Understanding, Rationality and Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Samuel Taylor Coleridge could have used the same tag line as Apple Computers – Think Different! Coleridge is one of the early pioneers of Romanticism and Romanticism was a different way of thinking. In 1825 Coleridge published a book called Aids to Reflection in which he interpreted for an English speaking world what he had learned from Immanuel Kant’s great work The Critique of Pure Reason.

The first American publication of Aids to Reflection was completed by James Marsh a few years after its publication inEngland. Marsh was a Transcendentalist and the president of theUniversity ofVermont and he introduced Coleridge’s book to an American audience that was ripe to hear its message. The book became something of a bible to the early transcendentalist and had a profound influence on the genius’ of Concord who would lay down the literary and philosophical foundations that Americans continue to stand on today. It seems to me that if you want to understand alternative spiritual thought inAmerica you have to include Coleridge on your reading list.

There is one primary distinction that absolutely captivated the American intellectual elite of the early nineteenth century and that was the distinction between understanding and reason. Understanding, according to Coleridge, was the knowledge that the human mind produced from sense impressions and the lawful interactions of thought. Reason, on the other hand, was knowledge that came directly from experience.

Understanding is gained when we take information forced upon us from direct experience and then subject it to the rigorous laws of logic and rationality. The power of understanding is that it allows us to know things that lie outside of our direct experience and it was the discovery of this form of knowing that fueled the Western Enlightenment.

Let’s use a simple example to illustrate what all this means. You wake up in the morning and you look outside and see snow on the ground. You conclude that it is cold out and you feel fully justified to make that conclusion even before you step outside and confirm it in your direct experience. That is because you have followed basic laws of rationality to come to the conclusion.

One of the most fundamental laws of logic tells us that if A=B, and B=C, then A=C. This property is called transitivity and if we apply it to the simple situation above we have the following. Our past experience tells us that snow is cold: cold = snow. Our current experience tells us that there is snow outside: snow = outside. According to the property of transitivity, cold = snow, snow = outside, cold = outside. Because we know that snow is cold, and that there is snow outside, we feel justified in our conclusion that it is cold outside.

You can see even from this example why this type of knowledge is so powerful. It allows to draw conclusions about the present from our past experience without having to “reinvent the wheel” each time. In this case our experiences of the past expand the boundary of our knowledge in the present.

Our trust in the knowledge we get from understanding comes fundamentally from the fact that it is predictable. Because it is predictable we feel like we understand it. If sometimes when there was snow outside it was cold out, and other times it was hot out, and we had no way to predict when it would be cold and when hot based on the presence of snow, we would have to admit that we didn’t “understand” the relationship between the appearance of snow and the outside temperature.

Coleridge in his book outlines his understanding of understanding in order to make the point that not everything can be understood in this way. Specifically our spiritual experiences and the conclusions we draw from them cannot be held strictly and exclusively to the laws of rationality. These things, he insists, we know in a different way – through reason, by which he meant a direct unquestionable encounter with the truth itself. He wasn’t saying that these experiences and the conclusions we draw from them were not at all subject to the laws of rationality. They certainly were to some extent, and he explains in his book very carefully how the laws of rationality do and do not limit our spiritual knowing. I want to continue to explore what Coleridge had to say in upcoming posts.