Coleridge's Metaphysics and the Method

of Deconstruction from Bacon to Heidegger.


Michael Raiger


From The Coleridge Bulletin, New Series 14 (NS), Autumn 1999, pp 16-25 (page nos in text as [-pp-])


IN AN ANNOTATED COPY of A Lay Sermon once belonging to Robert Southey, there appears in Coleridge’s hand-writing a marginal comment upon a passage on authority in government which begins with high praise for Plato, and concludes with this unusual, some might say dubious, claim:


We have heard much, far too much, of Lord Bacon’s political crimes; while his calumnious misrepresentations of Plato and Aristotle have been imputed to him as merits. Aristotle, indeed, was rightly served: for he was guilty of the same ambitious Detraction. I wish, that . . . I had the re-publication of the Novum Organum with a series of extracts from Plato in the Notes—/ I could pledge myself for the proof, that whatever is true in the Baconian Logicè realis is precisely Platonic. (LS 172)

Coleridge would never complete such a study, but the outline for it had already been set forth in The Friend, in the “Essays on the Principles of Method,” in which it is established


that philosophy being necessarily bi-polar, Plato treats principally of the truth, as it manifests itself at the ideal pole, as the science of intellect (i.e. de mundo intelligibili); while Bacon confines himself, for the most part, to the same truth, as it is manifested at the other, or material pole, as the science of nature (i.e. de mundo sensibili). (F I 492)

Coleridge’s apology for Bacon, in which “we must allow much to the heat of protestation, much to the vehemence of hope, and much to the vividness of novelty,” (F I 486) attempts to sever Bacon’s relationship from his later followers, especially those of the French school of Positivism, in order to link his new method of science with that of Plato, to “not only extract that from each, which is for all ages, and which constitutes their true systems of philosophy, but shall convince ourselves that they are radically one and the same system: in that, namely, which is of universal and imperishable worth!—the science of Method, and the grounds and conditions of the science of Method.” (F I 487)


Perhaps an instance of “strong misreading” by Coleridge in order to advance his own metaphysical doctrines, Coleridge’s interpretation of Bacon’s method conceals the epistemological attacks on metaphysics and humanism


which underlie the modern hermeneutics of suspicion inaugurated by Bacon. Taking Coleridge’s reading of Bacon in The Friend as the site for an archeological study, this paper will attempt to carry out a genealogy of the term “deconstruction” as a praxis of reading which establishes itself as other —primordially other than metaphysics— through a stylistic gesture of critique without genuine criticism. I want to suggest that Coleridge’s generous interpretation of Bacon can be read as a critique of the origins of critical philosophy through a critical reconstruction of the tradition upon which Bacon relied in the elaboration of his new method of inquiry, which will reveal the metaphysical and theological assumptions forgotten by the Enlightenment’s canonical acceptation of Bacon’s rejection of ancient philosophy. 

The term “deconstruction” first appears with the work of Martin Heidegger, where it is established as the critical relation which an authentic philosophy of being must take up toward the tradition of Western philosophy. The most precise attempt to define the method is found in The Basic Problems of Phenomenology, the text of a lecture course which Heidegger taught at the University of Marburg in the summer of 1927. The establishment of an ontology based upon Dasein, situated in the midst of subjectivity but freed from the anthropologizing tendency of metaphysical speculation, is an attempt to uncover the temporal contours of reflection on being, and thereby to break the totalizing, masterful authority of abstract metaphysics. The project of a fundamental ontology is the destruction of the Weltanschaung of “everydayness,” our ordinary view of the world, established by the reign of scientism, which views beings as present-at-hand, as means to an end. This tradition is seen by the later Heidegger in the Letter on Humanism as originating in “the technical interpretation of thinking,” whereby Plato and Aristotle “take thinking itself to be a techne, a process of reflection in service to doing and making.”[1] For Heidegger, the analysis which subordinates poiesis to praxis under the aspect of techne in the Nicomachean Ethics determines the concealment of the authenticity of being by the tradition of Western thought.

For Heidegger, the ontological method is governed by the idea of phenomenology, a reflective method for revealing the truth of what is concealed by the accretion of habitual thought handed down from tradition. In this method, there are three components, or moments: reduction, construction, destruction. The three phases of phenomenology are distinguishable but not separable:


Construction in philosophy is necessarily destruction, that is to say, a de-constructing of traditional concepts carried out in a historical recursion to the tradition. And this is not a negation of the tradition or a condemnation of it as worthless; quite the reverse, it signifies



precisely a positive appropriation of tradition. Because destruction belongs to construction, philosophical cognition is essentially at the same time, in a certain sense, historical cognition.[2]


Thus Heidegger’s phenomenology is at once both temporal and historical, for the individual has inherited not only the habits of earlier experience, but the habitual modes of thought of the entire tradition to which he or she belongs—reflection is not only phenomenological, it is also archeological. In the moment of deconstruction, Heidegger’s phenomenological method historicizes the act of critical reflection.

Heidegger’s phenomenological method bears a remarkable formal resemblance to Bacon’s radical reformation of methodological inquiry. The task which prepares for the new method is according to Bacon “destructive,” and involves a negative methodology accomplished by a three-fold critique: “This doctrine, then, of the purging of the understanding so as to adapt it to the truth, is accomplished by three refutations: the refutations respectively of philosophies, of demonstrations, and of native reason.”[3] These “idols that dwell in the mind” are of two kinds: the latter two are habits of thought, and are “only with difficulty eradicated,” but the first is innate, and “cannot be eradicated at all.” (NO 23) As such, the destruction of the past is concerned with destroying the idols of human making, while the critique of cognition remains a work in progress because of the nature of human subjectivity. The new method of inquiry passes from the negativity of destructive critique to a positive analysis with two parts: i) reasoning applied to nature, which is a general principle, a leading idea applied to a manifold of things, and ii) reasoning from things, termed the “Interpretation of Nature,” which is dispersed over “a great variety of widely scattered things.” (NO 50) Heidegger’s three elements of phenomenological method reproduce Bacon’s three-fold method: Heideggerian reduction parallels the inductive method employed in Bacon’s “Interpretation of Nature” (directed to the study of particular things), in “leading phenomenological vision back from the apprehension of a the understanding of the being of this being (projecting upon the way it is unconcealed);” (BP 21) Heideggerian construction parallels Bacon’s reasoning applied to nature (the discovery of laws of nature), in bringing being to light “in a free projection,” the “projecting of the antecedently given being upon its being and the structures of its being;” (BP 22) and Heideggerian destruction actually repeats the destruction of the history of philosophy, through a critique of ancient philosophy (the exemplar of false reasoning upon nature), termed by Bacon “Anticipations of the Mind.” (NO 40) And while Bacon’s method is directed to an analysis of physical




objects, and Heidegger’s to ontology, the temporal contours remain the same, for they are both concerned with the order of changeability, not immutability; and furthermore, their critiques of the human subject are in complete agreement—both are concerned with exposing the anthropomorphic projections which have concealed the true nature of beings in the world. The deconstructive method for revealing Dasein’s concealment by metaphysics is a repetition of Bacon’s Great Instauration which initiates the Novum Organum.

Coleridge’s reading of Bacon can be linked historically to the deconstructive method by attending to the two issues brought to light here: the critique of the senses, and the critique of past philosophies. The two critiques are performed in the service of a general criticism of teleological thought, and stem from Bacon’s theological assumptions and preoccupations. For Bacon, the destruction of past philosophies is not only concerned with the advancement of natural knowledge, but also the protection of revealed truths. It is the erroneous, the idolatrous, use of reason applied to sacred truths that is the object of Bacon’s criticism (see NO 100). His method therefore distinguishes natural knowledge from sacred truth, establishing the limits of human knowledge upon their divergent modes of acquisition, the former by reason, the latter by revelation. For Bacon, science supplants the role assigned by Aquinas to philosophy as the “handmaid of theology,” since “natural philosophy is, after the word of God, the surest antidote to superstition, and at the same time the most excellent nourishment for faith. Rightly therefore is she given to religion as a most trusty handmaid, since the one [religion] displays the will of God, the other [natural philosophy] His power.” (NO 100). The distinction between faith and reason introduces a distinction between ethical action and practical action, despite Bacon’s claim that in nature truth and utility are one. For while the gap between the human mind and God’s mind in unbridgeable, God’s power is written upon things, and can be read there in accord with Bacon’s new hermeneutic method of science:


Men must realize . . . how great a difference there is between the idols of the human mind and the ideas of the divine mind. The former are no more than arbitrary abstractions; the latter are the Creator’s true stamp upon created things, printed and defined on matter by true and precise lines. In this respect, therefore, truth and utility are the very things themselves; so works themselves are of greater value as pledges of truth than as comforts of life. (NO 126)

The new Baconian hierarchy of knowledge places knowledge of the natural order over the self-reflective knowledge of the spirit. This subversion of the Platonic/Christian approach to natural theology severs the link between God and creation by way an analogy of being, and replaces it with a collapse of God’s power into the workings of material nature, established by Bacon in the arbitrary division of God’s will, which reveals what humans ought to do, and God’s power, which sanctions the use of nature by human endeavor. Thus the




unity of the Godhead established by Thomistic theology is severed, while God’s power is identified with the laws of nature, thus establishing a split between ethics and utility in which knowledge of God’s power known throught the works of nature is more immediate and secure than the dictates of revelation. Thus the seeds for the domination of scientism are planted upon the soil of Baconian theology, as the advancement of human knowledge upon the success of the mastery of nature replaces self-reflection in modernity’s hierarchy of knowledge, and wherein the ideal of objectivity is established upon the radical suspicion of subjectivity.

The absolute distinction between reason and faith marks Coleridge’s divergence from the radical critique of metaphysics established by Bacon. When Bacon divides nature, which shows God’s power, and religion, which reveals God’s will, he is establishing a rule whereby “men should confine the sense within its proper sphere.” (NO 15) Whereas Bacon will recognize no passage from reason to faith, no application of the rational rules of thought and the method of inquiry to sacred truths, Coleridge sees rationality as operative upon both the field of spiritual objects, as Reason, and upon that of sense, as Understanding.[4] The dialectical method of Plato “compels the reason to pass out of itself and seek the ground of this agreement [between the laws of intellect and the laws of the material order] in a supersensual essence, which being at once the ideal of the reason and the cause of the material world, is the pre-establisher of the harmony in and between both.” (F I 463). For Coleridge, the Idolatry of the Mind is the false thought which subsumes the Infinite under the category of the Finite, which recognizes not simply the limits of sense, but projects the senses as the final arbiter of all things. In this, it is materialism, rather than a metaphysics that acknowledges a spiritual realm beyond the senses, which results in an absolute and totalizing dogmatic philosophy. In Coleridge’s view, Plato’s Ideas are intuited on the supersensual realm, while Bacon limits the understanding to the uncovering of Ideas manifested in sense:


Hence too, it will not surprise us, that Plato so often calls ideas LIVING LAWS, in which the mind has its whole true being and permanence; or that Bacon, vicè versa, names the laws of nature, ideas; and represents what we have, in a former part of this disquisition, called facts of science and central phenomena, as signatures, impressions, and symbols of ideas. A distinguishable power self-affirmed, and seen in its unity with the Eternal Essence, is, according to Plato, an IDEA: and the discipline, by which the human mind is purified from its idols (alvdie), and raised to the contemplation of Ideas, and thence to the secure and ever-progressive, though never-ending, investigation of truth and reality by scientific method, comprehends what the same philosopher so highly extols under the title of Dialectic. (F I 492-93)




Coleridge’s interpretation of Bacon’s critique of “the Idols of the Mind” subverts the destruction of metaphysical speculation by translating Bacon’s denial that the senses are the measure of reality into the positive claim that thought therefore must be grounded in a supersensual reality; the critique of idolatry releases the mind from the limits of sense, rather than confines its operations to the sensible/material realm. Coleridge unifies what Bacon had torn asunder in the division of Scripture, representing God’s will, and Nature, representing God’s power, through a definition of “Idea” which overcomes both the emptiness of conceptual abstraction and the relativity of radical materialism. In The Statesman’s Manual, the ideas of science and revelation are subjoined into one form of symbolism that reconciles the power of reproduction in nature (the Many) and the freedom of life in God (the One):


[E]very principle is actualized by an idea; and every idea is living, productive, partaketh of infinity, and (as Bacon has sublimely observed) containeth an endless power of semination. Hence it is, that science, which consists wholly in ideas and principles, is power . . . The great PRINCIPLES of our religion, the sublime IDEAS spoken out everywhere in the Old and New Testament, resemble the fixed stars, which appear of the same size to the naked eye as to the armed eye . . . At the annunciation of principles, of ideas, the soul of man awakes . . . (LS 23-24)


Thus it is that the Coleridgean symbol mediates between the sensible and the spiritual realms, overcoming both the atheism of Materialism and the idolatry of overdetermined Idealism.

Coleridge reinterprets Bacon’s critique of the senses as a critique of Idolatry, employed as a way of overcoming the “tyranny of the Eye,”(SWF II 900) which projects subjective powers upon a God Who is imagined “in visible Shape, idola.” (SWF II 899). However, in reconciling what Bacon has severed—the relation between God’s will and God’s power—Coleridge argues that the idolater is released from error only “by convincing him that in order to find God he must look beyond Nature—meta fusin.” (SWF II 899). It is easy to see how Coleridge could not accept the limits imposed by Bacon on human thought, for his critique of philosophy in coming to the aid of theology has raised the book of nature above the book of Scripture, founded upon a fideism which denies a way to knowledge of God through an Augustinian form of self-reflection, while maintaining that God is known directly in the things of nature which bear the stamp of the Creator. But in going beyond Bacon, Coleridge also recovers what remains hidden in the method of Platonic dialectic by viewing it as a purification of the senses which leads to contemplation of God, a trajectory repeated in the history of ancient philosophy in the tradition of Neoplatonism:




If neither the Conceptions formed by the Understanding from materials furnished by Sense, nor the Notions formed by the U. by reflection on its own processes were the proper Organs for the knowledge of supersensuous Truths, either such knowledge is impossible for men or there must exist other (SWF II 899). and higher Organs or Media. Plato assumed the latter and named these media Ideas—but gave little more than their negative character—i.e. what they were not.—Plotinus proposed to display their positive Being. (PL (Coburn) 426)


At the very end of The Statesman’s Manual Coleridge states the principal problem which confronts philosophy in terms of the history of philosophy itself: “Whether Ideas are regulative only, according to Aristotle and Kant; or likewise CONSTITUTIVE, and one with the power and Life of Nature, according to Plato, and Plotinus (en logw  xwh  hn, kai  h  xwh  hn  to  jvς tvn  anqropwn) is the highest problem of Philosophy, and not part of its nomenclature.” (LS 114). Coleridge’s solution, part of a self-defense of his own philosophy, straddles the divide between the ancients and the moderns, in a subjective turn which rescues teleology from epistemological critique: “But what are my metaphysics? merely the referring of the mind to its own consciousness for truths indispensable to its own happiness.” (F I 108). Coleridge prefers the Platonic over the Kantian solution to the question of how the laws of material nature and the ideas of reason are reconciled: “The only answer which Plato deemed the question capable of receiving, compels the reason to pass out of itself and seek the ground of this agreement in a supersensual essence, which being at once the ideal of the reason and the cause of the material world, is the pre-establisher of the harmony in and between both.” (F I 463). Thus, subject and object are raised to a unity ultimately referable to God, not known in a phenomenological intuition (as with Hegel), but seen by faith in a teleological trajectory grounded in the human subject which reconciles the workings of nature and human ends:


All method supposes a union of several things to a common end, either by disposition, as in the works of man; or by convergence, as in the operations and products of nature. That we acknowledge a method, even in the latter, results from the religious instinct which bids us “find tongues in trees; books in the running streams; sermons in stones: and good (that is, some useful end answering to some good purpose) in every thing.” In a self-conscious and thence reflecting being, no instinct can exist, without engendering the belief of an object corresponding to it, either present or future, real or capable of being realized: much less the instinct, in which humanity itself is grounded: that by which, in every act of conscious perception, we at once identify our being with that of the world without us, and yet place




ourselves in contra-distinction to that world. Least of all can this mysterious pre-disposition exist without evolving a belief that the productive power, which is in nature as nature, is essentially one (i.e. of one kind) with the intelligence, which is in the human mind above nature . . . (F I 497-498).


Bacon, as the first destroyer of Western metaphysics, is also the first to methodize the critique of human cognition founded upon the very individuality of the human person:


The human understanding is not a dry light, but is infused by desire and emotion, which gives rise to ‘wishful science’. For man prefers to believe what he wants to be true.. In short, emotion in numerous, often imperceptible ways pervades and infects the understanding (NO 60).


The Baconian critique of human cognition is at bottom not a radical critique of reason and its possibility for error (as with Descartes), but a thorough-going critique of human desire. The ideal of objectivity as the means for attaining true knowledge is established upon the claim that human teleology is irreconcilable with the products and ends of nature (a problem which will resurface at the end of Kant’s third critique under the heading of the “antinomies of nature”). In this way, the critique of ancient philosophy, founded as it is upon teleological reflection, is implicated in the critique of human wish—the layered accretions of teleological thought impress the sediment of human desire into the bedrock of human prejudice, giving rise to the tradition of “wishful science.”

The form of modern critical inquiry, identical with the attack on metaphysical speculation, harbors within itself a suspicious distrust of human teleology. This is the central meaning of the Baconian destruction of the past and reformation of cognition through the critique of subjectivity. With its roots extending back to the foundation of Enlightenment critique, modernity takes over this anti-humanistic project as its conceals its own anti-historicist position. For its critique of human desire and human teleology denies its debt to the past, while it dogmatically accepts the conclusions of critical philosophy without placing its own positions under critical question. And as it releases the inscribed language of the past into material text (in reducing word to dead letter), deconstruction conceals the source of the written artifact in human intentionality, thereby obscuring its temporal source in subjectivity, and reducing it to the order of objects. Deconstruction erases the historical distance between its own dogmatic reading and the past it reads, in the hegemony of the present which cancels the historicity of texts.

We recall that Heidegger in Being and Time termed his object of ontological inquiry Dasein, primordially constituted by its thrownness into being among other beings. The facticity of Dasein establishes, according to Heidegger,




“[i]ts existential meaning [as] care.”[5] One of Heidegger’s major concerns is the re-establishment of human subjectivity against the domination of scientism, against the reign of objectivity which threatens to turn all beings into things. The very late essay “The Question Concerning Technology” testifies to this perduring concern of Heidegger’s project, a concern that was taken over from Edmund Husserl, whose last approach to the question was presented in the form of an historicizing analysis of what he called the reign of “Objectivism” carried out in The Crisis of the European Sciences. But in adopting the critique of the senses and the destruction of ancient metaphysics established by Bacon, Heidegger uses the presuppositions of empiricism to overthrow scientism. Heidegger’s deconstruction of the tradition of philosophy, rather than turning its critique upon both ancient and modern philosophy, accepts Bacon’s charge that ancient philosophy conceals its own hidden desires in a secret teleology, and amplifies that critique into the teleological mastery over nature under the domination of technology. For Heidegger, this is the source of the concealment of truth. However, Heidegger’s distinction in Western thought between theoria and praxis which he attributes to Aristotle, lies not with ancient philosophy, but in the radical suspicion of all human intention, established by the Baconian critique which severs will and power, ethics and technical mastery, poetic contemplation and human achievement. Heidegger’s reading of the history of philosophy as the subordination of thought to technological innovation is seen through the prism of Kant’s failure to reconcile ethical postulates and transcendental categories in The Critique of Judgment, which is then falsely superimposed upon the thought of the Greeks, rather than finding its source located in the institution of the scientific method by Bacon. It is the release of the advancement of scientific method from ethical thought, ordained in Bacon’s radical distinction between God’s will revealed in Scripture and God’s power revealed in nature, which institutes the central problem faced by Kant as critique, and encountered by Heidegger as the crisis of Western thought.

However for Coleridge, Bacon’s method, consubstantial with the thought of Plato, is reconcilable with ancient philosophy in the unity of Idea as both will and power. Coleridge’s reading of Bacon is in this light not only generous, but also corrective—corrective of Bacon’s attack on the metaphysics of the ancients, but also of deconstruction as an act of reading the past. Coleridge’s reading of Bacon offers an alternative to the ethics of suspicion which is encoded in the theory of deconstruction, whereby metaphysics is viewed as an obstacle to truth, which in every renewed attempt at its destruction, is




followed by another, more radical critique. Coleridge’s reading of Bacon as the “British Plato” (F I 488) reveals that Bacon’s critique of teleology renders the native capacity (instinct) for metaphysical speculation more fundamental than sensible cognition—its ineradicable influence is a presence which deconstruction cannot do without, and remains a presence which deconstruction has never succeeded in absencing. In this Heidegger is symptomatic of his own diagnosis of the disease, for his deconstruction does not go far enough, not as with Derrida, in fully rejecting the logocentricity of the ancients, but in failing to subject modernity itself to the same historicizing critique. Heidegger’s announcement in the Letter on Humanism that “Philosophy is hounded by the fear that it loses its prestige and validity if it is not a science” (Basic Writings 219) is revealed, in light of Coleridge’s validation of teleology, as the failure of the Enlightenment tradition to bring its own assumptions to the full light of self-reflection. With its origins in Bacon’s rejection of teleology, modernity is captive to the ideal of objectivity, while the realm of human subjectivity remains as the horizon which confines modernity’s endeavors to escape from the crushing weight of the “human, all too human.” And Heidegger’s attempt to disclose the being of beings as a “free projection,” a possibility open to Dasein by its ontological status as “care,” (see BT 243) and revealed by its constitution as a temporal/historical being, conceals its own teleology under the reified concept of Dasein’s prior fall into the order of objects. Similarly, Bacon’s reasonings upon nature which “bring light” (NO 79) to the advancement of learning—in a repetition of Bacon, Heidegger’s free projection upon being calls beings from their concealment into the light (Scheinen)—conceals a teleology of its own, an intentionality of consciousness, but severed from a teleology of meaning—that of human happiness, of human purpose. The return to a reading of Coleridge reading Bacon uncovers the concealed activity of will (intention) that modern philosophy has attempted to eradicate in its critique of human subjectivity. Coleridge teaches us anew to ground subjectivity in the center of the human personality, in thought initiated by desire, not vitiated of desire by radical critique, in a response of freedom which can overcome the mastery of technology, the Weltanshaung of seeing creatures simply as means to an end. In reading Coleridge’s critique of deconstruction at the point of its inception in Bacon, we can come to read anew, in a genuine act of critical reflection which positively deconstructs the entire tradition of Western thought, the words of Heidegger taken from a lecture course on the Sophist in 1924: “It is in any case a dubious thing to rely on what an author himself has brought to the forefront. The important thing is to give attention to those things he left shrouded in silence.”[6] 



[1]     Martin Heidegger, Letter on Humanism, in Basic Writings, ed. David Farrell Krell (New York, 1977) 218.

[2]     Martin Heidegger, The Basic Problems of Phenomenology, trans. Albert Hofstadter (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982).

[3]     Francis Bacon, Novum Organum; with other parts of The Great Instauration, trans. Peter Urbach and John Gibson (Chicago, 1994) 23.

[4]     See LS 18-20, for Coleridge’s distinction between the Understanding and Reason.

[5]     Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson (New York, 1962) 65.

[6]     As quoted by Jacques Taminiaux in the epigraph to his book Heidegger and the Project of Fundamental Ontology, trans. Michael Gendre (Albany, 1991).


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