Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) stands tall in the cultural pantheon for his poetry. It’s less well known that in his own lifetime, and in the decades following his death, this canonical poet had an equal reputation as a philosopher. His published works containing much of his philosophical prose span from The Statesman’s Manual (1816), which set out his theory of imagination and symbolism; Biographia Literaria (1817), one of the great and founding works of literary criticism; The Friend (1818), which includes his philosophical ‘Essays on the Principles of Method’; Aids to Reflection (1825), where he expounds his religious philosophy of transcendence; and On the Constitution of the Church and the State (1829), which presents his political philosophy.
The effect of those last two books was so impressive that John Stuart Mill named Coleridge as one of the two great British philosophers of the age – the other being Jeremy Bentham, Coleridge’s polar opposite. His thinking was also at the root of the Broad Church Anglican movement, a major influence on F D Maurice’s Christian socialism, and the main source for American Transcendentalism. Ralph Waldo Emerson visited Coleridge in 1832, and John Dewey, the leading pragmatist philosopher, called Coleridge’s Aids to Reflection ‘my first Bible’.
Yet philosophical fortunes change. The almost-total eclipse of British idealism by the rise of analytic philosophy saw a general decline in Coleridge’s philosophical stock. His philosophy languished while his verse rose. Coleridge’s poetry resonated with the psychedelia of the 1960s and a general cultural shift that emphasised the value of the imagination and a more holistic view of the human place within nature. Today, Coleridge is far more often remembered as a poet than a philosopher. But his philosophy was spectacular in its originality and syntheses.
Although Coleridge wrote poetry throughout his life, his energies increasingly channelled towards philosophy. Drawing from neo-Platonism, the ingenious but difficult transcendental idealism of Immanuel Kant, and the even obscurer intricacies of post-Kantians such as J G Fichte and F W J Schelling, his philosophy was undoubtedly of the difficult metaphysical kind, very much at odds with practically minded British empiricism. [Continue reading…]