The Ordure of Things: Coleridge’s Living Ideas and the Indivisible Remainder

Tim Milnes (University of Edinburgh)


Coleridge’s work abounds with the imagery of ‘life,’ ‘death’, and ‘life-in-death.’ One of the most significant, and characteristically Romantic features of his own thought, however, is the chiastic way in which it figures the relationship between ‘life’ and ‘thought’. On one hand, he developed vitalist theories about life in his ‘Essay on Scrofula’ and Theory of Life, according to which living ideas evolved from a foundational ungrund (the primordial and ineffable Prothesis) and, through a form of self-alienation (thesis-antithesis), gave rise to a new intellectual element—a ‘third something’ or ‘tertium aliquid’ (synthesis). At the same time, he was equally concerned with the life of and in ideas. He insisted, for instance, that philosophy could only complete itself as Christianity, which was not a philosophy of life but life itself. Coleridge’s philosophy of / as life reflects his twin aims, on one hand, to idealise organic life, and, on the other, to enliven and ‘organicise’ thought.

The problem with this chiastic philosophy of life / life-philosophy, as Tillotama Rajan and Greg Ellerman have argued, is that it contains within it a volatile kernel that Coleridge struggled to contain. ‘Life,’ as he conceived it, proved difficult to reconcile with his notion of the ideal. This incommensurability produced a lacuna within ‘living ideas’, a void which Coleridge would have encountered in his reading of Schelling’s middle-period Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom (1809) as the traumatic ‘indivisible remainder’ in the Absolute, an ‘incomprehensible base of reality in things’ that resists rationalisation and sublation. In always being ‘something’ more than itself, Coleridge’s synthetic tertium aliquid harbours troubling implications for his thought, for it bears the same indefinable ontological surplus as Schelling’s ‘indivisible remainder’. This essay argues that another name for this insufficiency of the real is what Coleridge calls the caput mortuum (‘dead head’), the abjected other of the tertium aliquid. Manifesting ‘life’ as pure, excessive drive, the caput mortuum threatens to erupt volcanically within Coleridge’s ‘living’ ideas, tipping sublime delight into abject disgust. The essay concludes that the central problem, not just of Coleridge’s Philosophy of Life, but also his ‘Life-Philosophy’, remains one of what to do with God’s waste.


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