Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

The Specter of Hegel in Coleridge's Biographia Literaria

Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

The Specter of Hegel in Coleridge's Biographia Literaria

Article excerpt

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Coleridge opens the abstruse twelfth chapter of the first volume of his Biographia Literaria-notorious for its "plagiarisms" of German philosophers-with a provocative remark: "In the perusal of philosophical works I have been greatly benefited by a resolve, which, in the antithetic form and with the allowed quaintness of an adage or maxim, I have been accustomed to word thus: 'until you understand a writer's ignorance, presume yourself ignorant of his understanding.''"1 Few critics have accepted the challenge of understanding Coleridge's ignorance, perhaps because they have tended simply to dismiss his remark as a defensive anticipation of the charges of willful obscurity and shameless plagiarism that the chapter was soon to provoke. I propose, however, to take seriously Coleridge's adage by arguing that the philosophical chapters of the Biographia should be understood in terms of his curiously willed ignorance of Hegel. The critical consensus on the question of Coleridge's relation to Hegel seems to be puzzlement.2 Gerald McNiece is typical in observing, "Coleridge didn't read much of Hegel, but he perhaps should have."' Coleridge's neglect of Hegel is especially puzzling in light of the startling intellectual affinities between these nearly exact contemporaries. Hegel, like Coleridge, was an early disciple of Schelling and eventually became disenchanted with him, so it would seem natural for Coleridge to have read Hegel's work thoroughly. Strangely, though, Coleridge seems only to have read about the first hundred pages of Hegel's 1812 Science of Logic before deciding not to read any more of Hegel's work ever again. To explore this mystery, I first offer a brief account of the various forms of foundationalist intuitionism adopted by Fichte, Schelling, and the early Hegel, and then elaborate the grounds on which the later Hegel, in the preface to his 1807 Phenomenology of Spirit, decisively breaks with Schelling and Fichte by repudiating foundationalist intuitionism altogether. With this background in place, I argue that Coleridge's critical comments on Hegel and Schelling in letters and marginalia betray a complex and ambivalent stance toward foundationalist intuitionism-one which places him somewhere between Schelling and the mature Hegel.

I will then be equipped to develop my central claim that the Biographia is a radically self-undermining text: the philosophical argument of volume one, far from slavishly recapitulating Schelling's philosophy, remains haunted by a quasi-Hegelian skepticism toward intuition even as it advances intuition as the foundation of its theoretical edifice. In particular, I try to reconstruct an incipiently Hegelian critique of Schelling's foundationalist intuitionism by applying Coleridge's critique of materialism in the early chapters of volume one of the Biographia to his own abortive deduction of the imagination at the end of the volume. Coleridge's palpable failure to deliver on his promised transcendental deduction of the imagination, then, stems from his inability to subscribe wholeheartedly to the metaphysics of intuition necessary for such a deduction to succeed.

I.

In order to set into relief Coleridge's complex stance toward foundationalist intuitionism, it will first be necessary to rehearse-at the risk of some oversimplification-the evolution of the concept of intellectual intuition from Kant through Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel. Kant, in the 1781 Critique of Pure Reason, claims that there are "two stems" of human cognition: namely, sensibility (Sinnlichkeit), through which objects are given in sensible intuition (Anschauung); and understanding (Verstand), through which objects are thought by being brought under concepts.4 Consequently, on Kant's view, we are only able to intuit objects as they appear to us rather than as they are in themselves. At various points in the first Critique, Kant contrasts human cognition-irreducibly grounded in sensible intuitionwith "intellectual intuition" (intellektuelle Anschauung), a hypothetical mode of cognition in which the distinction between sensibility and understanding somehow does not obtain. …

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