The book Treatise on Method proposes a certain approach to knowledge that seems to have appealed to Charlotte Mason. I am not going to pretend that I completely comprehend Coleridge and can fully explain him to you (he is out of my league—although I understand him more as I read more–and I’m awed that Charlotte Mason not only understood but extracted and followed his principles); however, I hope to give you at least a glimpse of his thinking. Because he was working on an Encyclopedia, he had in mind the entire scope of knowledge that man can apprehend: everything from the contemplation of a circle to the observation of things like electricity—still not fully understood in his lifetime.
He postulates the necessity of discovering the Laws (capitalized like that) which are based upon Ideas, and which alone can lead to true Method. This is a very contemplative process, removed from the messy laboratory process of hypothesis and experiment that we associate with science, but there is a fundamental link which I think we could express as connection (or perhaps relation). Whatever methods the human mind pursues, the search is always for unity and connection even when diversity and difference appear on the surface.
By way of illustration, what do water and flame, the diamond, charcoal, and sparkling champagne have in common? According to Coleridge, this is the Law that a “Chemical Philosopher” would labor to discover. They are varieties of “one form”—carbon. They are very different things on the surface, but to the discerning mind, there is a unity.
And, he further postulates, the same philosophic principle that underlies the approach to chemistry applies to poetry. That is—that different things may be conceived of as varieties of “one form” within the mind of a poet. By way of example for that, he gives us Shakespeare: “the lunatic, the lover, and the poet” suggest each other to Theseus. This is what simile, metaphor, and analogy are all about—finding similarities between different things for the sake of poetic comprehension and connection.
I think this is just the concept that captured Charlotte Mason’s attention and informed her approach to education across decades of reading, teaching, experimenting, writing, philosophizing, but above all, living. Things are not separate. Everything is connected by an underlying, unifying Law, whether we have yet perceived it or not. Education, is, in fact, a process of apprehending and actualizing as many relations as possible. This is “method:”
Method, we have seen, demands a knowledge of the relations which things bear to each other, or to the observer, or to the state and apprehension of the hearers. (p. 26)
Where the habit of Method is present and effective, things the most remote and diverse in time, place, and outward circumstance, are brought into mental contiguity and succession, the more striking as the less expected. (p. 31)
In my own more limited understanding, this is what I was trying to express when I presented the concept of “synthetic thinking,” in Consider This. Coleridge tells us that a critic is quick to point out the surface differences or problems in a work of genius, but he shows us that this is little more than an illustration of the fact that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.
A very slight knowledge of Music will enable anyone to detect discords in the exquisite harmonies of Haydn or Mozart; and Bentley has found more false grammar in the Paradise Lost than ever poor boy was whipped for through all the forms of Eton or Westminster; but to know why the minor note is introduced into the major key, or the nominative case left to seek for its verb, requires an acquaintance with some preliminary steps of the Methodical scale, at the top of which sits the author, and at the bottom, the critic. (p. 32)
In other words—perceiving essential unity is more important than minutia. The whole is greater than the sum of its (perhaps imperfect) parts. Coleridge uses Shakespeare (and by extension, all “Works of the higher imagination”) at length to illustrate his thesis, but then he shifts to his real point which is the ground where Charlotte Mason meets him:
To Philosophy properly belongs the Education of the Mind: and all that we have hitherto said may be regarded as an indication (we have room for no more) of the chief Laws and regulative Principles of that education. (p. 36)
When I remember that Charlotte Mason refers to this work of Coleridge’s in the first volume she published, and again—at even greater length—in the final volume she wrote about education, I cannot doubt that the ideas she found here were fundamentally integrated into all her work on the subject. Education is, indeed, a science of relations, and Coleridge intends to show us some of those relations. I hope you’ll stick with me as we explore those ideas further. I think you’re going to be surprised.