By the early part of the nineteenth century the Age of Reason had made it increasingly difficult for progressive religious thinkers to accept a literal interpretation of the Bible. It was clear that many passages of that sacred text could no longer be accepted at face value. There was a rush of interest in biblical criticism aimed at determining what actually could be trusted in the Bible. And the door to important questions about language and its relationship to truth was flung wide open.
The Bible was the word of God and yet much of it appeared to be untrue. What could this mean? Some felt that the Bible had to be examined like any other book as an imperfect interpretation of truth created at a specific time by specific individuals. The truth might have been seen directly by those who wrote the great book, but their recording of it in words was flawed by their own personal and cultural biases.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge saw a different possibility. Words are the medium of record for one kind of knowledge that he called ‘understanding.’ Understanding is derived from the senses as the knowledge about things. This form of knowledge is held in the mind symbolically as images, feelings or more universally in the form of language. And it is only this kind of knowledge that can be recorded in the form of text.
The other form of knowledge Coleridge called ‘Reason.’ Reason is a direct knowing or intuition. It is a mental form of sensation. Just as we have physical sensations that are direct perceptions of physical experiences, we also have mental sensations that are direct perceptions of mental experiences. Coleridge further believed that the highest form of ‘Reason’ is spiritual Reason or the direct perceptions of spiritual experiences otherwise known as revelations. This way of thinking came to the New England Transcendentalists and was adopted as the essential core of the canon of Ralph Waldo Emerson.
It also appears to me that this distinction was an initial step toward the later philosophy of Charles Sanders Peirce. Peirce’s conception of Firstness has similarities to Reason in that Firstness is the essential nature of anything and Secondness is the encounter with that nature. Reason, therefore, is a kind of mental Firstness, the essential nature of a mental perception. Peirce described this mental Firstness as the materiality of thought, directly perceived thought-stuff.
A mental sensation – a piece of reason – can itself become the object of further understanding. We can have a revelation and then an understanding about it. The initial mental sensation is the knowledge of Reason and the secondary knowledge about that mental sensation is the Understanding. According to this way of thinking the Bible may have been inspired by a revelation of truth, but all that could be recorded of that revelation in words would be the after-the-fact understanding of it.
Coleridge and Emerson felt that if we use language correctly we can communicate Reason and Revelation. Language cannot record the truth of revelation in literal terms, but in poetic form language can provoke the same revelation in the reader. The Bible should not be read as a poem to be experienced rather than literature to be criticized.
To Emerson it was the poet that brought truth to the world by using the revelatory power of words. This understanding of the poetic use of language as a medium to provoke subtle and profound truths became a fascination of the Transcendentalists and much later the same idea became important to the 20th Century German philosopher Martin Heidegger.