What Barfield Thought Coleridge Thought

I’m in the midst of another fantastic course this semester with Prof. Jake Sherman, this time on the creative imagination. We’re now reading Owen Barfield‘s masterful What Coleridge Thought (1971). It’s my second reading, though this time with a new copy (lacking my original marginalia in a more recent printing that I’ve since given away). The new copy was a gift from a friend and is signed on the inner side of the cover:

“Josephine Spence

with love from

Owen Barfield

February 1984″

I just googled her on a whim, and, as it turns out, Josephine Spence may have been the love of Barfield’s life, according to his biographer. Though they were never married, after Barfield’s wife Maud died and he took up his final residence in East Sussex in 1986, Spence lived less than a mile away and was his frequent companion until his death in 1997. I have a feeling the friend who gifted me this copy was unaware of what they were holding, but I will have to ask where they originally found it.

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The work of Coleridge the poet and the critic is well known and usually, well liked and well understood. The work of Coleridge the philosopher, on the other hand, was, according to his own testimony, “directly the reverse of all [most people] had ever been accustomed to consider as truth” (Biographia Literaria, Ch. 13). No doubt, part of the difficulty was circumstantial, deriving from his attempt to communicate transcendental philosophy “to his already empirically minded English contemporaries”:

“If the German thinkers [Kant, Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel] could count on at least a second class road of understanding into the minds of their readers, Coleridge tried to penetrate where there was no longer a road at all; to awaken to active thought minds for which ‘the conceivable’ had already been ‘reduced within the bounds of the picturable’ [Biographia Literaria]” (p. 43, WCT).

Barfield is well aware of the influence of these German philosophers on Coleridge, but his chief interest in What Coleridge Thought is, indeed, what Coleridge thought. Coleridge himself believed there were primarily two kinds of intellectuals: tanks, who simply borrow the ideas of others; and springs, who adopt ideas as their own after careful digestion and deliberate assimilation. Most of Coleridge’s English contemporaries had grown quite used to thinking of their thinking’s relationship to nature in degenerated Lockean terms, as a finite, passive mind shaped by its sensations of a mechanical nature designed by an omnipotent deity. Degenerated, I say, because Locke himself was a subtler thinker than Barfield often let’s on in his relentless attacks upon dualism of every stripe (Whitehead has more respect for Locke, especially for his concept of power).

Locke conceives of matter as essentially identical with space, and that God could have generated it only through a qualitative (i.e., accidental) change in the “thickness” of space, rather than an ex nihilo creation of it as though generating something from nothing. Though much of the time he conceives of the final real things as tiny material bodies, in the end Locke recognizes this could never be true of nature itself, since such separated particles “could never produce that order, harmony and beauty which are to be found in nature” (p. 17, “God and Matter in Locke,” by Bennett, 2005).

Barfield’s most important contribution to contemporary philosophy (later articulated in Saving the Appearances) is perhaps his critique of “idolatry.” One worships an idol, in Barfield’s sense, “whenever the unobservable in nature is converted, for handling, into supposed observables” (p. 87, WCT). To do so is to assume that one phenomenon can explain another phenomenon, when clearly, an appearance cannot be a real cause of anything. If phenomena are thought to have real causes at all, they must be noumenal (i.e., supersensible). And in that case, the final real things aren’t extended things or sensible bodies at all, but invisible generative forces. For Coleridge, following the polar logic of Boehme and Bruno, there are two such forces united in a single Power:

“The polar forces are the two forms, in which a one power works in the same act and instant” p. 203, n. 24, WCT);

and again, this time summarized by Coleridge’s student J. H. Green:

“A one power, which manifests itself in opposite and correlative forces, or in distinctive relations at once opposite and reciprocally complemented, and which therefore perpetuates itself in living reality and totality by distinction in unity” (ibid., n. 25).

The human mind is not set apart from nature in this scheme, but discovered in the very heart of it. That in nature which is generative is identical to that in the mind which is generative: the nous poetikos. That which makes visible nature is that which erupts as Muse in the poet’s imagination. The poetic genius does not copy an already completed nature; rather, the poet taps into and expresses the very spirit which is still creating nature, there creating it anew.

In the Bibliographia, Coleridge offers the following:

“Descartes, speaking as a naturalist, and in imitation of Archimedes, said, give me matter and motion and I will construct you the universe. We must of course understand him to have meant: I will render the construction of the universe intelligible. In the same sense the transcendental philosopher says: 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 intelligences with the whole system of their representations to rise up before you. Every other science presupposes intelligence as already existing and complete: the philosopher contemplates it in its growth, and as it were represents its history to the mind from its birth to its maturity” (ch. 13).

I hear Schelling and Hegel echoing in these lines. Hegel wrote in his essay “The difference between Fichte’s and Schelling’s System of Philosophy” that the chief challenge of post-Kantian philosophy is to

“…recompense nature for the mishandling that it suffered…and set Reason itself in harmony with nature, not by having Reason renounce itself or become an insipid imitator of nature, but by Reason recasting itself into nature out of its own inner strength…”

Kant was perhaps able to awaken the spirit of freedom in the human soul, but he did so only by severing any relation between it and the apparent mechanism of Nature. In Coleridgean terms, the desire to think at first rises in my soul because of the inverse but complementary movement of an expanding universe. I intend as it extends. The cosmos is incomplete in itself, but in thinking, I will its wholeness. Light cannot travel fast enough through space to show me what is beyond the edge of time—the physical eyes cannot see to eternity. But an inner sight intuits the universe’s end without my having to sense it. I am able not only to intuit, but to participate in the creative movement of the universe toward wholeness because in my soul, matter finds its center, becoming the image of Spirit, the point of eternal stillness around which all else revolves.

“[In the Human] the whole force of organic power has attained an inward and centripetal direction. He has the whole world in counterpoint to him, but he contains an entire world within himself…a compendium of Nature–the Microcosm!” (Theory of Life).