Connections with Coleridge #3—Law and Order

Beginning with this post, we’re really going to dig into the book by Coleridge that Charlotte Mason quoted on so many occasions. The title is Treatise on Method, and in good rhetorical form, Coleridge jumps right into the topic by defining his term. This work was originally intended as the introduction to a new Encyclopedia (though it also appeared as a series of articles in his periodical, The Friend), so that context is considered as well:

As Method is thus avowed to be the principal aim and distinguishing feature of our publication, it becomes us at the commencement, clearly to explain in this Introduction what we mean by that word; to exhibit the Principles on which alone a correct Philosophical Method can be founded; to illustrate those principles by their application to distinct studies and to the History of the Human Mind; and lastly to apply them to the general concatenation of the several Arts and Sciences, and to the most perspicuous, elegant, and useful manner of developing each particular study. Such are the objects of this Essay, which we conceive must form a necessary Introduction to a Work, that is designated in its title from the place whence it originates, — Encyclopedia Metropolitana ; but claims from its mode of execution to be also called “a Methodical Compendium of Human Knowledge.”

(I include this lengthy quote in part to give you a taste for the flavor of this book. Consider yourself warned.)

Coleridge goes on to describe the Greek origin of the word “method,” which means a way or a path, which by extension includes the concept of progress or a transition from one step to the next step. This why Charlotte Mason asserted that “method implies a way toward an end.”

It’s tempting to quote Coleridge further, but you wouldn’t thank me, and even my self-proclaimed interested readers (more than three!) might decide they’d rather scroll through facebook than wade through Coleridge. So let me narrate.

Coleridge says that method implies a unity as well as a progression. The central working factor that actually supplies this unity is the human mind. Without method, there is chaos. The mind develops an orderly understanding out of the chaos by pursuing the relations that exist between things (does that sound familiar?).

Coleridge says:

We may, therefore, assert that the relations of things form the prime objects, or, so to speak, the materials of Method; and that the contemplation of those relations is the indispensable condition of thinking Methodically.

We are only up to page 3 of Treatise on Method, and here is already a startling thing. The idea that underpins Method is relations. As in,  “Education is the science of relations.” We’ve heard this before.

Coleridge goes on to say that the relations the mind will discover between things are of two kinds—one kind is Law, and the other is Theory, but Law = Truth (absolute Truth, with a capital T), and he is going to go on to say that Truth = Idea, in the purest sense of the word—Charlotte even quotes this bit:

“The idea may exist in a clear, distinct, definite form, as that of a circle in the mind of a geometrician.” (Parents and Children, p. 36)

So, a law is an absolute truth the mind perceives, and a theory is an idea that allows action to be taken upon the basis of the law, allowing for the relation of cause and effect.  Within these two kinds of relations—law and theory—all the different areas of knowledge can be placed. Things that are concerned with Law alone are “Pure Sciences”–morality, justice. “Mixed sciences” are founded upon Law, but include some Theory, and here you have things like Mechanics and Astronomy. Pure Theory includes studies that Coleridge calls “Scientific Arts,” among which we find things like Medicine and Chemistry, which are based on the cause and effect of certain actions taken with Law in mind. Coleridge explains at great length, with Shakespeare as Exhibit A, that the relations between Law and Theory include the Fine Arts, where we find things like the “law of taste.” I would be lying if I told you I understood it all, but I get glimmers. Reading through this section, I know that Charlotte Mason read and it understood it better than I do, because I keep bumping into familiar sentences that she has quoted. For example, “From the first, or initiative Idea, as from a seed, successive Ideas germinate.”

In the light of all this, Charlotte Mason’s principle that “education is the science of relations” is thrown into a new light—a wider, broader conception than is immediately evident.

Coleridge tells us that the “laws of mind” are analogous to the “laws of arithmetic and geometry.” That is precisely what Charlotte Mason thought.

The universe of mind, as the universe of matter, is governed by unwritten laws of God; that the child cannot blow soap bubbles or think his flitting thoughts otherwise than in obedience to divine laws. (Home Education, p. 39)

All of Charlotte Mason’s educational philosophy rests upon her premise that she is articulating laws that are inherent and perceivable within the universe, and developing methods with those laws as her starting point. This is why all of the principles work together as an integrated whole, and why I entitled my last book In Vital Harmony.

Charlotte Mason’s claim is that her work is based upon these laws that are Truth.

My endeavour in this and the following volumes of the series will be to sketch out roughly a method of education which, as resting upon a basis of natural law, may look, without presumption, to inherit the Divine blessing.  (Home Education, p. 41)

I do not think it is coincidental that Charlotte Mason urged “method” in her educational writing. She referred to this work of Coleridge at the beginning and the end of her long career, and I think we can safely say that this work had a strong influence on her thinking. It will be interesting to pursue some of the ideas that are contained in this treatise on “method,” so I hope you’ll stick with me through the rest of the series.

8 thoughts on “Connections with Coleridge #3—Law and Order

  1. Trying to understand the distinction you’re making between Law and Theory, because I noticed that you said that Theory is “the idea that allows action.”

    So Law, or Truth, just IS itself and doesn’t explicitly make any demands of us? It’s something to do with our nature that we respond to Law with Theory, and then action happens — cause and effect happen. Is Theory the cause then?

    I’m thinking of this in terms of Plato’s ideas of Being vs. Becoming. Law would in the realm of Being — like I said, it just is itself. Theory would be in the realm of Becoming, which is where all action, growth, progress take place.

    Although, if I’m thinking of it in those terms then the Law would be the Uncaused Cause.

    1. Wow–two comments that really make me think and send me back to Treatise on Method to make sure I understand what’s going on. I love it!

      I am not certain I fully understand the question, but I’ll do my best, with Coleridge’s help. He summarizes: “We have shown that a Method, which is at all comprehensive, must be founded on the relations of things: that those relations are of two sorts, according as they present themselves to the Human Mind as necessary, or merely as the result of observation. The former we have called relations of Law, and the latter of Theory.”

      So laws are perceived and exist in the mind only, but theory (as Coleridge defines it) is based on things we actually do perceive with our senses. He defines: “The second relation is that of Theory, in which the existing forms and qualities of objects, discovered by observation, suggest a given arrangement of them to the Mind, not merely for the purposes of more easy remembrance and communication; but for those of understanding and sometimes controlling them.” And I’m just going to continue this quote in hopes that it addresses your question: “The studies to which this class of relations is subservient, are more properly called Scientific Arts than Sciences. Medicine, Chemistry, and Physiology are examples of a Method founded on this second sort of relation, which, as well as the former, always supposes the necessary connection of cause and effect.”

      It’s interesting to me that you brought up Plato, because he’s going to come into this discussion a bit further on. And I couldn’t say this to anyone else, but if you look on page 20 of Barfield’s book What Coleridge Thought, there’s a quote (#25) I just read today that seems germane to your question, but I’m still not sure exactly how to apply it. But you’ll see the same idea expressed in this book–that theory is based on the observation of the senses. Coleridge is warning there to be careful not to mistake effect for cause, but I’m not sure how to relate it to your question.

      1. I’m not sure I understand my question either! I think I was just trying to take what you said about Law and Theory and compare it to something I already sort of understand, how it’s the same, how different, in order to understand what you said better.

        I feel very glutted with ideas and thoughts from so much reading and very little DOING anything with it all, and it makes me feel sluggish, especially with the stage of homeschool and life I’m in now — I have fewer people to just info-dump on, lol.

        I could probably frame it this way: Is it the nature of Law to cause a response?

        Or is it that something else, of its own nature, responds to Law, and that response is the cause of Theory?

        Maybe I should study Aristotle’s causes . . . but I’m not sure that’s what my question is either.

        Because, really, if Law = Truth and Truth = Christ, then Law is the Uncaused Cause, and the creature isn’t exactly causing his own respond, he’s only responding in the way that is appropriate to his nature. So humans ought to respond with Theory or action, and I suppose the appropriate response will depend on lots of things.

        But what we have to be careful about (as you said in your last paragraph to my comment, and Coleridge says in the quote you mentioned) what we have to be cautious about is just taking in sensory data and acting willy nilly without reference to Law. This may not be terribly bad in some areas of our lives, but if we claim to be scientists in any way it will be HORRIBLE because what we’re doing is disconnected from Truth, yet we’re making truth claims based on “evidence.”

        Or maybe my question is personal – maybe even too personal to be exploring on your blog: What should *I* be doing with my life? heh

  2. This *is* a mental workout!
    Just checking, when you said “Truth = Idea” was that meant to say “Theory = Idea”?

    1. No, it really is Truth=Law=Idea. This is “idea” in the Platonic sense–something that can be conceived by the mind alone. Coleridge says “Idea and Law are correlative terms, differing only as object and subject, as Being and Truth.” So, a toy hoop is the “being” form that shows us “round,” while “law” is the geometric idea that in a circle, all lines drawn from the center to the circumference are equal. (Coleridge’s example, not mine.)

      1. Sorry to ask a question so late in the game, but would you mind clarifying your (Coleridge’s) example for me? I feel like I almost have it… but it has not quite come into focus.

        Is this right?

        In the toy hoop example, the toy hoop is the Truth. It is the Being. The nature of that Truth can be expressed or understood in two ways. The two ways are via Law (the geometric definition of a circle – a thought conceived only in the mind) or via Idea (roundness, learned by experiencing all manner of round things in the physical world, and an idea that can be put into practice to make wheels for example). Thus Truth (the hoop) = Law (geometric definition) = Idea (roundness).

        or put another way:

        The Being can be learned about by means of the the Law and the Theory.

        Does that sound right, or have I mixed something up?

        Thank you so much for working these ideas through for us Karen. I have heard it said that you are the Queen of the explanatory picture and as I can only understand things once they become pictures or stories this is very helpful for me.

        1. Well, remember I said I would be lying if I told you I understood it all. But I don’t think I’d say the toy hoop was Truth, because it is concrete, and Truth is immutable (unchangeable). Geometric truths exist as ideas that you can conceive with your mind. This really comes across if you attempt Euclid as Euclid gave it. Another geometric idea is that “two lines cannot enclose a space.” You could get a couple of sticks and demonstrate this to yourself, but you can also just think about it, and your mind will confirm it form you as a Truth. Having convinced your own mind of the Truth, you could use the two sticks to illustrate the Truth for someone else, and they might get to the Truth via your illustration. So with the circle–the idea is about a continuous line around a point in which the distance from the line to the point is always equal. It’s a thought-exercise which reveals the shape of a circle, but you can also understand what a circle is by playing with a toy hoop. Ultimately, this a science of relations, between ideas and concrete things, and most of us find our way to ideas/abstract contacts through concrete things. In another realm, you will learn more about statesmanship by reading a biography of George Washington than by memorizing a dictionary definition of it, and you will learn more about a circle by playing with a hula hoop than by trying to conceive one in your mind. Especially if you are ten years old. I’m not even sure I answered your question, but I am still wrestling with these things myself. Once the mind has conceived of an idea, though, it will keep on finding that idea elsewhere. What we know of circles helps us understand wheels (picture how something would work if the axle were attached to some part of a circle besides the center), and what we know about a statesman lets us judge the character of other leaders. There’s a continual back-and-forth, two-way street that runs between ideas and their various manifestations. Yeah, I don’t think I can pretend to understand it all perfectly. But it’s so interesting to think about it.

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