Nature and Subjectivity;

Coleridge and Fichteanism


Lionel Hurtrez


Coleridge Bulletin, New Series 18, Winter 2001, pp 1-15.




Nature, considered as the objective or external world, and the mind of man considered as subject, correspond to the Ancient notion of Hen Kai Pan as understood by Heraclitus, and was used by Hölderlin, Schelling and Hegel as their motto in the University of Tübingen’s Stift. The one and the whole illustrates the Romantic quest for unity: a unity with the outer world, namely nature and mankind. Three elements are therefore at the centre of our concern: the I, other selves, and nature: these three elements form a trichotomy on which Fichte and Coleridge have grounded their philosophical investigations.

As has often been remarked, Coleridge’s turn toward German Idealism corresponds to his reading of the German metaphysicians in the first years of the nineteenth century. However, if it is commonly admitted that Coleridge’s philosophy is suffused with German influence, it has often been said that Schelling was his central inspiration. The aim of this paper is to throw light on this argument and show that what Coleridge sought in Schelling was mostly Fichtean ideas. What is at the root of Coleridge’s relation to German idealism is his reaction to Kant, and his treatment of Kantianism. As a matter of fact, the path Coleridge followed is the same as many German post-Kantians, Schelling and Fichte among them. Post-Kantian philosophy is characterized by its concern with nature and subjectivity. Indeed, this dichotomy is at the root of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason which aimed at undertaking the Copernician revolution which would turn the current way of seeing the world into a new cosmology, in which the self would become the centre, through which the world can be contemplated. This view, according to which the self is the frame of the world, has lead many post-Kantians to the deadlocked concept of the world as it is in itself: if the world cannot be known in itself, the question is therefore ‘what can I know?’ Both Coleridge and Fichte thought about this dichotomy, and along lines much closer than have previously been assumed.

In the Biographia Literaria, Coleridge recalls his first acquaintance with the German idealists. Starting with a praise of Kant, Coleridge goes on with a very short account of Fichteanism[1]:


Fichte’s Wissenschaftslehre or Lore of Ultimate Science, was to add the key-stone of the arch: and by commencing with an act, instead of a thing or substance, Fichte assuredly gave the first mortal blow to Spinozism, as taught by Spinoza himself; and supplied the idea of a system truly metaphysical, and of a métaphysique truly systematic: (i.e.





having its spring and principle within itself). [2]


This passage is the one rare direct reference Coleridge makes to Fichte. In spite of its brevity, its apparent disagreement is very interesting in that it raises important issues about Fichteanism. It is divided into two parts: it begins with a description of what, according to Coleridge, was Fichte’s contribution to the history of philosophy and then isolates the main ideas of Fichteanism with which Coleridge seems to disagree.

Coleridge begins with a short but sincere eulogy on Fichte. This eulogy is based upon Coleridge’s agreement with Fichte as far as Spinozism is concerned: Fichte managed to give the ‘first mortal blow to Spinozism’[3]. But to come to this conclusion, Fichte undertook ‘systematic metaphysics’[4] and partook of the completion of the philosophical revolution inspired by Kant. Coleridge agrees with Fichte’s refutation of Spinozism as well as with the method Fichte employs.

In order to understand why Coleridge praises Fichte for the ‘first mortal blow’ he gave to Spinozism, we must remember the nature of the Spinozistic revival which took place during the Romantic age. What the Romantics saw as the essential Spinoza was characterized by the motto Deus sive natura—‘God, namely Nature’. Such a pantheistic view of Nature was certainly recurrent among the Romantics, but this pantheism is just one aspect of Spinoza’s doctrine, which was underpinned by a deterministic conception of the world. Accordingly, the attacks Fichte, Schelling and Coleridge made against Spinozism symbolise a refusal of a deterministic view of nature, which is tantamount to denying the freedom of man. Indeed, if Spinozism is understood as the epitome of a rationalist philosophy which affirms and privileges reason as the sole tool to understand the universe, thus denying any reasonable ground to faith and mysticism, it was also understood as an opponent to freedom. According to Spinoza, the so-called freedom of the will is strictly speaking imaginary. The lack of objective motives for an action does not correspond to a positive freedom, but to the ignorance of the causes that determine our behaviour: we are aware of the desires without the knowledge of these desires. However, if we do not know the reasons that determine our choice, it does not mean that our choice is not reasonable: it simply demonstrates that we who think we act freely are subject to an illusion. Spinozism therefore denies the independence of the subject and subjugates him to the ‘absolute object’, or primal cause, Causa Sui.

The root of the romantic criticism of Spinoza was that by virtue of his determinism, he was unable to construct a system of ethics (despite the title of his major work) and is correspondingly incapable of ‘seizing’ the essere, the immobile Being, without any conditioned representation.[5] There is an infinite




regress towards the primal cause which cannot be grasped totally. Schelling understands Spinozism as follows:


We are compelled to go back into infinity with the explanation of everything. Spinoza maintains nevertheless that every thing follows in a temporal way only from another thing, but only in an eternal way from the nature of God (aeterno modo), but such that one includes the other.[6]


Once the implications of Spinoza’s work are understood in this way, it is easy to see why the Romantics were struck by such a determinism. Spinozism, which was re-introduced in Germany at that time with the publication of F. H. Jacobi’s Letters to Mendelssohn upon Spinoza’s Doctrine, became a kind of pejorative way of promulgating systematic forms of both atheism and determinism. Accordingly, one begins to see why this ‘mortal blow’ to Spinozism was needed.

However, this Romantic reading of Spinozism fails to see the whole scope of Spinozism, which did include the possibility of a concept of freedom.  What the Romantics failed to acknowledge was the place Spinoza gives to the subject. Paul Tillich, in his Terry Lectures delivered at Yale University and collected under the title The Courage to Be, rightly points out to the place of ‘Self-affirmation’ in the theory of Spinoza:


In calling his main ontological work ethics he [Spinoza] indicated in the title itself his intention to show the ontological foundation of man’s ethical existence, including man’s courage to be. [ . . .] The doctrine of self-affirmation is a central element in Spinoza’s thought. [ . . .] Striving toward self-preservation or toward self-affirmation makes a thing be what it is. Spinoza calls this striving which is the essence of a thing also its power, and he says of the mind that it affirms or posits (affirmat sive ponit) its own power of action (ipsius agendi potentiam)

(Ethics iii. Prop. 54).[7]


The self therefore is not seen as a puppet but rather as the power to ‘be itself’. The self is not an ‘effect’ of God, but rather, the condition for the possibility of God. According to Tillich, self-affirmation is ultimately the affirmation of the divine. This is important for what follows, especially for the understanding of Fichte, even though Fichte, like many of his contemporaries, had not clearly seen this ‘affirmation’ and ‘positing’ of the self in Spinoza.

We now need to understand how Fichte undermined the grounds of Spinoza’s determinism. Fichte developed Kant’s subjective revolution. While Spinoza understood the subject as dependent on a primal cause, Fichte followed Kant who showed that the I is not dependent on God, but that God is just an (improvable) idea of the I. The subject is no longer overwhelmed by a




deterministic force which removes his freedom, but becomes the very deterministic force which enables his own freedom. In a spoken footnote to his Lectures on the History of Modern Philosophy, Schelling even went so far as to say that Fichteanism is an inverted Spinozism:


Fichte’s idealism thus is the complete opposite of Spinozism or is an inverted Spinozism, because it opposes to Spinoza’s absolute object, which destroys everything subjective, the subject in its absoluteness, opposes the deed to the merely immobile being of Spinoza. [8]


If the emphasis is purposively laid on Spinozism, the reason lies in the fact that according to Coleridge, there are only two consistent systems of philosophy: the Kantian, and the Spinozist. This idea is underlined in the Notebook 14 where Coleridge wrote:


Only two Systems of Philosophy-(sibi consistentia) possible. 1. Spinoza 2. Kant, i.e. the absolute & the relative, the kat ontws onta and the kat anqrwpon. Or 1. Ontosophical. 2. The anthropological.[9]


In this passage, Coleridge describes two opposing systems. On the one hand, there is the Spinozistic view, in which, the world is seen as the expression of the divine Being, the primal cause, from which every single element is derived. According to this view, the objective world is the divine world, the absolute being. The Kantian system makes a shift from the objective to the subjective. What was known before Kant as the objective, or the world, is understood by Kant as the world as we experience it. The objective world becomes unknowable since knowledge is restricted to our own subjective frame. This is why Coleridge calls this system ‘anthropological’.

Thence, the mortal blow Fichte gave to Spinozism goes hand in hand with the completion of the Kantian revolution in philosophy.

When Coleridge talks of Fichte’s system as ‘truly metaphysical’[10], it is to emphasize Fichte’s claim that every assertion in the Science of Knowledge, or in any other of his writings, is based upon a demonstration. What Coleridge praises in Fichte’s work is the discipline of attempting to prove everything he claims. And Fichte had criticised the empirical element that could be found in the Kantian system. For example, the deduction of the categories of the understanding was, according to the post-Kantians, one of Kant’s shortcomings why twelve categories and not less or more? Besides, how Kant managed to deduce them is another difficulty: either it is arbitrary, and is therefore tantamount to saying that Kant is a dogmatic thinker, which he denied completely, or this deduction is based upon experience and underlines the empirical dimension of the Kantian system, which he also denied totally.




Fichte claims are therefore twofold: first, he wants to deduce everything thanks to demonstration, because, secondly, he wants to build a stable basis for any knowledge. In other words, what Coleridge praises in Fichte is more his method than the content of his works. And indeed, Fichte’s method, as truly systematic, followed the model of a few great thinkers, among whom Spinoza and Kant seem to be the most systematic. We hardly need reminding that Fichte admired Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason for its claim for systematicity, although Fichte criticised several points which Kant ‘failed’ to provide proof of by adequate demonstration. Fichte therefore inspired a method based on Kant, but in a more systematic way, so that other idealists could praise Fichte’s claim for a kind of ‘absolute systematicity’. The originality of his claim was underlined by Hegel, in his Logic:


It remains the profound and enduring merit of Fichte’s philosophy to have reminded us that the thought—determinations must be exhibited in their necessity, and that it is essential for them to be deduced…If thinking has to be able to prove anything at all, if logic must require that proofs are given, and if it wants to teach us how to prove [something], then it must above all be capable of proving its own peculiar content, and able to gain insight into the necessity of this content.[11]


Still, what follows the passage quoted at the beginning of this paper shows Coleridge’s critical view of Fichte:


But this fundamental idea he overbuilt with a heavy mass of mere notions and psychological acts of arbitrary reflection. Thus his theory degenerated into a crude Egoismus, a boastful and hyperstoic hostility to Nature as lifeless, godless and altogether unholy: while his religion consisted in the assumption of a mere ordo ordinans, which we were permitted exotericé to call God; and his ethics in an ascetic and almost monkish mortification of the natural passions and desires.[12]


If Coleridge accepted some of Fichte’s views, this was counterbalanced by his total refusal of Fichte’s use of ‘heavy mass of mere notions and psychological acts of arbitrary reflections’.[13] This accusation may seem to contradict what has been said before. What Coleridge praised was Fichte’s proposed method, his claim that he proved every argument he put forward; but Coleridge did not think that he succeeded in his method, and he felt that these demonstrations were in fact nothing more than ‘mere notions’ and ‘arbitrary reflections’. Fichte did not only built his theory, he overbuilt it. Coleridge also makes out three features from which he diverges. These are Fichte’s ‘hostility to Nature’, his ‘crude Egoismus’ and his ascetic mortification of desires.

In the first years of the nineteenth century, Coleridge studied German




metaphysics in detail, including Fichte’s Bestimmung des Menschen, published in Germany in 1800. Coleridge had this book in his library and annotated it. When he talks of Fichte’s hostility to Nature, Coleridge might have had this work in mind, in which Man is seen and studied through his ‘vocation’ (bestimmung). But Coleridge’s reading involves a fundamental error: he assimilated the infinite I and the finite I as a single concept, which he calls the ‘crude egoismus’, and then opposed it to the non-I, which, according to Coleridge, is a synonym of Nature. In a moment we will look more closely at Coleridge’s misundersting of Fichte. However, before we turn towards his misreading, it is important to understand what Fichte’s main ideas are.

The self has two modes of existence: ideal and real. The self can either be understood in its ideal sense, as absolute, or in its real sense, as finite. Accordingly, the absolute self is everything, so that it cannot be opposed to anything else. This absolute self is infinite and corresponds to the infinite yearning of the finite self. The latter is finite, so that there exists something that is not itself, what Fichte calls the not-self. The finite self and the not-self are two sides of the absolute self: the not-self is the means for the finite self to become infinite. When one contemplates the concept of the Not-self , one should not forget the practical aim of Fichte’s philosophy: in his Science of Knowledge, he is trying to define unquestionable grounds for action, and consequently the nature of Freedom. Therefore, this concept of Not-self cannot be understood by anyone forgetting the place of practical philosophy and its unity with theoretical philosophy. If we keep this idea in mind, it will be easier to grasp the real meaning of the Not-self. The relation of the I to the Not-self is crucial in all the post-Kantian systems. What differs between these various systems was the way in which this relation is defined, and how the dichotomy is solved. The position of the Not-self is not static, and accordingly, there is no absolute distinction between the I and the Not-self: this is the crux of Coleridge’s misinterpretation of Schelling. If the I posits itself as absolute freedom and posits the Not-self as a limitation of this freedom, this would create a contradiction in that the finite is defining the infinite; but this is to forget the dynamic pattern of the relation: the boundary between the I and the Not-self is always temporary and it is through its action that the I (the divisible I) can push its limit, and through this action, the I makes its freedom unconditioned. Therefore, the Not-self is only a means towards a certain end which is a justification of the freedom of the I, and therefore of its ‘absoluteness’. This dynamic pattern is expressed in the expression “opposition” (gegensatz). This opposition implies a dynamic and therefore an evolving process in which the divisible I aims at the identity with the un-divisible I. X. Tilliette says:


Nous sommes finis, la raison est finie, le Non-Moi s’oppose absolument; et l’autoposition de la liberté est en même temps une injonction adressée au Moi fini de rejoindre son Moi idéal dans un




effort asymptotique et toujours recommencé.[14]


The distinction between the divisible I and the divisible Not-self is therefore always temporary, always questioned by freedom. But it is the infinite distance between the striving of the I to join its ideal I and the actual assimilation of both under the un-divisible I, between the I posited as limited by the Not-self  and the I posited absolutely, that gives to moral action its infiniteness: this is a never-ending process which consists in an infinite striving to be absolute, which Fichte calls “the striving of the self” and the “counter-striving of the Non-self”. Now that the main theory of Fichte is highlighted, it is easier to grasp where Coleridge went wrong in his reading of Fichte.

Let’s first have a look at Fichte’s Bestimmung des Menschen. It is divided into three parts: the first one is entitled ‘Doubt’, the second one ‘Knowledge’ and the third one ‘Faith’. It is interesting to see that Fichte actually gives an exposition of his theory in the part entitled ‘Faith’. This is partly due to the fact that the Bestimmung des Menschen came out shortly after the so-called Atheismusstreit. Indeed, in a letter to his wife dated November 4th 1799, Fichte asserts that without this accusation of atheism and its unhappy consequences he would not have come to this ‘clear understanding’ and the mood which led him to write this book.[15]

Coleridge’s criticisms seem to show that he mainly focused upon the third part of the book, where Fichte explains the role and the destination of man. Coleridge’s reading is a very common one. Coleridge sees in Fichte’s theory of the Non-I a mere annihilation of nature, which is just a means for Man to follow his destiny. Coleridge’s interpretation is not really far-fetched, but rather follows the very letter of Fichte, maybe too close to the text itself to understand all the implications. One just has to look at some examples to  understand Coleridge’s interpretation. If Coleridge talks of ‘hostility to Nature’[16], this is because Fichte, at one point or another clearly expresses this thought. The Fichtean text itself corroborates Coleridge’s interpretation: ‘Mankind still toils to wrest its sustenance and survival from recalcitrant nature.’[17]

Later on, Fichte goes on to stigmatise the ‘unruly violence of nature’[18]




which is characterised by earthquakes, volcanoes, hurricanes. This hostile nature, because ‘there can be nothing in this lawful advance that might renew its strength’, is bound to become weaker and weaker, so that man can eventually have control of it: this is his task. As Fichte says:


Nature must gradually enter a condition which allows one to calculate and reckon safely on its regular pace, and keeps its force steady in a definite relation with the power which is destined to control it[19].


Eventually, Nature seems to become a lifeless Non-I which the I has been able to control, and subject it to him:


In this way, nature is to become ever more transparent to us until we can see into its most secret core, and human power, enlightened and armed by its discoveries, shall control it without effort and peacefully maintain any conquest once it is made [20].


It is obvious that any reader of this passage could find in it the basis for an utter disrespect and hostility to Nature. Coleridge rightly points out that the sole function of nature is to favour the activity of the I, the development of the self, through a process of opposition.

Because Fichte was understood by his contemporaries as deducing everything from the I, the human I, this inevitably means that the I produces its own representations: ‘The ‘property’ of the thing has its origin in the sensation of my own condition.’ [21]  This led Coleridge to write in the margins of the book: ‘No! I seem to myself to be conscious only [of] the object, not of my seeing.’[22]

Coleridge rightly points out a pervading theme in Fichte’s book: it is indeed clear that, for Fichte, ‘all our experience is nothing else than the product of our faculty of representation’[23]. If Coleridge’s criticisms of Fichte in the Biographia Literaria  seem a little gratuitous, it is nonetheless evident that Coleridge at some stage of his study focused and meditated on Fichte’s doctrine of the I. However, all his meditations and studies led him to criticise, rather than praise Fichte. Irrespective of the ordeals and obstacles, the I is seen as a lawless tyrant who mainly wishes the death of what it is not. Many contemporaries of Fichte have seen this idea in Fichte, believing that he was praising a mere egoism. What Coleridge saw in Fichte was therefore his praise of the I as omnipotent and omnipresent. The ubiquitous quality of the I as human led Coleridge to look for another solution, setting aside Fichte’s ‘crude Egoismus’.




In what he called a ‘Burlesque on the Fichtean Egoismus’[24], Coleridge ironically stigmatises Fichte’s boastful tone:


In O! I, you, the vocative of duty!

I of the world’s whole Lexicon the root! (ll. 21-22)


In these two lines, there are two elements developed by Coleridge: on the one hand, the significance of duty, and on the other hand, the place of the I in the conception of the world. Although ironic, these lines shows a real insight into what is at stake in Fichte’s philosophy.

To start with, it is important to recall what is meant by duty, especially in the Kantian sense of the word. According to Kant, duty is the law reason imposes upon ourselves. Duty is accordingly the application of reason: reason made concrete. Fichte, in the same way as Kant, understands duty as rooted in one’s reason. This individual reason is rooted in the I, the individual I, as opposed to the infinite I. Therefore, one could understand Fichte’s ethics as exemplifying a crude egoismus. Indeed, in lines 18-19, Coleridge understands Fichtean ethics as the exacerbation of the will of the I:


He thus spake on! Behold in I alone

(For ethics boast a syntax of their own) ll.18-19


The other, or nature, is no longer taken into consideration. While in Kant the other must be taken as an end, and not as a means, in Fichte, the other seems to be taken as an obstacle to the well-being of the I. It is very interesting to see this discrepancy between two ways of seeing Fichte’s ethics, both of which can be found in Coleridge’s text. Indeed, earlier on in the same chapter, Coleridge understands the Fichtean ethics as an ‘ascetic and almost monkish mortification of the natural passions and desires’.[25] This shows Coleridge’s inability to deal with Fichte’s ideas. Contradicting himself, he denounces in Fichte’s doctrine what is originally his own misunderstanding.


* * *


Coleridge had always been torn between two tendencies: on the one hand the Christian and on the other hand the philosophic. In his letters and notebooks, he always mentioned his aim to reconcile Christian faith with German idealism. This assertion, so recurrent in his writings, fails to recognize a significant insight of the German idealists. As has been said, he sees in Fichte an opponent to faith and religion whose sole concern seems to be the Ego. Coleridge’s mistake therefore lies in this unawareness that Fichte has always been concerned with religion, if not as a convinced theologian, at least as a philosopher. As far as religion is concerned, what really matters to the




philosopher is how the concept of Christ is thinkable. On this particular aspect, Coleridge and Fichte concur and appear to agree with the actual function of Christ as the unifying principle. According to Fichte, Christ enables the possibility of progress for the I. The function of Christ is essentially to show the path. Christ is the model which encapsulates the infinite in itself. Christ is the transcendence made immanent in the human world, the root of his yearning is therefore divine. The question of Christ is therefore the question of the past and the future: how can a figure of the past be conciliated with a yearning which tends towards the future. This is the essential feature of Fichte’s idea: to transform nostalgia into a yearning. If religious thinking must turn towards the Authentic being through and beyond appearance, it implies both sides of the first principle of the Science of Knowledge: the I posits itself absolutely. In this principle, the infinite I is what is essentially one, that is, pure unity. The infinite I is therefore what is absolutely, while the finite I is what tends towards infinity. So that the two modes of being of the I correspond to the essential dichotomy encapsulated in Christ: infinite yearning in a finite life. Fichte did not believe in a heaven exterior to this earth, but rather thought that heaven was actual and was on this earth, so that heaven could only be built with the human hand, and with a blind faith in a possible life after death. Fichte, as it were, secularised Christianity, and, accordingly, partook of this recurrent feature of the Romantic age which was to interiorise the Biblical pattern. M.H. Abrams, in Natural Supernaturalism[26], convincingly underlined this tradition which was rooted in the protestant tradition of England and Germany. Abrams points out Winstanley’s writing to explain that the Romantics believed that one has to look inside oneself in order to find help, implying that external help does not exist.

This interiorisation of the Christian creed implies another concern which is the question of what is external to us: how can a world outside us be possible? To this eternal question, the Romantics found the answer in themselves. Indeed, if subjectivity becomes the only sure ground for truth, one must look at the very subjective element inside oneself and this element is faith. Faith is what escapes the laws of reason, faith is not based upon stable ground, but only depends upon one’s inclination. If faith was the last part of Fichte’s Vocation of Man, it also corresponds to the title of an essay by Coleridge. The aim of this paper is not to focus on Coleridge’s or Fichte’s theology, but to study how Coleridge and Fichte followed a parallel path to solve the problem of the dichotomy Subjectivity and Nature.

As Graham Davidson argues, Coleridge uses the function of Christ as the unifying principle between Subject and Object:


Coleridge’s idea of self or subject rested on his idea of Christ: knowledge is the union of subject and object, and the object cannot




have a ground other that which it has in common with the subject.[27]


Christ is the ‘transcendence in the immanence’ and through his apparition, the divine becomes reachable. Christ, as the epitome of the unity of the transcendence and the immanence, corresponds to the model which humanity must follow. Fichte actualises this pattern and puts Christ at the centre of his doctrine to make him the converging point towards which the divine and the human tend. Christ is the potential made actual. Christ illustrates Fichte’s doctrine which is based upon a dynamic pattern featuring the infinitisation of the finite as well as the finitisation of the infinite. ‘God is everything’ and ‘Christ is God made human’ become two elements which enable Fichte and Coleridge to build an interesting weltanschauung blending German idealism and Christianity. We shall now see how these ideas are present in Coleridge’s poetry, and compare them with Fichte’s thought.

Just like Hölderlin, Coleridge proves to have a manner of seeing the world close to Fichte and his weltanschauung. The aim here is not to read Coleridge’s poetry in the light of Fichtean ideas, but to draw, from what underlies Coleridge’s later poetry, ideas, if not similar, at least comparable to the ones uttered by Fichte in his early works [28].

What is most salient in Coleridge’s later poetry is the role he gives to Nature. One of the first poems Morton Paley studies in his book Coleridge’s Later Poetry [29] is entitled ‘To William Wordsworth’. This poem, according to Paley, links Coleridge’s earlier vatic mode of poetry with the more meditative mode of his later poetry. This meditative mode corresponds to a reversal in Coleridge’s later poetry in that it shows the poet’s distress and struggle to find not only inspiration, but also a stable ground for his thoughts. As we already know, Coleridge had this particular project of building a systematic philosophy, a ‘logosophy’, which his efforts did not manage to complete. ‘To William Wordsworth’ therefore illustrates the troubles Coleridge’s felt and adumbrates a tone which pervades all his later poetry.

This poem displays the reciprocal relation between Man and Nature, in which activity and passivity are blended and blurred so that the adequacy between Man and Nature is complete:


And currents self-determined, as might seem,

Or by some inner Power; of moments awful,

Now in thy inner life, and now abroad,

When power streamed from thee, and thy soul received

The light reflected, as a light bestowed.  (ll.15-19)


Through these lines, the activity of the subject, his ‘inner power’, his ‘inner




life’, the ‘power streamed from’ him, are counterbalanced by the activity of Nature, so that the soul ‘receives the light reflected’. Coleridge points out that the life principle of Nature, without which the life of Man is impossible, must lead Man to see how his individuality is intertwined with the life of Nature itself. Nature and Man share reflected features through separate activities.

However, the activities of Man represented here, the ‘streaming power’ and the reception of the ‘light reflected’, are symbolic of his essential being: the power and the light are not only metaphors for activity but also for expansion. Indeed, power is what enables man to work, i.e. to transform the useless into the useful, to make his own what was formerly separated from him. In the same way, light corresponds to the expansion of consciousness. Light has profound religious connotations, well established in the creeds of several religions.

From what has been said, there is an immediate implication that one can draw: if light is the sign of the divine, and if the soul of man receives ‘The light reflected, as a light bestowed’, then, it becomes clear that man has been filled with divine yearnings, so that his aim is to spread this inner light. This ‘light bestowed’ now becomes crucial in that it opens Man to infinite yearning. In the Vocation of Man, Fichte explains that Man’s will is both infinite, and is also rooted in his own free-will so that the choice of willing something is free and that the power which enables man to undertake this quest is divine:


I am filled with reverence for the lofty purposes of my intellect. It is no longer that playful and empty image-maker of nothing and for nothing; it has been given to me for a great purpose. I am entrusted with cultivating it for this purpose. This task I have in hand and will be held accountable for it. I have it in hand.[30]


In the above quotation, one is struck by the two aspects of the quest given to man. On the one hand, Man is given a purpose, for which he is accountable, and even though it is not clear whether this task be divine or not, it is clear that it has to do with the infinite yearning mentioned above owing to the very title of the chapter from which this passage is quoted, namely ‘Faith’. On the other hand, the reader maybe struck by the other aspect of the infinite quest: this purpose is in the hand of Man. The repetition of the fact that this task is in the hand of man, and also that Man is accountable for it represents the very paradox of Man, and ultimately of Christ. Man is finite, but his task is infinite. In other words, these are what Fichte calls ‘centripetal’ and ‘centrifugal’ tendencies. One is directed towards the inward and the other towards the outward, so that


the centripetal and centrifugal directions of activity are both grounded in like fashion in the nature of the self; both are one and the same, and




are distinguished merely inasmuch as there is reflection upon them as distinct. [31]


The centrifugal tendency becomes the very task of Man, and in the same way, the centripetal tendency becomes the condition sine qua non for man’s awareness, or self-understanding.


This necessary reflection of the self upon itself is the basis of all its going forth outside itself, while the demand that it exhaust the infinite is the basis of its striving after causality in general; and both are grounded solely in the absolute being of the self. [32]


Coleridge illustrated these two tendencies in his poem ‘To Nature’ (ll.1-5):


It may indeed be phantasy, when I

Essay to draw from all created things

Deep, heartfelt, inward joy that closely clings;

And trace in leaves and flowers that round me lie

Lessons of love and earnest piety.


These five lines are underlain by the two tendencies which have been alluded to before. Indeed, the narrator and Nature remain at the centre of a active/passive pattern which echoes the Fichtean dichotomy:


Both must be determined, for the self is to posit itself as the intuitant, and to that extent oppose itself to the not-self; but for this purpose, it needs a firm ground of distinction between the intuitant and the intuited; yet interdetermination, as our previous discussions have shown, does not provide this.

Inasmuch as one of them is further determined, the other is likewise, simply because they stand in a relation of interdetermination. But for the same reason, one of the two must be determined by itself, and not by the other, since otherwise, there is no exit from the circle of interdetermination.[33]


This interdetermination can be found in the lines quoted from Coleridge. What one sees in the poem ‘To Nature’, is a reciprocal determination. The activity of the narrator, the I, becomes inter-related with its own passivity. The passivity of the narrator lies in the fact that the I lacks some thing which Nature can provide, so that the I wants to ‘draw from all created things’ what does not belong to him. However the thing which he lacks is problematic, it belongs to the abstract world of feeling: ‘inward joy’. What is peculiar about this notion is that, far from being material, it remains what cannot be grasped by a human




being: it cannot be taken from someone else, nor be stolen. Joy is created within the I, so that it is not stolen from Nature and is entailed by the relation between the I and Nature. Joy is begotten by the beauty of the surrounding world. Inasmuch as joy belongs neither to Nature itself nor to the I itself, the I cannot remain passive and needs to ‘draw from’ Nature what he does not have. This ‘drawing’ is active, so that it counterbalance the passivity of the I. The activity of Nature and the corresponding passivity of the subject is counterbalanced by the activity of the I and the corresponding passivity of Nature.

What we can draw from these lines is the actual synthesis of Nature and the I, of subject and object, in that this feeling, ‘which closely clings’, is joy, and it entails love and piety. Joy is the unifying principle, corresponding to the original as well as final unity: the genesis illustrates the love of God as well as the love of Adam and Eve, and in the same way, the revelation corresponds to the love of God, illustrated by the eventual wedding.

However, this process, far from being assertive and affirmative, is debunked by the lines which follow:


So let it be; and if the wide world rings

In mock of this belief, it brings

Nor fear, nor grief, nor vain perplexity.[34]


This sentence corresponds to the contextualisation of the previous passage: it shows what ordinary men would think of this. This could be simple, were there not the central presupposition of the passage, ‘belief’, placed in the interjacency of the three lines. ‘Belief’ links the two parts of the sentence but is itself asserted without any explanation, so that it becomes the very presupposition of the previous passage. Although discreet, its axiomatic function debunks the whole poem, transforming it into the expression of a dreamy, and therefore questionable, assertion. Henceforward, what is put first is the subject and amounts to the subjective tendency which aims at assimilating the object into the subject.

This is reminiscent of Fichte’s First Introduction to the Science of Knowledge:


Attend to yourself: turn your attention away from everything that surrounds you and towards your inner life; this is the first demand that philosophy makes of its disciple. Our concern is not with anything that lies outside you, but only with yourself. [35]


These are the first words of Fichte’s Introduction and have led many readers to a complete misunderstanding. However, what Fichte wanted to show was that the subject was the medium through which all reality is given, so




that the epistemological study of the subject leads to a study of how one perceives the world, and how the world is given to the subject. In the end of the Science of Knowledge, Fichte explains his theory:


The self posits itself as self, only insofar as it is the determinate and the determinant: but it is such only in an ideal respect. Its striving toward real activity is limited, however, and is to that extent posited as an internal, confined, self-determining force (i.e. as simultaneously determinate and determinant), or, since it is without manifestation, as intensive matter. We reflect upon it as such; it is thereupon carried outside by an act of counterpositing, and the intrinsically and originally subjective is transformed into something objective.[36]


Objective and subjective, activity and passivity become two sides of the same tendency. Coleridge, as well as Fichte, seems to have resolved the dichotomy which stalled the Kantian philosophy. And if their solution did not go down into history as they expected, they partook of a Spirit of the Age whose aim was to actualise the Heraclitean Hen Kai Pan.[37]

[1]                    Coleridge, Biographia Literaria (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983) vol. I pp.157-160.

[2]                    Coleridge, B.L.I 158.

[3]                    Coleridge, B.L.I 158.

[4]                    Coleridge, B.L.I 158.

[5]                    Renaut, Kant Aujourd’hui (Paris: Champs Flammarion, 1997) 82.

[6]                    Schelling, On the History of Modern Philosophy, (Trans. Andrew Bowie: Cambridge  Cambridge University Press, 1994) 70-71.

[7]                    Tillich, The Courage to Be (New Haven & London Yale University Press, 1952) 20-21.

[8]                    Schelling, On the History  108.

[9]                    Quoted in Coleridge, S.T. The Philosophical Lectures (Ed. Kathleen Coburn London  Routledge & Kega, 1949) 53.

[10]                  Coleridge, B.L. I 158.

[11]                  Hegel, G.W.F. The Hegel Reader (Ed. Stephen Houlgate. London  Blackwell, 1998) 155-156.

[12]                  Coleridge, B.L.I 158.

[13]                  Coleridge B.L. I 158.

[14]                  Xavier Tilliette, L’Absolu et la Philosophie de Schelling (Paris  PUF, 1993)15-16.

[15]                  Fichte, J.G. Gesammtausgabe der bayerischen Akademie der Wissenscheften, Stuttgart-Bad Cannstatt, F. Frommann Verlag, 1965, III, 4, p.142. Here, we have to stop and have in mind that there are two diverging schools which see in this book either a break from Fichte’s earlier philosophy (Guéroult developed this thesis) or another step towards the completion of his systematic philosophy (this thesis was developed by Philonenko and Goddard). Guéroult’s view has nonetheless become obsolete since it was put forward in the 1920’s and is now being replaced by the most common view of Philonenko and Goddard. Indeed, Jean-Christophe Goddard (Preface to Fichte, J.G. La destination de l’Homme, Trans. J-C. Goddard. Paris  Garnier-Flammarion, 1995, pp.7-9) underlines and refutes Martial Gueroult’s argument according to which Fichte underwent a ‘romantic crisis’  Gueroult thought that the reading of The Vocation of Man leads one to see it as ‘total reversal’ in Fichte’s thought (Gueroult, M. Preface to La Destination de l’Homme, Trans. Molitor, Paris  Aubier, 1942, p.91). On the other hand, Goddard shows how Fichte’s book proves to follow a continuity. Following Alexis Philonenko’s viewpoint (Philonenko, A. L’Oeuvre de Fichte Paris  Vrin, 1984, pp.88-89), Goddard understands this book as another step towards an improved and clearer exposition of Fichteanism.

[16]                  Coleridge, B.L I 158.

[17] Fichte, J.G. The Vocation of Man (Trans. Peter Preuss Indianapolis  Hackett Publishers, 1987) 82.

[18]                  Coleridge, B.L. I 159.

[19]                  Fichte, Vocation  83.

[20]                  Fichte, Vocation  83.

[21]                  Fichte, Vocation  56.

[22]                  Aynard, J. ‘Notes Inédites de Coleridge’ in Revue Germanique 1911, p.303.

[23]                  Cesa, C. Introduzione a Fichte Roma Bari:  Laterza, 1994. p.112  ‘tutta la nostra esperienza non è altro che il prodotto del nostro rappresentare.’

[24]                  Coleridge, B L I 158.

[25]                  Coleridge, B L I 158.

[26] New York & London W.W. Norton & Company, 1971.

[27]                  Davidson, Graham, Coleridge’s Career (Macmillan 1990) 179.

[28]                  The Science of Knowledge with the two introductions of 1797, The Vocation of Man and The Groundworks of Natural Rights.

[29]                  Oxford  Clarendon Press, 1996

[30]                  Fichte, Vocation of Man, p.74.

[31]                  Fichte, Science of Knowledge (Cambridge  Cambridge University Press, 1982) 241-242.

[32]                  Fichte, Science of Knowledge 243.

[33]                  Fichte, Science of Knowledge 210.

[34] ‘To Nature’ ll. 6-8.

[35] Fichte, Science of Knowledge 6.

[36] Fichte, Science of Knowledge 273.


Aynard, J. ‘Notes Inédites de Coleridge’ in Revue Germanique 1911.

Cesa, C. Introduzione a Fichte Roma-Bari: Laterza, 1994.

Coleridge, S.T. Biographia Literaria. (B.L.) (ed. George Watson) London: Everyman’s Library.

Coleridge, S.T. The Philosophical Lectures (ed. Kathleen Coburn) London: Routledge & Kegan, 1949.

Davidson, Graham Coleridge’s Career London: Macmillan, 1990.

Fichte, J.G. Gesammtausgabe der bayerischen Akademie der Wissenscheften, Stuttgart-Bad, F. Frommann Verlag, 1965.

Fichte, J.G. Science of Knowledge Cambridge: Cambridge University press, 1982.

Fichte, J.G. La Destination de l’Homme (trans. J.-C. Goddard) Paris: Garnier-Flammarion, 1995.

Fichte, J.G. La Destination de l’Homme (trans. Molitor) Paris: Aubier, 1942.

Fichte, J.G. The Vocation of Man (trans. Peter Preuss) Indianapolis: Hackett Publishers, 1987.

Hegel,G.W.F. The Hegel Reader (ed. Stephen Houlgate) London: Blackwell, 1998.

Philonenko, A. L’Oeuvre de Fichte Paris: Vrin, 1984.

Renaut, Kant Aujourd’hui Paris: Champs Flammarion, 1997.

Schelling, On the History of Modern Philosophy, (trans. Andrew Bowie) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Tillich, Paul The Courage to Be New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1952.