When I was a graduate student in the late 1980s, I was encouraged to think of the eighteenth century as a golden age of psychology. At its centre was John Locke’s account of how ideas are formed. In his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), Locke argued that sensory experiences were the basic building blocks of all our ideas and that mental complexity was achieved when we do things with the vast storehouse of sensory copies that we acquire from infancy onwards. 1 Locke’s theory of the mind pointed in directions that lay far beyond the mind. For instance, the manner in which we combine ideas led David Hartley (1749) and his followers to suppose that we were physiologically designed to take increasing pleasure in complex, comprehensive ideas and that by dint of this proclivity we proceed ineluctably to ideas of God. 2 Joseph Butler’s Analogy of Religion (1736) seemed to express a similar confidence that the unfolding of our mental powers followed a teleological pattern and that the central doctrines of Trinitarian Christianity were somehow vindicated in them. 3 These various addenda were thought to be important insofar as they could never be ignored; but no one was in any doubt that they had been grafted on to a more fundamental set of ‘psychological’ propositions, even though the word ‘psychology’ was seldom used by any of these putative ‘psychologists’. It was a mystery why a book with so promising a title as Hartley’s Theory of the Human Mind, which Joseph Priestley published in 1775, devoted so much space to teleology and eschatology. 4 But my fellow-students and I didn’t dwell on it for very long. We just accepted that psychology was a discipline-in-waiting that kept getting side-tracked by concerns which, strictly speaking, were extrinsic to it. The core of ‘eighteenth-century psychology’, retrospectively constructed, lay in the doctrine that the mind emerged from the elaboration of sensory perceptions into increasingly complex ideas. This doctrine knitted well with eighteenth-century philosophy and theology, had the additional merit that it didn’t offend against the canons of twentieth-century materialism, and could easily be adapted to other interests such as psychoanalysis. We were encouraged to be sceptical of eighteenth-century theorists when they asked questions such as ‘what is it that complexity enables the mind to perceive?’ because that was when ‘psychology’ gave place to something much more speculative and dated. (‘Moral qualities’ was an answer commanding almost universal assent but some like Berkeley, Hartley, and Priestley went further and said that complexity enables us to perceive ideas of God.) Even in the acceptable ‘core’ there were areas we were warned off. Eighteenth-century ‘psychologists’ might have had a very cogent view of the development of the mind – especially its cognitive faculties – but, their interest in the passions notwithstanding, they didn’t ‘do depth’. They were interested in the commonalities of human experience and correspondingly indifferent to deep selfhood. Their account of the emotions was absurdly rational and they didn’t understand irrationality as anything other than a computational error.
This wasn’t the Whiggish theory of scientific history in action, exactly. It was a useful and self-consciously artificial way of setting the concerns of the Enlightenment in relation to contemporary preoccupations. Putting Hartley’s theory of the association of ideas next to Coleridge’s conversation poems or Wordsworth’s ‘Note’ to ‘The Thorn’ told you a lot about the kinds of psychological experience those authors wanted you to have. If the psychology of poetry was ‘progressive’ in the Hartleyan sense, then all poems were potentially about everything and that seemed absolutely true to what we took Romanticism to be back then. And I should say at once that I think it’s a much better approach than the one adopted by James Chandler in The Cambridge History of English Romantic Literature (2009), which is to omit the word ‘psychology’ altogether: ‘psychology’ doesn’t rate a single entry in the index of that book, though ‘psychoanalysis’ gets one. 5 Chandler was much too frightened of anachronism, in my view. The birth of psychology was one of the most powerful developments in the intellectual history of the eighteenth century; one without which, moreover, the birth of Romanticism cannot be explained. The fact that for most of the century it was a field shared by a number of disciplines rather than a discipline in its own right does not entitle us to overlook it.
The same talent for retrospective reconstruction gave us eighteenth-century ‘aesthetics’; and it’s not hard to discover the reason. If you log on to Eighteenth Century Collections Online (ECCO) and do a full-text search for instances of the word ‘aesthetics’ occurring anywhere between the covers of its 180,000-odd books, 96 hits come from just 40 books. And if you search for ‘aesthetic’ you get only three. Two of these refer to different volumes of A. M. F. Willich’s Elements of the Critical Philosophy (1798), which, as its name suggests, was an introduction to Kant’s philosophy. 6 The third is from an anthology of extracts from Kant himself. My favourite fact about this book is that the place of publication is listed enigmatically as ‘London, i.e. Hamburg?’ Had ECCO existed in the 1980s, we would have resisted the thought that aesthetics was a German imposture by noting that British thinkers had supplied the starting point for so much German thinking about art. Hogarth’s Analysis of Beauty (1753) and Reynolds’ Discourses on Art had been quarried by no less an authority than Lichtenberg. 7 And what was Kames’s Elements of Criticism (1763) if it wasn’t a work of aesthetic theory? 8 It wasn’t that aesthetics didn’t exist in eighteenth-century Britain; it’s that British thinkers had different interests. They wrote about taste (endlessly!), genius, the picturesque, something called ‘the line of beauty’, the sublime and the beautiful, and of course the moral consequences of reading novels and watching plays. But as with ‘psychology’, ‘aesthetics’, retrospectively construed, was encumbered with a carapace of other commitments originating in moral philosophy and religion. This carapace proved to be much harder to prise off than Hartley’s teleology or Smith’s concern with sociability and civic virtue had been in the case of ‘psychology’. With few exceptions – Hogarth, perhaps, and to a lesser extent, Burke – eighteenth-century aestheticians turned out to be interested en masse in art for its effects on moral life. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that in the eighteenth century aesthetics is a branch of ethics.
If you don’t believe me, here are some statements in a moral vein by leading eighteenth-century aesthetic theorists:
Henry Home, Lord Kames:
Sir Joshua Reynolds:
No occupation attaches a man more to his duty, than that of cultivating a taste in the fine arts. 9
[The artist’s innermost conceptions] may be so far diffused as to extend themselves imperceptibly into publick benefits, and be among the means of bestowing on whole nations refinement of taste; which if it does not lead directly to purity of manners, obviates at least their greatest depravation by disentangling the mind from appetite. 10
A taste for the fine arts […] may accidentally lead men to act viciously, for its gratification: but […] is naturally more favourable to virtue than to vice. 11
I remind you of these claims to make the point that in eighteenth-century Britain, ‘proto-psychology’ and ‘proto-aesthetics’ laboured under a common burden which it is all too easy to overlook: they had to prove their worth in moral terms.
The poems are faithful copies from Nature; and I hope whatever effect they may have upon you, you will at least be able to perceive that they may excite profitable sympathies in many kind and good hearts, and may in some small degree enlarge our feelings of reverence for our species, and our knowledge of human nature, by showing that our best qualities are possessed by men whom we are too apt to consider, not with reference to the points in which they resemble us, but to those in which they manifestly differ from us. 12
Now Coleridge is known to have used the words ‘aesthetics’ and ‘psychology’ in a German sense. But he never spelled out explicitly what he understood by the word ‘psychology’ and he never said what he thought the relationship was between psychology and aesthetics. I think they were related in his mind and that in complementary ways they helped him to clarify his own relationship with the philosophic legacy of the eighteenth century. In the remainder of this paper, I would like to describe what I think he thought ‘Psychologie’ and ‘Ästhetische Theorie’ were, and to put forward a conjecture about the ways in which he might have connected the two.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century, ‘psychology’ implied three things. It referred to the soul as construed by theologians. And it was also one of the two major branches of medicine, the other being physiology. This is the sense in which Coleridge would have found it used in Blancard’s Lexicon Medicum (1679), a book he claimed to have learned ‘almost off by heart’ in his early teens. 13 The first recorded English use appears in a translation of Blancard’s book: ‘Anthropologia, the Description of a Man, or the Doctrin concerning him. Bartholine divides it into Two Parts; viz. Anatomy, which treats of the Body, and Psycology, which treats of the Soul.’ Virtually every use of the term in English cited by OED from before 1800 is medical. Because of its status as one of a pair it became a catch-all for everything a medical author did not consider to be strictly physiological. Most often it meant the science in which ‘the actions of the soul or mind are investigated’ (Albrecht von Haller’s definition). 14 Any physical condition with psychic consequences was a psychological one. Hangovers were psychological. So was vertigo, drunkenness, somnambulism, hallucinations, and even post-partum depression of spirits. The actions of the soul or mind needed to be investigated because of their effects on the body. In the medicine of antiquity and the Renaissance, the passions were conceived of as pathogenic movements of the soul. Regardless of whether priority was granted to the psyche or the body, the important and somewhat counterintuitive point to grasp is that psychology was an adjunct to the treatment of physical illness.
The term ‘psychology’ was known to be German in origin and this gave rise to a third set of associations. 15OED notes that the word entered most European languages from Germany in the late sixteenth century and that the first person to use it in the modern sense was the German philosopher Christian Wolff (in his Psychologia Empirica of 1732 and Psychologia Rationalis of 1734). Wolff used the term to mean the study of mental experience but his interest in it was philosophic. He wanted to know what the soul or mind was capable of experiencing. Wolff’s importance in the tale I am now relating turns on the fact that he did more than any other thinker to put the word ‘psychology’ into currency. By Coleridge’s time, it had become associated with the study of mental experience of all kinds. The key figure here was Karl Philipp Moritz (1756-93), who in 1782 published a ‘Proposal for Magazine for the Study of Psychic Experience’ [‘Vorschlag zu einem Magazin einer Erfahrungsseelenkunde’] in which he called for the establishment of a new field of enquiry, Erfahrungsseelenkunde [the study of psychic experience] to be brought into being by ‘moral doctors’ who would apply the techniques of medical diagnosis to the study of mental phenomena. 16 Moral doctors did not need a medical qualification. They were required only to be ‘observers of the human heart’. The result was a periodical published three times a year from 1783 to 1793 called Gnothi Seauton oder Das Magazin zur Erfahrungsseelenkunde . Moritz’s Magazin was the birthplace of the modern psychological case history. The one hundred or so contributors who filled its pages described the vicissitudes of their mental lives without constraint. Alexander Crichton, the first British physician to draw attention to Moritz’s Magazin complained that it gave too much space to ‘histories of prophetic dreams, surprizing inspirations and warnings’. 17 Here is an example of the kind of material that Moritz’s correspondents sent in for publication:
On the 14th of November, the idea that someone wanted to kill me sprang up suddenly and involuntarily in my mind, and yet I must confess there was no reason I should have harboured this thought, for I am convinced no one ever formed such a cruel design against me. People who had a stick in their hands I looked on as murderers.
As I walked out of the town, a countryman happened to follow me, and I was instantly filled with the greatest apprehension, and stood still to let him pass. I asked the fellow in a threatening voice, and with a view of intimidating him from his purpose, what was the name of the town that lay before us. The man answered my question, and walked on, and I found great relief because he was no longer behind me. In the evening I found water remaining in the glass out of which I commonly drink, and I instantly believed it was poisoned. I therefore washed it carefully out, and yet I knew at the same time that I myself had left the water in it.
18th Nov. The effects of the nuptial embrace on my mind, gradually grow more singular, insupportable, and dangerous. It is not that I find myself weakened by it, on the contrary I always find myself at first lighter, more cheerful, and better disposed for scientific inquiry. I also observe that I have much happier and wittier thoughts than any other; but alas! This state of mind and body does not last for long. For such moments of connubial tenderness I afterwards pay dearly by long lived days of mental inquietude.
Anxiety, dreadful anxiety, seizes me if a person overlooks my hand at cards or if a person sits down beside me if I am playing the harpsichord &c. 18
Though he was not the first British doctor to quote from Moritz’s Magazin, Coleridge’s friend Dr Thomas Beddoes was the first to publish liberal extracts from it, notably in Hygëia (1802-03). 19 It is likely that Beddoes owned copies of Moritz’s work. After 1802, he became increasingly interested in the psychic aspects of illness experience, going so far as to embrace medical mentalism, the doctrine that all the operations of the body are, potentially at least, under the control of the mind. This doctrine was to have a strong influence on Coleridge. Three emphases stand out distinguishing Beddoes’s use of Moritz’s and like-minded writers’ case histories. First and foremost, it is always tethered to the analysis of the state of the body. Second, psychology considers the whole of man’s psychic life in order to understand the obscure ways in which the passions affect the body. Beddoes was convinced that some passions were experienced unconsciously. Lastly, psychology promotes introspection as an aid to good general health.
Coleridge first began to describe his case along psychological lines in 1803, following a template supplied by Beddoes. In the ninth essay of Hygëia (on the causes of nervous disease), Beddoes describes the case of Karl Von Drais, a Swiss aristocrat who published a pseudonymous account of his seven year struggle with epilepsy. Von Drais believed that his epilepsy was caused by sexual ideas which he dismissed from his mind but which returned with a vengeance when he lay down at night to go to sleep. I have suggested elsewhere that Von Drais’s case had a profound influence on how Coleridge saw his own case. 20 Coleridge came to believe that his nervous symptoms, especially those he had previously attributed to his gout, were psychically caused. His consciousness, as he told Sir George and Lady Beaumont, was taken up with ‘Love, and Pleasure and General Thought’. In more expansive mode, it also encompassed ‘vivid Ideas drawn from Nature & Books’ and was ‘habitually applied to the purposes of Generalization’. But he was unable to make ‘Grief & Trouble’ or ‘all the Feelings which particularly affect myself, as myself’ the ‘objects of a distinct attention’. In consequence, thoughts falling into these categories ‘[connected & combined] with [his] bodily sensations, especially the trains of motion in the digestive Organs’. 21 ‘Grief and trouble’ were to Coleridge what sexual ideas were to Von Drais. This account of his infirmities dominated Coleridge’s stay in Malta and well beyond it. ‘My stomach indeed is very weak,’ he wrote to his wife on the 5th of July 1804, ‘the mesenteric Glands are certainly affected by the habit of suppressed painful Thought – yet still I live in Hope that gradually I shall bring myself around.’ 22 And so in the Moritzian fashion he spent the next several years minutely examining his consciousness for signs of the suppression of painful thought, detailing the results in Notebooks, in the hope of ‘bringing himself around’. The psychological aspects of Coleridge’s account of his illness arise from the facts that he now sees his physical condition as lying entirely under the sway of his mental experience. The experience is passionate – ‘Grief & Trouble’ – and eludes his conscious attention: ‘painful Thought’ is ‘suppressed’. And lastly, he hopes to cure himself by means of introspective mental activity.
Coleridge apologized for the word ‘psychological’ when he first used it in his second series of Shakespeare lectures given in 1811-12. The occasion was the first of two lectures on Hamlet. Announcing that he will pursue ‘a psychological rather than a historical mode of reasoning’ he presents the prince’s tragedy as a psychological case history in the Moritzian tradition. Young Hamlet is sick. There is an imbalance between his attention to external objectives and his inner preoccupations. His ‘Thoughts Images & Fancy’ are ‘far more vivid than his Perceptions’, and because of this ‘his very Perceptions [acquire] as they pass, a form and colour not naturally their own’. Hamlet’s aversion to action is thus physiologically grounded. His body already ‘exhausted from perpetual exertion of mind’ comes under further intolerable strain as a result of the prince’s predilection for the indefinite which ‘combines with passion’ and alienates him from action. Specifically, it causes him to ‘[run] away from the particular in the general’, a point Coleridge underlines in his lecture notes: ‘This aversion to personal, individual concerns and escape to Generalization and general reasonings a most important characteristic.’ 23 Or to put this another way: Hamlet, like Coleridge, was unable to make ‘all the Feelings which particularly affect myself, as myself’ the ‘objects of a distinct attention’. The interesting thing is that Coleridge was perfectly aware of the self-projection his theory contained. As he famously told Henry Crabb Robinson, he had a smack of the prince about him himself. 24
I turn now to his use of the term ‘aesthetics’. OED dates the first recorded usage of ‘aesthetics’ to 1832 but in fact, from about 1813, under the influence of Kant, Coleridge began to use the terms ‘Art’ and ‘aesthetics’ where previously he might have talked about ‘poetry’ and ‘poetic principles’. He did not use it much in public but it crops up regularly in his Notebooks. We should not exaggerate the significance of this transposition. It was not so far removed from the way Kames and others had used the term ‘the fine arts’. Coleridge’s arrangement of the materials was nevertheless unusual by British standards. In 1814 he published three essays on aesthetics in Felix Farley’s Bristol Journal. The Essays on the Principles of Genial Criticism, as they became known, were intended, in the first instance, to serve as a kind of informal catalogue for an exhibition of paintings by his friend Washington Allston (1779-1843). 25 Allston had retired to Bristol in October 1813 just as Coleridge was lecturing on Shakespeare there, and for about a year the two men saw a good deal of one another. Coleridge had a number of subsidiary aims which had nothing to do with Allston. Chief among these was to take issue with contemporary theorists of the fine arts such as Richard Payne Knight and his followers whose theoretical point of view seemed insufficiently comprehensive and therefore wrong. Knight was an associationist who believed that ideals of beauty depend on circumstances and, as such, are culturally relative. Coleridge, by contrast, suggests that ideals of beauty are absolute, innate, and have to do with the mind’s apprehension of itself. For this task he famously had recourse to Kant’s Critique of Judgment.
The central aim of the Essays on Genial Criticism is to establish the importance of disinterestedness in experiences of the beautiful. For this purpose, Coleridge begins by distinguishing the Beautiful from the merely Agreeable. The Agreeable, he says, is essentially an experience of ‘pre-established harmony between the organs and their appointed objects’ (EP 370). This harmony can occur naturally or it can be brought about by circumstances or habit. As an example of natural harmony he suggests the pleasure someone might take in the colour green. ‘By force of custom men make the taste of tobacco, which was at first hateful to the palate, agreeable to them.’ Finally, a lasting association with a happy circumstance can make things agreeable to us. ‘I am conscious,’ Coleridge writes, ‘that I look with a stronger and a more pleasurable emotion at Mr. Allston’s large Landscape in the spirit of Swiss scenery, from its having been the occasion of my first acquaintance with him in Rome.’ This circumstance makes Allston’s painting more agreeable to Coleridge but it does not make it more beautiful. When we attach a sentimental value to an object we make it agreeable to ourselves. When we find a thing agreeable, ‘pleasure always precedes the judgment and is its determining cause’. Agreeable things are means to an end and the end is always pleasure (EP 370).
By contrast, the beautiful gives pleasure by being beautiful. ‘Venison is agreeable because it gives pleasure; while the Apollo Belvidere is not beautiful because it pleases, but it pleases us because it is beautiful’:
The Beautiful, contemplated in its essentials, that is, in kind and not in degree, is that in which the many, still seen as many, becomes one. Take a familiar instance, one of a thousand. The frost on a window-pane has by accident crystallized into a striking resemblance of a tree or a sea-weed. With what pleasure we trace the parts, and their relations to each other, and to the whole! (EP 371)
The pleasure I take in the colour green can be a component of my experience of the beautiful but by itself green cannot be beautiful. The beautiful is distinct from both the Agreeable and the Good in our having no interest attached to it. ‘The beautiful, not originating in the senses, must belong to the intellect; and therefore we declare an object beautiful and feel an inward right to expect, that others should coincide with us.’ (EP 381)
The Essays on Genial Criticism is heavily indebted to Kant’s account of these matters. But Kant’s emphasis on disinterestedness was comparatively unknown to the British reading public. The essays give it an English pedigree by concluding with a delightful imaginary dialogue between Milton and a Puritan. The dialogue goes as follows:
Let us suppose Milton in company with some stern and prejudiced Puritan, contemplating the front of York Cathedral, and at length expressing his admiration of its beauty. We will suppose it, too, at that time of his life when his religious opinions, feelings, and prejudices more nearly coincided with those of the rigid anti-prelatists.
Puritan: Beauty! I am sure it is not the beauty of holiness.
Milton: True : but yet it is beautiful.
Puritan: It delights not me. What is it good for? Is it of any use but to be stared at?
Milton: Perhaps not: but still it is beautiful.
Puritan: But call to mind the pride and wanton vanity of those cruel shavelings that wasted the labour and substance of so many thousand poor creatures in the erection of this haughty pile.
Milton: I do. But still it is very beautiful.
Puritan: Think how many score of places of worship, incomparably better suited both for prayer and preaching, and how many faithful ministers might have been maintained, to the blessing of tens of thousands, to them and their children's children, with the treasures lavished on this worthless mass of stone and cement.
Milton: Too true! but nevertheless it is very beautiful.
Puritan: And it is not merely useless, but it feeds the pride of the prelates, and keeps alive the popish and carnal spirit among the people.
Milton: Even so: and I presume not to question the wisdom nor detract from the pious zeal of the first Reformers of Scotland, who for these reasons destroyed so many fabrics, scarce inferior in beauty to this now before our eyes. But I did not call it Good, nor have I told thee, brother, that if this were levelled with the ground, and existed only in the works of the modeller or engraver, that I should desire to reconstruct it. The good consists in the congruity of a thing with the laws of the reason and the nature of the will, and in its fitness to determine the latter to actualize the former, and it is always discursive. The Beautiful arises from the preconceived harmony of an object, whether sight or sound, with the inborn and constitutional rules of the judgment and imagination; and it is always intuitive. As light to the eye, even such is beauty to the mind, which cannot but have complacency in whatever is perceived, as pre-configured to its living faculties. (EP 378-79)
How then was this ‘Ästhetische Theorie’ connected with ‘Psychologie’ in Coleridge’s mind and what did he find in them that he wouldn’t have been able to find in their British precursors? The answer, I think, in both cases is connected with disinterestedness or ‘complacency’ as he has Milton call it. Coleridge was fascinated by eighteenth-century psychology and aesthetics but he was radically ambivalent about them both. Until very late in his career he cherished hopes that the Imagination would bring people into direct contact with a divine principle and that an understanding of its workings in general would enable them to share in poetic greatness and blessedness. Here, for instance, is a passage from a lecture he gave in 1818 that seems to me to be entirely consistent with the views he espoused as a young disciple of Priestley and Hartley:
The imagination is the distinguishing characteristic of man as a progressive being; and I repeat that it ought to be carefully guided and strengthened as the indispensable means and instrument of continued amelioration of refinement. Men of genius and goodness are generally restless in their minds in the present, and this, because they are by a law of their nature unremittingly regarding themselves in the future, and contemplating the possibility of moral and intellectual advance towards perfection. Thus we live by hope and faith; thus we are, for the most part able to realize what we will, and thus we accomplish the end of our being. The contemplation of futurity inspires humility of soul in our judgment of the present. 26
In other moods, however, he could be very pessimistic about the Imagination and see it as something that deceived the mind and estranged it from prospects of futurity and Godliness. In such moments, Coleridge resembles no one so much as that great eighteenth-century pessimist about the imagination, Samuel Johnson. I would say that Coleridge wanted to believe that art achieved a beneficial moral effect but couldn’t do so in a consistent way. ‘Ästhetische Theorie’ enabled him to value the Beautiful for its own sake in a way that few previous British writers would have endorsed. Perhaps the Beautiful did achieve moral effects but it did so in the most indirect way. ‘Psychologie’, likewise, allowed him to present character in a comparatively morally neutral light. Hamlet may be caught in complex moral dilemmas but his responses to these must be understood first and foremost in a psycho-physiological sense. No judgment could be passed on the Prince’s reactions; but they could be understood. Coleridge’s interpretation of the hero’s character aims to subordinate moral criticism of his predicament and to create a space for a purely intellectual apprehension of character that Kant had asserted to be the hallmark of the Beautiful. Through ‘psychological’ analysis, the central character ‘becomes one’ by being crystallized into a pattern that has no very conspicuous moral meaning. I don’t think I’d want to push this idea to the limit. But I am convinced that this was the direction of travel that ‘Ästhetische Theorie’ and ‘Psychologie’ made possible.