Thursday, 27 July 2023

Why I found it necessary to revise the "polar metaphysics" of ST Coleridge and Owen Barfield

The transcendental philosopher says; grant me a nature having two contrary forces, the one of which tends to expand infinitely, while the other strives to apprehend or find itself in this infinity, and I will cause the world of intelligences with the whole system of their representations to rise up before you. Every other science presupposes intelligence as already existing and complete: the philosopher contemplates it in its growth, and as it were represents its history to the mind from its birth to its maturity....

It is equally clear that two equal forces acting in opposite directions, both being finite and each distinguished from the other by its direction only, must neutralize or reduce each other to inaction. Now the transcendental philosophy demands; first, that two forces should be conceived which counteract each other by their essential nature; not only not in consequence of the accidental direction of each, but as prior to all direction, nay, as the primary forces from which the conditions of all possible directions are derivative and deducible: secondly, that these forces should be assumed to be both alike infinite, both alike indestructible. The problem will then be to discover the result or product of two such forces, as distinguished from the result of those forces which are finite, and derive their difference solely from the circumstance of their direction. 

When we have formed a scheme or outline of these two different kinds of force, and of their different results, by the process of discursive reasoning, it will then remain for us to elevate the thesis from notional to actual, by contemplating intuitively this one power with its two inherent indestructible yet counteracting forces, and the results or generations to which their inter-penetration gives existence, in the living principle and in the process of our own self-consciousness.

from Biographia Literaria by ST Coleridge, 1817.


The above passage has stood for over two hundred years as the basis of a "polar metaphysics" that has underpinned several of the most valid and coherent metaphysical explanations of a Romanticism compatible with Christianity

These include the work of Owen Barfield (especially as elucidated in his book What Coleridge Thought) and William Arkle (appearing as contrasting feminine and masculine poles, geometrically or by analogy with physics described in A Geography of Consciousness and The Hologram and Mind). 

Although these two 'contrary forces' can indeed be the basis of a coherent and valuable metaphysics; as Coleridge immediately makes apparent it is also necessary to add further assumptions - such as that these forces are 'infinite' and 'indestructible'; in other words, eternally self-originating and self-sustaining. 

It is also necessary to add at least a further two similar factors; namely purpose and time; because to explain the phenomena of this world it is necessary to explain change, and necessary too to explain the direction (teleology) of change. 

Put together; these are the basis of Coleridge's Polar Metaphysics/ Polarity/ Polar Logic; which was his fundamental and most original philosophical idea - an idea never popular, seldom well-understood, yet nonetheless always retaining influence.

[Note: It should be noticed that Coleridge's Polarity is almost the opposite of what modern people mean by "polarization".] 

So, we get what amounts to a complex, abstract, dynamic, and difficult to conceptualize, explanatory scheme - with at least four elements.

Moreover; polarity a 'model' of reality that does not arise from common sense, and is utterly incomprehensible to children, or simple people, or those incapable of or unwilling to make sustained and concentrated effort. 

Thus; having grappled with Polar Metaphysics until I felt I did understand it - I still found it very difficult to explain, such that it was difficult to be sure I had genuinely understood it - or indeed that other people had understood it.

Furthermore; given that Polarity/ Polar Logic was associated by Coleridge by the idea of an animated universe: a reality in which nothing was "dead" or "mineral"; and instead everything was alive, conscious, purposive... 

Given this; the metaphysics of Polarity led to the strange and wrong-seeming necessity to explain organisms and other actual, concrete and experienced living beings, in terms of these abstract forces and tendencies...

This felt the wrong way round! Surely the primary reality was the living beings, and the abstract explanations are (merely) ways of conceptualizing their attributes? 

So, I decided to dispense with the abstractions of Polarity/ Polar Logic and start by assuming the primacy of "beings". 

It is such Beings (each, in some degree and to some extent - alive, conscious, purposive) that already-contain, inextricably, as of their ultimate nature, attributes that can be distinguished in terms of the categories of polarity.

It is Beings for which we assume attributes such as being 'infinite' and 'indestructible'; eternally self-originating and self-sustaining.  

Beings, in other words, are actual things (but including immaterial 'spiritual' things) that do not need to be 'explained' because each Beings has always been; and each Being has essential attributes by which (as we know from our experience of our-selves and other Beings) there can be change, even transformation - while remaining the same Being - while retaining its eternal identity.       

Therefore; I assume (I define) Beings as innately comprising all the needful aspects which might abstractly be considered as elements of Polarity. 

Beings are the primary categorical assumption of my metaphysics: Beings are how the universe of reality is (and always has-been) divided. 

To which must be added the possibility of relationships between these eternal Beings - and then, I think we have a far more concrete and comprehensible scheme than Coleridge's: yet one that can equally well Cause the world of intelligences with the whole system of their representations to rise up before you!


Saturday, 1 July 2023

Review of The Battle of Maldon by JRR Tolkien (2023), edited by Peter Grybauskas

JRR Tolkien. The Battle of Maldon, together with The homecoming of Beorhtnoth, Beorhthelm's son, and The Tradition of Versification in Old English. Edited by Peter Grybauskas. HarperCollins: London, 2023, pp xx, 188.

This book constitutes mostly unpublished and new material, but is centred on The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth, Beorhthelm's Son ("HBBS") a poem-play for voices/ radio-play by JRR Tolkien. This has been generally available since c.1965; when it was it was included in a version of Tree and Leaf. That is where I first read it nearly fifty years ago; and I've re-read several times since. 

However, I found that this new edition - with its better layout, and ancillary material - made a much greater impact on me; and the play itself was therefore experienced as far more enjoyable. This alone would have made the new collection worthwhile.  

The poetic play (which has been broadcast on BBC radio) has a strange origin; since it was first published in the prestigious professional academic journal Essays and Studies - where it was bracketed by a scholarly, and somewhat more conventional,  introduction and epilogue from Tolkien that discussed the Old English poetry-fragment called The Battle of Maldon.  

Yet despite the very peculiar nature of the original academic publication (which runs to 35 pages in this edition, with a further 15 pages of scholarly notes by Grybauskas); Professor Tom Shippey (in Roots and Branches, 2007) rates HBBS as among the top-three philological publications of JRRT's career. This; in terms of its professional influence and citations (although Shippey personally regards some of Tolkien's main points as mistaken). 

Grybauskas, in the present volume, also suggests that HBBS should be regarded as a third major essay to make-up a trio with the much-more-often-discussed essays On Fairy Stories and Beowulf: the monsters and the critics. Taken together; these three provide a special and deep insight into Tolkien's creative processes, relevant to The Lord of the Rings in particular. And Grybauskas cites some comments by Tolkien himself to support this claim of a trio of JRRT's most important Middle Earth-relevant pieces. 

This large claim for HBBS is vindicated by The Battle of Maldon (2023) - especially as it is now supported by the first-time publication of some hundred pages of lecture-preparations (or projected essays), probably from the 1930s, by Tolkien; in the section of this book entitled The Tradition of Versification in Old English

Despite some parts of highly technical philology, which I could not understand; this series of Tolkien's notes contains much really fascinating discussion that has autobiographical relevance to several of Tolkien's core, long-term concerns and fascinations.  

These special interests of Tolkien include the nature of poetry and its different functions; the working-out of language changes on poetry - both in oral transmission and scribal transmission - and how these two aspects interact in terms of the various aspects of poetry such as vocabulary, pronunciation, and metre. 

All this is, in turn, directly relevant to JRRT's almost obsessive concern with the fictional provenance of his Legendarium: i.e. the question of how texts, of various sources, were preserved and transmitted down to the present day and the editorial hand of Tolkien himself. 

This concern with (imaginary) provenance derives from his professional studies in philology; but is  what lies behind the supposed origins of The Lord of the Rings mentioned in the Prologue and Appendices... The fiction's feigned historical nature; and the basis of the Romance in (for example) Bilbo's Translations from the Elvish, The Red Book of Westmarch (from Bilbo, Frodo and Sam, mostly), and other texts by Merrie Brandybuck. 

There are further references to provenance in the 'editorial' introduction to The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, and - even more so - the unpublished Notion Club Papers

The other main section of the book is relatively short, but clearly of importance: this is Tolkien's (previously unpublished) 12 page prose translation of The Battle of Maldon fragment - with a further 14 pages of scholarly notes from Grybauskas. The Battle of Maldon serves both as a new publication from Tolkien, and also - in context of this volume, as an essential reference from-which to understand HBBS and the Tradition of Versification lecture notes. 

In conclusion: Congratulations are due to Peter Grybauskas, and to the Tolkien Estate. This is a very worthwhile and interesting book, continuing the excellent start made to HarperCollins recent "post-Christopher Tolkien era" series; continuing CRT's epic work in producing scholarly and enjoyably-readable editions of Tolkien's unpublished or relatively "minor", hence neglected, works.