Conference Report: Coleridge and Contemplation

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It’s an exciting time for Romanticism in Japan at present, with last year’s excellent Romantic Connections conference being followed closely by Coleridge and Contemplation, which took place in Kyoto last month and for which BARS provided a donation in support.  Below, we present a detailed account of the proceedings; this was written, compiled and kindly provided by Philip Aherne (KCL), Emily Holman (Oxford), Jin Lu (Chinese University of Hong Kong) and Dillon Struwig (York).  The schedule and other details of the conference can be viewed on its website, and there are plans afoot for a collection of essays developed from the papers which were given.

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Coleridge and Contemplation | Kyoto Notre Dame University | March 2015

This ambitious and successful conference gathered Coleridgean and contemplative scholars from all over the world in one of the most beautiful cities in Japan to discuss literature and philosophy, particularly in relation to Coleridge and the theme of contemplation. Thirty-four speakers presented lectures and shorter papers, eleven Guest Chairs added to that number, and a total of 107 people attended the three-day international colloquium.

The Romantic poet-philosopher S. T. Coleridge presents a unique opportunity for considering the relationship between these two different, but related, branches of the humanities. A range of topics were discussed, among them ethics, aesthetics, psychology, biblical criticism and the nature of philosophic practice. Needless to say, such intellectual diversity provided propitious ground for further contemplation from all the delegates.


Day 1: Friday 27th March

Professor Jim Mays, the renowned Coleridge scholar and editor, began the conference with a keynote lecture exploring Coleridge’s conception of contemplation in relation to the process of reading and interpreting poetry, with a focus on how Coleridge’s poetry can be seen as an attempt to work through as-yet-unarticulated emotional and intellectual problems.

In the second session, the question of contemplation was approached from three different perspectives. Jerry Chia-Je Weng considered the ways in which Coleridge’s play Osorio critically engages with the moral philosophy of Hartley and Godwin. Saeko Yoshikawa, a leading Japanese Romanticist, offered an analysis of the traces of Coleridge’s influence in the contemplative nature poetry of Edward Thomas. Emily Holman, drawing on thinkers from Newman to Maritain, advocated contemplation as a mode of knowing, in the context of F. R. Leavis’ writings on the relationship between emotion and thought in composing and interpreting poetry.

The third session, focused on Coleridge’s social, political, and ethical philosophy. Kaz Oishi, another prominent Japan-based Romanticist, offered a detailed history of the personal and intellectual relationship between Robert Owen and Coleridge, particularly with reference to their differences on economic theory, education, and the moral problems posed by child labour. Andy Hamilton considered the status of Coleridge as a conservative political and social theorist, setting Coleridge, with his balance of permanence and progression, in clearly defined relief against the political philosophies of Burke and J. S. Mill. Philip Aherne explored Coleridge’s influence on a range of nineteenth-century British philosophers and theologians.

In the final session, the theme of contemplation was again approached in a variety of ways. Yoshiko Fuji considered the textual and thematic relations between Coleridge’s mysterious ‘Woman in White’ in the multiple versions of his ‘Allegoric Vision’ and the poems Rime of the Ancient Mariner and ‘Christabel’. Jin Lu offered a new account of some of the subtle and relatively unexplored parallels between Keats’ and Coleridge’s views on poetry and philosophy, in the context of their conceptions of imagination, sense-perception, and aesthetic experience. The conference co-ordinator Peter Cheyne ended the day with an analysis of Coleridge’s ‘Order of the Mental Powers’ and how what Coleridge characterised as the higher mind subordinates the lower as it approaches contemplation through an active cognitive process that gives a role to passive associating and ‘mechanical’ forces in what Cheyne calls ‘the ordination of thought’.


Day 2: Saturday 28th March

Douglas Hedley opened the second day of the conference with a keynote lecture on Coleridge’s relationship to Plotinus and the tradition of Neoplatonic metaphysics and theology more broadly, considering the influence of this tradition on the different approaches to contemplation in medieval and modern Christian religious thought.

Christopher Kluz opened the second session with an analysis of the role of the notions of contemplation and virtue in Aristotle’s ethics, and the ways in which Spinoza attempts to engage critically and expand upon Aristotle’s core insights. Dillon Struwig offered an account of Plotinus’s theory of productive contemplation on Coleridge’s philosophy of geometry and constructive imagination. Lucas Scripter presented a critical overview of the limitations of contemporary Neo-Aristotelian Virtue Ethics, focusing on the lack of any detailed discussion of the nature and function of contemplation in many influential works in this field, particularly the writings of Alisdair MacIntyre and Philippa Foot.

In the third session, Coleridge’s views on contemplation were considered in relation to the traditions of both ancient and postmodern philosophy. For the ancient, Joseph O’Leary considered the historical and theological contexts of Coleridge’s critical responses to the thought of Plotinus, also discussing the relation of Coleridge’s views to the positions of his German theological and philosophical contemporaries, such as Schelling, Hegel, and Schleiermacher. David Vallins then offered an account of Coleridge’s views on politics, language, and society in relation to the long eighteenth-century economic theory and to Derrida’s deconstructionist theories of subjectivity and linguistic form.

The fourth session approached contemplation from a diverse range of intellectual and historical perspectives. Leesa Davis offered a critical overview of some of the limitations inherent in the conceptions of contemplation prevalent in the Western philosophical tradition, considering the possibilities for overcoming such limitations presented in the work of Bertrand Russell and others. Susan Warley discussed the relationship between the psychology of metaphor and the nature of sensory experience in Coleridge’s thought, placing it in the context of contemporary cognitive theory and philosophical analyses of metaphor. Fiona Tomkinson closed the session with an analysis of the role of Coleridgean literary allusions as plot devices in the novels of Iris Murdoch, considering also the influence of Coleridge’s poetry on Murdoch’s handling of the themes of contemplation and violence.

The day’s final session began with Matthew Sharpe’s consideration of Camus and Pierre Hadot as unique voices in twentieth-century French literature, with each exploring, in different ways, a form of philosophia as grounded in formative experience, and calling, insistently, for contemplation. Keren Mock investigated contemplation through Hebrew Scriptures as manifested in Spinoza’s translation of the Bible in Hebrew, and Coleridge’s linguistically grounded experience of contemplation through the act of translating the scriptural language. Finally, Noriko Naohara, in an Augustinian paper, considered the role of will in Coleridge’s faith and his understanding of justification, claiming that his definition of reason with regard to spiritual truths should be understood as informed by faith rather than critical epistemology.


Day 3: Palm Sunday, 29th March

The third and final day began with a subtle consideration of the implication of walking outdoors on modes of philosophical meditation by Professor David E. Cooper. After assessing a range of meditative behaviours that require movement, Cooper went on to consider a range of examples from, among others, Rousseau and Thoreau, before concluding that meditative walkers develop an integrated perspective of their place in the world.

This theme of the environmental implications of contemplation governed all the papers on the following panel. Ve-Yin Tee provided a political perspective on landscape contemplation, arguing that the urban elite, including, for example, Coleridge, have been distanced from the land, and that this led to a crisis of aesthetics; this was contrasted by James Woodhouse and his design of Leasowes Park, which was designed to induce reflection. Jonathan Parker discussed conflicting approaches to environmental aesthetics – one creative and the other governed by concepts – arguing that whilst they are arguably incommensurable, both have contemplative value and enhance an appreciation of the world. Lastly, the poet-scholar Eamonn Wall discussed how walking importantly provided Coleridge the appropriate conditions for deep contemplation alongside considering contemporary writers such as Tim Robinson and Patrick Leigh Fermor.

Mark Lussier began the third panel by considering the implications of Buddhist perspectives on mental operations alongside neuro-scientific theories of the mind that arose for Romanticism and analysed these in relation to Coleridge’s poetic practices. Setsuko Wake-Naota discussed the influence of Coleridge’s philosophical contemplation of Schelling and Wedgwood on his perception of Shakespeare’s genial psychological method in poetic creation. Coleridge’s spiritual, contemplative aesthetics was then brought to an interesting comparison with the Buddhist aesthetics of Japanese philosopher Kukai.

The discussion of Coleridge’s aesthetics extended to the next panel, from both contextual and textual angles. James Kirwan considered Coleridge’s critical attitude to eighteenth-century aesthetics by rethinking his criticism of Associationism, which Coleridge adapted for reasserting the transcendental aspect in the contemplation of beauty. Osmond Chien-Ming Chang explored Coleridge’s theory of polarity and magnetism along Todorovian lines in the enigmatic Christabel.  Masako Fujie placed Coleridge’s contemplative aesthetics in the context of his collaboration with Wordsworth in searching for a genuine ‘philosophical poem’.

The final session, in engaging and inspiring ways, developed the previous aesthetic focus to a grounded contemplation of Coleridge’s broader legacy in worlds West and East. Elaine Sponholtz explored an impressive parallel between the mythopoetic dreamworlds shown in Coleridge’s imaginary ‘Kubla Khan’ and William Bertram’s contemporary travelogue of Florida. Shifting the locality to twenty-first-century Fukushima, Jonathan Britten contemplated the significance of Coleridge’s poetry in providing emotional and intellectual metaphor and framework to understand modern environmental catastrophe. Mikako Nonaka’s talk, closing the conference, discussed Coleridge’s influence on Japanese late-Meiji Romantic poet Tokoku Kitamura, drawing a beautiful, fitting conclusion to the panel and the three-day intense, fruitful contemplation on poetry, philosophy, beauty and nature.

This was an engaging, lively, and successful conference that not only stimulated profound scholarly discussions on Coleridge, but also significantly enhanced local and international scholarly exchange for Humanities research in Japan.


Reports written and collated by:
Philip Aherne, Ph.D. (King’s College, London)
Emily Holman (D. Phil. cand., University of Oxford)
Jin Lu (Ph.D. cand., Chinese University of Hong Kong)
Dillon Struwig (Ph.D. cand., University of York)