Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Late Coleridge and the Life of Idealism

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Late Coleridge and the Life of Idealism

Article excerpt

I. Introduction

THE FORTUNES OF ROMANTIC IDEALISM ARE CHANGING, FOR DECADES THE object of deconstructive and historical-materialist critique, idealism is beginning to be regarded as a resource rather than a problem. Idealist system building, for instance, is invoked in current reflections on the disciplines and the organization of information. More surprisingly, Romantic idealism also informs new ecological thought. Once held to be indifferent, or even hostile, to the external world, idealism is now seen to be at its most daring, and most startlingly prescient, when theorizing nature as a network of nonhuman forces. (1)

Of course, contemporary uses of idealism are not identical to those of the Romantics. One influential strain in the return to idealism expresses a strong resistance to what, historically, was its central concept: "the absolute," or the metaphysical ground of all contingent things. As Leon Chai points out, the idealism invoked by modern theory is often "idealism without absolutes." (2) The argument is that idealism is worth salvaging, but only when rid of its epistemological hubris. Instead of an absolute idealism, the goal is now a finite idealism--no longer oriented toward being in itself, but bound by the skeptical and critical horizons of our moment.

Yet this approach threatens to recapitulate the very anti-idealist arguments it wants to move past. To give up on the absolute is to accept the familiar charges: idealism privileges totality at the expense of singularity; it overlooks epistemology and language; it reduces difference to identity. Most egregiously, it speculates about the nature of what "exist[s], in and by itself, outside our engagement with it." (3) But by purging Romantic idealism of its absolutes, we lose the chance to ask what the concept offers.

This essay gives the Romantic absolute another look. I focus on the later thought of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the best-known translator of German idealism into British literary life. An emphasis on Coleridge's later work has the salutary effect of reuniting "realism" with Romantic idealism. Philosophers define "realism" as the notion that a world exists, independent of the mind and its perceptions. (4) Scholarship on Coleridge's thought typically portrays it as defending the individual mind, or the "I am." Yet his most famous prose work, the Biographia Literaria, explicitly advocates "the truest and most binding realism." (5) What sense can "realism" have for a thinker who deploys a systematic idealism to explain "the nature of the ultimate reality in the World"? (6) How would this realism change our perspective on both Coleridge's thought and Romantic idealism more broadly?

My essay uses the problem of "life" to map these shifting lines of idealism and realism in Coleridge's thinking. Coleridge is often seen as pitting a vitalist theory of nature against the mechanical materialism of the Enlightenment. (7) Yet Coleridge is as much repelled as fascinated by vitalism. This ambivalence arises from the attempt to make life absolute, to identify it as the fundamental constituent of the real. (8) Disease and deformation, especially, threaten the purposive cosmos supposed to be grounded in an absolute life. Through close engagement with the natural-history writings of J. H. Green--surgeon, philosopher, and Coleridge's eventual literary executor--and the thought of F. W. J. Schelling, Coleridge articulates his own idealist response to the challenge of absolute life. This response is no less realist in orientation, however. My primary aim is to trace the development of Coleridge's "ideal Realism" (Works 7, 1:303) from his and Green's theory of life. But I also contend that this ideal realism has the power to upset received wisdom about realism and idealism alike.

Recently, philosophers like Slavoj Zizek and Iain Hamilton Grant have begun to question the habitual association of materialism with radical thinking, and idealism with hegemony or reaction. …

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