Coleridge and Scientific Realism

I’m continuing to read Barfield’s book What Coleridge Thought (1971) with great excitement. Barfield includes two short chapters entitled “Ideas, Methods, Laws” and “Coleridge and the Cosmology of Science” wherein he attempts to say a bit about how Coleridge’s dynamic philosophy might be brought into conversation with contemporary natural science.

It would be helpful, before getting into Coleridge’s scientific method, to look at perhaps the two most influential philosophers of science in the last century. In their own ways, both Thomas Kuhn and Karl Popper articulated anti-realist accounts of scientific knowledge. For Kuhn, what we know about the universe always depends upon the paradigm from within which experiments are designed and their data interpreted. There may appear to be something like progress within a given paradigm during periods of normal science. But once revolutionary science is taken into consideration, it becomes clear that there can be no epistemological basis for the assumption that “changes of paradigm carry scientists and those who learn from them closer and closer to the truth” (p. 170, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 1996). Science is not about approaching some fancied total representation of nature, but about intersubjective coordination.*

For Popper, a scientific theory can never be proven true, but only falsified through experiment. In the end, all scientific knowledge remains hypothetical, a fancied construction of the world by a human mind in such a way that action in the world based upon it proves advantageous or at least more interesting. In this way, science “progresses” through something like Darwinian natural selection by finding some way to “fit” with the experimental reality of one’s socio-historical moment. He affirms a sort of creativity in the world and in human thought, but in the end finds no place where the two–cosmos and psyche, nature and history–ever fully meet up and connect.

In The Logic of Scientific Discovery (1959), Popper writes:

“Science does not rest upon rock-bottom. The bold structure of its theories rises, as it were, above a swamp. It is like a building erected on piles. The piles are driven down from above into the swamp, but not down into any natural or ‘given’ base; and when we cease our attempts to drive our piles into a deeper layer, it is not because we have reached firm ground. We simply stop when we are satisfied that they are firm enough to carry the structure, at least for the time being” (quoted by Barfield on p. 247, n. 29.).

Popper argues that there can be no logic to the origination of new theories or paradigms in science; rather, some “irrational element” or “creative intuition” must come into play. It is here that he comes closest to Coleridge’s alchemical method by recognizing the coincidence of science, art, and nature in the creative discovery of truth:

“Science must begin with myths, and with the criticism of myths; neither with the collection of observations, nor with the invention of experiments, but with the critical discussion of myths, and of magical techniques and practices. The scientific tradition is distinguished from the pre-scientific tradition in having two layers. Like the latter, it passes on its theories; but it also passes on a critical attitude towards them. The theories are passed on, not as dogmas, but rather with the challenge to discuss them and improve upon them” (Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge, 1963).

Coleridge would agree with Popper on this point, that theories are like myths when they are first taken up by a thinker. They are stories whose tale the scientist cannot take for granted have already reached their end; they must continue to tell the story, and to tell it in an experientially verifiable way, for the theory to remain a live option. The student of science must learn the secrets of the scientific initiates by practicing their experimental arts for himself, testing them, improving them. Coleridge writes:

“Every physical theory is in some measure imperfect, because it is of necessity progressive; and because we can never be sure that we have exhausted the terms or that some new discovery may not effect the whole scheme of its relations…” (Treatise on Method).

But there the similarities end, since Coleridge defended a realist account of scientific knowledge by grounding it in an intuition of the real, while Popper limited knowledge to abstract hypothesis and model building. The difference between them, you could say, is that Popper never took the Shellingian leap across the Kantian regulative/constitutive divide announced in the Critique of Judgment. What Popper means by “rationality,” Coleridge identifies as “fancy” or “understanding.” These latter two modes of knowing are contrasted with “Reason” or “Imagination,” in that the former only passively rearranges the given facts of sense perception (à la Locke or Hume), while the latter actively reach into phenomena to poetically intuit their supersensory causes. Kant’s transcendentalism goes beyond the empiricists in that he recognizes the active role of the understanding in shaping sensory perception. He intuited Reason within himself, ordering and systematizing his and humanity’s ideas about reality into a regulative system, but he still could not finally bridge the gap between aesthesis and ontos, between logos and pathos, between what shows itself and what, hidden, shines. Kant, and after him Popper and Kuhn, could not find the place where conscious light and cosmic darkness meet up and coincide. The light shines in the darkness, but the dark does not see the source of the light. Light originates, if light it be (the Kantian can’t be sure theoretically that they are free, even if practically they are forced to affirm it), always from beyond the finite immanence enacted by a Kantian poetics, whereas for a Coleridgian poetics, light originates always from within and is pregnant in everything. Science is the conscious spirit in humanity knowing the secret spirit in the cosmos. As Coleridge says in chapter 13 of Biographia Literaria, paraphrasing Schelling:

“…grant me a nature having two contrary forces, the one of which tends to expand infinitely, while the other strives to apprehend or find itself in this infinity, and I will cause the world of intelllgences with the whole system of their representations to rise up before you.”

As a result of Kant’s influence, known or unknown, most contemporary philosophers of science believe human thought has access only to concepts derived from generalizations of sensory experience. Theories and laws are therefore considered to be abstract models of reality in the mind, rather than the mind’s participation in the ideal structure and formal power of reality itself. Some philosophically unsophisticated materialistic scientists have not even understood Kant’s injunction; they still do not know how to see through the transcendental telescope he invented, and so they cannot see their own influence on their observations of the world. They assert that their fancied model is in fact the reality, that the sun clearly rises and sets while the earth remains centered and still. In this way, they conceive of the unperceivable in terms of something perceivable; that is, they fancy that they can explain one phenomenon in terms of some other, unseen phenomenon. An “unseen phenomenon” is, of course, a contradiction in terms. As Barfield puts it, such scientists ignore the implications of post-Kantian epistemology, that “the ultimate explanation of phenomena cannot itself be phenomenal” (126). Such an explanation must be formal, or noumenal, which is not a contradiction for a philosophy of science aspiring to realism if the “real is the rational, and the rational the real,” as Hegel put it (whom Coleridge read, but not extensively). If reality is to be intelligible to us, it must itself already be intelligent. The causes and laws of the cosmos must be identifiable by powers and ideas in the mind as powers and ideas.
Coleridge defines Ideas, as opposed to concepts, in several ways. They are that which allows us to see the Universal in the Particular, and the Particular in the Universal. He also defines Ideas by way of an example:

“to the ideas of Kepler, the Correlates of the Law of the Planetary Orbits contrasted with the conception of Ptolemy–who began with the phaenomena, the apparent Motions, as data–and then sought to take them as that he might take the all together–i.e. concipere, capere haec cum illis–and the Conception or synopsis of a plurality of phaenomena so schematized as to shew the compatibility of their co-existence, is THEORY–a product of the Understanding in the absence or eclipse of IDEAS, or Contemplations of the Law, and hence necessarily conditioned by the Appearances, and changing with every new or newly discovered Phaenomenon, which Theory always follows never leads–while the law being constitutive of the phaenomena and in order of Thought necessarily antecedent, the Idea as the correlative and mental Counterpart of the Law, is necessarily prophetic and constructive–et Solem dicere falsum Audet, and turns the contradiction of the Senses into proofs and confirmations of its Truths” (a notebook quoted by Barfield on p. 238, n. 59).

Coleridge, in order to avoid the idolatry of much contemporary science, which presupposes some inanimate basis beneath all phenomena (e.g., Popper’s murky swamp water), carefully distinguishes between concepts of the understanding, on the one hand, and ideas of reason, on the other. Concepts are derived retroactively based on generalizations from particulars; they are rules derived from past events, from nature conceived of as already made (natura naturata). Ideas are Reason’s way of participating directly in the laws, or powers, of nature in the act of making itself (natura naturans). As a realist, Coleridge thinks the task of science is to seek

“that knowledge in which truth and reality are one and the same, that which in the ideas that are present to the mind recognizes the laws that govern in Nature if we may not say the laws that are Nature” (80, Treatise on Logic II, emphasis mine).

 

*As Latour will later suggest, Science is about building alliances with actors across increasingly global networks. Latour, of course, takes us beyond anthropocentric relativism in a way that Kuhn did not. Latour moves toward realism by arguing that, in order to perform and defend their facts, scientists have to build alliances not only with other scientists, and with military, civilian, or private funders, but also with autonomous and responsive lab mice, microscopes, particle colliders, satellites, solar flares, electrons, and ice bergs. Science is a cosmopolitical activity–something the cosmic community is co-directing with human beings.

 

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5 thoughts on “Coleridge and Scientific Realism

  1. a cosmopolitical activity indeed, that is correct but directed by the “cosmic community”? Hardly, it is a “play of ideals”, a dream-scape that disappears entirely (both swamp and edifice) as soon as the author “wakes up”. Is this a “community” that wakes up or is it the Individual? If the former why do they not know of themselves to each other? If the latter then the universe is just a “trial run” and the details do not matter for the simple reason that they do not exist, mere figments of imagination in which the community merely reflects the expectations of the creator….. and this is both the something (the world of name and form) as well as the cosmic community co-directed with human beings. None of it is real, not the world, not the human beings and certainly not the cosmic community. Nothing exists other than the projector of which I am One (so to speak).

  2. Pingback: C. S. Peirce on Chaos and Law–On the Mystery of Naming the Real | Footnotes to Plato

  3. Pingback: dreamers, critics, and realists « JRFibonacci's blog: partnering with reality

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