Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s philosophical inquiry into “method” in the 1810s appears to be grounded upon metaphysical premises, as he regards scientific discovery as a kind of revelation of a Platonic idea, and conceptualizes imagination as a transcendental faculty of perceiving it. However, in spite of his idealistic disposition, Coleridge’s engagement with “method” is closely tied to a methodological issue within Newtonian inductive science: the use of hypotheses.
In the history of empirical science, inductive logic was considered a cornerstone for validating knowledge while disregarding any hypothetical mode of reasoning. However, there were many cases in which hypotheses, explicitly or not, functioned as important factors for making and extending knowledge, and the legitimacy of inductive science could thus not be separated from the issue of how to demarcate a valid hypothesis from an invalid one.
This paper examines how Coleridge’s literary criticism based on imagination is motivated by this demarcation of hypotheses. His distinction between what he calls “Hypothesis” and “Hypopœēsis” depends upon whether one “imagines” only the relation of the facts concerned (Hypothesis), or not only their relation but one (unproved) fact for the ground of their relation (Hypopœēsis). Coleridge’s approach to imagination in Biographia Literaria should be read as aiming to present a methodological critique of David Hartley’s (scientific) and William Wordsworth’s (poetic) faculties on the same horizon, seeking to represcribe the boundary of inductive reasoning by means of hypothetical thought. In an attempt to distinguish imagination from fancy, Coleridge first repudiates Hartley’s theory of association as an example of fanciful hypothesis, or Hypopœēsis, and then critically analyzes Wordsworth’s poetics of imagination from the same methodological viewpoint, and reconstructs it under a new critical light of Hypothesis.
These approaches suggest that Coleridge regards imagination not merely as an organic faculty of integrating poetic images but, more broadly, as an experience-based but more productive cognitive faculty of reconstructing things (as distinguished from a fallacious hypothetical reasoning). Coleridge’s “practical criticism” is sustained by this methodological consciousness, and placing his concern with imagination and fancy in the methodological discourse of inductive science enables us to reconsider how Romantic mode of thought serves to enlarge as well as condition scientific reasoning.