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!



William Wright (WW) said...

And yet, given that you have worked out Beings as the primary categorical assumption of your metaphysics, it is surprising that you have not written more on Beings themselves!

If reality is comprised of eternal Beings and the relationships between them (which I believe is so), then it seems straightforward that a proper understanding of these Beings and their stories (including ourselves) would seem the best way to also understand reality.

Modern Man has completely forgotten this in our more 'serious' endeavors (sciences, for example) and left the study of reality as Beings to the world of entertainment and distraction: Fiction books and movies - stories, in other words - which almost by definition have to be about Beings.

Thus, you have a strange situation where the best path or approach to understand reality lies in a medium that people typically go to escape from it.

Bruce Charlton said...

@William - "Writing on Beings themselves" is in open-ended business, that we all are doing whenever we do anything substantive.

Beings-as-such are (or course) vastly more various than Human Beings (and ultimately each Being is unique), so anything we write about Beings as such, is going to be very general indeed, and probably very abstract - most of the interest lies in particular Beings.

So discourse on Beings includes stories, the arts, but also everything else - science and so forth. That is the nature of metaphysics - there is no getting away from it, except by being unconscious of it.