Connections with Coleridge #5—In Pursuit of Method

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.

5 thoughts on “Connections with Coleridge #5—In Pursuit of Method

  1. I’m continuing to enjoy these posts (and the workout involved in comprehending them).
    So, regarding the paragraph about “one unifying idea”…, am I to understand that both Coleridge and Mason ultimately saw ONE Law unifying everything we might learn about? Or, did they both see a number of Laws, each acting to unify their own category of knowledge? Or, both? Ie, Did he/she/they see several captain Ideas all operating within some sort of hierarchy, where there is One Law/Idea that unifies all the other ideas?

    1. I’m going to say “both.” Yes, there are a number of Laws that function as the “Captain Idea” in each sphere of knowledge. At the same time, the “Law of Unity” is itself a kind of unifying law that ties it all together. Have you ever read that quote of Isaac Newton’s, where he imagines himself a child playing at the edge of a vast, deep ocean? I feel like that, except that I’m the kid who just got to the beach and is so enchanted by the tide pools, I’ve barely registered the fact the ocean is there. The exact nature of the universal law that “binds all things to all other things” (quote from CM, vol. 2) is something that philosophers have grappled with for centuries without perfectly comprehending.

      I highly recommend reading the description (and noticing the title) of this book: https://global.oup.com/academic/product/coleridges-philosophy-9780198240754?cc=pl&lang=en&#

      I have the book–during the past two years as I’ve studied Treatise on Method, I finally broke down and spent an outrageous amount of money for the cheapest available copy of that very expensive book. I haven’t read it yet, but I am intrigued by the idea of Logos as the unifying principle. My little blog series is barely the tip of the tip of an iceberg that I barely realized was there.

      1. Thank you. That’s very interesting. I’m not sure I’ve left the puddle in the backyard yet, but it is all very intriguing. I recently heard Jordan Peterson very earnestly speaking about the centrality of the Logos idea in Western thoight. Of course, my theological training gets sparked by this… Christ being named the Logos in John. And I can more than cope with the Idea that He is the unifying Idea of everything.

        Different context, but would you see any connection with that in this quote from Parents and Childre? Or am I stretching things?

        “The answer to the one urgent question of the age, What think ye of Christ? depends upon the power of the idea of Christ to attract and compel attention, and of the indwelling of Christ to vivify and elevate a single debased and torpid human soul.”

        1. *thought and *Children

          I guess what I am wondering is, does CM see the Person of Christ himself as the Idea that unifies all knowledge…

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