Andrew Cooper (University of Warwick)
‘[I]t will not surprise us, that Plato so often calls Ideas living laws, in which the mind has its whole true being and permanence; or that Bacon, vice versa, names the laws of nature Ideas.’ (The Friend, 3: 164)
It has been well noted that Coleridge’s encounter with dynamic theories of physics and chemistry at the close of the eighteenth century led him to reject his youthful embrace of David Hartley’s empiricism and to develop a new method for natural science inspired by Plato, Bacon and Kant. Coleridge saw that corpuscular philosophy, in the guise of epistemic modesty, restricted empirical knowledge to the surface of objects, banishing qualities from scientific inquiry and reducing the material world to ‘an immense heap of little things’ (CL I 349). Following his return from Germany in 1799, he set out to convince his British peers that the corpuscular school ‘has received a mortal blow from the increasingly dynamic spirit of the physical Sciences’ (AR 395). For Coleridge, this ‘dynamic’ spirit, manifest in Galvini’s discovery of animal electricity and Lavoisier’s revolution in chemistry, vindicated a conception of matter imbued with particular qualities and powers. He aimed to show how these developments provide philosophical support for a rationally ordered cosmos.
While scholars have identified the significance of physics and chemistry to Coleridge’s writings on scientific method, his engagement with comparative anatomy and zoology has received much less attention. This is partly due to the fact that his most extended treatise on the life sciences, Theory of Life, is obscured by difficult interpretive issues. Yet it is also due to the widely accepted view that Coleridge’s Romantic conception of nature was eclipsed by the Darwinian revolution in the second half of the nineteenth century. Coleridge’s extensive use on Germanic sources in Theory of Life has led most scholars to examine the text in isolation from British anatomy and physiology, and thus to present his writings on biology as an eclectic of European ideas into his local context.
In this paper I reexamine the significance of Coleridge’s Theory of Life in its historical context by situating the text within a broader conversation unfolding in London and Cambridge concerning the science of comparative anatomy. My aim is to show that Coleridge attempted to contribute to a distinctly British tradition of inquiry that was conversant with German Romantic biology. Moreover, I argue that while Theory of Life may not have been read by his peers, Coleridge’s active involvement in London’s scientific intuitions ensured that its argument nevertheless had an enduring effect in British bioscience. In Section 2 I begin by situating Coleridge’s fascination with German physiology in the context of British natural science in the early nineteenth century. While Theory of Life raises difficult questions about Coleridge’s scholarly integrity, in Section 3 I reject the claim that originality should provide the soul criteria of intellectual achievement. To grasp the significance of Theory of Life within the British context, in Section 4 I examine its main arguments, giving particular focus to Coleridge’s central claim that a science of morphology must be organised under an idea of life. In Section 5 I then provide evidence to show that while Theory of Life was not immediately published, the influence of Coleridge’s methodology can nevertheless be discerned in the work of Joseph Henry Green, William Whewell and Richard Owen. I conclude that Coleridge’s ability to adopt, transform and apply the insights of German philosophy and medicine to the scientific issues debated in London’s intellectual circles played a greater role the development of comparative anatomy in Britain than is recognised in the literature.
2. British anatomy and German philosophy
Before turning to Theory of Life, it will be helpful to begin with the broader intellectual milieu in which British anatomists and surgeons played a key role in the European-wide discussion concerning a fundamental principle of life. In 1786-7, the Scottish surgeon John Hunter delivered a series of lectures at the Royal College of Surgeons that opened a new movement of surgical practice in Britain. In his lectures, Hunter sketched an experimental science of practical anatomy based on a ‘simple principle of life.’ This principle is independent of organic structure and resident in all things capable of instigating their own beginning. In such things, matter is subject to new laws that cannot be reduced to their mechanical properties. Hunter’s principle had more in common with German-speaking physiologists such as Albrecht von Haller than natural philosophers in England. While many of Hunter’s students took up influential surgical positions in Britain, his lectures were more widely read on the Continent.
In 1795, Thomas Beddoes published a revised English version of Hunter’s lectures, which received far more attention in Britain than the original publication. Beddoes was an avid Germanophile, and published the first review of Kant’s three Critiques in English. He established the Pneumatic Institution in Bristol to examine Joseph Priestley’s experiments on air in surgical practice, and it was here that he became acquainted with the young Coleridge. Under Beddoes’s guidance, Coleridge enrolled at the University of Göttingen in 1798 to further his studies in metaphysics and physiology under Christian Gottlieb Heyne and Johann Blumenbach (CL I 518).
Coleridge’s stay in Göttingen coincided with several dramatic turns in the German academy, including Fichte’s forced resignation from Jena and Schelling’s proposal for a new philosophy of nature. Both events alerted Coleridge to the significance of Kant’s critical philosophy, and yet it was not until he returned to England in June 1799 that he was able to grapple with Kant’s first Critique on his own terms. In a series of letters to Tom Poole in 1801, Coleridge reports that he undertook ‘the most intense Study’ of Kant’s works, and praises Kant for providing a theory of mind as a form of activity (CL II 706; see also CN I §887). He was particularly taken by Kant’s separation of the understanding (Verstand) from reason (Vernunft), which undercut the empiricist assumption that Ideas are mere imprints on the mind. For Kant, cognition is an active and spontaneous faculty that combines sensory information with conceptual form. In its sensory use, the understanding actively constructs the manifold of perception as an interconnected field of nature such that relate each effect to its efficient cause. In its pure use, reason produces ideas that transcend possible experience, and applies these ideas to the understanding to organise its cognitions into a scientific system.
While Coleridge retained Kant’s distinction between the understanding and reason, he agreed with Fichte and Schelling that transcendental philosophy remained one-sided. In the Kantian mind, reason’s ideas govern the organisation of the understanding’s cognitions and yet have no direct purchase on nature. Fichte and Schelling saw that while transcendental philosophy vindicated a priori knowledge of nature, Kant failed to stich the causal order of the understanding back together with the life of reason. Fichte’s solution was to ground the theoretical side of Kant’s philosophy in the practical activity of the transcendental I. Schelling agreed that the activity of thought must provide the basis of the philosophical system, yet he rejected Fichte’s claim that nature is a product of mind. He argued instead that the mind must grasp itself as a product of nature, such that reason’s ideas are part of the natural order. For Coleridge, Schelling’s Naturphilosophe offered a poetic conception of the intellect that could recover the natural order from the abstraction of corpuscular philosophy. It demonstrates that natural science requires the synthetic work of philosophy, which searches for the Ideal in the Real (CL IV 769).
In contrast to Hartley’s empiricism, in which reason merely associates ideas in the mind, the German physiologists offered Coleridge a vision of philosophy that exerts an influence on scientific practice. In the work of Goethe, Ritter and Steffens he discovered a philosophical presentation of nature moved by the fundamental principle of polarity. Matter is grounded in the opposition of attraction and repulsion, magnetism in opposite poles, electricity in positive and negative channels, and physiological movement in sensibility and irritability. In a note from May 1819, Coleridge wrote that
Receptivity, or Excitability, at one pole, and Agency or Excitancy […] at the other, are the opposite states in which the one Activity, of Nature, which is the Substance of both, and their identity, reveals itself. There can be no Product without an Antecedent Power, that produced it, and is known to be, and to be that particular Power, by that <particular> Product. In relation to Existence, the Power determines the Product; in relation to our knowledge of its Existence, the Product determines the Power. (CN §4538)
Coleridge identifies Excitability and Excitancy with the two cognitive forces, receptivity and spontaneity, signalling his intention to ground the Kantian theory of mind in nature understood as a dynamic process. The continuity of mind and nature serves as the metaphysical foundation for scientific investigation, for it vindicates the transcendental assumption that the laws of nature are the objective side of the ideas of the mind (C&S 12). The pairing of Law and Idea entails that any course of empirical research must begin from an Idea of its subject matter, which is not grasped empirically but by the speculative faculty of reason:
an idea … is in order of thought always and of necessity contemplated as antecedent. In the idea or principle, Life, for instance – the vital functions are the result of the organization; but this organization supposes and pre-supposes the vital principle. The bearings of the plants on the sun are determined by the ponderable matter of which they consist; but the principle of gravity, the law in the material creation, the idea of the Creator, is pre-supposed in … the very concept of the existence, of matter itself. (C&S 20)
For Coleridge, the Ideas of speculative reason guide research by directing inquiry to empirical nature, and to determine the lawfulness of natural objects. Empirical objects can then be examined in terms of these idealisations, enabling the natural philosopher to identify the content of lawful ways they behave. Physiology is not simply concerned with the structural adaptations of living beings in a given environment but, more fundamentally, with the principle of actuality that gives rise to those adaptations. To grasp the driving force of evolution requires the prior acceptance of a principle that individuation realises the potential of lower levels of organisation. The very concepts of organisation and life require the assumption of a principle by which they can be recognised. The question is, what is such a principle, and how do we come to acquire it?
3. Theory of Life
In a brief and obscure text, Theory of Life, Coleridge set out to determine the principle of life and to demonstrate how it can unify comparative anatomy as a science. Before we consider the text, however, it is important to address three interpretive questions that have hindered any serious engagement with Coleridge’s argument: authorship, date and originality. Theory of Life was initially published as Hints Toward the Formation of a More Comprehensive Theory of Life by Seth Watson in 1848, fourteen years after Coleridge’s death. The publication received a mixed reception, for Watson was virtually unknown to the community of scholars familiar with Coleridge’s estate. Seth included a brief forward to the original publication in which he notes that the manuscript had rested first in the possession of James Gillman in Hampstead and then with him in Cambridge, yet he said nothing about when the text was written or whether he or Gillman had produced it in collaboration with Coleridge. Someone seems to have alerted the publishers to this at the last minute, for a leaf was inserted into some copies of the first edition stating that it had been brought to their attention that, after the initial print run, the work ‘might with more propriety be considered as the joint production of Mr. Coleridge and the late Mr. James Gillman of Highgate.’ Nevertheless, Theory of Life was included in the 1885 volume of W. G. T. Shedd’s Complete Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, much to the irritation of an early reviewer, who claimed that ‘have yet to learn what is the sufficient authority for the assertion that this treatise ever came either from the writing pen or speaking tongue of S. T. Coleridge.’ The question of authorship was not resolved until the mid-twentieth century when scholars discovered a letter from Coleridge’s daughter Sara in which she recounts the issues surrounding the publication of Theory of Life, wherein she criticises Watson’s decision to publish the text without consultation on the grounds that the lack of clarity left the authorship of the text in doubt. Sara argues that it is not a work of collaboration, for it clearly employs the ideas and phrases form her father’s published works and goes beyond the works penned either by Gillman or Watson. Given that there is no reason to doubt Sara’s account, and that Theory of Life is continuous with Coleridge’s known writings, it seems reasonable to agree with J. H. Haeger that ‘the authenticity of Theory of Life is beyond doubt.’
Unfortunately, neither Watson’s introduction nor Sara’s letter shed any light on the date of the original composition. Several proposals have been made, ranging from 1816 to 1831. Those who claim that the text was composed in the final months of 1816 call on Coleridge’s frequent reference to Steffens in his notes during that time (see CN IV §§4652, 4662, 4775-6). Yet given that Theory of Life favours Steffens over Schelling, and that Coleridge had a standing order for Steffens’ works in June 1817 (CL IV 738), 1819 seems like a more likely candidate, the year following Coleridge’s departure from Schelling. In a note from 1820, Coleridge calls on Steffens to clarify the differences between his own system and that of Schelling, which ‘are not momentary but essential’ (CN IV §4778). He elaborates in a marginal note in Steffens’ Grundzüge, where he rejects Schelling’s claim that the gradient from ‘the Insect, the Fish, the Bird, the Beast is blosser Schein’ (CM V 360). ‘Let me not fail to declare that in the different several works of H. Steffens’, Coleridge states, ‘especially in his Beyträge zur innern Naturgeschichte der Erde, the Spirit within me bears witness to the same Spirit in him’ (CN IV §4778).
The shared spirit Coleridge discovered in Steffens brings us to the question of originality. In the 1930s, Henri Nidecker published a series of papers in Revue de Littérature that have received little attention in the English-speaking literature. In these papers, Nidecker reveals just how closely Coleridge works from Steffens. Here I provide just one example, which begins midway through a brief history of mechanical science Coleridge uses to preface his argument. In the section that precedes the citation, Coleridge follows Steffens’ critique of Kepler and Newton, who privilege mathematical connections above all others in nature. When their respective narratives arrive at Lavoisier at the turn of the nineteenth century, Coleridge shifts to what we might call an embellished translation:
Als Lavoisier die unendliche Mannichfaltigkeit des chemischen Processes auf die Wechselwirkung weniger Stoffe reduciert, oder wenigstens die Hofnung gab, dass dieses gelingen würde, verfolgte man auch diesen Weg mit grosser Heftigkeit und bewundrungswürdigen Eifer – man hofte selbst durch Hülfe chemischer Analysen in das Heiligthum des organischen Lebens eindringen zu können, ohne zu bemerken das hier die absolute Grenze der Chemie gefunden war. – Es ist indessen gewiss, dass man die absolute Grenze dieser Wissenschaft nie so deutlich erkennen würde, wenn nicht ihre Anbeter mit so vieler Emsigkeit und so wenigen Erfolg, sie zu überschreiten versuchen.
… as soon as Lavoisier had reduced the infinite variety of chemical phenomena to the actions, reactions, and interchanges of a few elementary substances, or at least excited the expectation that this could speedily be effected, the hope shot up, almost instantly, into full faith, that it had been effected. Henceforward the new path, thus brilliantly opened, became the common road to all departments of knowledge : and, to this moment, it has been pursued with an eagerness and almost epidemic enthusiasm which, scarsely less than its political revolutions, characterise the spirit of the age. How, otherwise, could men of strong minds and sound judgments have attempted to penetrate by the clue of chemical experiment the secret recesses, the sacred adyta of organic life, without being aware that chemistry must needs be at its extreme limits, when it has approached the threshold of a higher power? Its own transgressions, however, and the failure of its enterprises will become the means of defining its absolute boundary, and we shall have to guard against the opposite error of rejecting its aid altogether as analogy, because we have repelled its ambitious claims to an identity with the vital powers. (TL 31-32)
This is a typical case of Coleridge’s use of Steffens’ Beyträge in Theory of Life. While much of the passage is direct translation, Coleridge embellishes at several points, often to dramatize the uniqueness of the idea in its historical setting. For instance, he expands on ‘die Wechselwirkung’ with ‘the actions, reactions, and interchanges’, and provides his own interpretive gloss on ‘verfolgte man auch diesen Weg’ with ‘it has been pursued with an eagerness and almost epidemic enthusiasm which, scarcely less than its political revolutions, characterise the spirit of the age.’
While Coleridge felt a deep affinity with Steffens’ attempt to extend the implications of Lavoisier’s chemistry to physiology, to what extent was this project shared? Nidecker lists eighteen similar instances throughout the text. In what follows I aim to steer between two interpretive strategies in the literature. The first is to dismiss Coleridge’s borrowings as unimportant for understanding the text. C. U. M. Smith for example argues that Coleridge’s borrowings are of ‘no great importance to those of us interested in the nineteenth-century alternative to Darwinism and the influence of Coleridge’s ideas on the development of comparative anatomy.’ After all, does not Coleridge speak of truth as a ‘divine ventriloquist’ in Biographia Literaria (BL 81)? Yet the first passage above should indicate that Coleridge’s borrowings are significant for understanding the nineteenth century alternative to Darwinism, precisely because Steffens is also troubled by the predominance of reductive Newtonian philosophy. Bearing this in mind, the second strategy is to read the text as testament to Coleridge’s awareness of his ailing creativity and drug-ridden malaise, which, as Joseph Beach puts it, drove him to ‘literary dishonesty and a vanity that cannot bear to credit another with anything that may possibly passed off for one’s own.’ Yet Beach’s charge upholds the assumption that originality should be the soul criteria of intellectual merit. This assumption must be rejected, I propose, for it not only upholds the Coleridgean model of self-styled genius but it also overlooks the fact that the transmission of ideas can be a major intellectual achievement. To either indulge in or ignore Coleridge’s borrowings distracts from the historical question of how the Romantic biologists were deployed as an alternative framework in Britain to explore the dynamism of a nature of which creative human beings are part. The historical significance of Coleridge’s account of the principle of life can be understood with greater depth if we give attention how Coleridge interacts with the work of Steffens and to what ends in his broader critique of the predominance of corpuscular philosophy in Britain.
4. Life as the principle of individuation
Coleridge evidently envisaged Theory of Life as a Huntarian Oration, an annual lecture held at the Royal College of Surgeons bound by statute to promote Hunter’s pioneering work and to apply them to the collection held at the anatomical museum at the College of Surgeons. The Orator of 1817, Hunter’s disciple John Abernethy, opened his address by praising Hunter for providing a philosophically sound ‘theory of life’ that is ‘adequate to explain the phenomena.’ To make Hunter’s principle attractive to the audience of London surgeons, Abernethy presents Hunter as a British Haller. His principle of life is not a metaphysical postulate but merely a methodological presumption. One can ‘uphold it as a good theory, till a more satisfactory one is found.’
Several notes from April 1819 suggest that Coleridge had either attended Abernethy’s lecture or read the transcript published the same year (CN §4518, §4521). Coleridge begins Theory of Life in the conventional fashion of a Huntarian Orator: he praises Hunter’s pioneering work, and anticipates future developments that can be established on this foundation. Yet he had long been critical of Hunter for restricting the life principle to blood, and thereby assuming an ontological break between living and non-living matter. He laments that Abernethy, Hunter’s greatest disciple, failed to develop the consequences of his conclusions systematically, and carry them ‘yet further back, to their ultimate principle’ (TL 19/SW I 487). To complete this important task, Coleridge examines three strategies that physiologists have used to define the principle of life over the past half-century, each of which turns out to be hopelessly circular.
The first is to translate the word life into ‘other more learned words; and this paraphrase of the term is substituted for the definition of the thing’ (TL 22/SW I 489-90). Coleridge cites the definition of French physiologist Xavier Bichat, which defines life as ‘the sum of all the functions by which death is resisted.’ Bichat’s physiology had come into vogue in 1815 when, following Napoleonic wars, students were able to travel to Paris to attend his lectures, which offered a materialistic medical science. Coleridge argues that Bichat’s definition leads physiology to a dead end, for it is nothing other than the idea that ‘life consists in being able to live’ (TL 22/SW I 489).
The second strategy is to take ‘some one particular function of Life common to all living objects – nutrition, for instance; or, to adopt the phrase most in vogue at present, assimilation, for the purposes of reproduction and growth’ (TL 23/SW I 490). This strategy was predominant in German medical departments, building on Haller’s work on animal physiology. Haller investigated physiological faculties through an analogy with Newtonian derivation of gravity. The physiologists isolates a relevant function, and then reasons backward to some basic organ, just as the assumption of gravity enabled Newton to reason back to cause of celestial dynamics. The naturalist can remain indifferent to the cause of the faculty and, by means of analogy, discern the faculty’s value as the geometer discerns the unknown value of X in an equation. Yet the problem with this strategy, Coleridge claims, is that it presupposes a fundamental division between animate and inanimate modes of being. It shares with the corpuscular philosophers the view that the mechanical, mathematizable conception of nature has primacy over living nature, and thus blocks the natural philosopher from grasping the generative process on which functionality depends: the metamorphosis of elements. Here we begin to catch a glimpse of Coleridge’s alternative definition of life. In contrast to a definition of lexicography, a physiological determination of life ‘would be a history, not a definition’ (TL 25/SW I 492). It would consist of ‘the law of the thing’ in which ‘all the properties and functions are admitted by implication.’ Such a law would be ‘causal’, giving ‘insight into the necessity and generation of the phenomena of which it is the law’ (TL 25/SW I 493). The task of a theory of life, then, is to provide a physical basis to comparative anatomy.
Before elaborating on what kind of law he has in mind, Coleridge interrogates a third strategy of defining life: to search out ‘some property characteristic of all living bodies’, such as ‘anti-putrescence’ or ‘the power of resisting putrefaction’ (TL 27/SW I 494). At first glance, this approach looks more promising than the first two, for the idea of a ‘property’ appeals to something internal and irreducible to mechanical analysis. Yet like the first two strategies, Coleridge argues that it confines the idea of life to organised beings discernible to us. While it is preferable to the first two, for it makes an opening for the language of powers, at best it ‘describes the vis vita by one of its many influences’ (TL 27/SW I 495). It thus fails to work back to ‘the law or principle of action.’
The thrust of Coleridge’s argument is that the three strategies commence with the abstracting power of the understanding, which projects its own structure onto the objects of experience. Hunter provides a way beyond the stasis of the understanding, for he defines life as a principle independent of mechanical structure. Yet Hunter failed to elevate the principle into a positive philosophy, Coleridge contends, for he refrains from identifying the mind with the principle of life. This is precisely what the German physiologists had achieved in the years following Hunter’s death, and, by continuing to venerate Hunter’s achievement and to compare him with the great European naturalists of the eighteenth century, the British surgeons had overlooked.
Coleridge discovered in Steffens’ Beyträge the vehicle by which to advance British comparative anatomy, for it identifies a new principle of life as the culmination of a history of errors made by natural philosophers. As we saw in the passage cited above, Steffens argued that these errors stem from approaching life as an occult quality, which requires the naturalist, following the Newtonian method, to propose an unknown power that is knowable only through its effects. In contrast, he rejects the assumption that ideas are separate from nature, such that the naturalist must somehow leap from the mind to phenomena, and proposes instead to begin with the subjective side of nature, that is, with the immediate revelation of one’s soul in experience. According to Coleridge, Steffens avoids the ‘arbitrary distinction’ between reason and nature, ‘fills up the arbitrary chasm between physics and physiology, and justifies us in using the former as means of insight into the latter, which would be contrary to all sound rules of ratiocination in the powers working in objects of the two sciences were absolutely and essentially diverse’ (TL 40/SW I 509). Replacing the distinction of kind with a gradient of degrees, Coleridge calls on the ‘essential vitality of nature, that she does not ascend as links in a suspended chain, but as the steps in a ladder’ (TL 41/SW I 509). The assent of nature is universal such that even ‘the life of metals, as the power which effects and determines their comparative cohesion, ductility, etc.’ exists on the same scale as ‘the Life which produces the first attempts of organization, in the almost shapeless tremella, or in such fungi as grow in the dark recesses of the mine’ (TL 40/SW I 508).
In contrast to natural philosophers who define life as an experimental force, Coleridge’s theory is maximally abstract, consisting of ‘the internal copula of bodies’ or ‘the power which discloses itself from within as the principle of the unity in the many’ (TL 42/SW I 510). Here he sides with Steffens in transgressing Kant’s limitation of reflecting judgment to the mere estimation of a vital power that works out its purposes through the dynamic relation between part and whole in a living being. Yet Coleridge’s method grants to reason a more explicit role than Steffens had permitted. While the understanding cuts, divides and defines, Coleridgean reason grasps a causal principle, the copula that is not determined by the understanding but is shared by all living beings. Life can thus be defined as ‘the principle of individuation, or the power which unites a given all into a whole that is presupposed by all tis parts’ (TL 42/SW I 510). The link that combines the whole and the parts, and acts throughout both, is ‘the tendency to individuation.’
Where corpuscular philosophy reduces the diversity of properties to a homogenous substance, Coleridge’s principle of life opens a philosophy of assent. As we reflect on the steps between physics, chemistry and physiology, the lower powers are not destroyed by higher forms of life but are assimilated within them, such that in the transition from chemistry to physiology elasticity appears as the responsiveness of muscle fibres. Electricity and irritability are ‘but degrees and different dignities of one and the same tendency’ (TL 43/SW I 511). Life can thus be presented as a series of four steps:
- Life as the mere unity of powers,
- Evolution of the simplest forms of totality,
- The vast formations studied in geology and history,
- The ‘tendencies of the Life of Nature to vegetation or animalization.’ (TL 48/SW I 516)
Note that it is only on the fourth step that we find organic unities. This step thus requires its own cascade of divisions, ranging from the lowest vegetable to the highest animal, the human. In the human, the tendency to individuation is not only perfected but begins ‘a new series beyond the appropriate limits of physiology.’ Because life is the tendency to individuation, ‘the degrees or intensities of Life … consist in the progressive realization of this tendency’ (TL 49/SW I 517).
Once Coleridge has defined the principle of life as the tendency to individuation, he sets out to show how the whole of nature and its laws can be determined underneath it. A law, he explains, is the cause of union, from which we can derive the necessary unification of the phenomena for which it is a law. The most general law is polarity, or ‘the essential dualism of Nature, arising out of its productive unity, and still tending to reaffirm it, either as equilibrium, indifference, or identity’ (TL 50/SW I 518). The productivity of polarity is thus incompatible with mathematical calculus, and is manifest only in the copula that unifies the three basic forces of life, magnetism, electricity and chemical affinity:
Power of length (magnetism/reproduction)
Power of surface (electricity/irritability) Life as the copula of constituent forces
Power of depth (chemical activity/sensibility)
By defining the law of individuation as polarity, Coleridge presents comparative anatomy as a series of transitions, unified under the principle of life. The transition of vegetables to insects is marked by the intensification of sensibility, and the transition from insects to fishes by the intensification of the reproductive force. Each of the following transitions – to birds, quadrupeds and finally to humans – is marked by increasing individuation of the living forces. While nature unfolds according to a purpose, this purpose is not preestablished but a process of becoming that moves toward ever-increasing complexity and individuation. Evolutionary change is thus a function of the law of polarity, which enables comparative anatomy to be organised as a science.
5. The philosophy of biology
In Theory of Life, Coleridge seeks to advance Hunter’s one-sided principle with twenty years of research conducted in Germany since Hunter’s initial lectures. Drawing heavily on Steffens, he attempts to show his British contemporaries that Hunter’s principle requires a new philosophy of life capable of grasping nature’s creativity. While Theory of Life was not published during his lifetime, it offers a window into the conversations Coleridge was having with members of the Royal College and British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS) in the years following 1819. In this final section I identify an incursion of what John Stuart Mill dubbed a ‘Germano-Coleridgean Doctrine’ – or what Phillip Sloan rebadged as a ‘Coleridgean methodology’ – in the work of British comparative anatomy in the decades following Theory of Life. I suggest that this incursion indicates that Coleridge’s argument in the unpublished text had at least some of the effect for which it was intended.
Joseph Henry Green
As a surgeon at St Thomas’s Hospital, Joseph Henry Green attended Coleridge’s lectures on literary criticism and German philosophy in the early part of the nineteenth century. In 1817 he travelled to Berlin to study philosophy under Wilhelm Solger, and on his return began to meet with Coleridge on a weekly basis to discuss the philosophical writings of Kant and Schelling (CL II 688). In 1824, Green was appointed to the Hunterian lectureship in comparative anatomy at the Royal College of Surgeons. This role required him to offer four annual series of twelve lectures, which he undertook in collaboration with Coleridge (CL V 495). His lectures sketched a new methodology for comparative anatomy on philosophical principles.
On the basis of his lectures on anatomy, Green was invited to give the Hunterian Oration in 1740, which was published the same year as Vital Dynamics. His oration presents a revised methodology for comparative anatomy, which includes an extensive recommendation of Coleridge’s philosophical work to the members of the Royal College. He praises Coleridge for affirming the ‘all important distinction of the Reason and Understanding’ and thereby saving philosophy from a strictly empiricist epistemology, and proceeds to outline a new method that bears the hallmarks of Coleridge’s philosophy of natural science. Natural science is ‘a scheme of Causes and Laws in the unity and with the connections of Reason.’ Citing Coleridge’s On the Constitution of the Church and State, he defines Ideas as principles of speculative reason that form the subjective side of laws operating objectively in nature.
In Vital Dynamics we see how the Coleridgean method assisted Green to develop an alternative to John Herschel’s influential account of induction as generalisation. Science must pursue an ‘anticipatory’ method, Green claims, in which Ideas direct our search for laws that determine the occurrence of effects according to their grounds. Coleridge had stated that the ‘anatomist himself really seeks for an Idea – not to learn what this or that limb – Hand for instance – is but to learn what a Hand is’ (SW II 1311). This is to say that the Idea is antecedent to the inquiry, and sets the parameters for the kinds of explanation that are possible in a certain domain. In Green’s terms, ‘the method of the sciences must be dynamic; that is, by contemplating nature as a scheme of causes and laws with the connections, and in the unity, of reason.’ The Idea of life is a ‘law’ that enables the comparative anatomy to be grounded in physiology, thereby drawing the diverse range of living beings into a natural system:
by comparing, I say, the various groups of the animal kingdom, we shall find that they may be ranged in an ascending scale, of which the degrees are marked by a relative balance and proportion of the vital forces, and in which the ascent is determined by the evolution of life into Sensibility, and by the subordination of sensibility as the highest force and most essential form of living existence.
Like Coleridge, Green’s methodology resonates with the work of Kielmeyer, Goethe and Steffens, each of whom identified classificatory categories according to the balance and proportion of the life forces. After presenting his comparative method, Green identifies a series of transitions in anatomy from protozoa to insects, and from molluscs to vertebrates, in which each level is marked by increasing internal organisation. The ascent is unified by ‘the opposition and harmony of two great tendencies; – on the one hand that of nature to integrate all into one comprehensive whole … and on the other hand, the tendency to integration in the parts.’ Here Green’s analysis is undoubtedly Coleridgean, describing ‘the advancing perfection of nature towards Individuality’, reaching its highest form of individuation in the human. The insight that all living form participates in a dynamic system, Green explains, enabled the German anatomists to discover ‘the pattern and pre-existing model, according to which, and the genetic process itself by which, organic forms are constructed.’ Once the idea of the unity of type has been discovered, through careful empirical work, the ‘varied organic forms are but modifications of one simple primary form.’
Green offered a platform for Coleridge’s theory of life in London, some twenty years after Coleridge had first developed a systematic account of anatomy. He also praised the work of William Whewell, professor of minerology at Cambridge, who met regularly with Coleridge and Green at the BAAS during the early 1830s. Green saw that Whewell’s historical and philosophical examination of the inductive sciences, like Coleridge’s Theory of Life, offered a much-needed alternative to Herschel’s inductivist methodology, for it demonstrates that ‘the method of science must be dynamic; that is, by contemplating nature as a scheme of causes and laws with the connections, and in the unity, of reason.’
Whewell had also spent time in Germany to study minerology, and it was there that he drafted the Aphorisms that were later published in The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences (1840). In the Aphorisms, Whewell contrasts Hume’s empiricism with ‘the metaphysical genius in Germany’, which demonstrated that the ‘relation of Causation is a condition under which we think of events, as the relations of space are a condition under which we see objects.’ Ideas, he explains, connect ‘impressions of sense according to relations of space, time, number, likeness, cause etc.’ These ideas are not Lockean impressions but activities of the mind that determine the ‘laws’ that objects necessarily follow. Whewell thus affirms the Kantian distinction between subjectivity and objectivity, which ‘has been brought into great prominence in the writings of modern German philosophers.’ At the heart of the philosophy of science lies the ‘antithesis of philosophy’, a discordant energy between thoughts and things, theories and facts, form and matter, subject and object. The methodology of inductive science must harmonise the two sides of the antithesis:
As in man’s contemplation of nature, there is always some act of thought which depends upon himself, and some matter of thought which is independent of him … the combination of these two elements, the subjective or ideal, and the objective or observed, is necessary, in order to give us any insight into the laws of nature.
The antithetical nature of philosophy is especially important for what Whewell terms ‘The Philosophy of Biology’, which encompasses the sciences concerned with ‘living things.’ Whewell operates on the methodological assumption that scientific theories generally work toward clearer and clearer delineations of their subject matter, and the task of the philosopher is to define what these delineations are, and how they arise from the history of a science. In the philosophy of biology, the sciences concerned with living things have a distinct methodology and modes of explanation, based on a principle of life understood as ‘a particular Idea.’ The similarities with Coleridge’s Theory of Life are striking. Whewell presents a survey of failed attempts to define the Idea of life, including Bichat’s definition that life is the system of functions by which death is resisted, and the attempt to list various living functions. Each of these attempts, he claims, presuppose the Idea it aims to determine, for they identify the defining marks of living nature through an exclusively empirical method. In the major discoveries in biology’s development – the circulation of the blood, digestion, assimilation and generation – we can discern the basic principle of the philosophy of biology: ‘Observation taught much; and among other things, she taught that there was something that could not be observed, but which must, if possible, be conceived.’
Having identified the problems encountered by each of the main positions, Whewell proposes an alternative that draws from Kant’s transcendental examination of judgments about organic structure in Critique of the Power of Judgment: X qualifies as a living being if X is judged under the Idea of an ‘organised product of nature … in which all the parts are mutually ends and means.’ The ‘great metaphysician’ was the first to see that the Idea of life defines the domain of inquiry, not vice versa. In the remainder of the chapter Whewell attempts to show that Kant’s definition ‘is capable of being made the basis of sound knowledge.’ This can occur if the philosopher of biology provides sufficient determination to the ‘Idea of an Organic or Living Being.’ A living being is one whose powers are such that it appropriates to itself new substances and makes them part of itself: ‘Organic Life is a constant Form of a circulating Matter, in which the Matter and the Form determine each other by particular laws (that is, by Vital Forces).’
Whewell’s philosophy of biology is radically different from the empiricist study of anatomy, in which the teleological structure of living beings is understood according to a creator’s intention. The Idea of life cannot be introduced as the causality of a creator but must ‘be supplied by the student of organization out of his own mind: a truth which will become clearer if we attend to the most conspicuous and acknowledged instances of design.’ Like Green, Whewell proposes the notion of ‘type’ as an alternative to design, which conveys a norm that is discerned in nature through contemplation. The natural powers studied in physics and chemistry, including gravity, elasticity and affinity, never act in a diseased manner. The forces studied in biology are different, for they do not always act as they should. Organic forces can fail, become deranged or diseased, for ‘they have as their object to conform the living being to a certain type.’ Whewell concludes that while the biological sciences are still far from complete, the most difficult work has been accomplished. Once the study of living beings is grounded in ‘natural relations’ rather than mechanical abstractions, our knowledge of organic functions ‘have tended more and more to the character of exact and rigorous science.’
Green’s Hunterian Oration was attended by a young medical student, Richard Owen, who became a prominent anatomist and zoologist. Owen also attended Green’s lectures on comparative anatomy in 1826, where he noted that ‘For the first time in England the comparative anatomy of the whole Animal Kingdom was described. … The vast array of facts was linked by reference to the underlying Unity, as it had been advocated and illustrated by Oken and Carus.’ Owen was mentored by Green during the 1820s, and the two surgeons remained on close terms over the following decades. He edited Green’s Vital Dynamics, and urged Green to include a methodological appendix on the use of type in comparison. In 1836 Owen received the Hunterian lectureship, and was elected as president of the BAAS in 1856.
Owen was also mentored by Whewell, who trusted Owen’s judgment enough to have him to review the proofs of Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences in 1840. Like Whewell, Owen adopted the Coleridgean notion of ideas in the study of comparative anatomy. This is particularly evident in the lectures he gave at the Royal College during the early 1840s, in which he presents a theory of the ‘vertebrate type’ and its relation to homology. The vertebrate type is discovered inductively, Owen explains, by generalising from anatomical research, comparing a wide range of vertebrate skeletons to derive an Idea, whose source lies in the divide mind. In 1849, Owen developed his type theory in a lecture at the Royal Institution entitled ‘Discourse on Limbs.’ His basic task is to define the ‘Bedeutung’ of the limbs in vertebrate animals, by which he means ‘that essentially which it retains under every modification of size and form, and for whatever office such modifications may adapt it.’ The German term ‘Bedeutung’ refers to the ‘archetype or primal pattern’ that constitutes ‘the basis supporting all the modifications of such part for specific powers and actions in all animals possessing it.’ Structural changes can be observed synchronically between existing varieties, and diachronically between fossilised remains. The archetype does not, however, provide a sufficient causal explanation. ‘To what natural laws or secondary causes the orderly succession and progression of such organic phenomena may have been committed’, he states ‘we are as yet ignorant.’ Of what we can be sure, however, is that nature ‘has advanced with slow and stately steps, guided by the archetypal light amidst the wreck of worlds, from the first embodiment of the Vertebrate idea under its old Ichthyic vestment until it became arrayed in the glorious garb of the human form.’
In his presidential address to the BAAS delivered in Leeds in 1858, Owen laid out the historical dimension of his project. The appearance of higher forms of life, including reptiles, birds and mammals, must be explained by the ‘axiom of the continuous operation of the Creative power, or of the ordained becoming of living things.’ During the 1840s, Owen had done extensive work cataloguing the geographical distribution of animals in the past, and proposed that the distribution of organic form ceases to correlate with what we find today the further back in time we go. The reason for this difference, he claims, lies in major changes occurring in geological history, which altered the relative positions of land and sea. Changes in environmental conditions even account for extinction, as larger animals are unable to adapt to changing geological conditions.
In this paper I have argued that Coleridge’s Theory of Life forges a link between Hunter’s lectures on the principles of Surgery, Beddoes’ fascination with German philosophy and new developments in comparative anatomy in the early nineteenth century. I then provided evidence in the work of Green, Whewell and Owen to indicate the parallel development of a theory of ideas, which employs a distinctly Coleridgean methodology as the basis for a new science of comparative anatomy. I conclude that one of the keys to understanding the development of comparative anatomy in Britain lies in Coleridge’s ability to adopt, transform and apply the insights of German philosophers and medical professors to the leading scientific issues debated in London’s intellectual circles.
By the end of the 1840s, several assumptions were in place that would have a deep impact on the development of his ideas in the decades leading up to On the Origin of the Species (1859). The transcendental approach to comparative anatomy had become firmly established in the Royal Institution, the College of Surgeons, the BAAS and the Universities of London and Cambridge. Darwin read Whewell’s History of the Inductive Sciences in 1838, and reviewed Owen’s On the Nature of the Limbs and ‘Presidential Address’ shortly after their publication. When his work on comparative anatomy is read against the historical backdrop of comparative anatomy in the mid-nineteenth century, it is clear that Darwin’s account of morphological change developed within a British conversation that was influenced by the German transcendental tradition, with Coleridge providing a key voice in this cultural translation. Of course, as Owen noted in On the Nature of the Limbs, one significant interpretive challenge remained: the laws governing the macro-level structural change. While Owen had entertained the hypothesis that a reptile had changed into a mammal, and an ape into a human, he acknowledged that the hypothesis was unsubstantiated. No cause of organic change was yet established. Darwin’s principle of evolution by natural selection would provide a ground-breaking response to this challenge, for it explains how environmental pressures act on variations within a species, such that viable traits are selected over those that prove to be less conducive to survival.
Abernethy, John. Physiological Lectures: Exhibiting a General View of Mr. Hunter’s Physiology and of His Researches in Comparative Anatomy, delivered before the Royal College of Surgeons. London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, Paternoster-Row, 1817.
Abernethy, John. The Huntarian Oration for the Year 1819. London: Straham and Spottiswoode, 1819.
Anon. ‘Coleridgeana I: The New Edition of Coleridge.’ Literary World 322: 263-5, 1853.
Anon. ‘Coleridgeana.’ Review of English Studies 4: 433-4, 1928.
Barfield, Owen. What Coleridge Thought. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1971.
Beach, Joseph Warren. ‘Coleridge’s Borrowings from the German.’ ELH, 9(1): 36-58, 1942.
Beddoes, Thomas. ‘Dr. Beddoes on Kant’s Philosophy.’ The Monthly Magazine 4 1796, 265-267.
Bichat, Xavier. Physiological Researches on Life and Death. Translated by F. Gold. Boston: Richardson and Lord, 1827.
Class, Monika. Coleridge and Kantian Ideas in England, 1796-1817: Coleridge’s Responses to German Philosophy. London: Bloomsbury, 2012.
Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Hints Towards the Formation of a more Comprehensive Theory of Life. London: Churchill, 1848.
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 McFarland, ‘A Complex Dialogue’; Sloan, ‘Whewell’s Philosophy of Discovery’; Knight, ‘Coleridge and Chemical Philosophy’.
 Citations to Coleridge’s work are in text, and use the following abbreviations: AR = Aids to Reflection; BL = Biographia Literaria. C&S = On the Constitution of the Church and State; CL = Collected Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge; CN = The Notebooks of Samuel Taylor Coleridge; TL = Theory of Life; SW = Shorter Works and Fragments; F = The Friend.
 Notable exceptions include Sloan, ‘Kant and British Bioscience’, and Richards, ‘The Impact of German Romanticism on Biology in the Nineteenth Century’.
 Hunter, Lectures on the Principles of Surgery, 20.
 Abernethy makes this point in his Huntarian Oration of 1819. See Abernethy, The Huntarian Oration for the Year 1819, 27.
 Knight, ‘Coleridge and Chemical Philosophy’, 98.
 Beddoes, ‘Dr. Beddoes on Kant’s Philosophy’, 265-7.
 Anon., ‘Coleridgeana I: The New Edition of Coleridge’, 264.
 Sara’s letter is reproduced in Haeger, ‘Composition and Date of Theory of Life’, 23.
 Haeger, ‘Composition and Date of Theory of Life’, 25.
 The reviewer in Review of English Studies argues for a date shortly after Coleridge’s letter Gillman in 1816 that touches on several issues pertinent to Theory of Life. See ‘Coleridgiana’, 443-4. Ashe claims that the text must be dated before 1831 in Coleridge, Miscellanies, Aesthetic and Literary, 364. Jackson and Jackson, the editors of SW, state that Theory of Life ‘seems to have been written rapidly in Nov–Dec 1816’ (SW I 481).
 Haeger, ‘Composition and Date of Theory of Life’, 38.
 Steffens, Beyträge zur innern Naturgeschichte der Erde, 37-38.
 Nidecker, ‘Notes Marginales de S. T. Coleridge, IV’, 870-1.
 Smith, ‘Coleridge’s “Theory of Life”’, 40.
 Beach, ‘Coleridge’s Borrowings’, 50.
 Here I agree with Class, who claims that it ‘is time for the studies of Coleridge’s reception of German philosophy to relinquish “individuality” and “originality” not as a subject of investigation but as a criterion for our assessment of the writers’ respective significance and merit.’ Class, Coleridge and Kantian Ideas in England, 1796-1817, 4-5.
 Abernethy, Physiological Lectures, 2.
 Coleridge was familiar with Hunter’s principle from as early as 1796. In a letter to Thelwall, he notes that Hunter held ‘that the Blood is the Life – which is saying nothing at all – for if the blood were Life, it could never the otherwise than Life’ (CL I 295).
 See Bichat, Physiological Researches on Life and Death, 1-2.
 Knight, ‘Coleridge and Chemical Philosophy’, 97.
 Haller, ‘A Dissertation on the Sensible and Irritable Parts of Animals’, 658-9.
 Steffens, Beyträge zur innern Naturgeschichte der Erde, 37-38.
 This locution seems to be Coleridgean. Steffens speaks of the ‘Production des Individuums’, which is a tendency in nature toward the ‘Production der Gattung’, and the ‘centripetale Tendenz der ganzen Natur’, which is revealed most fully in the human being. But he does not refer to a tendency to individuation. Steffens, Beyträge zur innern Naturgeschichte der Erde, 310.
 Mill, ‘Obituary on Samuel Taylor Coleridge’, 403; Sloan, ‘Whewell’s Philosophy of Discovery’, 40.
 Green, Vital Dynamics, xiv-xv.
 Green, Vital Dynamics, xxvii-xxviii.
 Green, Vital Dynamics, 11.
 Green, Vital Dynamics, 21.
 Green, Vital Dynamics, 33.
 For example, see Kielmeyer, Über die Verhältniße der organischen Kräfte, 43-6, and Goethe, Erster Entwurf einer allgemeinen Einleitung in die vergleichende Anatomie, LA I 9: 121-5.
 Green, Vital Dynamics, 39.
 Green, Vital Dynamics, 42.
 Green, Vital Dynamics, 57.
 Green, Vital Dynamics, 21.
 Whewell, The Philosophy of the Inductive Science Founded Upon Their History (hereafter, Philosophy), 172-3.
 Whewell, Philosophy, 25.
 Whewell, Philosophy, 29.
 Whewell, Philosophy, 30.
 Whewell, Philosophy, 543.
 Whewell, Philosophy, 574-575.
 Whewell, Philosophy, 581.
 Whewell, Philosophy, 573.
 Whewell, Philosophy, 587.
 Whewell, Philosophy, 588.
 Whewell, Philosophy, 621.
 Whewell, Philosophy, 627.
 Whewell, Philosophy, 579.
 Owen to John Simon, quoted in Green, Spiritual Philosophy, I xiv-iv.
 Green thanks Owen in several places in Vital Dynamics, and notes Owen’s input in his decision to include an Appendix on transcendental anatomy.
 Sloan, ‘Whewell’s Philosophy of Discovery’, 54.
 Owen, On the Nature of Limbs, 2.
 Owen, On the Nature of Limbs, 2-3.
 Owen, On the Nature of Limbs, 86.
 Owen, ‘Address’, li.
 Owen, ‘On the Geographical Distribution of Mammalia’, 179.
 Darwin refers to Owen 14 times in On the Origin of the Species. For references to the texts mentioned here, see 242 and 320.
 Richards, ‘The Impact of German Romanticism on Biology in the Nineteenth Century’, 125. See also Rupke, Richard Owen, ch. 5.