Kielmeyer, Eschmeyer, Oken, and Coleridge on Aesthetic Productivity and the Life Sciences
Recent scholarship has recognized Coleridge’s extensive engagement with the rapidly developing sciences during the nineteenth century, particularly chemistry as the new science of affinity. Coleridge saw that new developments in natural science posed a challenge to the corpuscular theory of matter championed by the Royal Society, which removes qualities from the scope of science and reduces the material world to particles in motion. He sought to demonstrate how those sciences provide philosophical support for a rationally ordered cosmos. Yet Coleridge’s engagement with the most fragile science developing in the early eighteenth century, the science of life, has received less attention. This is assumedly for the reason that his romantic vision of nature was eclipsed by the rise of Darwinism in the late nineteenth century.
As the hegemony of neo-Darwinism has begun to fracture over the last few decades, it is worth returning to neglected alternatives in the development of biology. In this paper I give particular attention to the role of aesthetic productivity in the ‘theory of life’ Coleridge developed in his late notebooks, letters and the posthumous publication bearing that name. I begin by identifying the growing awareness of the role of the imagination in physiology during the eighteenth century. I give particular focus to Kant’s account of analogical thinking, which aims to vindicate the productive role of the imagination in natural science and map out its boundaries. While Coleridge saw that Kant’s account of imagination opened an autonomous domain of inquiry for living beings, he was critical of the way that Kant’s discursive conception of imagination restricted this domain to the status of a ‘figurative’ (uneigentlich) science. In response, Coleridge called on a new generation of naturalists, including Kielmeyer, Eschmeyer and Oken, to develop a two-level account of imagination that could provide a philosophical basis for the emerging science of life. Insofar as his theory of life develops from a dissatisfaction with a reductive biological programme, Coleridge’s productive account of imagination remains of interest for philosophers attempting to work within the present instability of biological theory.