Powers of Life and Mind in Coleridge and Leibniz’s Theo-Physics

Charity Ketz

In the Theory of Life, Coleridge (following Heinrich Steffens) identifies ‘Life’ with the ‘tendency to individuation’, noting that while the human animal most perfectly realizes this power to ‘unite[] a given all into a whole that is presupposed by all its parts’, human individuation also begins a new series.[1] A year later, describing to C. A. Tulk ‘the Birth of Things’ from the point of view of science, he writes, ‘the two great poles of manifestation are Continuity (Lex Continui) and Individuation—the latter being the final cause of nature, or her object’.[2] In making this claim, Coleridge, who consistently connected continuity with Leibniz, suggests that the older philosopher had not represented even the physical series accurately. During the decade or so in which Coleridge developed his theory of life, wrote his (literary) life, and began evolving a science of moral individuation (the higher series) from the facts of will and consciousness, he repeatedly took up the shortcomings of Leibnizian physics and metaphysics in his notebooks alongside a set of interrelated concerns: the theory of life, the dynamic philosophy of powers, atoms, individuation, and animal magnetism. Sometimes his critique of Leibniz is indirect. In one notebook entry (1811–16?), Coleridge considers human individuality in Leibnizian terms: as a living point, comprehended in God alone, as a germ-like anticipation, and as a man’s capacity to perceive the world according to his own potentiality (to be tempted, limited in certain ways, etc.)—the world without which he could not be thought except as an abstraction because it is the revelation of his thought. Then, in an abrupt reversal, he claims that what remains for us is the possibility in ‘Light of this knowledge to beget each in himself a new man’.[3] Sometimes it is direct, as when Coleridge insists that Leibniz’ philosophy is irrecoverably reductive, that it evolves a cosmos out of a single expression of power—representation—which itself depends on will or the power of being. So it describes a world in which nothing really is.

This essay begins by asking why Coleridge might be interested in offering his theory of life as a counter to Leibnizian physics and metaphysics. There is a certain appropriateness to Coleridge’s choice as, over a century before, Leibniz had rehabilitated substantial forms under a new name—‘force’—in order to correct Cartesian physics, arguing that everything was alive and that a metaphysical principle, an urge to be, must be prior to extension and could be inferred from the historical quality of collisions. Then too, Leibniz described a physical realm that preserved itself organismically and a cosmos of real beings continuously and harmoniously reflecting each other. In one sense, everything in Leibniz’ system was what it was relationally; in another, entities related only to God. After sketching Leibniz’ physical series (especially his account of ‘living force’) and his mental series (his account of monads’ continuous urge to move to the next perception), this essay interrogates two elements of Coleridge’s critique: first, that Leibniz fails to provide a principle of being and that endurance cannot be it (a claim with relevance for recent arguments made by some new materialists) and second that Leibniz failed to grasp the true nature of relationality and so can neither account for conscious perception nor for time and space. For Coleridge, we may know by the same principle that a human may become positively unidividuated and that anticipated change of location must be measured from the point of view of the moving body. Coleridge’s formula for the organizing power of life, a power ‘unites a given all into a whole that is presupposed by all its parts’ provides additional insight here.

[1] Theory of Life, 510. Coleridge repeats some of the same language in OM89, SWFII 841-2.

[2] CLIV, 769.

[3] CNIII.4109

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