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David Haney. The Challenge of Coleridge. University Park, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State UP, 1999. ISBN 0271020512. Price: US$55.00.

  • Nicholas Reid

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  • Nicholas Reid
    Independent scholar

Corps de l’article

Peter Larkin, at the 2002 Coleridge conference in Somerset, spoke warmly of David Haney’s The Challenge of Coleridge as an exemplary contribution to recent debate within the hermeneutical community, and it is not hard to see why. It is a comprehensive and erudite reading of the ethical dimension of Coleridge’s thought, and one which is written with a certain kind of clarity. And it contributes to one of the central problems of post-structural discourse over the last fifteen years or so: the problem of how (if indeed it is possible) to bring an ethical dimension into a discourse which in its earlier phases was marked by an all-corrosive scepticism. But I am less sure exactly what it contributes to that discussion, a reservation which will emerge in the course of this review.

The first chapter deals, appropriately enough, with the very question of whether ethics and hermeneutics can meet. As Haney points out, borrowing Harpham’s analysis:

ethics has been seen as complicit with everything that literary theory has attempted to subvert, from logocentricism to autonomous selfhood [. . .]. However, ethics is in this scenario a repressed that inevitably returns in the wake of the 1987 exposure of Paul de Man’s pro-Nazi wartime journalism, at which point polite discussions of language gave way to charges of personal immorality, collaboration [. . .], opportunism and deception.


The question, then, was how to bring ethics back into hermeneutics, a question which is closely related to Hume’s problem of how to get an ought from an is. As the Oxford Companion to Philosophy suggests, the usual response is to try to argue that ought and is interpenetrate (419)—a strategy Barbara Hernstein Smith adopts in her argument that all interpretation (or attention to the world) is value laden. But the problem here is, of course, that the values spoken of are not necessarily ethical. The male gaze, for instance, is certainly evaluative, but much less certainly ethical. Haney thus prefers to argue that “there does seem to be an unavoidable ethical element in the hermeneutic act: a demand for a certain generosity toward the other,” an idea he takes further by referring to Aristotle’s view that speech often involves “a kind of communality[,] in virtue of which reciprocal taking of counsel [. . .] is at all meaningful in the first place” (7). This sounds like a version of what Anglo-American philosophy calls “epistemic charity”: a willingness, for instance, to interpret a passage so as to render it coherent with the text’s presumed broader purposes.

But if this is the note on which Haney ends his introductory discussion of the problem, it is not easy to see how we have got beyond his earlier warning that it is “a mistake to see interpretative activity as fundamentally ethical” (3). For when Derrida accused Gadamer of depending on a Kantian concept of “good will” in his hermeneutics, Gadamer replied that hermeneutic understanding is ethically neutral. It has “nothing to do with ethics,” Gadamer said, because “even immoral beings try to understand one another” (3). This is not a conclusion Haney can rest content with, and Haney suggests that “even evil doers must listen to each other generously if they are to work together” (7). That claim is open to some question. And so I take the argument to have shown that hermeneutics often will be characterised by an ethical impulse, even if of no greater significance than a common epistemic charity. But in the absence of metaphysics or foundations, I am still left wondering what the status of this ethical impulse might be and whether it is really consonant with the hermeneutical approach.

In the remainder of his first chapter, Haney does not answer these question but moves instead to a criticism of New Historicism for what he sees as its too easy assumption that “history can simply be reconstructed in its original form”—the Schleiermacherian or Romantic position (12). The critique is interesting in its own right but also a necessary means by which Haney creates space for his own kind of hermeneutic approach. He suggests “a kind of Levinasian humility before the otherness of the past [. . .] an approach that refuses to assimilate the other into the categories of my ego [. . .] but that by the same token refuses agreement [with it]”. It is this move (one again characterised by a certain ethical openness) which licences his Gadamerian “transhistorical conversation” (xii), his hope:

to produce a kind of criticism which will see Coleridge’s writing, not as embodying a set of concepts [. . .] to be affirmed or critiqued by modern theory, but as [. . .] a set of perspectives that can be put into a mutually illuminating … relationship with more recent perspectives.


We are in a critical universe where there are no foundations or essences (261), and so what we are offered instead is a conversation—a conversation between Coleridge and Gadamer, Ricoeur , Levinas, and others. Let us turn, then, to some of the details of that conversation.

Chapter 2 is entitled “Ethics and Art” and was for me perhaps the least rewarding in the book. It begins with Aristotle’s distinction between techne (the artistic skill involved in the creation of aesthetic objects) and phronesis (“a state grasping the truth [. . .], concerned with action about what is good or bad for a human being”) (30). This distinction is inflected through the works of various recent thinkers, and a set of increasingly fine, not to say ethereal, distinctions is used to interrogate Coleridge. And yet we are presented with no evidence that Coleridge was aware of Aristotle’s distinction, nor with much help on what Aristotle might have understood by the distinction, nor with much sense of its importance or lack thereof in the poststructural sphere. And by the time a page-long discussion of Heidegger (34-5) reveals that the mariner has treated the albatross as a merely utilitarian object (35), we may reasonably wonder whether all of this erudition is serving any useful purpose. Haney does rightly assimilate techne to Fancy, and phronesis to Imagination (32), but I was left with little sense of why this assimilation might be enlightening. And when we are told that “Coleridge [. . .] was perhaps less confident than Heidegger in the possibility of the Greek reunification of techne and poeisis” (35), I wonder whether the Greeks had indeed reunified the concepts and whether Coleridge had any views on the matter at all.

In chapter 3 things improve considerably with a discussion of Coleridge’s reaction to Kant’s essential, but at the same time arid and rationalistic, categorical imperative. As Haney observes, Coleridge avoids talk of special and extra-rational moral faculties, such as moral sense or conscience, preferring to argue that reason itself is grounded in conscience (79-80). This derives from Coleridge’s well-known argument that consciousness derives from conscience, that God the Father is able to instantiate himself as a person (along with consciousness and reason) only by recognising the alterity, or otherness, of the Son. Reason is thus grounded in ethics rather than vice versa, and moral obligation is intensely and unavoidably personal.

The second part of chapter 3 moves to a sustained and interesting discussion of Coleridge’s higher critical views (83-93). Haney makes good use, here and elsewhere, of Coleridge’s marginalia, pointing to a note in which Coleridge wonders of his own post-Kantian theology, “Do I believe that the Writers of the old Testament were conscious of any such Ideas? What if they were not?—The Bible is that which is capable of reflecting—It is the Mirror of Faith” (qtd. in Haney 86; Marginalia 2:423). Haney’s understanding of this is anti-intentionalist and anti-psychologistic. And he very usefully quotes Gadamer, who argues that when subjective intentions are put “at risk” in conversation, the result is “something [. . .] that is not only mine or the author’s, but common” (86). This points to something important and true about meaning in texts and about Coleridge’s grasp of the historicity of biblical texts. But it is important to remember that even if for Coleridge the Old Testament writers were not aware of the implications Coleridge draws from them, there is a broader authorial presence in the form of the Divine Spirit. For as Haney himself shows, Coleridge claimed that “The Prophets do not describe their inspiration as Poets; but relate sudden changes produced without any conscious act of their own will [. . .]. This state was used instrumentally by the Divine Spirit as the [. . .] base [. . .] of his spiritual Agency” (qtd. in Haney 88; Marginalia 2:402). And so, while Coleridge did not believe in divine dictation, he did see a role for the Spirit in the writing of the Bible. Chapter 3 offers a useful and discriminating account of Coleridge’s position in relation to Eichorn, Schleiermacher, Herder, and “the German School” (Coleridge, Notebooks 4:5322).

Chapter 4 builds on Ricoeur’s analysis of narrative as an attempt to mediate between first person, phenomenological experience and the desire to give meaning to that experience by treating the self as a third person within a life story (110). Haney’s analysis of the Mariner’s response to the question, “What manner of man art thou?” is thus suggestive, though by its nature it is not the kind of argument which can be extended far. Chapter 5 is more substantial, covering a number of large topics like freedom and necessity, and the psychology behind the famous “willing suspension of disbelief.” But much of the chapter is taken up by a complex discussion of the idea of sacrifice, which Haney claims is central to Coleridge’s view of tragic effect. Unfortunately, the evidence Haney adduces is far from persuasive, consisting of a passing remark in “Satyrane’s Letters” (merely the claim that Christian morality demands more than just sympathy towards the suffering of others), a passage in which Coleridge analyses the sublime effect of certain Miltonic images, while making no mention of sacrifice at all (146-7), and a passage from Aids to Reflection in which Coleridge basically argues against any notion of sacrifice. [1] In chapter 6 we discover that Coleridge allows us to avoid the isolated, autonomous self of the Enlightenment (177), and the chapter contains interesting discussions of Christian “otherness” and sin. The chapter also contains a well-informed and detailed discussion of the Trinity and the relation between the Ground and the three existential persons of God. Haney suggests that this relation is marked by an unsayable transcendence of the kind which Levinas finds at the heart of the (ethical) recognition of the other (215). I might mention that Haney disagrees with my views here (213), though in ways which do not affect his underlying point. Since God is unlikely to pronounce on the issue in the near future, I am not sure how we could resolve the issue, but I do point out that Coleridge himself repeatedly claimed that his formulation was not Plotinian and thus did not involve any “process of development” within the Godhead.

Readers of this review will have noticed a certain ambivalence within it, for I am aware that I am not the book’s ideal reader—and that the book will have to find its ideal reviewer elsewhere. For me, the book is like a rich Christmas pudding: one is never quite sure whether one likes the cake, but the plums are juicy. For I am torn between a genuine admiration for Haney’s evident learning and the breadth and fluency of his range of reference on the one hand and a nagging suspicion that this is a book which will have only a very limited readership on the other. Its later chapters contain interesting discussions of key Coleridgean concepts, and I would certainly direct my students to those passages. But taken as a whole, this is not a book for those who are not already experts in hermeneutical discourse. I realise that to ask for something more foundational is antithetical to the genre, but nonetheless I read with a growing wish for a rather different book: a book which made some more concessions to the uninitiated reader and which might have explained to the Coleridgean community why a hermeneutic approach is rewarding. Perhaps that will be Haney’s next book.

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