Coleridge and Barfield on Life, Imagination, and Reality

Continuing with Barfield’s (I think masterful) attempt (What Coleridge Thought, 1971) to give the definitive philosophical statement of a thinker who never seems to have gotten around to doing the same for himself, here are a few more reflections…

Barfield judges Coleridge a genius. Perhaps so, but the latter said of his own existant philosophical prose that it looks “like the fragments of the winding steps of an old ruined tower” (Bibliographia Literaria, Ch. 13). With this image, Coleridge seems to admit that, whether he be an architectural genius or not, his readers will certainly have to be if they hope to ascend to the top of the tower to take in the sublime view of the world he was attempting to cook up (in the alchemical sense). In the margins of his library books, in letters to his friends, and in powerful but evasive aphorisms is buried a complete philosophical system. After Barfield’s house cleaning, we are provided with a 200 page book that doesn’t so much sum it all up, as though recounting it in a list, but organizes it in such a way that it begins where it ends and ends where it begins, turning it into a whole made out of parts which themselves are nothing less than the whole (“entire in each and one in all”). Beginning with the metaphysical trinity of Logic, Nature, and Power (Father, Son, and Spirit), he then moves on to Life. Philosophically, if not religiously speaking (i.e., according to reason rather than revelation), we can only aim to end at the realization of the Divine Triunity; we cannot begin there. We must begin, instead, with life, and its partner, death (what Barfield and Coleridge refer to as “outness”).

Coleridge’s theory of life stands not opposite Darwin’s theory but behind it. At first glance, it seems opposed, but this is impossible, since Darwin had no theory of life at all. His was a theory about speciation, leaving life itself to be explained otherwise: he speculates it was “originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one” on the last page of On the Origin of Species. Though he may ultimately have had other cosmological commitments than Coleridge (i.e., of the Newtonian-Cartesian sort), the validity of Darwin’s theory of speciation, so far as it goes, does not rule out the possibility that Coleridge was also right about life. In fact, Coleridge’s theory of life may indeed provide the ontological grounding for the very phenomenon described by Darwin, whereas that described by Newton (atoms in motion governed by fixed laws) does not. Only if we mistake Darwin’s model for how nature really is, rather than one way nature can be made to appeardo we commit the fatal sin of idol worship by fancying the world as essentially dead extended stuff “out there.” So long as we recognize that it is no theory at all, but a hypothesis regarding appearances–not an explanation for an appearance, but a predictive model about how certain appearances lead to other appearances–then Darwin’s remains a crucial insight into the general behavior of life. There is no doubt that inheritance with modification coupled with selection pressures resulting from sex and death can lead to the differentiation of life. But this is no explanation for life. The “how?” and the “what?” of the thing itself transforming through the generations into a variety of species is left unaccounted for. “How?” cannot be explained with a mechanical design, deistic or natural, since life is not built from the outside, but generated from within. Life cannot be put together out of merely external parts, but must be seen to grow from living seeds, each with the formative power of the whole solar system already inside them.

To explain life, Barfield argues, we require a dynamic and thoroughly evolutionary cosmology, since:

“we can never reach and recognize the idea of change [evolution] in nature, if our idea of nature itself is exclusively a picture of bodies already formed [natura naturata]. This very picture however is the one which the Cartesian dichotomy between mind and matter had been busy riveting on the mind of the Western world through the two hundred years before Coleridge’s birth. That it is a false picture; that elementary particles do not merely exist from eternity and keep on setting to partners; that the proposition ‘matter has no inward‘ is a false proposition, was accordingly not simply an interesting metaphysical speculation, but a vital and neglected, or ‘lost,’ verity which he felt he had to re-establish before he could usefully say anything else to his contemporaries upon almost any subject, whether religion, politics, history, imagination, or life” (p. 42, WCT).

To grasp Coleridge requires genius. To grasp the nature of life requires imagination. It is a totally contrary perspective to the one we are used to taking for granted as true, where “substance becomes shadow, and shadow substance”: Coleridge asks us to see imagination as reality. The one reality, the cause and origin of the self, the world, and all things, is nothing other than imagination. So, what is imagination? Creatively discovering its essence was the endless task Coleridge set himself from at least the moment he first read Plato, Plotinus, and Ficino as a teenager (p. 72, WCT), but certainly it began to occupy the bulk of his philosophical attention by the time he was exposed to Wordsworth’s poetry in 1795. By 1817, he had written his clearest and most definitive statement concerning the nature and genesis of imagination:

“Imagination, then, I consider as either primary or secondary. 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. The secondary Imagination I consider as an echo of the former, co-existing with the conscious will, yet still identical with the former in the kind of its agency, and differing only in degree, and in the mode of its operation. It dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to re-create; or where this process is rendered impossible, yet still at all events it struggles to idealize and to unify. It is essentially vital, even as all objects (as objects) are essentially fixed and dead.”

Modern, post-Cartesian common sense is to imagine that imagining happens somewhere inside the head, that it peeks through the inlets of the senses at an external world and more or less represents what is “out there.” Properly speaking, from Coleridge and Barfield’s perspective, we shouldn’t call this sort of idol worship “imagining” at all, but fancying. The difference between imagination and fancy was central to Coleridge’s philosophy (very similar to the distinction between understanding and reason). Imagination is an act of “separative projection” (p. 76, WCT), a will which, like self-conscious thinking, is one with the products of its own productivity. At the primary level, the level of the eternal creation of the macrocosm, this act of imagination takes place without our consciousness. Genius, however, grants some human beings (like Coleridge and Wordsworth) the power to approach self-consciousness of their participatory role in the co-creation of the microcosm at the secondary level: “they know and feel, that the potential works in them, even as the actual works on them” (Biographia Literaria, ch. 13). As Paracelsus put it,

“He who is born in imagination discovers the latent forces of Nature…Besides the stars that are established, there is yet another–Imagination–that begets a new star and a new heaven.”

Ordinary adult human beings are, through education, made entirely unconscious of the activity of secondary imagination, and so can rely only upon fancy to provide them with an understanding of the universe as made up of “fixities and definites” (ibid.). Fancy in the absence of imagination (i.e., understanding without reason) can only lead to the belief that the substance of things is made of inanimate matter, and that mind is but a display and a storehouse of impressions caused by this matter.

On the other hand, Barfield explains,

“for Coleridge, because man did not create himself, there is indeed an actual (I-Thou) relation subject and natural object; but, since man is to be free, it is also a genetic and a progressive one. Phylogenetically that progressive relation is nature. Ontogenetically it is imagination” (p. 77, WCT).

As Coleridge himself put it, drawing on Plotinus,

The first range of hills, that encircles the scanty vale of human life, is the horizon for the majority of its inhabitants. On its ridges the common sun is born and departs. From them the stars rise, and touching them they vanish. By the many, even this range, the natural limit and bulwark of the vale is but imperfectly known. Its higher ascents are too often hidden by mists and clouds from uncultivated swamps, which few have courage or curiosity to penetrate. To the multitude below these vapors appear, now as the dark haunts of terrific agents, on which none may intrude with impunity; and now all a-glow, with colours not their own, they are gazed at as the splendid palaces of happiness and power. But in all ages there have been a few, who measuring and sounding the rivers of the vale at the feet of their furthest inaccessible falls have learned, that the sources must be far higher and far inward; a few, who even in the level streams have detected elements, which neither the vale itself or the surrounding mountains contained or could supply. How and whence to these thoughts, these strong probabilities, the ascertaining vision, the intuitive knowledge may finally supervene, can be learnt only by the fact. I might oppose to the question the words with which Plotinus supposes NATURE to answer a similar difficulty. “Should any one interrogate her, how she works, if graciously she vouchsafe to listen and speak, she will reply, it behoves thee not to disquiet me with interrogatories, but to understand in silence even as I am silent, and work without words.” Likewise in the fifth book of the fifth Ennead, speaking of the highest and intuitive knowledge as distinguished from the discursive, or in the language of Wordsworth, “The vision and the faculty divine;” he says: “it is not lawful to enquire from whence it sprang, as if it were a thing subject to place and motion, for it neither approached hither, nor again departs from hence to some other place; but it either appears to us or it does not appear. So that we ought not to pursue it with a view of detecting its secret source, but to watch in quiet till it suddenly shines upon us; preparing ourselves for the blessed spectacle as the eye waits patiently for the rising sun.” They and they only can acquire the philosophic imagination, the sacred power of self-intuition, who within themselves can interpret and understand the symbol, that the wings of the air-sylph are forming within the skin of the caterpillar; those only, who feel in their own spirits the same instinct, which impels the chrysalis of the horned fly to leave room in its involucrum for antennæ yet to come. They know and feel, that the potential works in them, even as the actual works on them! In short, all the organs of sense are framed for a corresponding world of sense; and we have it. All the organs of spirit are framed for a correspondent world of spirit:  though the latter organs are not developed in all alike.  But they exist in all, and their first appearance discloses itself in the moral being (Biographia Literaria, ch. 12).

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).