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  • Coleridge and Kantian Ideas in England, 1796–1817: Coleridge’s Responses to German Philosophy by Monika Class
  • Tudor Balinisteanu (bio)
Coleridge and Kantian Ideas in England, 1796–1817: Coleridge’s Responses to German Philosophy. By Monika Class. London: Bloomsbury, 2012. xiv + 245pp. $120.

Monika Class’s Coleridge and Kantian Ideas in England is a thorough study in the history of Romantic ideas and philosophies around the turn of the eighteenth century, focusing primarily on the traffic of ideas between England and Germany in relation to S. T. Coleridge and Immanuel Kant and exploring these fruitfully in relation to wider European contexts. Class’s analysis is aligned with tendencies in comparative studies that encompass critical reflections on acculturation as well as sociocultural analysis in the way of Paul Hamilton’s Coleridge’s Poetics (1983) or Nigel Leask’s The Politics of the Imagination in Coleridge’s Critical Thought (1988). Class values philosophical themes over concepts, which indeed allows for more nuanced analyses of the circulation of ideas in concrete settings beyond those of disseminated printed material, such as lectures, conversation, or public debates. The main contribution to the field in this respect is the detailed exploration of the reception, by Coleridge himself but also by other prominent English thinkers of his circle, including his Bristol mentor, Thomas Beddoes, of F. A. Nitsch’s lectures introducing Kant to English audiences, published in 1796 under the title A General and Introductory View of Professor Kant’s Principles Concerning Man, the World and the Deity. As Class puts it in her argument that Coleridge followed Nitsch’s interpretation of Kant even after he read Kant in the original, Nitsch’s lectures “imparted a version of the Kantian system that was certainly better suited to aid Coleridge’s urgent quest for metaphysical oneness than the Critique of Pure Reason itself. The latter baffled Coleridge in parts and left him wondering what it could do for his belief, whereas Nitsch’s introduction had introduced critical philosophy as a relatively straightforward defence of rational belief” (183). Class’s novel perspective derives from her investigation of the ways in which Nitsch’s [End Page e-8] mediation of Kant’s philosophy, which emphasized its radical potential for practical politics, influenced Coleridge’s activism and subsequently his recreation of his identity as writer-philosopher of genius. The argument is developed in thematic chapters judiciously divided into short subchapters. This helps the reader to understand a complex and ramifying argument, and should make the book palatable to the nonspecialist. Class successfully demonstrates that “Nitsch’s impact, and concomitantly that of Kant, was more important than previously thought” (38) and had a wider public resonance than is usually believed on account of the impenetrability of transcendental idealist philosophy for the general reader.

In a simplified summary, the book begins with a detailed analysis of English debates on free will in the context of rational morality and theology, arguing that those debates provided a niche for Kantian philosophy in the mid-1790s. It then offers an account of how, in that context, Coleridge welcomed the socio-politically transformative power of Kant’s philosophy. The analysis proceeds by focusing on Kant’s concept of nature as a guarantee of peace highlighting the ways in which that concept contributed to legitimizing Coleridge’s continued support for the French Revolution in spite of the expansionist ambitions of the First Republic. The attention is then shifted to the anti-Jacobin reaction in England to develop the argument that anti-Kantian publications priming the anti-German reaction in England stifled Coleridge’s continental idealist enthusiasms, but these found expression in his self-reconstruction as a philosopher of genius, based on his original assimilation of Kant’s distinction between Reason and Understanding mediated by Nitsch’s work of popularization of Kant’s ideas. Class’s study shows that the post-Jacobin Coleridge internalized and sublimated Kant’s radicalism, transforming its political energy into philosophical appraisals of aesthetic creativity by reenvisioning Kant’s radicalism in the less threatening terms of a quasi-religious philosophical poetics. This suggests to the present reader that Coleridge saw aesthetic-religious experience as a form of political praxis, which opens up complex...


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