Nicholas Reid’s Coleridge, Form and Symbol
offers a systematic, critical reading of Coleridge’s philosophy of form and meaning. Among the major philosophical issues in Coleridge studies during the past forty years is the interpretation of his notion of the symbol. Symbols serve as a fulcrum for multiple issues within Coleridge’s thought, including notions of language, imagination, nature, and interpretation. The German idealist philosopher F. W. J. Schelling typically lurks behind the scenes in these discussions, since Coleridge infamously drew upon Schelling’s philosophy in the formation of his epistemology in Biographia Literaria
. Nicholas Reid’s carefully-constructed study contends that a concrete relationship exists between forms (such as nature or art) and ideas. Drawing from a wide range of major early poems and insightful readings of late prose writings such as the Opus Maximum
, Reid maintains that Coleridge’s philosophy of mind is predicated on a unity that extends from the being of the Triune God to the consubstantiality of symbols and ideas within creation. While clearly indebted to Schelling’s system, Coleridge’s late writings (from 1818 onwards) move beyond Schelling’s dialectic through an appeal to polar logic that avoids Schelling’s incipient pantheism and purportedly inadequate logic. Since Reid contends that Coleridge offers a coherent rather than fragmentary system, he is able to move comfortably between the late prose and early poetry in order to convey fresh insights into the inner logic of Coleridge’s metaphysics. Reid’s study thereby elucidates, in other words, what Coleridge so famously pondered in poems such as “Frost at Midnight,” with its “lovely shapes and sounds intelligible / Of that eternal language, which thy God / Utters” (Collected Coleridge
16.1:456). Reid divides the book into three parts: “Image and Form,” “Coleridge’s Poetry,” and “Coleridgean Metaphysics.” In “Image and Form,” Reid explains the foundational problem: how can nature or art forms embody meaning? Theories of representative perception are a key aspect of the contemporary debate. Flowing out of Locke’s belief that the individual perceives (via optic nerves, etc.) and re-presents the physical world in the mind, representationalist theories assert the immediacy of the world. Reid denies the passivity of human perception that he finds in representationalist theories by appealing to the epistemology of the early twentieth-century philosopher L. A. Reid. Reid argued that the mind does not passively receive immediate sensory impressions of the world, but rather “images” the world in acts of knowing: “Reid saw the active nature of perception as paradigmatic of the active and constructive nature of mind
more generally. Images are not merely passively ‘received’ from the outside world: they are active mental constructs, and hence precisely the kind of thing which can embody meaning” (16). Although Reid does not offer an exhaustive review of the contemporary debate, his explication effectively demonstrates something of the inherent philosophical issue with which Coleridge grappled (for example, the perceiving subject remains a relevant topic in contemporary epistemology), and he sets the stage for an explication of the way that Coleridge distanced himself from notions of the passive mind that he briefly experimented with in his early years (especially Hartleyan associationalism in the 1790s). All this begs the question: what is form? Form is a broad term for Reid, since form encapsulates the transformative process whereby data is converted and preserved in a new medium. Form is not limited to shape or structure alone: the form of the Grecian urn, for example, is not limited to its shape in silhouette alone, but also includes other “sensuous” aspects such as texture, color, and sheen. Aesthetic works can be defined, then, according to the transformative and preservative structure of ...
Jeffrey W. Barbeau is Associate Professor of Theology in the Graduate School of Wheaton College (Ill.). Recent publications include Coleridge, the Bible, and Religion (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008) and, as editor, Coleridge’s Assertion of Religion: Essays on the Opus Maximum (Louvain: Peeters, 2006). Current research projects include books and articles on Romanticism and religion, the theological writings of Sara Coleridge, and global Methodism.