolism of ‘the secret ministry of frost’ and its ‘silent icicles | Quietly shining to the quiet Moon’.

In my book, a culminating chapter on the ‘Limbo’ sequence of poems (1811) draws together various modes of contemplation, and its rejection, with Coleridgean thoughts on freedom, metaphysics, and eschatology, especially in relation to the writings of the mystic philosopher Jakob Böhme, who had a profound yet complicating influence on Coleridge. Coleridge drastically modified Böhme’s radically anti-hierarchical lines of thought into a Christian Platonist hierarchy while retaining elements such as the mystic thinker’s logic of qualities; an almost alchemical dynamic of transmutation; and the theo-philosophical precedence of will. The ‘Limbo’ sequence presents a breathtakingly bounded vision of all existence—and nothingness, or ‘blank Naught at all’—dramatically mapped out along opposed poles of dazzling contemplation, in heaven, and a steady but uncertain inner gazing, on earth, on the positive side, versus the light-shrinking, materialist moles, also on earth, the emaciated shades in Limbo, and the ‘Condensed Blackness, and Abyssmal Storm’ of Satan, the ‘Dragon’, at the diabolical, light-rejecting extreme of ‘positive Negation!’ While ‘Moles’, ‘Limbo’, and ‘Ne Plus Ultra’ are usually categorized as ‘later poems’, coming almost a decade years after ‘Dejection: An Ode’ (1802), they still occur within Coleridge’s ‘imagination’ period. I also draw on number of later poems in the book, such as ‘What is Reason?’ (1821–2, 1829), which directly relates to Coleridgean ‘Noetics’, and wish I could have had more space to discuss ‘What is Life?’ (1804), ‘Human Life’ (1811–15?), and ‘Self-Knowledge [Γνῶθι σεαυτόν]’ (1834?), three poems in which Coleridge returns over a very wide span of years to the ‘big questions’ of philosophy. Relatedly, Jim Mays has written to me to suggest that ‘Alice du Clós’ (1828–9)—which Mays explicates in an appendix to Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner—surprisingly reinforces the argument of my book on the ethical need for contemplative purpose to steer an innocent but directionless will.

4) One of the canards about Coleridge is that he never finished anything.  To what extent do you see his philosophical thought as an achieved system, and to what extent an assemblage of fragments that don’t fully cohere?

In the prose books he brought to publication—from the Biographia; Statesman’s Manual; the revised, more philosophical Friend; Aids to Reflection; to Church and State—Coleridge not only pushes against his British contemporaries’ common-sense frames of commercialism, mechanism, and empiricism, and against the immanentizing tendencies of Kant, Schelling, and other German thinkers whose transcendental methods he redirected towards transcendence, he also advances an increasingly cohesive, positive philosophy. Besides these later works that he saw through the press, we also have his later letters; his Lectures on the History of Philosophy; the Logic; the Opus Maximum; Table Talk; the Marginalia; and the Notebooks, an invaluable record of the human mind inquiring into its own possibility and value, progressing interweaving filaments of thought over years and often decades. The Logic, as Robin Jackson’s historical and contextual introduction to the Bollingen edition emphasizes, is far from fragmentary, and two bound volumes exist in fair copy, volume 1 being 90 continuous folios, and volume 2 containing 467. Coleridge tried to publish it in 1823, 1826, and again in 1829. Although he wished to add a final section on the ‘Noetic’, or higher logic of ideas, the noetic material comes into its own through the Opus Maximum, Aids to Reflection, Church and State, many of his notes and letters, and numerous texts collected in Shorter Works and Fragments.

This ‘Noetic’ was the culmination of his philosophy, the spire, tapering towards ideas. My method of reconstruction involves a diachronic study of the development of his thought and a synchronic analysis of what I call the nodal points of his later philosophy, testing different statements against each other and locating points of stability. This method identified notable, recurrent patterns that are further illuminated by many of Coleridge’s own schemata, such as his Schellingian upward-and-downward ‘fountains’ of concepts, his tetracti and pentads, and various other, often chiastic, formulations, the tracing and inter-comparison of which brings out much of the internal coherence and dynamic structure that permeates his later work.

A fundamental and in some sense simple pattern of thought that Coleridge maintains throughout his middle and later writings is his unilinear, ‘upward’, reason- and Logos-directed hierarchy, where the spiritual and intelligible in nature and humanity is based on the empirical and sensible, which are in turn shaped and directed by the subsuming reason-in-nature. I shed further light on this in the book via a comparison of Coleridge’s hierarchy of intuitive and epistemic powers with Plato’s divided line (Republic, book 6) that proceeds from imagistic thought, through common-sense opinion, through more organized and abstract understanding, and then through dialectic and rational intuition to noesis, or contemplative reason. Coleridge’s counterpart to this Platonic progression is modified by his adding a chiastic mediation, which complicates the unidirectional line of development into a bipolar, circulating, or rather spiralling evolution. It is spiralling, or ‘refluent’ as Coleridge puts it, because despite the bipolarity and the mediating chiasmus (bridging spirit, ideas, and freedom, with matter, concepts, and mechanism), the tendency is idealizing, achieved via a downflow of reason to the sense and matter that it gives direction to, in an energizing, elevating circulation. This is one of the formative patterns of thought that structure Coleridge’s philosophy and give it internal coherence. Though his later thought was increasingly intellectualist, it was not in the style of cool reason divorced from feeling; rather, it was a heady blend of philosophy, religion, and the self-articulation of a deeply immersed and highly engaged mind thinking at its limits while feeling its implications.

The gravitational pull of transformative mediation—the crucible, or mixing middle, of chiasmus—shapes an otherwise simpler Christian Platonism into the characteristically Coleridgean philosophy. What distinguishes it even from other post-Kantian philosophies, i.e. those which also challenge Kant’s limits on metaphysical ambition regarding ultimate questions and intellectual intuition, is that Coleridge adheres to traditional Christian and Platonic views of the transcendence of the divine ideas. This is what draws him to the Prometheus myth, for to account for the possibility of the human intuition of transcendent reason, or ‘Nous’, requires that the mind which contemplates the transcendent is itself a spark of transcendence, and from this position on the transcendence of reason flow his streams of thought on human dignity, freedom, conscience, and the evolution of natural and human history.

So, while I do not argue that Coleridge presented a finished system with itemized propositions and scholia, I have charted what I found to be the organizing lineaments, articulating joints, and directing dynamics of his philosophy, in which reason is an ultimately subsuming and mindful Logos.

5) What new projects are you currently working on?

Earlier this year saw the publication of The Philosophy of Rhythm: Aesthetics, Music, Poetics, a collection I co-edited for OUP, and Andy Hamilton and I plan to start work on volume 2 later this year. I’m looking forward, too, to getting back to a few works-in-progress on some quite diverse topics, including one-world versus two-world interpretations of Plato; Kierkegaard on spirit; and the paradox of fiction, or how we are moved by characters we know to be fictional. Also, because I cut about half the material from Coleridge’s Contemplative Philosophy, I have a few excised chapters that I should rearrange as journal articles.

Other directions include a couple of international, interdisciplinary projects that I’m running. One of those is on the ethics and aesthetics of imperfection, and I organized a conference on that at Kansai University, Osaka, a few weeks ago (February 2020). Three people pulled out of the symposium due to coronavirus worries, and the next conference I organized, at the University of Tokyo, had to be postponed for six months. That second project is called ‘Living Ideas: Dynamic Philosophies of Life and Matter, Reformation to Romanticism’. The project looks at how various idealist thinkers, such as the Cambridge Platonists, transcendental and/or transcendent idealists of various stripes, including, Kant, Schelling, and Coleridge, up to the objective idealism of Hegel, conceived the existence and development of matter and biological life.