Coleridge's brief discussion of imagination (primary and secondary) and fancy in Chapter 13 of Biographia Literaria has been called, "perhaps the most famous single prose passage in all of English literature, yet ... also one of the most baffling."(1) The publication of the latest edition of Biographia a decade ago did not still the debate. Numerous attempts to interpret what Coleridge called his "immethodical ... miscellany"(2) show evidence of reading his poetic language too literally in his argument against literalism. His "seminal principle" of imagination (which many critics have found absent from his thought) is both a metaphysical distinction concerning God and a linguistic principle concerning language and metaphor. Here it will be argued that imagination is in fact the main focus of Coleridge's philosophical argument (in accordance with his claim at the end of Chapter 6); that Chapter 12, which many critics have discarded, is of particular significance; that the "seminal principle" of the imagination-fancy distinction is present in the "balance or reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities;"(3) that this describes not a literal reconciliation but rather a tensive relationship; and that this principle contributes to the solutions of his three major philosophical dilemmas outlined in Volume 1.
Although assessments of his achievement are varied, Coleridge believed he was writing a comprehensive poetic creed. The central aim of Biogtaphia he defined as follows:
. . . it was Mr. Wordsworth's purpose to consider the influences of fancy and imagination as they are manifested in poetry, and from the different effects to conclude their diversity in kind; while it is my object to investigate the seminal principle, and then from the kind to deduce the degree. My friend has drawn a masterly sketch of the branches with their poetic fruitage. I wish to add the trunk, and even the roots as far as they lift themselves above the ground, and are visible to the naked eve of our common consciousness. (87-88)
This clear statement of intention in Chapter 4 has not seemed to correspond with what was actually achieved in the chapters which followed. Imagination and fancy are mentioned several times, though never defined, until Chapter 13, where they seem to be entirely unsupported, lacking both the trunk and the roots Coleridge promised. To account for this, some critics have pointed to his personal difficulties; others have seen him making false several starts toward defining imagination; others have turned to trace possible influences on his thought; still others have sought some form of unity,(4) while generally concurring with George Whalley's assessment, "The general impression is that the book is incorrigibly diffuse, fragmentary, and obscure."(5)
If the book is considered in the light of its title, only the first thirteen chapters may be said to trace Coleridge's development. As he traces the history of philosophy he is in effect tracing the course he plied through philosophy. Even at this, only Chapters 1 to 11, inclusive, deal with Coleridge's thoughts prior to the time of writing, and Coleridge continually alternates between his former thoughts and his present ones, without at times indicating which is which. The long and difficult Chapter 12, along with Chapter 13 and most of Volume 2, are statements of Coleridge's ideas at the time of writing. Coleridge seems to have written Biographia on the assumption that his conclusions tell as much about the evolution of his ideas as anything else.
THREE PHILOSOPHICAL PROBLEMS
To appreciate the coherence of Biographia, it is important to recognize initially that in the first volume, Coleridge defines in separate places three specific problems with philosophy that he encountered over the years. The first of his problems concerns Hartley's theory of association and is the focus of Chapters 5 to 7 (together with the earlier chapters, these basically take the reader from Coleridge's childhood to 1803). This is a well-organized unit and is presented with firm control: Chapter 5 treats the basic tenets of Hartley, Chapter 6 discusses his basic errors, and Chapter 7 explores his logical implications. Coleridge's problem with association was that it restricted the mind to a purely passive or mechanical role.
Chapters 8 to 11 tend to deal with later years, up to the completion of the work in 1816. They develop his concern with revelation (an early expression of which may be found in "Religious Musing") that lies at the heart of his two remaining problems. One of these may be called the materialist-dualist dilemma. Materialist and dualist positions are presented in the first part of Chapter 8, and Coleridge's problems with both are discussed in the latter part of 8 and 9. Materialism tried to account for everything in terms of matter, starting with the object and moving inwards (Locke and his followers). Dualists split the world into spirit and matter: Descartes started with the subject, saw the soul as intelligence, and moved out from there; while Leibniz developed a theory that soul and body existed in a state of pre-established harmony. Materialism failed on one count, that of association, but both materialism and dualism failed on another count, that of rationally dismissing or accounting for revelation:
The most consistent proceeding of the dogmatic materialist is to fall back into the common rank of soul-and-bodyists; to affect the mysterious, and declare the whole process a revelation given, and not to be understood, which it would be profane to examine too closely. (135)
Coleridge's third problem is more specifically religious, as opposed to philosophical, and has been best identified as his pantheist dilemma.(6) His discussion of it begins in Chapter 9,(7) and it is given concentrated treatment in the middle of Chapter 10.(8) Thomas McFarland described Coleridge on a form of tightrope strung between the poles of subject and object, continually trying to reconcile the two without falling into the abyss of Spinoza's pantheism.(9) Coleridge here suggests instead that the poles are reason, on one hand, and his belief in a Christian self-revealing God, on the other. Only in Spinoza could he find a rational proof for the existence of God, but even there was denied the ability to attribute personhood to God. Still, as Coleridge says regarding Spinoza's pantheist system, "at no time could I believe, that in itsetf and essentially it is incompatible with religion, natural, or revealed" (152). Coleridge's pantheist dilemma is best summed up in his own words: "For a very long time, indeed, I could not reconcile personality with infinity; and my head was with Spinoza, though my whole heart remained with Paul and John" (201).
A COMMON SOLUTION
Coleridge is outlining three related but quite separate problems in Volume 1 of Biographia: associationism, materialism-dualism, and pantheism. These chapters also contain the solutions to each of the problems.
The solution to the associationist problem is given first, at the end of Chapter 7, concluding the lengthy discussion begun in Chapter 5. The law of contemporaneity, "being the common condition of all the laws of association" (125), is inadequate to explain all methods of thought: "if we appeal to our own consciousness, we shall find that even time itself, as the cause of a particular act of association, is distinct from contemporaneity, as the condition of all association" (125).(10) Because of this major exception, Hartley's claim that the mind was merely passive or mechanical in its association was wrong. Coleridge devised his own "true practical general law of association" (126): time, space or "whatever makes certain parts of a total impression more vivid or distinct than the rest, will determine the mind to recall these in preference to others equally linked together by the common condition of contemporaneity" (127). He called fancy the faculty that operates by his true law of association: "The Fancy is indeed no other than a mode of Memory emancipated from the order of time and space; and blended with, and modified by that empirical phenomenon of the will, which we express by the word CHOICE" (305). He was also led to conclude that the mind was both passive (e.g., mechanical memory) and active (e.g., fancy), like the pulsing movement of a water-insect on a flowing stream. The only way in which this was possible was in conceiving that there was "an intermediate faculty, which is at once both active and passive" (124). This was the larger solution to the associationist problem and was what Coleridge called "the IMAGINATION" (125).
The faculty of imagination also provided Coleridge with the solutions to his two other problems, and he intended Chapters 12 and 13 to be read as such. In Chapter 9, directly after the materialist-dualist problem is clarified, Coleridge gave a catalogue of the philosophers to whom he felt indebted. The list does not include either materialists or dualists but instead consists of mystics and German transcendentalists, including Schelling, who aided him toward a solution.(11) At this point his solution is only identified as "a PHILOSOPHY OF NATURE ... [a] Dynamic System" (162-63).
Coleridge hints in Chapter 10 toward the solution to the third problem of pantheism, again without discussing it. He simply states: "A more thorough revolution in my philosophic principles, and a deeper insight into my own heart, were yet wanting" (205). His reference to a philosophical revolution once more points to Schelling.
THE RELEVANCE OF CHAPTER 12
Chapter 12 presents the only philosophy which both goes unchallenged in Biographia and shows Schelling's broad influence. What Coleridge describes is the Philosophy of Nature, the revolutionary Dynamic System, for which he has been preparing. It is probably the most important chapter in the book as it provides the solution to Coleridge's two remaining problems and prepares for Chapter 13 and Volume 2.
Some scholars have suggested the thematic and structural integration of Chapter 12 with the rest of the work.(12) Catherine Miles Wallace, in her major treatment of Biographia's design, assessed the chapter as "a long parenthetical remark ... it offers very few new ideas. Principally it summarizes the philosophical arguments of the first eleven chapters."(13) Others have dismissed it because nearly half of the chapter has been derived from Schelling.(14) Norman Fruman suggested that Coleridge's use of Schelling in Biographia was makeshift, and that it prevented him from disclaiming Schelling sooner than he did (i.e., 1818).(15) Coleridge had cautioned however that "an identity of thought, or even similarly of phrase, will not be at all times a certain proof that the passage has been borrowed from Schelling, or that the conceptions were originally learnt from him" (161); possible coincidence with his thought still allowed that the work was "the offspring of a man's own spirit, and the product of original thinking" (164). When Coleridge wrote Blographia, he believed there were deep-seated similarities between his thought and Schelling's transcendental philosophy, but later study led him to believe that this was not so.
In Chapter 12, transcendental philosophers are contrasted with classical or traditional philosophers. The latter's method was to take all of their terms "in mass, and unexamined, [requiring] only a decent apprenticeship in logic, to draw forth their contents in all forms and colours" (235). This type of analysis was "highly useful in rendering our knowledge more distinct, [but] it does not really add to it" (235). Coleridge warned away all readers who were content with the mere analysis of terms and not prepared to seek ultimate reality. It is time, he said, "to tell the truth" (235). He would question the philosophical basis of such notions as "matter, spirit, soul, body, action, passiveness, time, space, cause and effect, consciousness, perception, memory and habit" (234). He was after a new kind of "philosophic ... consciousness" (236): it was "exclusively the domain of PURE philosophy, which is therefore properly entitled transcendental." Other philosophies assume consciousness to be "spontaneous," lacking "an effort of freedom" (236), or what he would elsewhere call an act of the will.
Coleridge's lyrical passage in Chapter 12 about the range of hills encircling the vale of common habitation beyond which few travellers have ventured is part of his attack (237-42). He is not stating the difference between philosophers and other people, as he is frequently read, but between transcelidental philosophers and everyone else, including classical philosophers. He is saying here something he said more explicitly earlier (citing Milton), that the ideas which he is about to express as the solution to his former problems are so important that he would rather have his argument discarded than have it misunderstood and obscured (164). Some critics, of course, did discard the chapter, but even those who took it more seriously may have misinterpreted him.
Coleridge's fear arose from the mechanical way in which Kant's ideas had been handled by his followers. Coleridge warned readers who lack understanding to stay away from Kant as well (157). The terms Coleridge was going to use in his argument could not be taken as "technical terms or scientific symbols" (236) to be trotted out, analyzed, and made to take any form, and neither could Kant's:
An IDEA, in the highest sense of that word, cannot be conveyed but by a symbol; and, except in geometry, all symbols of necessity involve an apparent contradiction ... for those who could not pierce through this symbolic husk, his writings were not intended. (156-57)
Coleridge's transcendental philosophy, which was going to provide his solutions to the materialist-dualist problem and the pantheist dilemma, would use symbols as Kant had used them. Unlike the symbols of geometry, these would involve apparent contradiction. Mathematical symbols are completely self-referential. An initial postulate is conceived and defined, and a symbol is ascribed to that postulate which presumes the definition (249-50; 154-55). Technical terms in classical philosophy functioned this way, and their use was justified "whenever they tend to preclude confusion of thought, and when they assist the memory by the exclusive singleness of their meaning" (287). The problem, however, was that the symbols of classical philosophers did not refer to distinct or absolute entities.
By contrast, transcendental philosophers use language to appeal to a source of knowledge "far higher" and more "inward" than their symbols can hope immediately to convey (239). The primary means by which this "ulterior consciousness" can be conveyed is "through words which are but the shadows of notions; even as the notional understanding itself is but the shadowy abstraction of living and actual truth" (243). The symbols of the transcendental philosopher participate only inadequately in the reality for which they stand, and herein lies the apparent contradiction Coleridge found valuable in Kant's understanding of language. Transcendental symbols, like mathematical symbols, imply a certain unity between symbol and thought, but with transcendental symbols this unity does not exist. Symbol and thought have their own distinct identities and cannot be confused, one with the other.(16)
Coleridge's thoughts on transcendental symbol are akin to contemporary theories of metaphor and arc an essential starting point for his new approach to philosophy. There is for Coleridge a linguistic principle of radical or absolute individuation akin to logical opposites and contraries. Symbols and thoughts exist apart from each other. They have separate identities. On an absolute or ultimate level, each identity is contrary to every other identity; no two things can be the same and all are alike in being different. Coleridge here anticipates Ricoeur's distinction between sense and referent of metaphor;(17) or structuralists like Saussure and others who argue for the polar nature of all thought and that all meaning is relational. The recognition of radical individuation and contrariety is the main prerequisite for understanding transcendental philosophy: "The first lesson of philosophic discipline is to wean the student's attention from the DEGREES of things, which alone form the vocabulary of common life, and to direct it to the KIND abstracted from degree" (171). The same point is made in Chapter 13 where language is used in the transcendental manner:
Now the transcendental philosophy demands; first, that two forces should be conceived which counteract each other by their essential nature; not only not in consequence of the accidental direction of each, but as prior to all direction, nay, as the primary forces from which the conditions of all possible directions are derivative and deducible: secondly, that these forces should be assumed to be both alike infinite, both alike indestructible. (299)
No passage in Biographia is as basic to Coleridge's argument as this one, and his language is metaphorical. He is starting from "a demonstrable proposition" (250). The "two forces" Coleridge is describing in Chapter 13 are abstract, multi-directional forces which have neither source nor end (299-300); they are "two contrary forces, the one of which tends to expand infinitely, while the other strives to apprehend or find itself in this infinity" (297). Earlier he calls them "opposite and counteracting" and "centrifugal and centripetal forces" (286) and before that, "active and passive" and "resisting" and "yielding" (124). Each time these "forces" appear in Coleridge's argument, they are ambiguous in meaning. While on an empirical or literal level these forces find little with which to correspond, on a symbolic level, on the level of abstract thought, they correspond to one notion very well. His words are precise in describing a realm of which the essence is absolute individuation and infinite opposition. His words are symbolic of contradiction itself.
RECONCILIATION OF OPPOSITES
The starting place of transcendental philosophy may be put more strongly, and less symbolically, than Coleridge originally put it. The starting point is the recognition of opposition and contradiction, real and apparent.(18) He is saying that transcendental philosophy begins with a consideration of the nature of contradiction, and it is this which makes transcendental philosophy revolutionary. He is preparing for a system that will spring from "a truth self-grounded, unconditional" (268). Its basic principle will at once "preclude the possibility of requiring an antecedent" (268) and avoid the necessity of starting with either subject or object. Philosophies which had started from those positions had ended in contradictions. The only way to circumvent problems concerning materialism-dualism and pantheism, was to begin by recognizing that contradiction lay at the root of all thought and language and that it could not be excluded from an account of knowledge (such as he develops in Chapter 12).
Coleridge's use of contradiction may be compared with contradiction in existential philosophers like Kierkegaard, Heidegger and Sartre, whom he anticipates not least in their rejection of fundamental categories of classical thought (e.g., soul, virtue, substance, existence). Instead of concluding that there can be no truth, or that if truth exists it is perhaps illusory or irrelevant, Coleridge asked himself this existential question: How is it then that I am conscious, have thoughts which are communicable, and discover meaning in life?
He concluded that meaning exists, not in spite of contradiction, but because of it. His two abstract forces of infinite opposition were insufficient in themselves to explain meaning. If the two forces existed by themselves, the result would be neutralization. There had to be something else which kept the two forces apart and mediated between them distilling meaning. Furthermore, this something had to be finite, for were it infinite in its reconciling action, neutralization would again be the result. Coleridge records his thought on these issues in Chapter 13:
The counteraction then of the two assumed forces does not depend on their meeting forces from opposite directions; the power which acts in them is indestructible; it is therefore inexhaustibly re-ebullient; and as something must be the result of these two forces, both alike infinite, and both alike indestructible; and as rest or neutralization cannot be this result; no other conception is possible, but that the product must be a tertium aliquid, or finite generation. Consequently this conception is necessary. Now this tertium aliquid can be no other than an interpenetration of the counteracting powers, partaking of both. (300)
Saussure was using different words but a similar thought process in identifying for linguistics a third realm of "signification" between the "signifer" and the "signified."
This finite act cannot happen just once; reconciliation must occur repeatedly as "a perpetual self-duplication" (273). This elevates the "act" to infinite proportion, while it remains finite in itself. Just as one force presupposes and helps define its opposite, so, too, the existence of both forces presupposes the existence of the third force which prevents neutralization by distilling meaning from their juxtaposition.
The transcendental system of thought is dynamic because it has (as Coleridge felt Fichte had first shown a system of thought could have) an act instead of a thing as its starting point:
. . . by commencing with an act, instead of a thing or substance, Fichte assuredly gave the first mortal blow to Spinozism, as taught by Spinoza himself; and supplied the idea of a system truly metaphysical, and of a metaphysique truly systematic: (i.e. having its spring and principle within itself.) (158)
The act that Coleridge is talking about is the act of reconciliation or balancing of opposites or discordant qualities. This act is the basic principle of his transcendental philosophy, as well as the "seminal principle" he promised. He gives another name to reconciliation of opposites--it is imagination, as suggested early in Biographia:
There are evidently two powers at work, which relatively to each other are active and passive; and this is not possible without an intermediate faculty, which is once both active and passive. (In philosophical language, we must denominate this intermediate faculty in all its degrees and determinations, the IMAGINATION. (125)
The concept of imagination as the reconciliation of opposites is not just an afterthought in Chapter 13; it lies at the core of all Coleridge's philosophical thought in Biographia Literaria.
Imagination sets up and retains a dynamic relationship between the two symbolic opposite forces and, as in the case of the transcendental symbol (or what we might call metaphor), the original identities are retained while being interpenetrated. The phrase "reconciliation of opposites" is paradoxical--opposites by definition are irreconcilablc--and because of this paradox, the phrase is particularly appropriate for describing imagination. Imagination is an act which at once both reconciles and does not reconcile. It may be said to involve an additional paradox, for it is a finite act with infinite proportions.
Numerous critics have chewed the bone of the Chapter 13 definitions and felt cheated by the lack of meat they have discovered.(19) Many have mistakenly assumed or implied that reconciliation of opposites assumes literal reconciliation or actual synthesis, not tension of the sort that exists in metaphor.(20) This is perhaps because of Coleridge's coined word "esemplastic" to describe imagination's ability "to shape into one" (168); it may also be a result of formalist-critical emphasis in this century on unity. A number of scholars more recently have identified the polar nature of Coleridge's definitions and found there the basis for symbolic language about God.(21) Some have spoken about polarity in Coleridge's thought in terms of "desynonymy."(22) Norman Fruman has questioned whether literal reconciliation could have been what Coleridge meant.(23) Others have spoken about his involvement in liberation of linguistic practice and hermeneutics.(24) The situation is complicated in Biographia by the fact that Coleridge defines two kinds of imagination, not one, in addition to fancy. The appearance of primary and secondary imagination is problematical, for in Chapter 4, where Coleridge announced his intention to seek out the "seminal principle" of Wordsworth's imagination-fancy distinction, no mention was made of a further division.
Critics have felt the main problem of the unsubstantiated definitions lies in Chapter 13 with the intrusion of the famous letter from "a friend." Most believe that only the seeds of his distinction are present earlier, at the end of Chapter 7 where he speaks of imagination in philosophical terms, and then contrasts it with imagination as applied to poetry (124-25).
There is a fact of larger significance which explains why the primary-secondary division is made explicit in Chapter 13 and not before. The primary imagination of Chapter 13 is the philosophic imagination of Coleridge's earlier chapters. It is symbolically expressed as the tertium aliquid, both finite and infinite which keeps separate yet interpenetrates the two forces of infinite opposition; it makes meaning possible. It is the essence of meaning. Less metaphorically expressed, primary imagination is the absolute self-consciousness which is God, human self-consciousness received from God, and the principle upon which all knowledge and meaning is founded. When Coleridge defines primary imagination at the end of Chapter 13, he has already completed his discussion of it. Secondary imagination is introduced at this time because it is necessary for discussing poetry in the chapters that will follow. The definition of primary imagination in Chapter 13 is this: "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" (304).
PRIMARY IMAGINATION IN CHAPTER 12
This definition becomes clearer if it is related to the preceding argument of Chapter 12, particularly Theses VI to X.(25) Primary imagination represents the most basic kind of reconciliation of opposites that underlies all others. Coleridge hypothesizes the existence of primary imagination when he concludes that contradiction is inherent to philosophical systems and yet affirms that there is meaning. Meaning at its most basic level is self-consciousness. Self-consciousness is the first instance, the primary example of reconciliation of opposites of which the mind is aware, and it is this act of self-consciousness that constitutes primary imagination both on the divine and human levels.
In Chapter 12, Coleridge does not use the term "primary imagination." Use of it would have presupposed the existence of a secondary imagination and would have compelled him to discuss it before he was ready. The terms he does use are varied. He speaks of the "philosophic imagination," as he did in Chapter 7, and calls it "the sacred power of self-intuition" (241). In Thesis VI he introduces several other terms: "This principle, and so characterized [as the foundation stone of transcendental philosophy], manifests itself in the Sum or I AM; which I shall hereafter indiscriminately express by the words spirit, self, and self-consciousness" (272). Each of these latter terms says something about the primary imagination and all are synonyms for it. It is concerned with knowing, not with associationist thought, as some critics have claimed.(26) Interpretations of primary imagination as the "literary term for the unconscious"(27) also seem misdirected, for they in fact point to the state that exists prior to the action of primary imagination.
In Theses V to X, God is portrayed as the essence of meaning, "the principle of being, and of knowledge, of idea, and of reality, the ground of existence, and the ground of knowledge of existence" (275, Thesis VI). God is the absolute expression of "spirit, self, and self-consciousness" (273, 275, VI), the power which separates, duplicates and holds together subject and object as "antitheses" (273, VI). The individual spirit is akin to a finite act of meaning yet it participates in the infinite meaning of God which is its essence; it should be conceived "neither as infinite nor finite exclusively, but as the most original union of both" (280, VIII). Coleridge is saying, in effect, "The self-consciousness which resides in the individual spirit is an image of the infinite self-consciousness of God." Both God and the individual spirit embody reconciliation of opposites.
Primary imagination points to the origin of self-consciousness. The unconscious spirit merely exists. It fails to recognize opposites; it fails to see itself either as its own subject or object (VI & VII). In order for the spirit to become self-conscious it must recognize itself as both, for subject and object logically presuppose each other. Thus in the move from unconsciousness to self-consciousness, there is a movement from identity of subject and object to a recognition of antithesis (276 ff., VII). Self-consciousness for Coleridge is by its nature antithetical.
The movement to self-consciousness requires an act of free will. By this act, the spirit "dissolve[s]" the identity of subject and object which formerly reigned, becomes conscious of both subject and object within itself, and finally (or simultaneously) reconciles them in self-consciousness (VII & VIII).
Primary imagination, then, is an act of free will that dissolves identity, recognizes opposites or discordant qualities, and reconciles them as a necessary precondition for all perception and knowledge. It is the nature of God and the essential nature of humans. It is a self-duplicating power (VI), as our self-consciousness is the product of God's self-duplication. Our reconciliation of finite and infinite is essential: "In the existence, in the reconciliating, and the recurrence of this contradiction consists the process and mystery of production and life" (280-81, VIII).
The "I AM" used in Coleridge's Chapter 13 definition of primary imagination and in Theses VI and IX, is a perfect statement of primary imagination because it is, of course, the most basic statement of self-consciousness. It gives his argument about God poetic reinforcement in the coincidence of his words with God's self-revelation in Exodus 3:14. The I AM of a self-revealing God is, of course, the I Am of a God who reveals self. Here we are at the heart of Coleridge's solution to the materialist-dualist and pantheist dilemmas. For if knowledge and personhood follow from individual self-consciousness, the same follows for God. The distinction Coleridge makes, in effect between himself and Spinoza, is that Spinoza would agree in calling God "the Nature in Intelligences" but would not subscribe to calling God "Himself Intelligence and intelligent" (247 n. . Coleridge has found substantiation for his belief in a Christian God; he has reconciled "personality with infinity" and "head" and "heart" with Paul and John (201).
Why did Coleridge not conclude that the higher consciousness must have a higher consciousness above it, and a higher one above it? In Thesis X, Coleridge rules out the possibility of our ever knowing, since knowledge of self-consciousness is the limit of our knowledge: "we yet can never pass beyond the principle of self-consciousness. Should we attempt it, we must be ... whirl'd down the gulf of an infinite series. But this would make our reason baffle the end and purpose of all reason, namely, unity and system..." (285).
The primary imagination of God duplicates itself in the self-consciousness of the individual. How, then, does the individual self-consciousness duplicate itself, as it must if it partially shares the creative power of God? To account for this, Coleridge developed his theory of the secondary imagination:
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 I consider as an echo of the former, co-existing with the conscious will, yet still as identical with the primary 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, vet 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. (304)
All other reconciliations follow as part of the self-duplicating process of secondary imagination. They are different in "degree" from primary imagination: they do not produce self-consciousness but they do produce individual acts of meaning similar in "kind" to the essence of meaning residing in the I AM. Secondary imagination brings together apparently discordant elements and fuses them into meaningful thoughts, symbols, metaphors and images. It lies at the heart of language process. Like primary imagination, it is an act of will and also, like the primary, it "dissolves" identity in order to create anew through reconciliation of opposites.
Secondary imagination, for all its similarity with the primary, differs "in the mode of its operation" on three points. First, it operates by "conscious will" rather than by the mysterious "living" or free will of the primary. As Coleridge says at the end of Chapter 7, the poetic imagination in humans is distinct from the philosophic imagination in that it involves "superior voluntary control." Second, it has a deconstructive component: it not only dissolves the apparent identity of opposites, it also "diffuses" and "dissipates" the elements with which it is involved, something which the human primary imagination did only with the elements of subject and object within the self.(28) Third, the secondary imagination struggles to idealize and unify, to bring order from contradiction, wherever it may be found.
The usual interpretation of secondary imagination from at least Shawcross onward has been that it is the exclusive power of the poet who alone can perceive form in the disparate elements of experience and can bring these elements into one united and harmonious whole.(29) This interpretation helped elevate the poet to the role of high priest in society and confined secondary imagination to a select few.(30) The evidence in Biographia indicates that this interpretation needs modification. First, the deconstructive dimension of secondary imagination needs to be recognized alongside its reconstructive or unifying power. Second, while the poet makes the highest use of the secondary imagination, and poets will always be a select few in society, secondary imagination is the possession of transcendental philosophers(31) as well as poets.(32) It belongs to all those who go beyond associational thought and what Coleridge called fancy. It belongs to all those who employ symbolic language in a manner such that the symbol is not taken for the meaning itself,(33) as some contemporary critics now correctly imply.(34)
How does this interpretation alter understandings of fancy, since Coleridge tried to expound primary imagination, secondary imagination, and fancy, together? First, all thought that operates by Hartley's law of association is mechanical and passive and is for Coleridge the function of consciousness and memory (not primary imagination, as many have suggested). Fancy is an elevated form of memory that unlike memory is active, in that it is "modified by that empirical phenomenon of the will" (305), and operates by Coleridge's revised "true practical general law of association" (127). Thus he describes fancy as, "Memory emancipated from the order of time and space" (305). Together with primary and secondary imagination, fancy is part of Coleridge's solution to the associationist problem of a passive mind, for all three faculties are active, sharing will in common.
Second, fancy has "no other counters to play with, but fixities and definites," and it must receive all of its materials from "ordinary memory" that operates by "the law of association" (305). Thus the real distinction between fancy and imagination (in either of its forms), is that the one links ideas by any means it chooses, while the other only operates by his "seminal principle" of reconciliation of opposites.
Seen from this perspective, Coleridge's definitions anticipate much modern language and literary theory, including expanded understandings of metaphor as a process of thought.(35) His "seminal principle" of imagination is a seminal principle of language itself, of meaning arising out of relationships between linguistic poles and notions of bi-polar thought. His ideas on imagination wed metaphysical themes with structuralist principles in language, and are properly understood as referring to tensive language.
(1) Thomas McFarland, "So Immethodical a Miscellany: Coleridge's Literary Life," MP 93 (1985-86): 406. (2) Biographia Literaria, ed. James Engell and Walter Jackson Bate in The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. Kathleen Coburn, Bollingen Series 75 (Princeton U. Press, 1983), 88. All further references to Volume 1 of this work, where possible, will be cited parenthetically in the text. (3) BL, 2:16. (4). J. A. Appleyard, in Coleridge's Philosophy of Literature (Harvard U. Press, 1965), 204-5, suggested that the only way to make sense of Coleridge's definitions was to place them "in the context of his total argument," but he presupposed that Coleridge's line of thought in BL had failed. Lawrence Buell took an usual approach in arguing that BL is not self-contained unity of the sort valued by "new" criticism, but is rather a department in non-fictional prose form: see his "The Question of Form in Coleridge's Biographia Literaria," ELH 46 (1979): 399-417, esp. 415. See also the arguments for unity in: James Engell and W. Jackson Bate in BL. l:lxvii ff.; John Spencer HIll, A Coleridge Companion (London: Macmillan PRess, 1983) esp. 225 ff.; and Catherine Miles Wallace, The Design of Biographia Literaria (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1983), esp. 58-91. (5) "The Integrity of Biographia Literaria," in Essays and Studies n.s. 6 (1953): 87. Whalley did hot argue for the unity of the text or argue for any logical progression through the text. (6) Thomas Mcfarland, Coleridge and the Pantheist Tradition (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969). (7) See BL, 1: 140-55. (8) See BL, 1:200-5. The clear definition of the problem as late as Chapter X may be of chronological importance: the solution to the other two problems had to be found before the solution to this religious problem could be articulated. (9) Coleridge and the Pantheist Tradition, esp. 107-90. (10) See also BL, 1: 123. (11) He lists the mystics, George Fox, Jacob Behmen, and William Law, and philosophers, Spinoza, Kant, Fichte and Schelling in BL, 1: 151-64. (12) See, for instance, Nigel Leask, The Politics of Imagination in Coleridge's Critical Thought (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1988), 136 ff. (13) Catherine Miles Wallace, 70. (14) W. I. Bate originally concluded that "Chapter XII is far from necessary to the Biographia." See Coleridge (London: Weildenfeld & Nicolson, 1969), 136. (15) Norman Fruman, Coleridge, The Damaged Archangel (London: G. Braziller, 1971), 88. (16) J. Shawcross touched on this idea in his edition: "Finally, the symbol, while remaining distinct from the thin symbolized, is vet in some mysterious way interpenetrated by its being, and partakes of its reality"; Biographia Literaria (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1907), 1:x1. (17) Paul Ricoeur, Interpretation Theory: Discourse and the Surplus of Meaning (The Texas Christian U. Press, 1976), esp. 19-24. (18) Paul Hamilton develops a similar idea in his discussion of Coleridge's "desynonomy" in Coleridge's Poetics (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1983), 62-96. He concludes, in contrast to the argument here, that Coleridge "fails to make clear the connection he thought such a philosophy [Schelling's |Dynamic Philosophy'] forged with his idea of desynonomy" (91). (19) W. I. Bate felt that the primary-secondary distinction was artificial and unsupported in "Coleridge on the Function of Art," Perspectives of Criticism, ed. H. Levin (Harvard U. Press, 1950), 144-46. Thomas McFarland took Bate's point one step further: "Not only is there no preparation for the threefold distinction of Chapter Thirteen in Coleridge's previous writing, there is none even in the Biographia.... Nowhere is there any
mention or preparation for, any additional differentiation [other than that of imagination and fancy]" "The Origin and Significance of Coleridge's Theory of Secondary Imagination," in Geoffrey H. Hartman, ed., New Perspectives on Coleridge and Wordsworth (Columbia U. Press, 1972), 196-97. James Engell and W. J. Bate write about the famous letter to "a friend" as though discussion of imagination was omitted from Chapter 12 and early 13, in BL, 1: lvii. (20) This has been the case from I. A. Richards onward, Coleridge on Imagination (London: K. Paul, Trench, & Trubner, 1934), 94 ff. R. H. Fogle said that a requirement for reconciliation of opposites was, "that the opposing forces themselves be such as can be reconciled," The Idea of Coleridge's Criticism (U. of California Press, 1962), 5. Contemporary expression of this idea may be found in: Engell and Bate in BL, 1:lxxxii-lxxiii, xc; Catherine Miles Wallace, 58 ff. and 91; John Spencer Hill, 233; and Nigel Leask, 137. Most recently Steven Vine has said, "The |result' of philosophy is the demonstration of unity, and the name the Biographia gives to this unity is, famously, the |imagination' ...," "To |Make a Bull': Autobiography, Idealism and Writing in Coleridge's |Biographia Literaria,'" in Peter J. kitson and Thomas N. Corns, eds., Coleridge and the Armoury of the Human Mind: Essays on His Prose Writings (London: Frank Cass & Co. Lid., 1991), 100. (21) See: James Cutsinger, " Coleridgean Polarity and Theological Vision," Harvard Theological Review 76 (1983): 92: J. Robert Barth, S.J., "Theological Implications of Coleridge's Theory of Imagination," in Christine Gallant, ed., Coleridge;s Theory of Imagination Today (New York: AMS Press, 1989), esp. 4-9; and Jonathan Wordsworth. "The Infinite I AM: Coleridge and the Ascent of Being," in Richard Gravil, Lucy Newlyn and Micholas Roe, eds., Coleridge's Imagination: Essays in Memory of Pete Laver (Cambridge U. Press, 1985), 29-31. (22) Paul Hamilton, Coleridge's Poetics (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1983), 62-96; also, A. C. Goodson, Verbal Imagination: Coleridge and the Language of Modern Criticism (New York and Oxford: Oxford U. Press, 1988), 135. (23) Norman Fruman, "Ozymandius and the Reconciliation of Opposites," in Christine Gallant, ed., 54. (24) See: Tim Fulford, "Apocalyptic and Reactionary? Coleridge as Hermeneuticist," MLR 87 (January 1992): esp. 29; and E. S. Shaffer, "The Hermeneutic Community: Coleridge and Schleiermacher," in Richard Gravil and Molly Lefebure, eds., 201-29. (25) Theses I to V have generally been covered in the preceding argument. Subsequent references to his these will be by thesis Roman number as well as page number, inserted parenthetically in the text to help give a better sense of the order of his thought. (26) Rene Wellek recognized this, yet he viewed primary imagination as synthesis, and Coleridge's theory as "closely dependent on the Germans," in Concepts of Criticism (Yale U. Press, 1963), 180, James Engell saw primary imagination as the perceptive activity of the mind, as consciousness, yet as apparently mechanical or associationist in contrast to the reflective and creative activity of secondary imagination, in The Creative Imagination: Enlightenment to Romaniticism (Harvard U. Press, 1981), esp. 343-46. Engell and W, Jackson Bate together understood primary imagination as synthesis, as shaping "sensory data into larger unites of understanding," in BL, l:lxxxix. Reconciliation of opposites is largely ignored for primary imagination.
Others have read Coleridge in Kantian terms, thus primary imagination is something which receives sensations and develops them using association into ideas which, in turn, will be presented to the understanding or faculty of discursive reasoning. Notable examples of this interpretation are in: R. L. Brett, Fancy and Imagination (London: Methuen, 1969), 45-46; W. K. Wimsatt and Cleanth Brooks, Literary Criticism: A Short History (New York: Knopf, 1964), 392-93; Thomas McFarland, "The Origin and Significance of Coleridge's Theory of the Secondary Imagination," 214; and Stephen Prickett, Coleridge and Wordsworth: The Poetry of Growth (Cambridge U. Press, 1970), 67-68, 71-72. The primary imagination has nothing to do with associationist thought, nor has it anything to do with anything, on the human level, except the ongoing act of self-consciousness itself. (27) J. R. de J. Jackson, Method and Imagination in Coleridge's Criticism (London: Routledde & Kegan Paul, 1969), 116. (28) Nigel Leask emphasizes these two functions of dissolving and diffusing or dissipating, 138-41. (29) See: Shawcross, BL, 1:lxv; lxvii; lxviii; Nigel Leask offers, from a contemporary perspective, a similar interpretation of secondary imagination as the aesthetic imagination, 136-40. (30) This was the theme in Frank Kermode, Romantic Image (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1972). (31) Coleridge says as much in his Chapter 14 discussion of secondary imagination: "The writings of PLATO, and Bishop TAYLOR, and the Theoria Sacra of BURNET, furnish undeniable proofs that poetry of the highest kind may exist without metre, and even without the contradistinguishing objects of a poem," BL, 2:14. (32) Norman Fruman argues that Coleridge "entirely abandons the role of transcendental philosopher" in the Chapter 14 definition of imagination, in "Ozymandius and the Reconciliation of Opposites," 53. This does not agree with the interpretation offered here, which is that transcendental philosopher and poet are to be considered in the same category. See, for instance, the previous note, above. (33) Even in the early "Religious Musings," the poet was not so glorified: it was the philosophers and the poets who came to the rescue of a decadent society. (34) See James Cutsinger, 92; J. Robert Barth, S.J., esp. 4-9; and Jonathan Wordsworth, 29-3 (35) Northrop Frye, as just one example, developed this idea in, "The Expanding World of Metaphor," in Robert D. Denham, ed., Northrop Frye, Myth and Metaphor: Selected Essays, 1974-1988 (U. Press of Virginia, 1990), 108-23.…