Connections with Coleridge #6—Meet the Philosophers

We’ve come to the point in this discussion where method and education are going to come together. Philosophy and education are inextricably linked. But how do we get there? Coleridge shares Charlotte Mason’s scorn—or perhaps she shares his—for mechanical systems.

True it is that the Ancients, as well as the Moderns, had their machinery for the extemporaneous coinage of intellect, by means of which the scholar was enabled to make a figure on any and all subjects, and any and all occasions. (p. 36)

Anyone who takes education seriously should take this warning to heart. Things that are old are not by definition good. Within even what we call “the classical tradition” there are those who have been more interested in having scholars who could “make a figure”—put on a good show—than in wisdom. Coleridge doesn’t leave us in much doubt about who they were, either (those Sophists!). But he doesn’t plan to waste much time on all the educational missteps that have occurred.

We shall not trouble our readers with a comparative view of many Systems, but we shall present to their admiration one mighty Ancient, and one illustrious Modern, [names redacted]. These two varieties will sufficiently exemplify the species. (p. 37)

I’ve left out the names just there on purpose, but I’ll tell you in a moment. I just want to remind you that in the beginning of this series, I created a link between you reading what I’ve written, while I write about Charlotte Mason, who made a point of sharing what Coleridge taught her, who in turn is going to focus on these two thinkers, one Ancient, and one Modern (in the philosophical, not chronological sense, meaning post-Enlightenment—he’s not going to seem modern to you!). This is a Great Conversation, and we are a part of it. When we look for unity in the diversity of all these things, we are pursuing Method and engaging in the science of relations.  We are finding connections.

Okay, our  “mighty Ancient” is Plato and our “illustrious Modern” is Francis Bacon. When I discovered that Coleridge’s Treatise on Method was actually a treatise on Plato and Bacon, a peculiar comment of Charlotte Mason’s suddenly made perfect sense to me:

What is an idea? we ask, and find ourselves plunged beyond our depth. A live thing of the mind, seems to be the conclusion of our greatest thinkers from Plato to Bacon, from Bacon to Coleridge. (Philosophy of Education, p. 105)

I always knew why Coleridge was on the list, and I had a pretty good idea of why Plato was. Bacon just seemed stuck in there for no reason, but now I understand that all three were linked in Charlotte Mason’s mind because of this book. This is merely another indication of how broadly Coleridge’s work affected her thinking.

I do not know if any of my readers are deeply enough familiar with the philosophy of Bacon to know this (I certainly wasn’t), but Bacon considered himself to be opposed to Plato, as did those who came after him. But Coleridge is having none of it. Remember that his goal is to explore unity in diversity, and he asserts that Bacon’s scheme of Logic “is Platonic throughout!”

The work of Bacon that Coleridge has in mind is called Novum Organum, and Coleridge suggests that it was misunderstood:

Those who talk superficially about Bacon’s Philosophy, that is to say nineteen-twentieths of those who talk about it at all, know little more than his induction. (p. 40)

Now, whether Coleridge was right in this is beyond my ability to judge. Certainly, whether he is right or not, things have progressed far beyond the point Coleridge observed in his lifetime, but what he has to say about induction and hypotheses is something I have to regretfully set aside in this series so that we can focus on Method. The misunderstanding of Bacon, according to Coleridge, gave birth to a body of men “but too numerous”—what he calls “the Minute Philosophers”—among whom, I am sorry to say, he includes a giant in the annals of science, Robert Hooke. But he has a reason, and it is of significance to educators in general, and Charlotte Mason educators particularly.

Coleridge scoffs at Hooke’s understanding of Bacon’s induction method because he interprets it as a need to delve into the minutiae (hence “minute philosophers”) of potters, tobacco-pipe-makers, optic-glass blowers, colour-makers, music-masters, printers, stage-players, laundresses and cosmetics (to name only a few!) for the sake of “facilitating our inquiries into philosophy.” In other words, Hooke thought an abundance of detailed facts and information could be accumulated and would lead to wisdom (philosophy).

Coleridge is a bit horrified and sends us to Isaac Watts for some wiser perspective:

“Furnish yourselves with a rich variety of Ideas. Acquaint yourselves with things ancient and modern, things Natural, Civil, and Religious; things of your native land, and of foreign countries; things domestic and national; things present, past, and future; and above all, be well acquainted with God and yourselves, with animal nature, and the workings of your own spirits. Such a general acquaintance with things will be of very great advantage.” (p. 41)

What we have here is the strong argument in favor of ideas occupying the focus of our educational efforts, as well as a hint that education should be begun upon general knowledge and not specialization. Focusing on ideas is a point upon which Charlotte Mason is lucid and adamant.

In the early days of a child’s life it makes little apparent difference whether we educate with a notion of filling a receptacle, inscribing a tablet, moulding plastic matter, or nourishing a life, but as a child grows we shall perceive that only those ideas which have fed his life, are taken into his being; all the rest is cast away or is, like sawdust in the system, an impediment and an injury.

Education is a life. That life is sustained on ideas. (Philosophy of Education, p. 108-09)

We’ll go on from here in the next few installments of this series, and explore the connections Coleridge found between Plato and Bacon. I genuinely hope I haven’t lost all my readers. I know how eager we all are for practical application of ideas, but our practical applications are most effective when they are grounded on principles that we understand well. Charlotte Mason grappled with these ideas of Coleridge’s until she understood them well enough to propose practical applications in the education of young children (who are not especially Coleridge’s concern). She’d be proud of us for doing likewise, I’m sure.



4 thoughts on “Connections with Coleridge #6—Meet the Philosophers

  1. This is fantastic. I’ve been a little stumped by how highly Mason speaks of Bacon because about all I know of him is his “Knowledge is power” statement, which I’m interpreting in an Abolition of Man way — the more knowledge you have, the more power you can have over nature and therefore over your fellow man. Maybe I’m one of the ones who misunderstands him?

  2. Your thoughts on systems that are more interested in producing scholars who can put on a good show versus one who can really think and make connections reminds me of a Ruskin quote I read and have been chewing on all week. Writing about Gothic architecture in The Stones of Venice, he’s contrasting the use of slaves in building in Ancient Greece and Egypt to a Christian idea of construction that allows for errors in favour of human thought and creativity. And then a little later he says, “Understand this clearly: You can teach a man to draw a straight line, and to cut one; to strike a curved line, and to carve it; and to copy and carve any number of given lines or forms, with admirable speed and perfect precision; and you find his work perfect of its kind: but if you ask him to think about any of those forms, to consider if he cannot find any better in his own head, he stops; his execution becomes hesitating; he thinks, and ten to one he thinks wrong; ten to one he makes a mistake in the first touch he gives to his work as a thinking being, but you have made a man of him for all that. He was only a machine before, an animated tool. And observe, you are put to stern choice in this matter. You must either make a tool of the creature, or a man of him.” I have been thinking about this all week in relation to my children being persons and all the implications of that in the way I evaluate the learning happening in our homeschool…what I prioritize and celebrate and consider progress. I don’t want to see my children as “tools” than can rattle off their times tables with perfection. Of course I still want them to learn those math facts, but I want to emphasize their thinking, their understanding, their wonder and creativity in all areas of our curriculum. It is a “stern choice” as Ruskin says…and one I fear is unwittingly made by many in favour of the tool/machine because that’s the outcome we get when we focus on perfection instead of personhood!

  3. Dear Karen,

    I am enjoying your blog, starting with your Connections with Coleridge series. I hadn’t heard of the Charlotte Mason method of education before, and learning how she was influenced by Coleridge is most compelling. I am intrigued to find out more.

    I brought out a book earlier this year, titled Coleridge’s Contemplative Philosophy, and I talk about the subject in the following interview, which I hope might be of interest:

    Best wishes,


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