“Coleridge and the Science of the Mind” by Chris Rudge

I’m enthralled with this essay by doctoral student at the University of Sydney, Chris Rudge. It opens up precisely the sort of discussion I want to build on in my own dissertation.

The first few paragraphs:

Not a great deal of literary historical scholarship has been devoted to examining the connections between science during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and the romantic literature produced during this period. Instead, “literary history” has “drawn principally on the fellow humanities of philosophy and history” and only “superficially…on the history and philosophy of science” to develop an essentially incomplete and unidisciplinary account of the Romantic period. As Nancy Easterlin succinctly points out, scholars in the “humanistic research paradigms have remained largely immune to the influence of science”, maintaining the “two-cultures tradition, by virtue of the body of knowledge they adopt—and…by what they implicitly exclude—to frame our understanding of” literary and other “written works.” The recent works of such literary historians as Alan Richardson and Trevor Levere, however, has started to address this elision in literary history by mapping out the connections between literary Romanticism and neurological scientific discourse in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Levere’s study demonstrates how the Romantic reaction to the Enlightenment “made ‘mechanical’ a term of abuse, with both poets and scientists “dismissing it in favour of ‘organic.’Richardson, similarly, in British Romanticism and The Science of The Mind, aims to show how scientists in the period of approximately 1770-1880 departed from the dualist understanding of language and cognition, and embarked upon a more holistic and universalized vision of the ‘embodied’ individual, complete with a totalized and yet organically differentiated brain.

In my own paper, I aim to elaborate on the accounts generated by Richardson and Levere by closely examining the way in which Samuel Taylor Coleridge interacted with new neurological principles proposed by Romantic scientists of the mind. More innovatively, I aim to show that Coleridge’s underlying motivation for rejecting certain scientific models of the mind, while avowing others, is related to the potential Coleridge sees in neurological models to demean the position of poetic language and imagination. I have chosen to focus specifically on Coleridge and his text, Biographia Literaria, for three interrelated reasons. Firstly, Coleridge’s changing critical stance toward scientific knowledge about the mind reflects the distinctive shift in Romantic scientists away from Enlightenment principles. The veracity with which Coleridge’s initially opposed the relation of science and poetry, and his trenchant rejection of David Hartley’s scientific programme, for instance, contrasts significantly with Coleridge’s ultimate view that “scientific learning was essential to the writing of an epic poem.” Secondly, Coleridge’s bias “toward the centrality of language”, and his initially intransigent attitude regarding the “transcendental subject” of the poet – that “only a profound philosophical mind could hope to achieve poetic greatness” – illustrates Coleridge’s view that poetry and science alike should both direct themselves to a “discovery or statement of truth.” Lastly, I will show that Coleridge’s unique self-experimentation with the unconscious sensations of the body, evinced most clearly throughout Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria (but further illustrated by Coleridge’s self-experimental praxis in composing poems such as Kubla Kahn) provides a fascinating insight into Coleridge’s conception of the poetic and “organic” imagination while demonstrating his close association with science, more generally.

2 Replies to ““Coleridge and the Science of the Mind” by Chris Rudge”

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