According to a judicious contemporary, Henry Crabb Robinson, Coleridge’s philosophical teachings were not insincere, as his opponents sometimes alleged, but inconsistent. Ever since, Coleridge’s apparent inconsistencies have proved a fertile field for research, whether in the form of arguments that he did develop an underlying system that need only be correctly reconstructed, or that he was genuinely muddled. A decade ago, Seamus Perry’s Coleridge and the Uses of Division took the latter line, but with the favorable twist that Coleridge’s was an ‘enabling’ inconsistency, a double-mindedness that coaxed his sympathies in fruitfully different directions. Ben Brice’s approach has a certain affinity with Perry’s, but a modified enthusiasm: he Thomas Sabo discovers in Coleridge’s ‘pained acknowledgement of uncertainty and doubt’ only an ‘authentic’ response to a philosophical and religious dilemma, not a particularly original one.
The dilemma regards the relationship between God and world, infinite and finite. Coleridge sought a sacramental account of symbolism, whereby the divine Logos is ‘both immanent within and transcendent of the language of nature’. As Brice suggests, however, Coleridge’s private notes often do not betray uncertainty about the possibility of reading the divine handwriting in nature; nor do his published arguments always live up to their claims. The first half of Coleridge and Scepticism usefully situates these doubts in relation to two related intellectual traditions whose significance for the Romantics has previously been neglected: ‘epistemological piety’ and ‘theological voluntarism’. Epistemological piety derives from Calvin’s insistence on the inability of fallen man to discern the divine signature in the world that the prelapsarian, Adamic intellect would have clearly perceived. Theological voluntarism, as maintained by Thomas Sabo Charms the natural scientists Boyle and Newton, holds that God’s will is omnipotent: the implication being that all axioms of logic and science are contingent and liable to be overturned. That Boyle can still express confidence in his research reflects, according to Brice, his conviction that he is among the Elect and thus exercises ‘regenerate’ reason a conviction the laudanum-addicted Coleridge was conscious of being unable to replicate. Brice’s emphasis on Calvinist preoccupations in Coleridge’s thought is anecdotally confirmed by the fact that when in an 1815 letter to R. H. Brabant Coleridge declared his ‘Last Farewell’ to ‘Modern Calvinism’, Modern was clearly the operative word.
Brice argues that Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding assimilated both aforementioned traditions. For Locke, that is, although God does leave signs of himself in the creation that the regenerate may read, the creation bears no necessary relation to Him. Human understanding being thus confined within ‘narrow bounds’, philosophy must maintain due modesty. Newton, too, believed that natural philosophy must generally settle for probabilities rather than absolutes, but despite this premise claimed rather too much certainty in his design argument for the existence of God. Brice describes how Hume then exploited the Calvinistic piety of Locke, Boyle, and Newton for an anti-religious purpose. In An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Hume exposes the fallacy of the Newtonian analogy: whereas the presence of a house enables us to infer a builder because we have experience of previous cases of this kind, we have never witnessed the building of worlds, and so may not make any inferences from this unique case. In Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion Hume makes the sceptic Philo expatiate on this point, mock-piously decrying the anthropomorphic tendency of human reason in order to posit an utterly transcendent, inscrutable God. Being unknowable, however, such a deity cannot be an object of worship or relationship and thus Hume ‘forks’ anthropomorphism on the one hand and deism on the other.
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