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David P. Haney, The Challenge of Coleridge: Ethics and Interpretation in Romanticism and Modern Philosophy

Sunday, March 20, 2005 - 05:10
David P. Haney, The Challenge of Coleridge: Ethics and Interpretation in Romanticism and Modern Philosophy. Literature and Philosophy Series. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2001.  xviii + 309pp.  $59.00. (ISBN 0-271-02051-2).

Reviewed by
Anya Taylor
John Jay College of Criminal Justice - CUNY

The Challenge of Coleridge aims to demonstrate the overlap between hermeneutics and ethics, to show how reading deeply may lead to acting morally, how reading and respecting the otherness of a written text resembles hearing and respecting the otherness of an individual person. The book hopes to encourage a new way of teaching the humanities, by "placing the texts of the past and the present into a conversation in which the attention of both partners is focused, albeit from different historical horizons, on important issues of mutual concern" and thus to remove the humanities from "the criteria of technological production" by which university administrators often evaluate their worth (xiii). Even as it promotes the idea of conversations and dialogues on issues, the book engages in such conversations, ranging widely over living and dead philosophers. As Haney ventures into his vast terrain, he is guided by "Gadamer's notion of a transhistorical conversation that is more comprehensive than the horizon of either the modern interpreter or the historical text, a concept which . . . can provide an important alternative to the currently dominant ideological interpretations of history" (xii). Those of us who teach the humanities enter the field of this book with great hope that ethics, morality, and the conscience will be clearly applied to actions as well as interactive words to deepen our teaching of texts and perhaps even our engagements with actual persons. Chapter headings such as "Knowledge, Being, and Hermeneutics," "Oneself as Another: Coleridgean Subjectivity," and "Love, Otherness, and the Absolute Self" promise opportunities for meaningful contemplation. The recollection of Haney's fine "Aesthetics and Ethics in Gadamer, Levinas, and Romanticism: Problems of Phronesis and Techne" (PMLA 114.1 1999, 32-45) adds to the anticipation.

The admirable aim of the book quickly bogs down in its allusive method. Voices from different times, religions, cultures, and critical schools speak simultaneously as in the chat room that Haney describes, down to reproducing the participants' grammatical errors and casual lower caps (13-14). Communications enter in mid-sentence and are interrupted by other messages, shifting the subject at each intervention. Sentences with several buttressing references are not uncommon, such as the following: "by seeing the relation between narrative and ethics as one of `mutual dependency, resistance, and repression,'[Geoffrey Galt Harpham] tends to contain the ethical within the interpretive techne of psychoanalysis. Therapy is not necessarily incompatible with phronesis, as Martha Nussbaum shows in her carefully qualified endorsement of the medical analogy in Aristotle . . ." (41). Paragraphs swirl with quotations that often veer from the argument. For example, one paragraph rushes from Gadamer to Ricoeur, to Gary Aylesworth, to Habermas, to Dilthey, and ends with a question that the reader finds herself asking: "The question, once again, is whether Gadamer's hermeneutics has really surpassed the Romantic point of departure of hermeneutics" (59). In this eternal chatroom dominated by the quarreling of contemporary theoreticians (Levinson, McGann, P. Christopher Smith, Alasdair MacIntyre, Bernard Williams, Charles Taylor, Gianni Vattimo, Gunter Figal), there is no before or after, influence or anticipation, originator or modifier, for the voices all talk at once, not under any clearly defined topic, or, to be old-fashioned, "topic sentence." The thrust of argument does not guide these quotations so that they build on each other.

In this echo chamber one voice that is rarely heard before page 180 is Coleridge's. Haney admits that he is not a Coleridge scholar, that many Coleridgeans have covered the ground of his ethics in precise and illuminating ways (especially Laurence Lockridge and Mary Ann Perkins), and that Coleridge scholars may disagree with his readings. More alarming, in view of the title of the book, is the claim that to participate "in this hermeneutic conversation, the modern `reader' may or may not have actually read Coleridge" (24). It is not surprising, then, to find that of the statements by Coleridge that do appear many are quoted from the studies of Coleridgeans, rather than from the texts in The Collected Coleridge where Coleridge establishes his ethical principles. Despite the anguish of a hermeneutic search for methods of achieving objectivity toward writings of the past, Haney does not hesitate to summarize Coleridge's opinions in decisive ways, omitting Coleridge's nuanced recognition of alternative approaches. For example, he states simply that Coleridge is conservative in advocating land as a source of permanence and is liberal in advocating commerce as a source of progress (17) but these terms, dropped abruptly in to the crises of the 1820's, do not do justice to the complexity of Coleridge's hard-won political balance; the use of the anachronistic terms "conservative" and "liberal" undoes the very goal of stepping out of his own perspective that Haney had been advocating for the previous ten pages as a necessity for hermeneutic understanding.

If the reader is encouraged to go ahead and make judgments about Coleridge's opinions without actually reading him, in what way is Coleridge a "Challenge"? If it is true that "Coleridge is interested in some of the same ultimately undecided (and undecidable) issues that haunt thinkers in the twentieth century" (22), would not the challenge arise in finding out exactly how he formulates and then solves them? If he throws down a challenge to us to continue addressing these problems, we need to see where contemporary thinkers specifically pick up this challenge from him. To call Coleridge or his writings a challenge surely needs a clear outline of his ethics (beautifully accomplished by Lockridge, whose long quotations blessedly dominate several chapters of the book) so that his inheritors know where to continue the inquiries that he began. One begins to ask "Where's the beef?" Where is this Coleridge and his ethical challenge?

Dialogues require careful statements of position and then attentive listening so as to respond. Elinor S. Shaffer in "The Hermeneutic Community: Coleridge and Schleiermacher" (The Coleridge Connection, ed. Richard Gravil and Molly Lefebure [Macmillan, 1990]) provides an exemplary model by defining hermeneutics in its late eighteenth century expansion from biblical scholarship to secular imaginative communication, its connection to the intimacy of speech among friends, its presence in "the delicate art of quotation and reminiscence of quotation within each poem" (220), delineating this intertextuality precisely as it moves from Schleiermacher to Coleridge. With similar precision, Michael John Kooy in Coleridge, Schiller, and Aesthetic Education (Palgrave, 2002) steadily sets up the interplay of his two writers by topics and eras, indicating a constant dialogue, but a dialogue where there are differences in position, not a blur of vague resemblances. In The Challenge of Coleridge it would be helpful if, in line with these models of Anglo-German dialogue, Coleridge's ethical principles were set forward in an organized way, starting with the Kantian substratum of the distinction between persons and things with its many intriguing difficulties, and if Coleridge's particular ethical stances (such as those against the slave trade, child labor, the gagging acts) were developed in consequence of his central premises opposing prudentialism, utilitarianism, and Malthusian ways of thinking of individuals as parts of groups. It would be helpful if Gadamer's connection to Coleridge, either real or impressionistic, were established, and then if Gadamer's own position were clearly stated so as to further that dialogue. Levinas's position in this triangulation of thought also needs a decisive statement so that new understandings result from the interconnection. Without such order, references slide by in other people's commentary.

Coleridge's own ethical work is presented as absorbed into recent theories, whereas the genuine problems that he struggles with could well be pursued as viable and initiatory. His adaptations of the command to "Love your neighbor as yourself" include the command to "Reverence the Individuality of your Friend," a formulation that is troubling in that it does not say how you treat someone who is not already a friend. And what happens if you know the good and can't do it? Coleridge struggles with his awareness of the gulf between what he wills and what he does, between duty and the coiling serpents of incapacity to do one's duty, as for instance in a letter to Morgan of 14 May 1814: "By the long long Habit of the accursed Poison my Volition (by which I mean the faculty instrumental to the Will, and by which alone the Will can realize itself--its Hands, Legs, & Feet, as it were) was compleatly deranged, at times frenzied, dissevered itself from the Will and became an independent faculty" (CL 3:489). The chance to examine a passage such as this will turn students toward the humanities more readily than will summaries of summaries, which strain out the metaphors, the syntax, and the tone, all that entices in the thickness of language. Ethical decisions in revising a poem such as "The Letter to [S.H.]" are summarized from the work of Cyrus Hamlin, but Coleridge's revisions of this poem into "Dejection: An Ode" show him struggling to make exactly the kind of ethical decisions that will make him, or show him trying to be, a better person through writing, a process that Zachary Leader tracks (Revision and Romantic Authorship [Oxford, 1996], pp. 150-60).

The last chapters on Levinas and love venture into comparisons with Coleridge that many critics are now exploring. Levinas, too, is filtered through his observers: "As Ricoeur concisely (albeit critically) summarizes Levinas's position, 'Each face is a Sinai that prohibits murder' (Oneself 336)" (210). Levinas's work is filtered through his readers: Norris, Hartman, Gadamer, Kovesi, Ricoeur, and, anachronistically, even Coleridge, who "expands the notion of otherness beyond the limits of Levinas's paradigm" (180). Although Ricoeur's formulation of ipse and idem as different kinds of identities is helpful for understanding Coleridge, Levinas's complementary ideas of otherness, faces and voices, and love need precise investigation. Note how in the following sentence Haney begins to make a lot of sense and then calls in his authorities to obfuscate his point:

Love should produce self-completing, but it often confronts us with a mystery. As in Christabel's worst-case scenario, the prayer for the arrival of one's beloved can produce instead the monstrous Geraldine, who usurps and silences Christabel. Thus it is not surprising that in Coleridge's tormented thoughts about Sara Hutchinson, we find a confrontation between the Ricoeurean notion of otherness as supporting selfhood and Levinas's opposite emphasis, that there can be no authentic subjectivity without an other who cannot be comprehended by the self, but who instead calls one to responsibility by "coring out" the autonomous ego (233).

In enlightening segments (e.g., 182-220) Haney seems almost visibly to cast off the buttresses of reference and stand free in the swing of his own opinions, but, as he nears the end of his huge accumulation of quotations, references to others return almost obsessively, balking the flow of his own ideas. Instead of going on with the excellent choice of describing love in "The Blossoming of the Solitary Date Tree," he immediately recurs to Ricoeur, calling the poem "[a] Ricoeurean structure of seeing oneself reflected and supported by solicitude for another that, temporarily, finds no discrepancy between love and moral solicitude: as the child prepares to repeat the mother's sounds, 'She hears her own voice with a new delight'" (236). One more sentence and this poem of distinctive ethical and hermeneutic interest vanishes in the blur of contemporary philosophers.

The demands of Others to speak drown out the author's voice. Coleridge also cannot be heard over the din, and even Gadamer and Levinas do not get to state their cases in sustained order. In his next book, having done with his homages, Haney will have earned the right to speak in his own voice.