Coleridge’s ‘I and Thou’

The Criterion 10 (April 1931): 534-538

Coleridge as Philosopher by Professor Muirhead, is an extremely important book and I would, in a way, rather thank the author than write a review of it. For he is one of the few people in the world who are really well acquainted with the whole of Coleridge’s published works, not simply with the Poems, the Biographia Literaria, and the Lectures on Shakespeare; and this acquaintance extends, fortunately, to the extracts recently printed by Miss Alice Snyder in her Coleridge on Logic and Learning from unpublished works such as the ‘Logic’ and the ‘Semina Rerum’. Writing out of this abundance of material, Mr. Muirhead has, in effect, rebutted once and for all the two principal charges commonly brought against Coleridge’s metaphysics of incoherence and insincerity. The fact is, it has long been the custom for English men of letters to think traditionally rather than immediately, and honestly, on such matters: Coleridge was incoherent because he wrote on the margins of books, and thought upon many subjects (whereas it is now authoritatively known that one man can understand one subject only): he was insincere because he reported that his conclusions were compatible with those of theological orthodoxy. This is, or was, ‘all ye know and all ye need to know’!

An unprejudiced study of the lesser known prose-writings quickly reverses these facile judgments. As for his toadying to orthodoxy, Coleridge held that faith ‘does not necessarily imply belief’, he described the doctrine of hereditary sin as a ‘monstrous fiction’, and his theology was sufficiently correct to win from Cardinal Newman the golden opinion that he had ‘indulged a liberty of speculation which no Christian can tolerate, and advocated conclusions which were often heathen rather than Christian’. Again: Coleridge’s system of thought is incoherent in its outer form alone. The more we study it, the more infallibly shall we recognize the same clear principles working their way to the surface from beneath whatever he wrote. For their precise formulation we have to go, as with all philosophers who beg none but the inevitable questions, to his exposition of the nature of thought. This he developed must fully in the Logic; but, once understood, the principles themselves can be discerned as clearly in the Essay on Faith as in the Theory of Life; they are there as unmistakably behind the lecture on Romeo and Juliet as behind the political lucubrations of the Friend.

What is wanted, therefore, is such an arrangement and exposition of Coleridge’s voluminous and scattered philosophical writings as would serve to reveal these principles to those who have not yet penetrated to them for themselves. And this is what Professor Muirhead, with his systematic arrangement of chapters under the heads of Logic, Metaphysics, Philosophy of Nature, Philosophy of Religion, etc., and above all, with his generous and skilfully linked chain of quotations, has attempted to do. He has succeeded in a measure which far surpasses any work on Coleridge that has yet come to my knowledge. Professor Muirhead has, in fact, done some of the work which Coleridge’s disciple, J. H. Green, ought to have done, but signally failed to do, in his Spiritual Philosophy, and I shall not pass on to my more critical consideration of his book without again expressing the thanks due to him from all those to whom, in Keats’s phrase, ‘the truth of imagination’ is an experience and therefore the theory of imagination a matter of the first concern.

This confirmed, I pass on to the reviewer’s more arrogant task of distinguishing the better from the worse. Coleridge’s world of thought may, for this purpose, be divided into two hemispheres – one of which turns on the relation of the self to nature, while the other turns on the relation of the self to other selves. The first he may be said to have very largely absorbed from the German philosophers other than Hegel, with whom he came in contact early in life; the second, which he himself regarded as the necessary complement of the first, was more definitely his own contribution to philosophy. It was his own, that is, as far as any thought other than palpable error can be termed a man’s own. Scholars interested in ‘influences’ could, and no doubt will, someday, represent it as a mosaic of fragments culled from Greek philosophy, the Gnostic and Mystic writers, Giordano Bruno, the Church Fathers, Hegel, and so on, just as the Ancient Mariner (as Professor Lowes showed us in the Road to Xanadu) can be plausibly resolved into elements, all of which are in some sense ‘borrowed’. This does not affect the point that both the Ancient Mariner and this part of Coleridge’s philosophy are his own in a sense which is not true in quite the same way of the first part.

German philosophy found the unity underlying that sensuous manifold which we call ‘nature’ to be necessarily and only grounded in the Self of man. Coleridge found that Self itself to be necessarily grounded in another Self. German philosophy proclaimed as the last word ‘I am!’ Coleridge replied: ‘I am, precisely because I can say “Thou art!” – for it is just the power and will to say so which makes me an “I”.’ I doubt if there is anything more sublime in the whole range of philosophical thought than the brief passage in the Essay on Faith in which Coleridge demonstrates this relation between consciousness and conscience.

This is a deep meditation, though the position is capable of the strictest proof, namely, that there can be no I without a Thou, and that a Thou is only possible by an equation in which I is taken as equal to Thou, and yet not the same… but the equation of Thou with I, by means of a free act, negativing the sameness in order to establish the equality, is a true definition of conscience. But as without a Thou there can be no You, so without a You no They, These or Those; and as all these conjointly form the materials and subjects of consciousness and the conditions of experience, it is evident that conscience is the root of all consciousness – a fortiori, the pre-condition of all experience – and that the conscience cannot have been in its first revelation deduced from experience.

And this relation between the I and the Thou, between two conscious selves, so far from being, as is often assumed, specially evolved to square with theological dogma or with some private sense of sin, is itself only one aspect of that central intuition of ‘polarity’ which is (to employ something more than a metaphor) the immovable axis about which the whole cosmos of Coleridge’s thought perpetually revolves.

With such first principles it was inevitable that Coleridge should dissociate himself from the semi-oriental tendency noticeable in German metaphysics to submerge the individual spirit completely in the Whole. Indeed, to judge from such little indication as the joke about Fichte which he retails with gusto in the Biographia Literaria,1 one can well suppose that he was able even then to foresee the logical culmination of such ideas in Schopenhauer’s western variant of Nirvana. Nor was it less inevitable that he should find a fuller measure of truth in the Christian writers than elsewhere. For they alone had concerned themselves with the same problem. (I must mention at this point that I am, of course, fully aware of the impropriety and even absurdity of ‘potting’ philosophy in this way. But then either books of a philosophical nature must cease to be reviewed or else philosophy must continue to be potted. Under this caveat, then:) Philosophy seeks to resolve Many into One. To German philosophers the Many was the individual’s world of experiences with its mystifying numerical distinctions; it was ‘Nature’; whereas the One was the Ego; and their solution of the duality was simply to predicate one of the other, saying with the eastern Yogi: ‘I am all that!’ Coleridge’s early manifested innate imaginative experience of the unreality of the ‘subjective-objective’ illusion had pre-disposed him to accept this solution without question, and accept it he did, as soon as he heard of it. Indeed, it would be truer to say that he recognized it. It was because it was in a sense something he knew already that he was able to swallow it with such surprising rapidity (winning himself a reputation for plagiarism in the process) and yet to assimilate it and make it thoroughly his own. He himself, therefore, was free to carry the problem of the One and the Many on to another plane. The question for him became rather, granted that the individual ‘is’ ultimately the Whole, to explain how more than one individual can ‘be’ the same Whole, yet without ceasing to be separate individuals. It was not, many phenomena=one Self, but many selves=one Self, which he had to explain; for his very definition of the term ‘self’ involved the coincident reality of other selves. Thus, with Coleridge, as with Plato, the problem of One and Many became, as his mind developed, the even more quintessential problem of Same and Other.

Now it is this second part of Coleridge’s philosophy which I find most adequately elucidated in Professor Muirhead’s book. The later chapters on the ethical, political and religious writings appear to me to be better than the early ones on Logic, Metaphysics and Nature. Nor (although I have called the second part more specifically Coleridge’s own) is the defect a trivial one; for it must be remembered that the two parts are correlative, or rather that Coleridge’s philosophy is in very truth a rounded whole, a real world of thought, upon which the equator dividing its two hemispheres is merely an imaginary line drawn by myself for the convenience of cartography. Consequently, the flaw in Professor Muirhead’s exposition, of which the cause appears to be as follows, spreads its baneful influence through the whole.

To Mr. Muirhead, Coleridge’s thought is evidently valuable, less for its own intrinsic quality than as the historical anticipation, and in some degree, source of something he likes better. This something is ‘modern idealism’. Thus, at the end of Chapter One, he actually defines his object in writing the book at all as having been: ‘to state the broader features of nineteenth century idealism, of which more than any other he [Coleridge] was the founder’. The frequency with which he reiterates this position in the body of the book is as unnecessary as the position itself is undesirable. It is scarcely possible to read ten pages without coming on some such passage as the following:

With regard to its general form [Coleridge’s ‘Theological Platonism’], we may be prepared to share some of Coleridge’s enthusiasm for it, if we are prepared to find in it an anticipation of the principle, of which later idealists, notably Bradley, have made so much, that ‘what is necessary and at the same time possible must be real’.

Why? Why, one may temperately ask, should our enthusiasm be allotted on such extraordinary principles? Must philosophy, too, turn antiquarian, finding nothing interesting but museum specimens of the history it already knows by heart? This choice of anticipation as a measure of value would be chilling, even were the thing anticipated more perfect than its prototype; where the later form is degenerate, it is simply disastrous. And it is the very excellence of Professor Muirhead’s exposition in other respects which leaves one so completely at a loss to account for the mysterious blind spot that pre-determined him, apparently with his own full and free consent, to see just as much and no more of Coleridge’s world as would fit into a framework subsequently constructed by Messrs. Bradley and Bosanquet.

This is in no sense intended for a gibe, nor is the present review the place for a critique of modern idealism; but of the gulf which yawns between Coleridge’s well-nigh Aristotelian wholeness and consistency of thought and the incoherent compromise and elaboration of what Mr. Muirhead himself appears to mean by ‘modern idealism’, no better illustration could be found than the book itself. Mr. Muirhead’s idealism is one which so completely lacks the courage of its convictions as to be continually forgetting them. It is an idealism which proves to us that thought is not merely subjective – and then, boggling at the consequence of its own doctrine, goes on to talk of it as if it were a process taking place inside the head. It puts empirical knowledge in its proper place – and a moment afterwards takes off its hat to ‘science’ with the proper politeness of Mr. Santayana himself. It is, indeed, almost incredible that anyone, after expounding Coleridge’s concept of the ‘Idea’ as fully and lucidly as the author of Coleridge as Philosopher does in his third chapter and elsewhere, should be able to write, on page 224: ‘Modern Realism is not likely to accept Coleridge’s characterization of mathematical objects as purely mental, and has adopted his term “subsistence” for the express purpose of indicating their essential objectivity…” – on the obvious assumption that ‘purely mental’ and ‘objective’ are contradictories. It is almost incredible that, after telling us with the help of quotations how Coleridge claimed to have ‘unmasked the fallacy that underlies the whole Newtonian philosophy, namely, that the mind is merely “a lazy Looker-on on an external world”,’ nevertheless, when Professor Muirhead comes to discuss the Theory of Life, the fact that much of it ‘would probably have been rejected by the science of his own time’ (let alone by ours) is allowed to be a decisive factor in determining its untruth. As well refute an objection to the doctrine of verbal inspiration on the ground that the objector is not verbally inspired! This idealist, we are at last obliged to conclude, is unaware, even after writing it several times with his own nib, that if you really regard the mind as an active participant in and not merely ‘a lazy Looker-on’ on Nature, the ground is automatically knocked away beneath the whole of Newtonian science, whose theoretical constructions take their place as a myth alongside the other myths of which history has to tell. He is unaware, apparently, that, if thought is not merely subjective, it is not merely subjective.

Apropos of this, it is interesting to note that the name of Goethe is mentioned only once throughout the book. We are, therefore, left to speculate whether the author is, or is not, aware of the existence of a Goethean science, whose method actually assumes from the start this participation of the mind in the production of phenomena, instead of, like the empirical method of Newtonian science, assuming its complete detachment. For Goethe’s ‘Urphänomen’, or the ‘Urphlanze’ of his work on the Metamorphosis of Plants, are simply practical working examples of Coleridge’s ‘Idea’. In the latter event it is to be hoped that he will remedy the defect and eradicate in the process that troublesome blind-spot. For we shall hear more in the near future both of Goethe and of Coleridge – and the re-interpretation of the latter to a generation familiar, unlike his own, with the conception of an ‘Unconscious’, is a fruitful vineyard in which it would, indeed, be well to have the Professor for a foreman labourer.

Owen Barfield


1 [Transcriber’s note: This can be found here.] Return.
Copyright © 1997 — Owen Barfield Literary Estate.       Return to Top.