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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XI. The Period of the French Revolution.

VI. Coleridge

§ 13. Coleridge as Philosopher

In philosophy, as he himself would have been the first to acknowledge, he was building on the foundations laid by Kant and, to a less degree, by Fichte and Schelling. At what time he became acquainted with the writings of Kant, is a disputed point. He himself seems to place it in 1800; and, though he was constitutionally inaccurate about all matters of fact, it is hard to see why this date, the period immediately following his return from Germany, should not be accepted. The question is hardly one of supreme importance. For, despite some unlucky borrowings from Schelling (alas! unacknowledged), he was in no sense a mere adapter, still less a mere copyist, from the Germans. He worked, as all philosophers must work, on hints furnished by his predecessors; and that is all.

His aim was to show the necessity of replacing the mechanical interpretation of life and nature, which he found in possession of the field, by one consistently spiritual, indeed religious. And he carries out this purpose over the whole field of experience: in metaphysics and philosophy; in ethics and politics; not to mention his application of the same principle to imaginative creation, as briefly indicated in the preceding section. In metaphysics, his work is probably less satisfactory than in any other branch of his vast subject. And that, partly because he is here more ready than elsewhere to follow the hazardous guidance of Schelling; partly because the temptation to press speculative truth into the service of a particular religious creed was more than he was able wholly to resist. Hence, with all his subtlety, he does not succeed in driving home the essentially creative action of the mind in the process of knowledge—and that, after all, is the main point at issue—at all as clearly as Kant had done before him. And, by his use of the distinction between the “reason” and the “understanding”—a distinction originally due to Kant—for the purpose of bolstering up opinions originally derived from a wholly different source, he opens the door to all kinds of fallacies and perversions. With Kant, the distinction between the reason and the understanding has a purely restrictive purpose. Its effect is to deny to the former anything more than a “regulative” or suggestive function in the ordering of knowledge; and to claim from the latter, which, from its nature, must always go hand in hand with a sensible intuition, the sole title to the discovery of truth. In other words, it is a distinction which leads straight to what have since come to be known as agnostic conclusions. To Coleridge, it serves a purpose exactly the reverse. So far from separating the spheres of the two faculties, he sweeps away all barriers between them. He allows to the one an apparently unlimited power of re-affirming what the other had found it necessary to deny; and thus exposes himself to Carlyle’s sarcasm that he had discovered “the sublime secret of believing by the reason what the understanding had been obliged to fling out as incredible.” It would be grossly unfair to say that this exhausts the teaching of Coleridge in the region of metaphysics. His criticism of the mechanical system—and, in particular, of the theory of association, as elaborated by Hume and Hartley—would, in itself, suffice to overthrow any such assertion. But it can hardly be denied that this is the side of his doctrine on which he himself laid the heaviest stress; nor, again, that it is the side upon which he is most open to attack.

In the kindred field of psychology, his results are both sounder in themselves and more absolutely his own. His records of the working of the mind, especially under abnormal or morbid conditions, are extraordinarily minute and subtle. It would hardly be too much to say that he is the founder of what has since become a distinct, and most fruitful branch of philosophy: the study of experimental psychology. And this, which is fully known only to those who are familiar with Anima Poetœ, is, perhaps, his most original contribution to philosophy.

In ethics, he is more upon the beaten track. But it was a track almost unknown to Englishmen of his day. And it is his lasting service, at the moment when the utilitarian scheme of things swept all before it, to have proclaimed the utter insufficiency of any doctrine which did not start from the postulate of duty. Here, once more, he bases his teaching upon that of Kant. But he enters a just protest, as Schiller had done before him, against the hard saying that the highest goodness is that which tramples upon the natural instincts of the heart. And, throughout his exposition, as given in Aids to Reflection, he shows (as, from his personal experience, he well might) a sense of human frailty—a sense, that is, of one of the two main elements of the problem—which the noble stoicism of Kant had been too apt to treat as matter for nothing but shame and contempt.

Few, probably, now think of Coleridge in connection with political philosophy. Yet, there is no subject to which, throughout life, he gave more time and thought; from the days of Conciones ad populum and The Watchman (1795–6) to those of The Friend (1809–10; 1818), or of The Constitution of Church and State (1830). Coleridge habitually spoke of himself as the heir of Burke. And that constitutes at once the strength and the weakness of his position as political philosopher. More systematic, but with far less of imaginative and historic insight than his master, he inherited, in fact, both the loves and the hates of Reflections and Letters on a Regicide Peace.

On the negative side, he is the fiery foe of the rights of man, of Jacobinism, of the sovereignty of the people. And he makes no effort to disentangle the truth which—under a crude form, no doubt—found expression in watchwords which, in his early manhood, had shaken Europe to her depths and had in no sense lost their power when he died. To the end, he was unable to see that no state, which does not draw its will from the whole body of its members, can be regarded as fully organised or developed; and that this was the ideal which the French revolution, perhaps before the time was ripe, certainly through many crimes and blunders, was striving to make good. Against this ideal, he had nothing to propose but that of a government, based upon the will of the propertied classes only, and imposing itself upon the rest of the community from above. The result is that, at the present day, his theory seems ludicrously out of date: far more so than that of the Jacobins, or of Le Contrat social, which he does his best to cover with ridicule and contempt. So childish, indeed, was his fear of Jacobinism, so keen his scent for the faintest breath of its approach that, when Erskine brought in a bill, the first of its kind, for the prevention of cruelty to animals (1809), he denounced it, in his largest capitals, as “the strongest instance of legislative Jacobinism.” It was bad enough that rights should be demanded for men; to concede them to animals was iniquitous and absurd. In spite of these follies, it is right to acknowledge that his criticism of Jacobinism and of Le Contrat social, however little we may agree with it, reveals powers beyond the reach of any man living in England at the time; probably, if we except Hegel, beyond the reach of any man in Europe.

Yet, as with all thinkers worthy of the name, it is in expounding the positive side of his doctrine that his powers are seen at their brightest and most convincing. The core of his creed, as of Burke’s, lay in the conviction that the civic life of man is the offspring not of deliberate calcualtion, “the cautious balancing of comparative advantages,” but of instincts, often working unknown to himself, which are rooted in the deepest fibres of his nature. He is assured that the state, so far from being a cunning piece of mechanism, put together at the will of individuals and to be taken to pieces at their pleasure, is something larger and more enduring than the individuals who compose it. He knows that, in a very real sense, it has a life of its own: a life which, at countless points, controls, no less than it is controlled by, theirs. He believes that the moral, as well as the material, existence of men is largely determined by the civic order into which they are born. And he infers that, if this order be roughly shaken, the moral, as well as the material, well-being of those who belong to it is grievously imperilled. These are the vital principles which lie behind all that he wrote on political matters, and which find their best expression, characteristically barbed by a bitter attack on Hume, in an eloquent passage of one of his Lay Sermons.