Connections with Coleridge #9—In Search of the Soul

We’ve concluded the discussion of the theory behind Method, as Coleridge gives it to us in Treatise on Method. There remains, of course, the application of the method. There are a few things here that could be very valuable to ponder, so I hope you’ll bear with me just a bit longer, though the series is nearly done.

Here’s a phrase to cast fear and doubt into the heart of every truth-seeking educator: “learned and systematic ignorance.” This is like a black pit that might open under your feet and swallow you before you even have a chance to escape it. Coleridge shares a little story to illustrate what he means.

He asks us to imagine an illiterate person who has gotten hold of an illuminated manuscript of the Bible. This man has a vague but definite impression that the manuscript matters—that his very fates and fortunes are somehow connected to it. So he goes to work and studies it with all his heart. He unearths patterns and similarities in the markings, and sorts them into their different kinds, although imperfectly, because he fails to see that slight variations in form are not truly different things. He knows a great deal about the work he has studied, but “the whole is without soul or substance.” His efforts have yielded “arrangement guided by the light of no leading Idea; mere orderliness without Method.” And therefore, without meaning.

But then, he is taught to read, and suddenly the book is open to him—he can relate to the spirit of the book, as with a living oracle. All the things he thought he knew before will be dust and ashes because the results of Method are life and truth.

We can be in that darkened state of affairs, in which we have mountains of neatly arranged data which is “mere orderliness” that lacks life.

The salient point of this story is that Science cannot be divorced from morality—from God. Bacon’s disciples did just that—believed that human intellect and reason and the physical world could define all reality. Like the illiterate man, they had a lot of nicely organized knowledge, but it held no meaning for them because they lacked the key. Coleridge spells it out:

We have shown that this Method consists in placing one or more particular things or notions, in subordination, either to a preconceived universal Idea, or to some lower form of the latter; some class, order, genus, or species, each of which derives its intellectual significancy, and scientific worth, from being an ascending step toward the universal; from being its representative, or temporary substitute. Without this master-thought, there can be no true method; and according as the general conception more or less clearly manifests itself throughout all the particulars, as their connective and bond of unity: according as the light of the Idea is freely diffused through, and completely illumines, the aggregate mass, the Method is more or less perfect. (p. 54)

That is Coleridge-speak for the simple idea that education is the science of relations. Just as Charlotte Mason places “education is the science of relations” at the head of her method, Coleridge says that the idea upon which his plan is predicated is “the moral origin and tendency of all true Science.” This is equivalent to the “Great Recognition”—that all knowledge has a single source, and that source is God.

From within this understanding, we can ponder the study of some of what Coleridge calls “the pure Sciences” (because they are perceived with the mind only, not the senses), and the first two things on the list are…grammar and logic!

I’ve written before about the nature of grammar, and it’s fascinating to have that confirmed by Coleridge, who refers to the “laws which are immutable in their very nature.” And he throws the word “relation” into the pot: “for the relation which a noun bore to a verb, or a substantive to an adjective, was the in earliest days [Greek words], in the first intelligible conversations of men, as it it is now, nor can it ever vary so long as the powers of Thought remain the same in the Human Mind.”

My first introduction to this perception of grammar (and I was an English major and I love grammar) came when I read De Magistro by Augustine. In that book, I grappled for the first time with the immutable laws of grammar (as opposed to its mere rules), and it has changed my perception of grammar. I’m not sure we’re doing any favors by teaching our children arbitrary-seeming rules without letting them get a glimpse of the laws that govern language—all language, apart from the specific grammar of the one you happen to speak. When you ponder the concept of “immutable laws” of grammar in conjunction with Coleridge’s assertion that these sciences have a moral origin, it seems a travesty to chop them up into unpalatable rules that bleed red ink all over anything a child tries to write. “Learned and systematic ignorance” has us by the throat. Most grammar studies are indeed “arrangement guided by the light of no leading Idea; mere orderliness without Method.”

To my way of thinking, the most practical application of Coleridge’s Method is to send us to our knees in repentance and pleading for wisdom to teach these things better. Come to think of it, never mind the teaching. Most of us, including me, still have a great deal to learn.

2 thoughts on “Connections with Coleridge #9—In Search of the Soul

  1. What a powerful illustration with those spruce needles! Sometimes I do feel like I have accumulated piles of ordered knowledge that don’t yet fit together somehow, but even just being assured that they do is comforting and motivating to keep learning and growing. Reading through Aquinas’ compendium right now with a study group, and I love how he contrasts the ways we perceive things with our bodily organs with how we perceive things with our intellect. He says the senses can be destroyed or impaired by being acted on too strongly…taking in too much sensory stimuli at once. Our hearing is damaged by extremely loud noises. Our eyes are damaged by light that is too bright. But our intelligence isn’t affected in that same way. If anything, it’s almost the opposite. Our intelligence is strengthened and “perfected” by taking in more and more perfect knowledge. When we understand higher things, it helps us understand everything…instead of blasting our brains to bits. Sometimes I feel like my brain is exploding though when I’m trying to grasp something I can only sense vaguely. I guess it’s an act of faith and a test of humility to wait on God for those unifying ideas that will eventually connect our little piles of knowledge.

  2. There’s a scene in a novel by Terry Pratchett (Thief of Time) where a bunch of soulless ‘Auditors’ pull apart the artwork in the gallery, making orderly piles of each pigment, calculating the percentages, believing that by doing so they will somehow discover what makes them ‘art’.
    And Jesus says, “You search and search the Scriptures believing that in them you have eternal life. These are the very scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” (Jn 5:39-40)

    I need to think hard about how this applies to grammar… I guess it starts with acknowledging tht language is a gift from God.

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