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?).
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.