Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Coleridge and the Radical Roots of Critical Philosophy

Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Coleridge and the Radical Roots of Critical Philosophy

Article excerpt

In Biographia Literaria (1817), Coleridge wrote that his initial encounter with Kant's philosophy "took possession of me as with a giant's hand" (Biographia 1: 153), as if it were a sudden moment of mystical conversion. The metaphor of being possessed implies that Kant's philosophy became a matter of faith for him. Not only did Coleridge portray Kant as having illuminated and changed his thinking forever but he also spoke of himself as the only person at the turn of the 19th century who was capable of comprehending the importance and depth of critical philosophy. When Coleridge did include other admirers, he belittled them: "the distinctions; the adamantine chain of logic; and I will venture to add (paradox as it will appear to those who have taken their notion of IMMANUEL KANT, from Reviewers and Frenchmen) the clearness and evidence" (Biographia 1: 153). In other words, to Coleridge, Kant's obscurity was mainly the fault of the early mediators of critical philosophy. In contrast, Coleridge saw himself as the only British intellectual who understood and transmitted Kantian writings lucidly.

Coleridge's condescending remark regarding reviewers and Frenchmen has elicited a range of responses. David Baulch, for instance, points out perceptively the discrepancy between Coleridge's representation of critical Philosophy in Biographia Literaria and its cultural significance in 1790s England: "While the Kant of the Biographia is given both a clearly Christian purpose and conservative image, this was hardly the case in the early 1790s when Coleridge's intellectual interest was first aroused by German philosophy and his political sympathies with the French Revolution" (565). If readers see Coleridge's remarks in the context of the early reception of Kant in England, the apolitical role Coleridge attributed to Kant in his autobiography becomes indeed questionable. After all Coleridge's statements concerning how and when he was initially exposed to critical philosophy remained vague.

According to a letter he wrote to Tom Poole, Coleridge's fascination with critical philosophy began in the 1790's when he read English versions in review papers and pamphlets. (1) In May, 1796, he wrote a letter to Tom Poole: "I am studying German [...] I should there [in Jena, Germany] study Chemistry & Anatomy, [and] bring over with me all the works of Semler & Michaelis, the German Theologians, & of Kant, the great german [sic] Metaphysician" (Letters 1: 209). While Coleridge wanted to study German so he could read Kant in the original, a considerable number of his contemporaries were already reading his works. Friedrich August Nitsch published A General and Introductory View of Professor Kant concerning Man, the World and the Deity in May, 1796. At the time, Coleridge corresponded regularly with an acquaintance of Nitsch: John Thelwall wrote on the margins of his copy of the Biographia Literaria that he belonged to Nitsch's Kantian Society and had several Philosophical discussions with him. Nitsch's pamphlet was advertised and reviewed favourably by the liberal press. (2)

Radicals and rational dissenters approved of critical philosophy, In (he Aanlylical Review, for example, Joseph Johnson printed regular translations of the New German Mercury (Neuer Teutscher Merkur), which became the public voice of the University of Jena where the Kant scholar, Carl Leonard Reiuhold, taught his rational-theological appropriation of Kant's epistemology and thus established the so-called Kantian church. In late 1795, J. A. O'Keeffe, caused a scandal with his pamphlet An Essay on the Progress of Human Understanding applying Kantian philosophy in his attack on the monarchy. (3) O'Keeffe's appropriation of Kant was bound up with the content of the first English translation of Kant's works: Perpetual Peace.

The pamphlet was decisive for Kant's democratic, republican, and thus potentially conspiratorial reputation in England. …

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