Coleridge and the Non-empirical Imagination


Len Epp


(Coleridge Bulletin, New Series 16, Winter 2000, pp 40-48)




The eclectic character of the Biographia Literaria makes it a particularly useful subject for discussions of disciplinary and methodological boundaries. It participates at once in the discourses of autobiography, critical theory, theology, and practical criticism, to name but a few.  The extent to which it is also philosophical—and hence the extent to which Coleridge might be characterized by it as a philosopher—is a question that has drawn special interest and has a scholarly tradition of its own. This promotion of Coleridge’s work as philosophical, because of his reputation as a poet and because of his literary analyses, has for the most part, at least implicitly, dwelt on the question of what counts as philosophical with respect to the question of what counts as literary, and has generated attempts to compare and contrast the particular methodological and disciplinary modes of discourse at work in the Biographia, and the philosophico-literary boundaries which it transgresses, or redefines.  But any characterization of Coleridge as philosophical says at least as much about the character of philosophy as it does about Coleridge, and when one takes into account the transcendental deduction of the imagination and the faculties of the mind, and the epistemological issues at stake in the philosophical chapters of the Biographia, such an account necessarily partakes of the tensions that divide not only philosophical and literary, but also philosophical and scientific, discourse.

       The tensions that divide accounts of the mind given in the spirit of the humanities in general, and accounts of the mind given in the spirit of contemporary science and the philosophy of mind, are variously expressed in academic discussions. For many, any explanation of consciousness which does not include an experimentally verifiable description of a determinate, physical state of being is rejected as naive, or worthless, or wrong-headed, if not dangerously misleading.  Approached from such a direction, any philosophical account of the mind, if it is to have any value whatsoever, must be empirical.  But this approach participates in an interpretive methodology which has, of course, its own distinctive characteristics that produce particular descriptions of mental faculties, and is not entirely unopposed.  In the present context, the work of Edmund Husserl, the twentieth century founder of phenomenology, is the most appropriate example of this opposition, as his writings represent a self-conscious development of the tradition of transcendental philosophy with which Coleridge was engaged at the time of the Biographia’s creation. Although Coleridge’s explicit references in the Biographia to the works of Kant, Fichte, and Schelling are restricted to the so-called philosophical chapters, his systematic exegesis of the movement in philosophy that they represent is of fundamental relevance to the abortive deduction of the primary and the secondary imagination in Chapter 13.  The dialectical horizon of this




movement is primarily epistemological, not empirical, and is approached via a priori contemplation of the conditions for the possibility of our various modes of engagement with the world.  As such it is an inherently self-reflexive philosophy which is concerned with the manner in which the conscious mind can conceive of itself as existing as a coherent whole and with the theoretical boundaries of knowledge.  For Coleridge this mode of thought was fascinating for various reasons, not the least of which was the epistemological dilemma which he perceived in Kantian philosophy, which concluded that noumena, or things-in-themselves, are unknowable, and it is only the phenomena  which are constructed by our various faculties which are knowable.  The solution to this dilemma was approached by Fichte, but only achieved (however pantheistically) by Schelling, who provided the notion that the engagement of the Einbildungskraft with art supplies ‘the keystone of philosophy’, thus reconciling the Kantian dilemma.  What this tradition offers is not an alternative fundamentally divided from empirical principles, but rather a mode of contemplation which can account for a more comprehensive model of conscious engagement with the world, and the nature of consciousness itself.

       A study of the philosophical chapters of the Biographia which focuses on the differences between transcendental and empirical accounts of consciousness brings into relief various problems associated with that famously muddled text.  It is my contention that the various claims (made by various scholars, including Shawcross, Engell and McFarland) asserting the relative importance of Coleridge’s primary and secondary distinctions of the imagination are themselves informed, either directly or indirectly, by an empirical spirit, and it is precisely because Coleridge was not giving an empirical account of the mind that this approach produces what is in fact an artificial and misleading tension.  Insofar as it must engage with the principles and the history of transcendental philosophy as it passed from Kant to Schelling, a philosophical account of Coleridge’s distinction between the primary and secondary Imagination, and the scholarly tradition of its interpretation, is therefore a reproduction of various ideological oppositions present in contemporary academic discourse.  Criticisms, which are rarely delivered in the form of careful and comprehensive epistemological critiques, of non-empirical (and its occasional collaborator, non-materialist) thought abound in academic literature, from McGann’s 1983 The Romantic Ideology to Gross and Levitt’s 1994 Higher Superstition, and often take the form of attacks upon ‘metaphysical’ forms of thought from the higher ground of an institutionally powerful, but philosophically underdeveloped, ‘scientific’, materialist fortress.

       Such oppositions often depend upon spurious characterizations of the humanities and of Romanticism in particular.  The bilious claims of various thinkers in The Third Culture, a 1990’s manifesto which attempts to prepare the ground for the popularization of American scientific views, are a wonderful example of the naive, tendentious manner in which the science/humanities divide can be reductively articulated.  The editor, John Brockman, in an essay




originally written in 1991, immediately reproduces a supposedly incommensurable tension which belies his own claims to the Third Culture’s cultural sensitivity and depth:


The third culture consists of those scientists and other thinkers in the empirical world who, through their work and expository writing, are taking the place of the traditional intellectual in rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives, redefining who and what we are.

       In the past few years, the playing field of American intellectual life has shifted, and the traditional intellectual has become increasingly marginalized. A 1950s education in Freud, Marx, and modernism is not a sufficient qualification for a thinking person in the 1990s. Indeed, the traditional American intellectuals are, in a sense, increasingly reactionary, and quite often proudly (and perversely) ignorant of many of the truly significant intellectual accomplishments of our time. Their culture, which dismisses science, is often nonempirical. It uses its own jargon and washes its own laundry. It is chiefly characterized by comment on comments, the swelling spiral of commentary eventually reaching the point where the real world gets lost.[1]


       Although it is difficult to overlook claims in The Third Culture which are swaggeringly positivist and exuberantly pro-American, and betray an embarrassing ignorance of “intellectual” pursuits, Brockman’s point must be taken in a spirit of good will, and as the articulation of a fundamental challenge: unless there is a focused attempt to articulate the different modes of engagement with the world in which the various disciplines participate, reductive and oppositional constructions of each by each will flourish.  The scientist feels that the intellectual has only a stereotypical understanding of science, and the intellectual feels that the scientist has only a stereotypical understanding of the humanities - and both, in their uncharitable reactions, reproduce this dilemma in the other.[2]

       This dilemma is hardly specific to the 1990’s or the dawn of our present millennium, however.  In “Philosophy and the Crisis of European Man” [3], the (pointedly nonempirical) German philosopher Edmund Husserl prepares the ground for a unified, meaningful understanding of the diverse claims to knowledge that can be made by both the empirical sciences and the




humanities.  That which in contemporary academic discourse would most likely be articulated as a failure to correctly construe the divisions between the sciences and the humanities is instead articulated by Husserl as a crisis of understanding based upon the ‘unclarity of the methodological and factual connection between the natural sciences and the sciences of the spirit’ (PCP 187-188). This lack of clarity produces an academic environment in which it is taken for granted that ‘[t]he extraordinary successes of natural knowledge are... to be extended to knowledge of the spirit’ (PCP 184).  The most significantly misguided result of this crisis is a misunderstanding of the value of “psychophysical” (PCP 184) accounts of consciousness and its structure. 

       In a claim which does much to reveal the extent to which Husserl’s characterization of the sciences participates in the tradition of German transcendental philosophy, he states that ‘[I]n regard to nature and scientific truth concerning it,—the natural sciences give merely the appearance of having brought nature to a point where for itself it is rationally known.  For true nature in its proper scientific sense is a product of the spirit that investigates nature’ (PCP 188-189).   For the transcendental phenomenologist, then, the ubiquitous domination of the methods of the naturalistic sciences is founded on the assertion that ‘everything spiritual appeared to be based on physical corporeality’ (PCP 183)[4], and produces ‘a naive one-sidedness that never was to be understood as such’ (PCP 184).  Even psychological studies of consciousness are subject to this corruption:


[t]he psychologists simply fail to see that they too study neither themselves nor the scientists who are doing the investigating nor their own environing world.  They do not see that from the very beginning they necessarily presuppose themselves as a group of men belonging to their own environing world and historical period (PCP 196-187).


Transcendental philosophy, on the other hand, allows for a productive engagement with the existential and epistemological issues at stake in an investigation, and, most importantly, acknowledges the priority of the mode of consciousness which engages with data to the data itself.  The problem is that the sciences necessarily pass over in silence that which they, and all modes of investigation, presuppose—for nature is only constituted as that which can be investigated at all in an intentional environment which is already meaningful, and the sciences are methodologically incapable of giving a comprehensive account of the nature of this ‘intuitive environing world’.  This implies that ‘[i]n so far as the intuitive environing world, purely subjective as it is, is forgotten in the scientific thematic, the working subject is also forgotten, and




the scientist is not studied’ (PCP 186) [5], and carries the implication, articulated in Husserl’s The Crisis of European Sciences, that the empirical sciences are not ‘theoretically responsible for themselves…. This can be accomplished [according to German Idealism] only by transcendental-subjective method and, carried through as a system, by transcendental philosophy’ (CES 99).[6]  In other words, the aim of the transcendental philosopher is not to engage in an empirical investigation or to produce an empirical explanation of consciousness and its constituent faculties; rather, it is to engage in the production and the critique of the meaning-structure which must exist in order that the world might exist as an empirical object for consciousness in the first place.[7]

       Husserl’s aim in this work is not to show that one mode of thought—or, as it is reproduced in the terminology of contemporary academia, one discipline—is more valuable than any other, and he is most decidedly not naïve with respect to the nature and the value of scientific advances.  His aim, rather, is to clarify the differences between various disciplines and to reveal the particular advantages of the activities in which each can participate.  Although it us unfortunately beyond the scope of this paper, an extensive analysis of these activities, and particularly of the character of their cultural, political and economic value, is necessary for a proper evaluation of the productive differences between the sciences and the humanities.  I need hardly add that evaluations of this difference are made daily, with respect to academic funding, in educational institutions, private and public, the world over.

       Insofar as the philosophical chapters of Coleridge’s Biographia participate directly in the tradition of transcendental philosophy shared by Husserl, it is not surprising that an analysis of Coleridge’s deduction of the imagination in the Biographia is grounded in an a priori investigation of mind and nature.  The various activities of the imagination which are discussed are directed towards Coleridge’s main object, the reunification of Kant’s epistemologically distinguished phenomena and noumena—a distinction which for Coleridge prohibited the thinking self from any fundamental accordance with, or knowledge of, nature.  Coleridge carefully relates the philosophical tradition on which his philosophy is founded, drawing particular attention to the works of Schelling which introduce the interaction of consciousness with art as the key-




stone to the arch of a complete philosophy which will span the Kantian epistemological abyss. The deduction of the imagination is presented in a context in which what is at stake is not an (empirical) account of how perception works, but what perception means with respect to our understanding of knowledge, and our various modes of engagement with the world.

       Coleridge’s account of the productive, philosophic, and the poetic functions of the imagination reveals the particularly circumspective manner in which accounts for the ‘intuitive environing world’.  The productive activity of the imagination precedes sensation because “sensation itself is but vision nascent, not the cause of intelligence, but intelligence revealed as an earlier power in the process of self-construction’ (BL 1 286)[8].  The imagination is essentially creative in the sense that it is the power or faculty which we necessarily posit as the condition for the possibility of perception.  This necessity is grounded in the ‘philosophic imagination’ (BL 1 241), which ‘lies beneath or (as it were) behind the spontaneous consciousness natural to all reflective beings’ (BL 1 236), and which has as its domain the “PURE philosophy, which is therefore properly entitled transcendental’ (BL 1 237).  This is the primary philosophical reason that Coleridge prescinds the first order of the imagination, stating that ‘The Primary IMAGINATION I hold to be the living Power and prime Agent of all human perception’ (BL 1 304).  Because the primary imagination is thus defined by his particular, transcendental, mode of self-conscious contemplation, Coleridge overcomes the basic naivete pointed out so well a century later by Husserl, and presents the imagination as an activity which serves as the ground for the kind of thinking which allows one to engage with the world empirically at all.

       The poetic imagination, in turn, takes up this process of world-construction in relation to art and allows the imagination to become an object of imaginative reflection.  This mode of the imagination, which is brought to consciousness ‘on the subject of poetry… [is] a superior degree of the faculty, joined to a superior voluntary controul over it’ (BL 1 125).  This particular mode of creativity, however, requires its own articulation, and it is defined by Coleridge in the oft-quoted lines:


The secondary [imagination] I consider as an echo of the former, co-existing with the conscious will, yet still as identical with the primary in the kind of its agency, and differing only in degree, and in its mode of operation.  It dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to –re-create; or where this process is rendered impossible, yet still at all events it struggles to idealize and unify.  It is essentially vital, even as all objects (as objects) are fixed and dead (BL 1 304). 





The secondary imagination is active in the creation of art, in the interaction of the conscious mind with an unconscious nature; and it is here that we see that


the poet…brings the whole soul of man into activity, with the subordination of its faculties to each other, according to their relative worth and dignity.  He diffuses a tone, a spirit of unity, that blends, and (as it were) fuses, each into each, by that synthetic and magical power, to which we have exclusively appropriated the name of imagination (BL II 16). 


This ‘secondary’ act is creative insofar as it unifies, via the contemplation of art, the conscious and the unconscious, that are made distinct in the act of the primary imagination, which itself generates the distinction between subject and object, and hence the world, nature. Thus it is that, following Schelling, Coleridge concludes that it is only in our imaginative engagement with art that we can consciously reproduce the tension between the conscious and the unconscious which characterizes our everyday interaction with nature, and so make this very tension an object of contemplation. 

       Approached from this perspective, the distinction that is drawn between the primary imagination and the secondary imagination is not a distinction between two temporally and causally connected mental events.  It is, rather, an act which generates a distinction when thought turns back upon itself and attempts to meaningfully interpret itself.  The investigator investigates itself, not in a context with naïve pretensions to a kind of straightforward objectivity, but in a context of meaningfully directed self-consciousness.  Neither is primary, in the sense of importance, and neither is secondary—each is an essential aspect of both our meaningful production and our meaningful contemplation of the world and the self.

       When this distinction is approached as an empirical account of imaginative activity, in which what is at stake is a mere description of how perception works, however, a structure of relative importance appears to emerge, at least to the extent that one takes Coleridge’s aim to be the explanation of how poetry and art are created. In his article ‘The Infinite I Am: Coleridge and the Ascent of Being’, Jonathan Wordsworth argues that ‘[s]ince the Oxford edition of Shawcross in 1907 an orthodoxy has grown up among scholars which holds that the secondary imagination, despite the usual force of the words, was more important to Coleridge than the primary’ [9].  Thus, for Shawcross, ‘the primary imagination is the organ of common perception’ (Shawcross 1 272)[10] and the secondary imagination is that ‘which enables its possessor to see the world of our common experience in its real significance’ (Shawcross 1 272).  This is a structure common to many accounts of the




imagination, as Wordsworth points out with reference to both James Engell and Thomas McFarland (Ibid., 23-24): the primary produces the images, the basic stuff of perception, which the secondary takes up and reworks in order to produce art.  And, since it is normally understood that Coleridge’s deduction of the imagination was primarily written to explain the mechanics of this latter ability, the secondary is taken to be more significant.  But because both the primary and the secondary imaginations are distinct only upon a certain kind of reflection, and are (epistemologically speaking) in fact different moments of the same process, the prioritization of the secondary over the primary must not be understood, as many in the tradition would have it, as a fundamental priority, but rather as one which is conditioned by the particular interests of the critic.  As I have shown, a comprehensive account of the imagination in the context of the epistemological issues at the heart of Coleridge’s use of philosophical material in the philosophical chapters of the Biographia necessarily eschews this kind of stratification. 

       In the same article, however, Wordsworth offers one particularly useful (though misguided) objection to this heavily philosophical interpretation of the imagination, asserting that it is in fact the focus on philosophy and art, not an implicit grounding in empiricism, which generates the notion that the secondary imagination is of greater importance than the primary.  Wordsworth argues that this prioritization of the secondary imagination is contingent upon the spurious notion that the production of art and its characterization as humanity’s highest achievement is Coleridge’s main object.  Wordsworth’s basic claim is that religion was the centre of Coleridge’s life, and that the imagination is therefore significant in its relation to the divine, and therefore to the pantheistic tensions, not the philosophical content, inherent in Schelling’s philosophy.  He therefore states that


[t]hree things follow from approaching the Biographia with either [Schelling or Tetens]—or with any related system—in one’s mind.  It will seem that for all the grandeur of Coleridge’s language he can mean nothing more by the primary imagination that mere sense perception.   It will seem that despite the normal connotations of the word (and his own usage at other times in the Biographia and elsewhere) Coleridge must have intended ‘secondary’ to be read as ‘more important’.

(Ibid., 26)


Although, as I have shown, the ‘orthodoxy’ to which Wordsworth makes reference is misguided not by a philosophical affiliation, but rather by an empirical one, that orthodoxy does explicitly associate itself with Schelling et al., and Wordsworth’s criticism is in this sense apt. 

       Unfortunately, rather than proceeding to argue that the distinct orders of the imagination are equally necessary parts of an integral process, Wordsworth merely reproduces the traditional stratification of the primary and secondary, simply reversing the conventional structure.  Following his claim that religious




interests are most important for Coleridge, he argues that it is in fact the primary imagination which is of primary importance: ‘[t]he primary imagination in its highest power is one with “the deific energies in Deity itself.”  By comparison, the secondary can only be inferior: it is a merely human faculty, not an interpenetration of the divine’ (Ibid., 49). 

       Interestingly, though, this claim is belied by Wordsworth’s statement that ‘Logically, therefore, we have another triple process... The ascent begins with the lower power of the primary, and mounts thence through the poetic secondary to the sublime of the primary at its highest’ (Ibid., 48).  Worsdworth’s argument, it turns out, culminates at its highest in the notion that the secondary imagination is the second, and necessary, part of a process (and indeed, it would seem, higher than the lower order of the primary imagination which is introduced), and hence indispensable to the whole.   It seems to me that, philosophy, art, and religion aside, considerations of importance are irrelevant in an organic process in which all of its parts are dependent upon each other for their proper operation.

       Quiddities aside, however, it is clear that for Coleridge the ‘imagination’ is not merely a name for aggregate cognitive regions and faculties which engage in the production of the perceived world, of lines and edges and colors.  Nor are its distinguished modes interpreted properly as activities divided along lines of dignity or importance.  The imagination is, rather, a fundamentally active, productive mode of engagement with a world which is always already meaningful in so far as it is experienced consciously.  It is what is at stake in affective, sympathetic, and rational enterprises of all kinds.

       As Husserl pointed out decades ago, the mode of philosophical engagement in which such an “imagination” can be conceived is not easily reconciled to an academic climate heavily influenced by mutual mischaracterization and by a lack of charity which masquerades as common sense or practicality.  In a culture in which empirical science is distinguished along lines of dignity, importance, value, and practicality, from the Geisteswissenschaften, Coleridge’s - and I must admit my own—understanding of that activity which is the expression of a love of wisdom is surely in need of a sustained apology.  The taunts and oversimplified criticisms which Coleridge received in return for his efforts to come to terms with a foreign philosophy, and to represent it meaningfully to those whose culture he shared, stand here as the expression of a reclusive spirit beyond which we have not progressed, and to which we must not submit in silence.


[1]               Ed. Brockman, John.  The Third Culture.  London: Simon & Schuster, 1996.

[2]               I was first introduced to the amount of emotion which this problematic system of mutual misrepresentation can produce when I submitted a query to the NASSR listserv concerning Richard Dawkins’ claims  (in Unweaving The Rainbow) about Blake’s famous grain of sand, and I was consequently deluged with responses that ranged from the inconsolably bitter to the patiently conciliatory.  In reference to Blake’s grain of sand, Dawkins writes that ‘The stanza can be read as all about science, all about standing in the moving spotlight, about taming space and time, about the very large built from the quantum graininess of the very small, a lone flower as a miniature of evolution…  The mystic is content to bask in the wonder and revel in a mystery that we were not “meant” to understand.  The scientist feels the same wonder but is restless, not content; recognises the mystery as profound, then adds, “But we’re working on it.”’

[3]               Husserl, Edmund.  “Philosophy and the Crisis of European Man.  In Phenomenology and the Crisis of Philosophy.  Trans. Quentin Lauer.  New York: Harper & Row, 1965.

[4]               Husserl’s use of the term ‘spirit’ is complex, but the following passage may make it clear that he is not straightforwardly dualistic: ‘There can, however, never be any improvement so long as an objectivism based on a naturalism focusing on the environing world is not seen in all its naivete, until men recognize thoroughly the absurdity of the dualistic interpretation of the world, according to which nature and spirit are to be looked upon as realities (Realitaten) in the same sense’ (PCP188).

[5]               Husserl’s use of the term “science” is rather problematic – for him, phenomenology was the only pure science, and the natural sciences were incapable of being fully scientific .  For the purposes of this paper however I will use “science” to refer to the natural sciences, and humanities to deal with what Husserl would have said more nearly approached true science.

[6]               Husserl, Edmund.  The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology.  Trans David Carr.  Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1970.

[7]               It will of course be objected that the very possibility of conscious, meaningful engagement with the world is dependent upon the physical and evolutionary forces and structures which constitute the human frame, and that such forces and structures are therefore ‘prior’ to the ‘intuitive environing world’.  Quite so, in a sense: but it is the mode of reflection in which we are engaging when we draw this conclusion which is the proper subject of a priori transcendental investigation. In other words, it is neither causal nor temporal priority which is at stake in the transcendental account of consciousness.  It should be clear from this that both the empirical and the ‘transcendental’ modes of investigation, with their distinct notions of priority, are necessary for a productive account or investigation of consciousness. 

[8]               Coleridge, Samuel Taylor.  Biographia Literaria.  2 vols.  Ed. James Engell and W. Jackson Bate.  Vol 7 of The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge.  Ed. Kathleen Coburn.  Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983.

[9]               Wordworth, Jonathan.  “The Infinite I Am: Coleridge and the Ascent of Being.”  In Coleridge’s Imagination.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.  22-52, p23.

[10]             Coleridge, Samuel Taylor.  Biographia Literaria.  Ed J. Shawcross.  London: Oxford University Press, 1909.