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David Vallins, Coleridge and the Psychology of Romanticism. Feeling and Thought. Basingstoke: Macmillan; New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000. ISBN: 0-333-73745-8. Price: £45.00 (US$65).

  • Mary Anne Perkins

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  • Mary Anne Perkins
    School of Advanced Study, University of London

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This is a book which aspires to transcend, or at any rate to transgress, the usual boundaries within which studies of S. T. Coleridge's thought tend, in contravention of the latter's own principles, to confine their object. It looks beyond the limits of literary criticism, of studies in English Romanticism, of nineteenth-century religious or political history. The author explores his central theme—the relationship of feeling and thought—in relation to various aspects of Coleridge's thought and compares it, in this connection, to theories propounded by others with whose ideas Coleridge engaged: for example, to those of Kant and Schelling, of David Hartley and Joseph Priestley. Through exploration of his prose and poetry, and by means of the well-established blend of psychology and literary criticism, David Vallins grapples with Coleridge's claims to have discovered the principles of an intellectual system which affirmed the unity of thought and feeling. A sizable proportion of the book covers material and arguments which are well-mapped elsewhere as its author attempts to shed new light on areas which have been the subject of repeated analysis. One of the most interesting discussions, in this respect, is that on Coleridge's usage of 'certainty' and 'positiveness' in relation to epistemic judgements and affective responses. Occasionally Vallins appears to succumb to the influence of Coleridge's prose style—for example, the number of conjunctions in the extremely long last sentence of page 10 seems to create unnecessary obstacles for the reader—but on the whole his style is clear and fluent and the book is enjoyable to read.

The author generally seems to be on surer ground in analysis and discussion of the psychological than of the philosophical elements in Coleridoe's thinking. For example, there is an over-emphasis here on Plotinus, whose influence, though undoubtedly an important element in Coleridge's thought, was not uncritically assimilated by him and was counterbalanced by the primacy which he gave to the will (see below). [1] In fact, Coleridge appeared to have a greater empathy with the work of Proclus [2] in whose writings he found support for his belief in a primary Principle which transcends the predicates of Unity, Cause and God, just as it transcends Being.. There are some startling pronouncements, such as that '[b]oth modern language and modern thought are Coleridge's enemies' (Vallins, p. 156). Perhaps this is a reference to his rejection of certain trends common in the use of language in his own time which reflected an underlying materialist or mechanistic ethos and to the laziness which blurred the accuracy of thought through syllogism. In any case, given his propensity for coining new words, his delight in word-play and puns, and his constant emphasis on 'living words', the judgement that 'modern' language and thought were his enemies seems implausible. Indeed, Vallins himself suggests this in his reference to the intellect's 'continual reshaping of language to fit its communicative intention' (p. 156). Coleridge is not concerned merely to emphasize 'formal correctness' or 'verbal precision' (p. 158); it is the living relationship of words to each other as parts of a whole which is central to his thought (See AR, p.10).

What is particularly disconcerting in this study, however, especially given the choice of theme, is the absence of any detailed discussion of the will, in spite of the fact that Coleridge repeatedly presents this as the dynamic of connection between thought and feeling. For example, he often represents the Trinity by the terms Will, Reason and Love, as a relational reality in which primacy is given to the Will. In making the will both the nucleus and power of his philosophical system, he is much closer to Kant's philosophy (in the Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals) than to that of Hume. In Vallins' discussion of sensation, feeling and thought, his criticism of the dichotomies and the lack of proof in Coleridge's argument (p. 15) seems largely a result of a failure to recognize'Will' as Coleridge's first principle: that which precedes ontological and intellectual possibility. Of course, no objection could be raised to Vallins' disagreement with this position, but the implicit demand for proof here is unreasonable since proof exists, by definition, within the empirical realm of cause and effect, and the concept of a proof of freewill must thus be self-contradictory. We can, in fact (or Coleridge can), 'say how logos unites consciousness with external objective being'—it is through the free act of will which, he argues (see e.g. CN i. §1717) underlies all perception, conception and analysis. Although freedom, by its nature, defies explanation yet it is, Coleridge argues, an experienced reality in action. Thus he does, in fact, have something in common with Hume's recognition of the impossibility of seriously maintaining that the connecting power between cause and effect is mere illusion on the grounds that it cannot be identified or proved to exist. As with the will, this power is manifested in the creation of the relationship itself. This position is implicated in the whole tradition of thought which has given primacy to Act rather than to Being, and is no more 'self-serving' (Vallins, p. 14) in Schelling and Coleridge than is the adoption of any other first principle which can be tested, a posteriori, only with regard to its effects. In any case, metaphysical speculation or works of art do not arise, in their view, 'from the unity of mind and nature' so much as from the unifying power which is, so they believed, the source of both nature and mind. Coleridge's idea of the unifying power of Will, Intellect and Love (the last including 'feeling') may be understood in religious terms, but it may also be expressed in purely human terms as the activity or directed power of the will which produces the experienced unity of thought, feeling and sensation. If the unifying power of Absolute Will exists, clearly it can only be manifested in, not proved by, its effects. As the source and dynamic of all causal relationship it could not then itself, through some inverted trick of thought, be established on the basis of this relationship. Vallins' references to, or hints at, Coleridge's philosophical obscurity (e.g. pp. 75, 136, 165-6) seem at times to echo the criticism of many of the latter's compatriots in the nineteenth-century in merely dismissing his philosophical arguments, most of which were then inaccessible in published form, as muddled 'metaphysics'.

This lack of engagement with Coleridge's philosophical arguments (in the later notebooks, in his marginalia and in the 'Opus Maximum' writings) concerning the nature and function of the will produces a blunted and blurred representation of his thought in key areas. For example, it leads Vallins to represent the nature of 'imagination' as merely the faculty of constructing analogies. On this ground he claims that the 'secondary imagination' is 'thus implicitly of the same order as Coleridge's "flitting phantasies"' (pp. 14-15), an identification which the latter explicitly rejected (BL i. 304-5) and which ignores the moral element in his theory of the imagination. In addition, Vallins' attempt to deal with issues of 'verbalization' without reference to the significance of Coleridge's theory of the will as applied to the analysis of the relation between reason and word, is doomed to inadequacy. Again, the failure to take account of this dynamic enables Vallins to conclude that Coleridge identifies God as supreme Reason (Vallins, p. 150). In fact, the latter insisted that the primal reality (the first Person of the Trinity) is Will, and he consistently represented Reason, or the Supreme Being, or Logos, as the second Person of the Trinity. This fundamental positioning of the relationship between Will and Reason came to influence every area of his thought (see e.g. CN iv. 5144,f24v).

A contributory factor to the difficulties of interpreting Coleridge has been the common conflation of his private and public statements; a consequence, perhaps, of the liveliness of the former and the inaccessibility and complexity of the latter. This has often hindered the meticulous pursuit of his arguments on philosophical principles, especially as these tend to be spread between various notes, fragments, annotations and drafts of uncompleted works . Short pithy extracts from his letters are frequently combined, here too, in entertaining fashion with equally short and context-less extracts taken from passages of sustained and detailed argument. But if this book gives credence to the established mythology of Coleridge's philosophical weaknesses—his impossible ideals, his fanciful arguments, his untenable positions—despite recent analysis of previously unpublished writings which tends to discredit this mythology, this is partly because of the scant attention given here to the progressive stages of his thought. His notes and letters plainly show this development and it becomes clear, therein, that he was the first to recognize and avoid the many intellectual pits into which it is suggested, here and elsewhere, that he fell so blindly. Coleridge's thought deserves to be taken as an organic whole which unfolds, which expresses in one place what it omits in another, which finds its dynamic in the will as the source of both feeling and thought rather than merely the product. Above all, the recognition that, if freewill is a reality, then its origin is necessarily mysterious, is the core of Coleridge's philosophy and the key to his understanding of the relation of feeling and thought. His acknowledgment that a primal reality of Will must take the genuine pursuit of truth, inexorably, beyond the bounds of a closed philosophical system is, in this case, rather a mark of his intellectual integrity than of a flaccid subordination of thought to feeling.