Alan Jacobs

Coleridge and the Maker

Revisiting the "Biographia Literaria."

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For Coleridge, an account of events leads to an account of thoughts, which in turn leads to an account of consciousness, which (finally) leads to a theological anthropology. Roberts: "the Biographia believes 'the vision and the faculty divine' to be at the heart of the best art. This is why the book is divided between close attention to poetry and densely argued theological philosophy. Coleridge wants to do more than just show you the difference between good and bad poetry. He wants to do something more ambitious: he wants to make you believe in God."

As a young man, Coleridge was greatly taken with the work of David Hartley (1705-1757), the English philosopher who developed what came to be known as the "associationist" school of psychology. As Coleridge notes in the fifth chapter of the Biographia, philosophers had long recognized that some ideas in our minds tend to be linked to other ideas, but it was only in the work of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and especially David Hume that there arose a serious effort to discover what principles governed the mind's associations. So Hume, for instance, posited that the three major principles are similarity, contiguity in place or time, and cause/effect. Hartley, writing just after Hume, was distinctive in his insistence that all mental activity proceeds by association, and that all associations can be traced to vibrations in the nervous system. From the vantage point of contemporary debates about neural activity and cognition, Hartley can perhaps be seen as the first thinker to suggest that there may be no distinction between "mind" and "brain"—that physical activity in the brain may constitute everything that we call "thinking" and even "experience."

The young Coleridge found these ideas sufficiently powerful that he named his first son Hartley; but his enthusiasm waned over the years as his religious interests grew, and by the time he started dictating the Biographia to Morgan, he had come to see his adherence to Hartley's associationism as his greatest intellectual error and the one most in need of correction. So unpacking Hartley's errors proves essential to the story he has to tell, even though he knows that some readers will surely find his exposition tedious: "With my best efforts to be as perspicuous as the nature of language will permit on such a subject, I earnestly solicit the good wishes and friendly patience of my readers, while I thus go 'sounding on my dim and perilous way.' "

Coleridge then seeks to demonstrate that Hartley's associationism is wrong because it makes mental activity into something both passive and mechanical: humans become little more than recording machines for impressions, ceaselessly classifying them according to a few simple associative rules. But while this may capture some of what our brains do, it is scarcely adequate to account for the whole:

Most of my readers will have observed a small water-insect on the surface of rivulets, which throws a cinque-spotted shadow fringed with prismatic colours on the sunny bottom of the brook; and will have noticed, how the little animal wins its way up against the stream, by alternate pulses of active and passive motion, now resisting the current, and now yielding to it in order to gather strength and a momentary fulcrum for a further propulsion. This is no unapt emblem of the mind's self-experience in the act of thinking. There are evidently two powers at work, which relatively to each other are active and passive; and this is not possible without an intermediate faculty, which is at once both active and passive.

Coleridge follows this marvelous simile with a parenthesis: "In philosophical language, we must denominate this intermediate faculty in all its degrees and determinations, the imagination. But in common language, and especially on the subject of poetry, we appropriate the name to a superior degree of the faculty, joined to a superior voluntary control over it."

As the culmination of the long repudiation of Hartley's thought, Coleridge famously opposes this Imagination (later divided into Primary and Secondary) to the "Fancy," which "has no other counters to play with, but fixities and definites." The Fancy indeed merely plays with the "counters" that have been given it by the memory; "it must receive all its materials ready made from the law of association." If we were reliant only on the Fancy, we would indeed be Hartleian beings, shuffling our fixed and defined impressions like cardboard coins; but as beings made in the image of God, Coleridge says, we can do more: "The primary IMAGINATION I hold to be the living Power and prime Agent of all human Perception, and as a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite i am."

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