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Mind and Polarity of Powers

The Mind is bipolar in that intellect and reason comprise the 'sense' and nous poeticos and nous patheticos, the dual aspects of the nous itself, “the inmost nature” of mind.

  • The flux and reflux of the mind in all its subtlest thoughts and feelings…in its inmost nature - in modes of inmost being - the tremulous reciprocations of which propagate themselves even to the inmost of the soul. (Biographia Literaria)

For Coleridge, the mind was an action, a power, not a thing, ('the mind's self-experience in the act of thinking') and in this power there are two powers, active and passive, with the imagination functioning in-between.

  • There are evidently two powers at work, which relatively to each other are active and passive; and this is not possible without an intermediate faculty, which is at once both active and passive. (BL)
  • Thus, the act of thinking presents two sides for contemplation, – that of external causality, in which the train of thought may be considered as the result of outward sensations, of accidental combinations, of fancy, or the associations of memory, –and on the other hand, that of internal causality, or of the energy of the will on the mind itself. Thought therefore, might be thus regarded as passive [reactive] or [pro]active. (BL)

Imagination, Desideration and Polarity

Coleridge goes on to deal with this power of imagination that emerged from the third power of the passions - desideration.

The emotions, if contemplated and “recollected in tranquility” produce objective, as opposed to subjective, feeling that can then be expressed aesthetically via symbols (Suzanne Langer).

The 'poetic' imagination is essentially projective, producing projective art works, whilst the philosophic imagination of Coleridge is evocative and is used to draw out the meaning and essence of the symbols already extant in our surroundings. And these objective feelings, being linked to reality and the over-riding super-sensible determinant of that reality, act powerfully within the forms of nature and culture. As was expressed in the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads, “the power of the human imagination is sufficient to produce such changes even in our physical nature as might almost appear miraculous…” (This would point to the founder of the American New Thought movement, Phineas Parkhurst Quimby)

In a famous passage from his Biographia Literaria, Coleridge distinguishes between the primary imagination, which is the underlying agent of human perception, and the secondary imagination, which operates more in the conscious mind, and this is further polarized between its highest effort - new re-creation (unity through re-creation) - and its fallback - a struggle to unify through idealization.

  • The primary Imagination I hold to be the living power and prime agent of all human perception, and as a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM. [It acts by creating a oneness, even as nature, the greatest of poets, acts upon us when we open our eyes upon an extended prospect.] The secondary Imagination I consider as an echo of the former, co-existing with the conscious will, yet still as identical with the primary in the kind of its agency, and differing only in degree, and in the mode of its operation. It dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to recreate: or where this process is rendered impossible, yet still at all events it struggles to idealize and to unify. It is essentially vital, even as all objects (as objects) are essentially fixed and dead.(Biographia Literaria)

For Coleridge, poetry is idealistic and man needs to go beyond the projective forms of art, the belletristic arts, to another art form, this time where man as subject, draws out of nature, including human nature, the potential that is there in what we actually experience. For Romantic medicine, in particular, the art of remediation, to achieve a true health for the individual, was an evocative art, Heilkunde and Heilkunst, that sought, as in the ancient Greek idea of education, to educe, to elicit or draw out of the suffering individual what was potential (state of health) into actuality.

Imagination and Understanding

Imagination is active and acts while “hovering between images,” and when it fixes on a given image, it then becomes understanding. Communication of these images of the understanding is what Coleridge terms 'noetic ideation'. “Communication by the symbolic use of the Understanding is the function of Queen Imagination on behalf of Noetic Ideation.” 1)

In contrast, fancy is static and idealising, creating nothing real, but it does, as Colerdige notes, provide a “drapery” for the body of thought.

The power of imagination is evident in the relationship of reality between parts and whole, and the ability thereby to associate parts of the same whole (phenomenon) (association by contiguity) that are not ordinarily so associated in time and space (association by continuity), “the perception of similitude in dissimilitude” which “principle is the great spring of the activity of our minds, and their chief feeder.” (Wordsworth's Preface to the Lyrical Ballads) Indeed, it is in the ability to see what is similar in what appears dissimilar, and what is dissimilar in what presents as similar (continuity) that resides the creative genius of a man.

Art is an artificial arrangement, that is to say, not that of crude nature, but nature re-arranged is “re-presented” to the mind of man so that there is a condensed unity of parts in a given representation (compare Literature with History). It is not an illusion, but a re-creation of nature's innate unity, unconscious and promiscuous, into a new unity.

  • [Art] is a figurative language of thought, and is distinguished from nature by the unity of all the parts in one thought or idea… Hence nature itself would give us the impression of a work of art, if we could see the thought which is present at once in the whole and in every part; and a work of art will be just in proportion as it adequately conveys the thought, and rich in proportion to the variety of parts which it holds in unity.2)

In re-presenting nature, the “poet” is not simply copying or distorting nature. But in order to do so, he “must master the essence, the natura naturans, which presupposes a bond between nature in the higher sense and the soul of man” or human nature. The wisdom of nature, the primal wisdom, is in man in the form of the body; it is participative, unconscious and instantaneous (instinctual). The wisdom of man has to be produced, re-created and given a conscious value or appraisal. It needs to be made coadunative, compresent by an act of will through objective feeling and noetic ideation. In this regard, the body wisdom (Walter Cannon) is striving to become conscious wisdom “in the human mind above nature.”

  • …to make the external internal, the internal external, to make nature thought, and thought nature—this is the mystery of genius in the fine arts. Dare I add that the genius must act on the feeling, that body is but a striving to become mind—that it is mind in its essence? (Biographia Literaria)


The intellect is “the faculty of suiting measures to circumstances,” or “the faculty judging according to sense.”3)

Intellect is linked initially to fancy, such that their functioning forms a law by which man “is impelled to abstract the changes and outward relations of matter and to arrange them under the form of causes and effects.”4)

This law is necessary for man's awareness and freedom, but if not conjoined with a new participative capacity (the Goethean Gemüt) would “prevent or greatly endanger man's development and progression.”5)

The intellect in man, as contrasted with animals, is the ability not only to obey rules, but to create them and to know what the term “rule” means. It is the possibility of sense experience. Sensation is “already intelligence in process of constructing itself.” 6)

Thus, “intelligence is a self-development and sensation itself is but vision nascent, not the cause of intelligence, but intelligence itself revealed as an earlier power in the process of self-construction” working on the sense-data to provide names of objects and the relationships of their outer forms in terms of cause and effect (what Suzanne Langer terms 'figuration').

Intellect and Reason

The intellect also is to be distinguished from reason. The intellect, unirradiated by reason, is a faculty of the instinct, which man shares with the higher animals (cunning). It is subject to the physical laws of heredity, and the evolution from sense to passive understanding is an identical one in man and animal. In man, there is in addition its polar opposite, namely “active” intellect, which, in the form of conscious intent, is there in man all along as potential in contrast to the animal and forms the basis for criminal law (mens rea). The intellect is reactive as regards the sense pole and proactive as regards the pole of reason (the conceptual faculty).

  • For the [intellect] is in all respects a medial and mediate faculty, and has therefore two extremities or poles, the sensual, in which form it is St. Paul's φρονημα σαρκος [phronema sarkos - Romans 8., carnal mind] and the intellectual pole, or the hemisphere (as it were) turned towards the reason. 7)

Reason essentially deals with principles and the intellect with concepts, both factual (physical) and functional (etheric). The noetic faculty deals with Ideas, which then are elaborated into principles by reason, whilst the intellect establishes concepts arranged using scalar logic (for ordination of facts) and polar logic (for functions). This provides a trinity of mind, wherein the intermediate faculty of imagination is the matrix connecting all of them.

Reason is present in the whole process of nature, yet is accessible only to the intellect. It is responsible for the awakening process in human consciousness from unconsciousness, through sleeping and dreaming to waking. Coleridge understood an ascent of consciousness from sense perception, wherein reason lies as potential only (Sleeping Beauty) to the apprehension of reason itself.

For Coleridge, intellect is “the faculty of rules” and reason “the source of principles.” Intellect is the world of man, and human law, where the end can and often does justify the means. It is not the world of reason. It is the fact of reason's presence in nature that allows us to speak of it becoming apparent or “present to” the intellect, such that we have an ulterior consciousness that is behind the natural awareness (the “unconscious”) of all animals, one that is self-reflective or “philosophic” though there is a purely 'mental' philosophy that Coleridge termed 'psilosophy' and that which involves also the noetic capacity of mind (the nous rather than just the mens) which is true philosophy in the Greek sense of 'love of wisdom' — philia love, Sophia wisdom.

  • Plants are Life dormant; Animals = Somnambulists; the mass of Mankind Day-dreamers; the Philosopher only awake.8)

And this creates a functional identity between the philosophic imagination and instinct, as those who have the first, “…feel in their own spirits the same instinct, which impels the chrysallis of the horned fly to leave room in its involucrum for antennae yet to come. They know and feel that the potential works in them, even as the actual works on them.”9)

What renders the intellect human (that is, active) is precisely the ability to identify by naming (nominalism), that is, to abstract or generalize, for it is from this ability that we get the human ability of speech. And it is in speech or language that we first see this irradiation of the intellect by reason. Animals may generalize, but they do not name, they do not have the power of abductive inference. Reason makes its mark in the form of the grammar of a language. Thus, the higher understanding is concerned not only with names, but then only with names (denominating) as describing appearances, not content.

  • …in all instances, it is words, names or, if images, yet images used as words or names, that are the only and exclusive subject of understanding. In no instance do we understand a thing in itself; but only the name to which it is referred.10)

Reason exists in language in the form of grammar (principles of language), though not in idioms which transcend the rational structure).

  • It is grammar that reflects the forms of the human mind, and gradually familiarises the half-conscious Boy with the frame and constitution of his own Intellect, as the polished Glass does the unconscious infant with the features of his own countenance…bringing about that power of Abstraction, by which as the condition and the means of self-knowledge, the reasoning Intellect of Man is distinguished in kind from the mechanical [intellect] of the Dog, the Elephant, the Bee, the Ant, and whatever other animals display an intelligence that we cannot satisfactorily reduce to mere Instinct…11)

It is the power to abstract from experience that makes us human, but this power must become a means to an end, not an end in itself, as in material science. That end is imagination and reason, and then, for Coleridge, on to the 'organ' of noetic ideation, the Greek nous.

In instinct we are united with nature, in intellection we are detached from nature, and in imagination re-united with nature.

If we make passive understanding (intellection)- the power of abstraction - an end in itself, we become according to Coleridge “a race of animals, in whom the presence of reason is manifested solely by the absence of instinct.” This means that we become slaves to the idols of our own making (the appearances of things) “falling prostrate before lifeless images, the creatures of his own abstraction, [man] is himself sensualized, and becomes a slave to the things of which he was formed to be the conqueror and sovereign.”12)

Without reason, we are but animals and commit existential suicide, submitting, as earlier Sophists, “all positions alike, however heterogeneous, to the criterion of the mere [intellect].”13)

By shutting out reason we end up in a world of opinions, authority-based law, instruction, material science, and the death of spirit and soul. Enlightenment becomes the tyranny of the intellect and good intentions end up on the guillotine of the intellect. Abstraction turned back on itself, becomes dependent on the senses and the outer appearances, or the despotism of the eye and “leads to a science of delusion” as Coleridge stated. The so-called Enlightenment was more the “deliberate shuttering of the [intellect] from the light of reason.”14)

Without reason, the intellect becomes active under the impulsion of fancy, such that “the omission to notice what not is being noticed will be supposed not to exist” or “to limit the conceivable within the bounds of the perceivable”, which is the tyranny or despotism of the physical eye.15)

Reason irradiates the human psyche at all levels as it is, for Coleridge, in seed form even at the lowest level of consciousness. It is the original impetus for self-projection or individuation as Coleridge put it. Reason is a unity not itself divisible, as it can only be used in the singular, unlike intellect and intellects.

The intellect operating at the sense pole provides the power that leads to abstraction and man's separation from nature, but also awareness of self as separate from nature and God. However, detachment can lead to existential despair without the 'light of reason' to provide a new attachment or relationship to nature and God, one based on individual sovereignty. With reason, the nisus is from sense to consciousness and finally to self-consciousness, that is, individuation.

Until reason is consciously apprehended, we remain in a plant or animal-like state of consciousness, but when apprehended, we are “awake” (reborn in spirit). The last stage requires the active understanding, which is the intellect fully irradiated by reason, itself irradiated by Nous.

  • There are evidently two powers at work, which relatively to each other are active and passive; and this is not possible without an intermediate faculty, which is at once both active and passive…In philosophical language, we must denominate this intermediate faculty in all its degrees and determinations, the IMAGINATION, the compleating power which unites clearness with depth, the plenitude of the sense with the comprehensibility of the [intellect], impregnated with which the [intellect] itself becomes [understanding]– an intuitive and living power. (Biographia Literaria)

This then allows for “speculation,” which is the Baconian realisation of the natural idea out of natura naturata, or the outer appearances of things, guided by the forethoughtful inquiry (lumens siccum) coming from what Coleridge termed the more inmost part of the mind, the noetic capacity or nous. Without such irradiation from both the nous and reason, we end up with “lawless flights of speculation” (Coleridge). Lawful speculation, however, could then be processed by the new Greek or Goethean participative (coadunative, compresent) capacity (Gemüt), and worked up into a phenomenological presentation.

Reason without the focus on sense experience is “pure reason” (Rudolf Steiner's “pure thinking” or pure sinnen) and in that condition, reason is able to make contact with and be irradiated itself by wisdom. Copernican reason (Aristarchus) allowed us to comprehend the universal verus the Ptolemaic intellect which kept us 'earthbound' in terms of our point of reference. Our individuation culminates in what Coleridge terms “the fullness of intelligence.”

The light of reason is thus both the origin and the abiding basis of individuality. Without the positive presence of reason to the understanding [intellect], there is no individuality, only the detachment which individual being presupposes. Reason, in both its negative and its positive aspect, is the individualiser. Reason itself unirradiated (by the Nous) leads to the dominance of the collective (Hegel's State) over the individual.

Reason and Self-consciousness

Reason operating consciously in us through the imagination is the act of self-consciousness, the “I AM.” Reason, via the intellect also enables initially the mind's detachment from nature, creating 'subject' and 'object.' It provides for the power to behold polarities and indeed shows itself “out of the moulds of the understanding only in the disguise of two contradictory conceptions.”16)

To avoid being propelled into existential nihilsm, we then need to use the active side of reason ('productive unity'), such that reason is “the tendency at once to individuate and to connect, to detach, but so as either to retain or to reproduce attachment.”17)

To go from the indirect moonlight of mere intellect (mirrored through sense experience) to the direct sunlight of active understanding (irradiated by reason) is to go from exterior perception (of appearances) to a universal ulterior appercetion of phenomena (Phenomenology); “it is to pass on from fancy's business of arranging and re-arranging the 'products of destruction, the cadavera rerum,' to imagination's business with 'the existence of absolute life,' or Being, which is the 'correlative of truth.'” (Biographia Literaria) It is also to go from the delusion that diversity is division or that a concept held by two minds is two concepts, rather than two exemplars of one concept.

The power that allows reason to act on the intellect so as to raise it and make it active, as understanding, is the creative or secondary imagination.

  • … all the products of the mere reflective faculty [moulds of intellect] partook of death, and were as the rattling twigs and sprays in winter, into which a sap was yet to be propelled from some root… (Biographia Literaria)
  • :… the IMAGINATION, the compleating power which unites clearness with depth, the plenitude of the sense with the comprehensibility of the [intellect], impregnated with which the [intellect] itself becomes [understanding]– an intuitive and living power..(Biographia Literaria)

And the apparent contradictions revealed initially by passive reason, are really the dynamic functions of life, and this can only be perceived by the active power of reason, which involves the imagination.

  • Polarity, being 'incompatible with the mathematical calculus,' is not graspable by the understanding [intellect], but only in the imagination; in fact we have already had occasion to specify it as the basic act of imagination.<18)

And reason is also part of the Logos for Coleridge (“the Word or Logos is life, and communicates life” and it is also “light, and communicates light,” the light of positive reason, or Nous). The negative form of reason, which is the capability God gave man to comprehend the divine light, is light in its potential form, though the darkness of the mere intellect may fail to comprehend it.

Theory of Language

“Words are living powers, not merely articulated air.” Language is to consciousness what geometry is to space and mathematics to time. It is language, not sense experience, that orients mind to reality.19)

For Coleridge, language in its highest form, is the very tool and vehicle for understanding reality and the basis for the evolution of mind and consciousness. He takes as the foundation of our immediate living experience of things (Thomas Reid) as well as of our very self - the mind as dynamic act.

Words, for Coleridge, reveal the creative mind, working via the power of imagination (versus the power of fancy) to reveal reality (not to create artifacts of experience). However, there is a difference between the popular, descriptive use of language, which “as objects are essentially fixed and dead,” and the more serious discursive, scholarly use of language. Beyond that there is the 'best part of language', the language of disclosure, which discloses by the very use of precise, desynonimized terms.

This 'disclosive' language emerges as a result of the cultivation of profound (objective) feeling (Suzanne Langer), and deep thought (involving the inmost mind (nous), in both its nether (the nous patheticos, or (Goethe's Gemüt) and upper aspects (nous poieticos or Rudolf Steiner's Geist). Here, the full mind, both mental and noetic, not just the intellect and reason, is active in establishing the meaning of words.

Disclosive language taps into and contains the 'fullness of intelligence', expressing living experience (Erlebniss in German). This disclosive language is also one that evolves along with man's consciousness and the progress of science, in that terms come more and more to be desynonymized, such as the famous distinction Coleridge made between imagination and fancy and awareness and consciousness. Coleridge's view was in contrast to the predominant Lockean tradition: for Locke, static concepts and their verbal exponents arise from experience, whereas for Coleridge the proper use of language is a dynamic or romantic event between mind and nature.

:Coleridge's definition of “word” represents language as participating intimately in the complex relation between mind and world“ “Coleridge presents language as the principal vehicle for the interaction of the knowing mind and known reality.20)

Thus, for Coleridge, language, that is, the different true forms of the one Logos, discloses to us the very content and activity of cognition, and that since 'mind is an act', language is the means for the evolution of mind and consciousness (Logos, the evolver). Initially, Coleridge focussed on poetry as the source of living experience in words, but later came to understand that poetry was 'essentially ideal” and that the poetic imagination 'struggles to idealize' and to “spread (project) a tone around forms, incidents and situations.” One had to go beyond poetry and the poetic imagination, into the 'verbal imagination' to get at the true power of language to use “words that convey feelings and flash images” to disclose reality via the common ethereal element of our being.

This involves a participative capacity of mind to create a dynamic between mind and word, so that the minds of the reader or listener and the writer or speaker create a co-adunation or compresence (Samuel Alexander). This capacity involves not just the abstracting Latin intellect (mens), but the re-emergent participative Greek nous.

Coleridge referred to this new capacity of mind, using the nous to irradiate the Latin mens, as an 'ulterior consciousness'. And this capacity of mind to participate mind is an 'ethereal medium.” Mind is at the very foundation of being of man and much more than the sum of sense experience, and the purpose of his method is “to render the mind intuitive of the spiritual [non-sensible] in man” and develop “this ulterior consciousness”. The medium of the compresence of minds (“spiritual intercourse”) is “the common ethereal element of their being, the tremulous reciprocations [tremulations] of which propagate themselves even to the inmost of the soul.” (BL)

Language is both an expression and motive force for the evolution of consciousness; the history of words is a history of mind (see Owen Barfield's History in English Words). For Coleridge, creation is “the language of God” (Logos), and this can be read in the realms of nature, culture and spirit.

Romantic Cognosis

At the core of the idea of romanticism is romantic cognosis, or 'co-gnosis', the dynamic interplay of masculine and feminine forces and energies in the mind and imagination, involving a dyadic unit of consciousness right from the beginning (Genesis: 'male and female made he them').

Coleridge speaks of “the feminine mind and imagination,” and provides the polaric example of the two giants of English literature, Shakespeare (“darts himself forth and passes into all the forms of human character and passion”) and Milton (“attracts all forms and things to himself” which “shape themselves anew” in him). For Coleridge, “imagination is both active and passive”, that is, masculine and feminine in nature. He also provides a similar polarity between the essentially passive primary imagination, that (spontaneously, reactively) configures sensory experience (“a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM”), and the active secondary imagination that 'dissolves, diffuses and dissipates in order to re-create' via the higher state of mind and consciousness.

Coleridge also distinguished between the poetic imagination, which is essentially projective, and the philosophic imagination, which is essentially pro-active (“the scared power of self-intuition, [which] can interpret and understand the symbols” inherent in the world around us).

For Coleridge, the life which is in each of us is in other people and things out there as well, allowing for communication between Mother nature and human nature, as well as between individuals. At the level of mind, ideas are 'mysterious powers, living, seminal, formative' and “essentially one with the germinal causes in nature. Goethe's identification and elaboration of the Gemüt as the organ of mind for participating the living essence or Wesen of nature, whether in Mother or human nature, is what Coleridge termed our 'inmost mind'.

In addition to the dynamic polarity between masculine and feminine principles of mind and consciousness, Coleridge identified “the pleasure principle” as the “chief principle” and “great spring of activity of our minds”, from which “the sexual appetence and all the passions connected with it take their origin.

cited in Hill, John Spenser, Imagination in Coleridge, 1978, MacMillan, London ISBN 978-0-333-21996-6, Introduction,
2) , 3) , 4) , 5) , 6) , 7) , 8) , 9) , 10) , 11) , 12) , 13) , 14) , 15) , 16) , 17) , 18)
What Coleridge Thought, Owen Barfield,1971, Wesleyan University Press, London|isbn=9780819540409
19) , 20)
Coleridge's Theory of Language, Katherine M. Wallace
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