Discussion Modern Logic Philosophy

March 8, 2022
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Discussion Modern Logic Philosophy

Discussion Modern Logic Philosophy

The story of Coleridge’s influence on modern logic is not one likely to detain the historian of ideas for very long. This is almost entirely due to the fact that the Logic manuscripts lay almost unnoticed for much of the nineteenth century, and were first published, in excerpted form, in Alice Snyder’s 1929 Coleridge on Logic and Learning.143 Even then, a further 62 years elapsed before J.R. de J. Jackson produced a text for the Bollingen Collected Coleridge that accurately reflected the content of the Logic manuscripts. Rather like Bentham’s contemporary work on logic and language, Coleridge’s logic suffered from the chaotic state of the writer’s corpus at the time of his death. While in the case of Bentham this was largely due to carelessness about publication, with Coleridge the causes were excessive caution and procrastination. This, combined with the fact that Coleridge tends to avoid the technicalities of logic in his published works — typically deferring full exposition with an apology and a promissory note for the ‘Elements of Discourse’ — means that little of Coleridge’s logical theory was available in the decades following his death. His influence in the spheres of ethics and the theory of government (famously impressing John Stuart Mill), theology (encouraging Newman and the Oxford movement with his defence of Trinitarianism), philosophy (transmitting his ideas via Carlyle to Emerson and the American Transcendentalists), and aesthetics (single-handedly inventing the concept of practical criticism that would later be developed by LA. Richards) is immense and well documented.144 In logic, however, the dissemination of Coleridge’s thought, at least until recently, has largely been limited to footnotes and the inferences of his more attentive readers.

That said, since the end of the nineteenth century a succession of critics has deplored the neglect of Coleridge’s logic. Among these commentators there is near unanimity in the view that Coleridge’s single greatest achievements in this field stem from his exploration of the interconnectedness of logic, language, and the noncognitive matrices of faith and personhood. Snyder set the tone by arguing that, more than his efforts ‘to schematise the dialectic movement of the reason,’ Coleridge’s ‘negative criticisms of the lower faculty, the understanding […] threw out informal suggestions for which thinkers today are still expressing their gratitude.’145 Less patronisingly, Muirhead embraced Coleridge’s rejection of conventional logic, praising ‘a method which proceeds, as he expresses it, by “enlargement” instead of by “exclusion,” and by inner development instead of by mere external synthesis,’146 as well as Coleridge’s anticipation of the principle — of which later idealists such as Bradley, Green and Bosanquet made so much — that ‘what is necessary and at the same time possible must be real.’147 More recently, as well as McKusick’s championing of Logic as a landmark of nineteenth-century linguistics, Nicholas Reid has published a series of articles in which he argues that by indexing meaning to an imaging process rather than to fictional entities called images, Coleridge evades the Fregean-Wittgensteinian attack on psychologism, presenting a view of logic and language, which, ‘admittedly shorn of its idealist and theistic roots, is ripe for revival.’148

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Apologias such as the above notwithstanding, it is difficult to see how, for the foreseeable future at least, Coleridge’s position in the history of logic, sandwiched between Kant and Mill, can avoid appearing to many as an embarrassing example of romantic overreaching. This is partly because of the way in which the status of logic as a ‘discipline’ is contested in his writings, but mainly because of how he challenges philosophy to justify itself at the bar of ‘life.’ Yet it is for precisely this reason, I would argue, that we should applaud Coleridge and continue to read him. Driven by an urgent desire to define a new index of rationality for a post-revolutionary age, the sheer range and audacity of Coleridge’s theosophical resuscitation of logic in an era dominated by the spectre of irrationalism can reacquaint a modern reader with the historical conditions of what Habermas calls the plurality of the voices of reason.149 In particular, his endeavours remind us how, before Frege, logic briefly assumed an existential form, which, however outlandish it might appear today, rightly refused the Humean severance of thought that analytic philosophy was later to inflict on human intellect.

Admittedly, one result of this is that navigating what McFarland aptly describes as ‘the reticulation of Coleridge’s thought’ is never without its difficulties.150 In particular, as his later work strives to adjudicate between competing conceptions of reason (instrumental, dialogic, intuitive, incarnate, practical), Coleridge’s increasingly elaborate attempts to square the circle between faith, logic and communication acquire a dogmatic character. Suspicious of foundationalism, Coleridge originally grounds thought and being in a linguistic act. Yet, rather than leave reason to the pragmatics of communication, to the everyday function of ‘etymologic,’ he hypostasizes this act in the form of a metaphysical principle. Instead of dispensing with philosophical foundations altogether, Coleridge ultimately installs a super-foundationalism. Thus, the ‘copula’ that the verb substantive, the Prothesis or ‘I am’ presents in thought becomes a ground of grounds, a logical, grammatical, psychological and metaphysical principle underwriting logic and theory of method alike. But is this principle itself logical? The closing words of Barfield’s study will serve just as well here, in that they elegantly capture the question that Coleridge bequeaths to modern logic. What finally matters when considering Coleridge’s logic, Barfield concludes, is ‘whether there is indeed a sense in which it is proper to characterise as a nuclear — or polar — logic the exactness of the understanding, not blurred or cancelled, but pierced to its empty heart at each moment, by the energy of imagination as the bearer of related qualities.

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