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468 16 Beyond Voluntarism and Deontology Coleridge’s Notion of the Responsible Will At this point, we can begin to delve into some of Coleridge’s late prose in order to draw out a number of related conceptual shifts for which the Mariner’s defining act of skepticism furnishes an early and vivid dramatization. Central to this discussion are the concepts of will, person, and conscience—all of them profoundly inter-related in Coleridge’s late writings. Beginning around 1804, Coleridge posits as unconditional and anterior to everything else the reality of the will, and by 1825 he apodictically defines it as “pre-eminently the spiritual Constituent in our Being” (AR, 75).1 As claims go, such a position is deceptively forthright. For behind it lurks the corollary, so frequently ignored in the wake of modern secular theory, that to assent to the proposition that there is a will means by definition to recognize the spiritual 1. AR, 75. Early in his Opus Maximum, Coleridge notes how the ontology of the will licenses most other concepts relevant to the human sciences: “The one assumption, the one postulate, in which all the rest may assume a scientific form, and which granted we may give coercively deduce even those which we might allowably have assumed, is the Existence of the Will, which a moment’s reflexion will convince us is the same as Moral Responsibility” (OM, 11). On Coleridge’s concept of the will, see Perkins, Coleridge’s Philosophy, 189–204; Hedley, Coleridge, 160–168; Muir, Coleridge as Philosopher, 145–161; Evans, “Reading ‘Will’ in Coleridge’s Opus Maximum”; and Davidson, “Duty and Power.” Beyond Voluntarism and Deontology 469 foundations of human agency as free and capable of choice: “If there be aught Spiritual in Man, the Will must be such. If there be a Will, there must be a Spirituality in Man” (AR, 135). In so having established this “one great and inclusive postulate and moral axiom—the actual being of a responsible Will … it is at the same time admitted that a something is meant by the Will distinct from all other conceptions” (OM, 17). Like any intellectual science, Coleridge insists, moral inquiry also begins with a postulate , “a fact … taken for granted,” which then sets in motion a complex chain of logical and, it is to be hoped, internally consistent operations of thought. That such a postulate should sometimes be called a fact—“an unfortunate word in consequence of its etymology” (OM, 6–7)—and at other times a postulate merely reflects the varying degree of phenomenological certitude with which the individual person apprehends the will’s operative presence. Coleridge’s qualification that the will “may be known, but cannot be understood,” does not, however, imply that the postulate of a “responsible will” amounts to a gratuitous and irrational position but merely acknowledges the fundamental constraints under which human reason finds itself in this kind of inquiry. For unlike the actus purissimus of God, for whom reality and concept always exist in complete alignment and utter plenitude, human inquiry can advance by gradually and dialectically articulating founding conceptions such as will, responsibility, judgment, etc. Following Coleridge’s preferred method, then, one might begin by desynonymizing the “postulate” of the will from a mere hypothesis. For in the case of a hypothesis , the framework of inquiry within which the truth of that hypothesis remains to be tested already exists. By contrast, the assertion of “a responsible will is not only the postulate of all religion but the necessary datum incapable from its very nature of any direct proof—the datum, we say, and ground of all the reasonings and conclusions , which in the particular religion are assumed as already granted” (OM, 32). At issue is not a demonstration of a particular claim, which (as Coleridge well understands ) could prove valid only if we are able to entertain a counterfactual scenario and, by implication, the falsifiability of our guiding concepts. Yet in the “moral science ” attempted in the Opus Maximum, “the conclusion” to be drawn from the opening postulate of a (responsible) will “does not rest on an understood ‘if’ prefixed … [T]he truths are not hypothetically true, but … the necessity arises out of and is commensurate with human nature itself, the sole condition being the retention of humanity ” (OM, 11). Metaphysical speculation thus proves eo ipso to be the kind of “guide to morals” that in the twentieth century it would be for writers like Iris Murdoch , Gertrude Elizabeth Anscombe...


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