Romantic Methexis in Novalis and Coleridge as a Response to the Anthropocentric Conceptualisation of Life and Matter

Alexander J. B. Hampton (University of Toronto)

A major concern of the early Romantics was the increasing anthropogenic destruction of the natural environment that surrounded them. They connected this to a broad epistemic shift from a transcendent worldview, where the meaning and value of things resided with the supernatural, to an immanent understanding, set over and against the transcendent, where meaning and value resided in the human mind.  Though a long-term shift, its effects were sharpened in the Sattelzeit by exponential economic growth, the harnessing of scientific knowledge for mechanistic production, and the championing of individual autonomy by Kantian idealism and the Enlightenment philosophes.

According to Romantics like Novalis and Coleridge, these developments led to an anthropocentric standpoint that viewed the materiality of nature and non-human life through an ever more instrumentalized and commodified lens that placed humans outside and above nature. Rather than finding meaning in matter and value in ilfe, these were imposed upon nature by the subject, whether in aesthetics, the natural sciences, or political economy.

Novalis and Coleridge embraced insights from the natural sciences, critical idealism and the Enlightenment. However, they also saw the anthropocentric limitations of the individualism and empiricism at the centre of these developments. In response, both Novalis and Coleridge drew upon the realist participatory ontology of the Christian Platonic tradition to offer a theory of life and matter informed by these developments, but without the limitations of their immanent discourses. For Coleridge, we find this expressed in his theory of the perceptive imagination, whilst for Novalis it can be located in his concept of romanticisiation. Both of these concepts, explored in the poetry and prose of both thinkers, express an understanding of nature that recognises that meaning and value are inherent in the natural object through the ontology of participation, whilst at the same time recognising the creative role of the subject in the act of perception and cognition.

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