Wayne Deakin (Chiang Mai University)

Divided Ontologies: The Deep Romantic Chasm in Coleridge’s Organicism   

Using philosophical romanticism as a contextual backdrop, I examine seminal aspects of Coleridge’s literary criticism, with special reference to his Biographia Literaria (1817).  Of particular interest is his preoccupation with ‘The Infinite I AM’ and the privileging of the organic imagination over the mechanical fancy. I contend that Coleridgean ‘organicism’ inhabits a complex ontology. It instantiates a dichotomy between a more Spinozean idea of the human mind standing in medias res with the natural world, and his putative absolute idealistic conception of the imagination, positing a deeper, holistic and unconscious (Schellingean) connection to the external world as a way out of the post-Kantian impasse of our de-worlded subjectivity. I postulate that these ontological strains are a seminal element in the DNA of his literary oeuvre, as exhibited, for example, in the tension between the literary fragment and his urge for a more complete and unified romantic vision. These tensions are ubiquitous in Coleridge’s writing; for example, while much of his fragmentary work, which includes literary criticism, philosophy and letters, represents his in medias res form of organicism, there is also a more omniscient, teleological bent in other writings, representing the absolute idealism inherent in his ontic-philosophical aspirations. These tensions are exhibited in his seminal Biographia Literaria itself. They are also manifest in his correspondent desire for Wordsworth to write the much-touted philosophical epic, The Recluseas a form of ‘literary therapy’ and panacea for his philosophical aporias.  I conclude the paper with some thoughts about Coleridge’s philosophically romantic notion of organicism in the context of the current eco-crisis.


Key Words: Coleridge, Organicism, Philosophical Romanticism, Romantic Literary Criticism, Idealism/materialism.



Kimiyo Ogawa: Linking Mary Shelley with John Thelwall’s Vitality Discourse and its Radicalism

Linking Mary Shelley with John Thelwall’s Vitality Discourse and its Radicalism

In the early nineteenth century, debates about the nature of electricity blossomed (involving issues over the relation between body and soul), which was concatenated with the discussion of the properties of revolutionary communication and the mysteries of vitality. Like Godwin’s Caleb Williams (1794) and Wollstonecraft’s The Wrongs of Woman; or Maria (1798), while advocating humanitarian reform, John Thelwall’s The Daughter of Adoption (1801) associates the issue of vitality with radicalism. The setting is the French colony of ‘St. Domingo’ where Seraphina, a white Creole has been adopted by an expatriate English philosopher, Parkinson. She imbibes his radical principles, although Thelwall has his heroine experience the limits of such idealism. As the heroine, Seraphina, is brought to England, she comes to understand the physiological ‘springs that set in motion that complicated machine of the human heart’ (259) due to the social disparity between herself and her lover, Henry Montfort. Thelwall’s point is that this physiological ‘motion’ depends on the ‘vitality of the frame’ that constitute the material roots of sympathy — an embodied sympathy that is severed from intentionality, material and contingent yet not wholly passive. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) has also been associated with ‘Galvanism’, or galvanic electricity, which allegedly replaced the spirit or soul that more traditional thinkers associated with an animating life force. Given the powerful creation scene, which is heavily inclined towards material science, Shelley’s novel could be looked on as an exemplar of modernity and secularism. However, a careful observation of medical texts reveals that for Mary Shelley, as it was for many other contemporary writers, the life-giving ‘substance’ remained obscure, although some were happy to allow the suggestion of supernaturalism to haunt the more material precincts of science; in this last respect electricity, or ‘the electrical fluid’, served as a helpfully ambiguous metaphor for the mysterious substance of ‘vitality.’ In this paper, I will examine how Thelwall and Mary Shelley reiterate the themes of embodied subjectivity and the complex nature of ‘necessity’ and ‘agency’ also put forward in the earlier scientific writings by Erasmus Darwin, William Lawrence, John Abernethy and also by Thelwall himself (Essay Towards a Definition of Animal Vitality, 1793).


Short Bio

Kimiyo Ogawa is Professor of English Studies at Sophia University, Tokyo. Her research interests are medical discourses and Romantic writers, and among her recent publications are; “Cross-Channel Discourses of Sensibility: Madeleine de Scudéry, Charlotte Lennox’s The Female Quixote and their Romantic Inheritors” in Early British Romanticism in a Continental Perspective: Into the Eurozone. Eds. S.Clark and T. Connolly (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015) and “Nogami Yaeko’s Adaptations of Austen Novels: Allegorizing Women’s Bodies” in British Romanticism in Asia: The Reception, Translation, and Transformation of Romantic Literature in India and East Asia. Eds. Alex Watson and Laurence Williams (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019).

Daniel Whistler (Royal Holloway University)

Matter, Life and Signification

Concepts of the symbol in romanticism and idealism were often developed out of naturephilosophical concerns; indeed, many of the Jena Romantics and those on the fringes of the movement (from Novalis and A.W. Schlegel to Schelling and Jean Paul) can be considered aesthetic naturalists, i.e. they attempted to understand artistic products naturephilosophically. In this paper, I want to focus on the complementary attempt to make sense of the text and of the linguistic sign in terms of a vital materialism in both German romanticism and beyond. I survey several ‘scenes’ in which this materialist conception of signification is thematised: Malabou’s reading of Kant’s third Critique, Novalis’ “Monologue”, Goethean morphology, Schelling’s and Coleridge’s concept of tautegory and later Lebensphilologie. My aim is to build up a cumulative case for the importance of a nineteenth-century tradition that understood linguistic signs as chunks of nature. I will further suggest, in particular, that this tradition became interested in those ‘crisis’ moments in a naturalist linguistics where the natural object fails to signify and nature appears as uninterpretable, resistant to all hermeneutic understandings.

Alexander J. B. Hampton (University of Toronto)

Romantic Methexis in Novalis and Coleridge as a Response to the Anthropocentric Conceptualisation of Life and Matter

A major concern of the early Romantics was the increasing anthropogenic destruction of the natural environment that surrounded them. They connected this to a broad epistemic shift from a transcendent worldview, where the meaning and value of things resided with the supernatural, to an immanent understanding, set over and against the transcendent, where meaning and value resided in the human mind.  Though a long-term shift, its effects were sharpened in the Sattelzeit by exponential economic growth, the harnessing of scientific knowledge for mechanistic production, and the championing of individual autonomy by Kantian idealism and the Enlightenment philosophes.

According to Romantics like Novalis and Coleridge, these developments led to an anthropocentric standpoint that viewed the materiality of nature and non-human life through an ever more instrumentalized and commodified lens that placed humans outside and above nature. Rather than finding meaning in matter and value in ilfe, these were imposed upon nature by the subject, whether in aesthetics, the natural sciences, or political economy.

Novalis and Coleridge embraced insights from the natural sciences, critical idealism and the Enlightenment. However, they also saw the anthropocentric limitations of the individualism and empiricism at the centre of these developments. In response, both Novalis and Coleridge drew upon the realist participatory ontology of the Christian Platonic tradition to offer a theory of life and matter informed by these developments, but without the limitations of their immanent discourses. For Coleridge, we find this expressed in his theory of the perceptive imagination, whilst for Novalis it can be located in his concept of romanticisiation. Both of these concepts, explored in the poetry and prose of both thinkers, express an understanding of nature that recognises that meaning and value are inherent in the natural object through the ontology of participation, whilst at the same time recognising the creative role of the subject in the act of perception and cognition.

Charity Ketz, Powers of Life and Mind in Coleridge and Leibniz’ Theo-Physics

In the Theory of Life, Coleridge (following Heinrich Steffens) identifies ‘Life’ with the ‘tendency to individuation’, noting that while the human animal most perfectly realizes this power to ‘unite[] a given all into a whole that is presupposed by all its parts’, human individuation also begins a new series.[1] A year later, describing to C. A. Tulk ‘the Birth of Things’ from the point of view of science, he writes, ‘the two great poles of manifestation are Continuity (Lex Continui) and Individuation—the latter being the final cause of nature, or her object’.[2] In making this claim, Coleridge, who consistently connected continuity with Leibniz, suggests that the older philosopher had not represented even the physical series accurately. During the decade or so in which Coleridge developed his theory of life, wrote his (literary) life, and began evolving a science of moral individuation (the higher series) from the facts of will and consciousness, he repeatedly took up the shortcomings of Leibnizian physics and metaphysics in his notebooks alongside a set of interrelated concerns: the theory of life, the dynamic philosophy of powers, atoms, individuation, and animal magnetism. Sometimes his critique of Leibniz is indirect. In one notebook entry (1811–16?), Coleridge considers human individuality in Leibnizian terms: as a living point, comprehended in God alone, as a germ-like anticipation, and as a man’s capacity to perceive the world according to his own potentiality (to be tempted, limited in certain ways, etc.)—the world without which he could not be thought except as an abstraction because it is the revelation of his thought. Then, in an abrupt reversal, he claims that what remains for us is the possibility in ‘Light of this knowledge to beget each in himself a new man’.[3] Sometimes it is direct, as when Coleridge insists that Leibniz’ philosophy is irrecoverably reductive, that it evolves a cosmos out of a single expression of power—representation—which itself depends on will or the power of being. So it describes a world in which nothing really is.

This essay begins by asking why Coleridge might be interested in offering his theory of life as a counter to Leibnizian physics and metaphysics. There is a certain appropriateness to Coleridge’s choice as, over a century before, Leibniz had rehabilitated substantial forms under a new name—‘force’—in order to correct Cartesian physics, arguing that everything was alive and that a metaphysical principle, an urge to be, must be prior to extension and could be inferred from the historical quality of collisions. Then too, Leibniz described a physical realm that preserved itself organismically and a cosmos of real beings continuously and harmoniously reflecting each other. In one sense, everything in Leibniz’ system was what it was relationally; in another, entities related only to God. After sketching Leibniz’ physical series (especially his account of ‘living force’) and his mental series (his account of monads’ continuous urge to move to the next perception), this essay interrogates two elements of Coleridge’s critique: first, that Leibniz fails to provide a principle of being and that endurance cannot be it (a claim with relevance for recent arguments made by some new materialists) and second that Leibniz failed to grasp the true nature of relationality and so can neither account for conscious perception nor for time and space. For Coleridge, we may know by the same principle that a human may become positively unidividuated and that anticipated change of location must be measured from the point of view of the moving body. Coleridge’s formula for the organizing power of life, a power ‘unites a given all into a whole that is presupposed by all its parts’ provides additional insight here.

[1] Theory of Life, 510. Coleridge repeats some of the same language in OM89, SWFII 841-2.

[2] CLIV, 769.

[3] CNIII.4109

Lydia Azadpour (Royal Holloway University of London)

Transitions in Coleridge’s Scale of Living Nature and its Antecedents

‘All life begins in obscurity’, Coleridge claims in his notes, ‘Observations on the Scale of Life’ (1825). The development from this ‘obscurity’ to full articulation of life has two strands in Coleridge’s thinking. First, the temporal development of an individual, and second, the atemporal scale of kinds of living beings. The difficulties involved in postulating a relation between these two scales originates in the work of the Naturphilosophen—especially by Schelling—following C. F. Kielmeyer’s introduction of a mirroring between embryological and species developments in his influential speech of 1793. By returning to their work, the stakes of such difficulties are brought into focus. The paper reconstructs Coleridge’s response to this debate in philosophical and scientific thinking, and in so doing recontextualises his striking denial of species transformation. This will involve two main topics of analysis: a) the constitution of these scales in Coleridge’s reaction to Naturphilosophie and to contemporaneous developments in comparative anatomy, and b) the relation between these two scales in Coleridge’s response. Investigating these issues must address whether they are real or ideal scales, temporal or atemporal, and the relative weight placed on continuity and discontinuity in each scale. Moreover, to fully address these issues, it is worth looking at one of Coleridge’s earlier works: in The Friend he had also stressed the gulf not only between unorganised natural particulars and organised natural individuals, but also the discontinuities between different entities in his scale. Natural science will, in his view, reveal more if it searches for antithesis rather than analogy in the scale of life.

Dale E. Snow (Loyola University)

Project research abstract

The Evolution of Schelling’s and Coleridge’s Theories of Matter

Coleridge often claimed that the similarities of his thought to Schelling’s was due not to direct influence, much less plagiarism, but their shared intellectual background and inspirations. I explore one sense in which this may have been true, and examine how Coleridge employs one of the key insights he shares with Schelling: the idea that matter, as reflected in natural entities, has an educative and even revelatory function. One of Coleridge’s longest quotations from Schelling is from a minor polemic of 1806, in which Schelling clearly identifies his quarrel with the science of his time; it is reminiscent of Coleridge’s own criticisms of empiricist science. I discuss the neoplatonic roots of this set of ideas, and how Schelling and Coleridge both argued for, and in their later writings thought through, an understanding of nature which could serve to aid in our recovery from our alienation from it.

Andrea Timár (Eötvös Loránd University)

Project research abstract

‘A human being may be dishumanised’: Coleridge and Human Life

From his middle to his late career, Coleridge was convinced that there is a ‘wide chasm between man and the noblest animals of the brute creation, which no perceivable or conceivable difference of organization is sufficient to overbridge’ (SW 2 “Theory of Life501); most importantly because non-human creatures are governed by “externalInfluence”, while humans are endowed free Will, “having its Law within itself” (AR 98). However, despite his overall conviction of the “glaring difference” between Man and Beast (SW 2, “The Races of Men” 1410), he admits that a “human being may be dishumanised … by his own act” (OM, 11). This statement looks like a contradiction in terms. How can a human act dishumanise its human agent? And what becomes of humans if they are dishumanised?

The present essay takes as its starting point the notion of akrasia (Pfau), this “riddle of humanity”, which is, according to Coleridge, “to transgress [the principles of reason], but still to acknowledge [them]” (OM 9–10). Then, examining the difference between the human as a person having conscience and the human as a species, it traces down how “irritability”, “sensibility”, and “habit”, which are proper to humans and animals alike (cf: “Theory of Life” and “On the Passions”, and also: Webster, Timár) may dissever human “volition” from the “Will”, and thereby complicate Coleridge’s idea of human life.

Dr Adrian Mihai (Cambridge): Cambridge Platonist Sources of German Idealism

“Cambridge Platonist Sources of German Idealism”.

In this research I will look at the transmission and reception
by Kant and Schelling of some philosophical tenets expounded by Henry
More and Ralph Cudworth, central figures of the so-called Cambridge
Platonists. This transmission and reception is very problematic. In the
first part, I will look at the historical transmission: Kant, for
example, never quotes of refers to the two English idealists. This said,
we know that Kant had Cudworth’s ‘True Intellectual System’ in his
library (in Mosheim’s 1733 Latin translation). As for Schelling, he quotes
and uses Cudworth extensively. In the second part, I will examine
at the conceptual affinities—and lacunae—between the system of
the Cambridge Platonists and that of Kant and Schelling. Only by first
identifying a number of important philosophical concepts in the
Cambridge Platonists, and aligning them to their German idealist
counterparts, can the ways in which they resemble each
other be determined.

Andrew Cooper (Warwick University)

Research Abstract

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.