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Notes on the Idea of Organicism, Part I: Coleridge
– Jan 28, 2015
– originally posted to the PDC May 6, 2014

A 'Best Of' post from the Best of the Poetry Daily Critique page.

Notes on the Idea of Organicism, Part I


[This is the intro to the original posts.]


Right now, I am working on a number of interconnected explorations in the areas of prosody and meter, of Modernism and the aesthetic text, and of a groundwork on the subject of poetry/literature. As I work them through into words I will throw them up here part by part, without consideration as of now of generating a whole (or wholes). I figure two aims will be served: that they will this way be posted in small, digestible portions; and these posts could serve as an oven where they can bake while I work into the next parts.

The first couple – first in their appearance here but the last in their arrival to my desk – were spawned by a comment in a conversation on FB about organicism, which mostly could be summed up in a very simple question: "Ok, I get the idea of organicism in general, but what use does the idea have from a critical side or from the reader's side?" Which is actually a pretty good question. And, considering I throw the word (or its synonyms) around on this blog here and there, one that is probably worth addressing as a post.

So what I have done is broken it into two parts. This first part is a to-the-point explanation of what the idea of the organic text is, as it was generated by Coleridge in response to the then prevailing, mechanistic theory of invention. (Note that just because I say "then prevailing" does not mean it is not still prevailing, if in different terms. But that's another conversation.) Part II will be a loose collection of comments as regards the text. (It is still in progress. As I said, I've a number of projects going on at the same time.)

Part I
Coleridge's Theory of Organic Invention


The idea of organicism comes primarily from Coleridge, who was the first to develop a full, organic theory of invention. As concerns Coleridge, I am going to work out of M.H. Abrams's book The Mirror and the Lamp (1953, chapter VII). For those unfamiliar with that book, it is a seminal text on Romantic theory, and is about as safe a source of information on the subject as can be found.

Before I begin, I feel the need for a note on terminology. The two philosophies of artistic creation at the time were identified (by Coleridge, at least) as "mechanistic" and "organic." I see the possibility within that term "mechanistic" of a misconception in trying to understand mechanistic psychology by thinking out of the idea of a machine. In truth, a machine can have aspects of organicism within it. For example, the various parts of a Formula 1 car are highly integrated and co-operative with each other. They pistons are designed to work with the cam-shaft, and vice versa so as to maximize productivity and efficiency. A change in one part of the car can force consequent changes in many other parts of the car. What makes the mechanistic theory mechanistic is that it proposes an idea of the mind that functions like a machine, more exactly that function according to physical laws. Indeed, it is not a stretch to call it a Newtonian theory of the mind (and Abrams does point out just how mechanistic psychology intentionally parallels Newtonian physics).

I am going to organize this, as did Abrams, by starting with the mechanistic approach to the science of the mind as developed in the 17th and 18th centuries so as to set up those ideas to which Coleridge's theory of organic invention was reacting. As Abrams points out, the development of these ideas was primarily worked through taking the laws of the physical world and applying them to the mind and the creative process. I am going to leave out historical and derivational aspects, and limit the discussion to the primary ideas of the two theories, as outlined by Abrams. For the most part, this is straight presentation of the ideas within Abrams, with some small effort to clarification and development. Note, however, my small development within this part is speaking as a twenty-first century voice; I will not – nor can I – attempt to restrict my language to speaking something "purely Coleridge." In the first part I will mostly paraphrase; though in the second I will, like Abrams, let Coleridge speak for himself – though both with expediency in mind. I will hold exploration and explication beyond the basic ideas until after.

(To note: All quotations below will be of Abrams unless otherwise noted. Smaller quotes within quotations of Abrams are of Coleridge. Since I am following Abrams's text point by point, rather than cite every quotation, I will limit myself to the first page of each point, at the heading of each point. All emphasis is as in Abrams's text, unless noted as otherwise [so also with punctuation].)


The Nature of Analogies (158)


Before beginning his discussion Abrams makes a qualifying statement which is of no small importance in establishing the outermost context for this discussion. That is, he makes it clear that the event being described – Coleridge's development of the organic theory in contrast to the prevailing philosophy of poetic invention – is not a shift in understanding through scientifically observed fact but shift in understanding-through-analogy:

The basic nature of the shift from the psychological criticism in the tradition of Hobbes and Hume to that of Coleridge can, I think, be clarified if we treat it as the result of an analogical substitution – the replacement, that is to say, of a mechanical process by a living plant as the implicit paradigm governing the description of the process and the product of literary invention.

The idea of an organic theory should not be taken as though the theory was establishing scientific laws of psychological invention. It is only a functional analogy being used for description of the processes. As analogy, then, it carries into the discussion that fundamental rule that analogies can only ever be taken so far. That Coleridge might use the seed of a plant as part of the description of the creative invention does not mean we can extend out through the science of botany to develop the idea. It is only an analogy. However, within the contrast of the two theories, a very useful analogy.


The Mechanistic Theory of Psychology


Abrams breaks down the mechanistic theory of invention into four fundamental elements. The title phrases below are Abrams's.


(1) The elementary particles of the mind (160)

It should not be surprising that, as with the physical theories on which it was derived, mechanistic psychological theory should be based upon discrete elemental particles: "ideas." Nor should it be surprising that these particles are themselves the result of a cause-and-effect process: they are made from "images," either in whole or in part, which are the effects of the human person in sensual interaction with the world around them. (Generally concentrating on the visual.) Ideas, then, are "fainter replicas of the original perceptions of sense."

It has to be recognized that ideas – and images – are conceived here as discrete, elemental units. They are replicas of sense perceptions. Sensation is here being understood through a Newtonian cause and effect relationship. A ball strikes a ball and has the effect of putting that second ball in motion, all measurable through discrete physical laws and units. So also a person sees a flower and in their mind there is then the idea of that experience of seeing that flower: an effect that is equally mechanical (if not, in analogy, numeric) as the interaction of two balls.


(2) The motions and combinations of the parts (161)

Images are organized linearly, into a sequence. Memory is such a sequence maintaining its original order. Imagination (or "fancy" – with the mechanistic theory the two words are for the most interchangeable) is the rearrangement or recombination of images, whether in part or in whole. The classic example of this is the fantastic beasts of myth, which are parts of known animals recombined into a new creature.

Invention can thus be creative in the fracturing, ordering, and recombining; it cannot, however, create new images. Images have to have their source in the perceived world, brought into the mind through sense.


(3) The law of associative attraction (162)

The images within the mind cannot be brought together into a new form in any random order. Images can only be brought together according to mutual associative attraction. There were various theories as to what were these laws. Hume limited these associations to three: Resemblance, Contiguity in place or time, and Cause and Effect. Another thinker (Hartley) independently reduced the law to the necessity that images had to have had contiguity in the original experience of ideas. While however the variations, once introduced, the idea of the law of associative attraction became central to all mechanistic theories.


What remains for the philosophy is the action of the writer/artist in assembling the images.


(4) The problem of judgment and artistic design (163)

In that the development of the mechanistic theory – the development of a psychology of artistic creation – was primarily the effort to translate existing theories of poetry into a theory of psychology, mechanistic theorists were faced with two complexities, two elements of that existing theory of poetry that did not fit within a theory based on a purely Newtonian approach. They are (1) the Aristotelian concept of unity (and within it that of form), and (2) the Horatian concept of art as a making where an intended end-result pre-exists the actual making, and wherein the making was adapted in process in order to maximize the success of that end result. The mechanistic thinkers had a problem: If the theory is to follow the philosophy of physical science in its nature, what decides whether the end result will be art or chaos?

The answer came upon was to use the same solution to the same question as it was applied to the ordering of the cosmos: a deus ex machina. Quoting Newton's Principia:

The most beautiful system of the sun, planets, and comets could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful being.

The mechanistic theory of invention followed the same path, generally holding to the idea of "the existence of a controlling design in the mind of the productive artist." Literally, the "Artistan" of the 'capital-C' Cosmos was given a parallel presence in the mind of the human artist, "converted . . . into a mental agent or faculty (called interchangeably 'judgment,' 'reason,' or 'understanding') which supervises and reviews the mechanical process of association." Willful creativity is redacted from the artistic mind and replaced with the guiding force of something inherent, instinctual. A quote from Alexander Gerard speaks it well (from Essay on Genius):

Every work of genius is a whole, made up of the regular combination of different parts, so organized as to become altogether subservient to a common end. Fancy forms the plan in a sort of mechanical or instinctive manner: judgment, on reviewing it, perceives its rectitude or its errors, as it were scientifically; its decisions are founded on reflection, and produce a conviction of their justness.

"The passage is perfectly representative," says Abrams. As with any Newtonian action there has to be an originating first actor (i.e., someone has to strike that first ball and put it in motion), so also did an actor need to be found for the physical process of artistic invention, an actor that could not be the artist themselves without destroying the whole of the mechanistic theory. Thus, they introduced the pre-existing, "instinctual" blue-prints of making, leaving the individual maker only – in parallel to similar theories of morality – the "judgment" of the "rightness" of the resulting work.


From the above you should be able to see the basic outline of the mechanistic theory. Though, in the end, as Abrams states, it is really a theory of two analogies: "the analogy of a mechanism" where "the images of sense follow one another according to the laws of mental gravitation"; and "the analogy of the intelligent artisan," who "makes his selection from the materials proffered, and then puts them together according to his pre-existent blue-print or plan."


Abrams takes a moment at this point to show the Newtonian nature of the mechanistic theory of invention. (1) The elemental particles of images correspond to Newton's particles of matter. (2) the Motion of ideas in a sequence parallels the basic idea of matter moving in space. And (3) it is all governed by the law of associative attraction, just as the material world is governed by physical laws. Keeping this within the context of analogy, this link ti physical laws (to a Newtonian understanding of reality) goes far in opening the ideas of the in-organic text.


Coleridge's Organic Theory


As with the mechanistic theory, I am mostly limiting myself to the basic elements, of which there are five. To note, as Abrams presents it, central to Coleridge's ideas is his distinguishing between fancy and imagination. The former retains a mechanistic aspect: while it carries the freedom of "choice" in its making, it is limited in its resources to (quoting Coleridge) "fixities and definites," with "ready made" materials assembled through the law of association. Imagination, on the other hand,

dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to recreate; or where this process is rendered impossible, yet still at all events it struggles to idealize and to unify. It is essentially vital, even as all objects (as objects) are essentially fixed and dead.

Of course, the key word there is "vital," which marks the shift from a mechanistic theory of invention to an organic one. Writes Abrams:

The imagination is [. . .] 'essentially vital,' it 'generates and produces a form of its own,' and its rules are 'the very powers of growth and production.'

You can see, with the imagination Coleridge is striking an opposing stake to the mechanistic theory. His language wholly maintains the analogy of a vital, living psyche, and does it by comparing imagination and invention to plants.

It should also be worth noting that Coleridge's arguments did not instigate a massive revolution in the psychology of invention. The mechanistic theory remained dominant through the nineteenth century. (Which may in part give understanding why, when Freud first began his work, he was seeking to develop a wholly scientific theory of psychology, and why his slow recognition of the irrational unconscious was so revolutionary to the understanding of the mind.)


That said, these are the five characteristics of Coleridge's organic theory, as broken down by Abrams. (Again, the titles of the characteristics are from Abrams; though, they are not there, in the manner of those of mechanistic theory, italicized as "titles" within his text.)


(1) The plant originates as a seed (171)

That is, as opposed to originating as a collection of parts in a box. This idea underlies the whole of organic theory in its rejection of making out of elemental parts and end product that can yet be seen and understood as being constituted of those (unchanged) elemental parts in favor of a making a unity. Quoting Coleridge (Aids to Reflection):

That the root, stem, leaves, petals, etc. [of the crocus] cohere to one plant, is owing to an antecedent Power or Principle in the Seed, which existed before a single particle of the matters that constitute the size and visibility of the crocus, had been attracted from the surrounding soil, air, and moisture. (emphasis in Abrams)

"Which existed before a single particle": Coleridge reverses the idea of invention by putting the final whole above the contributive parts, not only in importance but also in their relationship to each other. In the mechanistic theory, the whole is a collection of parts, and is defined by those elemental parts. In the organic theory, the parts cannot be spoken of except in their function within the whole. Every "part" of a plant, in such that any part can be called a "part," sits in relation to the entirely of the whole, whereas in the mechanistic theory the parts sit in relationship not to the whole but, through the law of association, to each other.


(2) The plant grows (171)

This is a rather obvious and simple consequent of point #1: artistic invention within the organic theory cannot be understood as mechanical assembly; it must be seen as a genetic process of invention. A work is not put together from constituent images gathered in the mind. It grows through "evolution" and "extension" (Coleridge's words).


(3) Growing, the plant assimilates to its own substance the alien and diverse elements of earth, air, light, and water (171)

This goes to the raw materials of invention. In the mechanistic theory, invention occurred wholly through recombination of sense images. In organic theory, sensory information is understood as raw materials to the process of invention, as is earth, water, air, and light are to a growing plant: you cannot (in the manner of the fantastical beasts of myth) break down a plant into its constitutive parts: the raw materials are transformed in the process of growth. Importantly, raw materials within the organic theory provide not only "matter" to the making but also energy. Quoting Coleridge (Preliminary Treatise on Method)

In all the processes of mental evolution the objects of the senses must stimulate the Mind; and the Mind must in turn assimilate and digest the food which it thus receives from without.


(4) The plant evolves spontaneously from an internal source of energy (172)

The external artisan is removed from the process of invention, and the guiding principles are placed instead within the individual invention itself. I will continue to let Coleridge speak for himself (Biographia Literaria)

The form is mechanic when on any given material we impress a pre-determined form . . . as when to a mass of wet clay we give whatever shape we wish it to retain when hardened. The organic form, on the other hand, is innate; it shapes as it develops itself from within, and the fullness of its development is one and the same with the perfection of the outward form.

With invention being "inherently teleological – since its form is endogenous and automotive" – there is no need to appeal to the deus ex machina, to a pre-existing, instinctual architect, to account for the unity of design or the process of design to an end. The work itself guides the writer in its making. This guiding – reversing the pairing seen in #3 – entails not only the ideational energy of the process of design but also the raw materials: the resulting whole will take into itself the raw materials it needs to develop into its fullest, healthiest form.

Abrams does note here that Coleridge solved one problem – the external Artisan – but in the act created another: the above description makes the process of artistic invention seem self-propelled; as though Coleridge has only substituted an external determinism for an internal determinism. Coleridge did recognized this problem, as the whole point of the organic philosophy was to put invention within not only the mind of the writer but also within the will of the writer. Coleridge wrote (Biographia):

What the plant is by an act not its own and unconsciously, that must though make thyself to become.

Free will was central to Coleridge's ideas, and informed all his work. Nonetheless, there is something of hobgoblin sitting within his genetic analogy of invention: a cactus does not will itself to be a cactus.

This discussion opened by pointing out that the two theories here are working through analogies, especially with Coleridge. (We cannot literally translate creative invention into the idea of the growth of a plant.) But it is quite evident that at this point – in Coleridge's recognition that the creative process must in part be unconscious – he runs into the historical wall that the idea of the unconscious had not yet found substantial development within the field of psychology. Coleridge has here come upon the primary issue Freud faced three-quarters of a century later (Biographia Literaria was published 1817, The Interpretation of Dreams in 1899). In truth, however, it seems it can be admitted that the analogy of organic theory as presented by Coleridge is not that poor a go at creating an analogy for the actions of the unconscious within the human psyche.

With our understanding of the unconscious, of how true creativity exists primarily within the intuitive unconscious, however, the above "internal" determinism is readily put aside. But since this is meant to be only a outlining of the mechanistic and organic theories, going any more deeply into the contemporary understanding of the unconscious or Coleridge's attempts to deal with invention being dually conscious and unconscious (as he understood it) is straying from the point. So, to complete this outlining:


(5) The achieved structure of a plant is an organic unity (174)

Looking back at the idea of the fantastical beasts of myth is possibly the best demonstration of what is, by now, mostly a respeaking of the above from out of the consideration of the end product. The organic theory does not view the final text as definable parts glued together according to laws of association into a linear whole. Rather – and I will here use a phrase of Abrams which to me is very well chosen – the raw materials of the text relate to each other "in a complex and peculiarly intimate way." There is a complexity beyond what permits simple division (like with an automobile engine) into discrete parts; it is a peculiar relation in that every organic work is peculiar to itself and so the "parts" of any one work can only be understood peculiarly to that one work; and the whole is intimately unified, it can only be viewed always through the unified functioning of the whole.

The opposition between the end result of the two theories can be clearly understood through the basic grounds of the theories: physical law versus natural science. The mechanistic theory conceives of the text as parts in a relationship that (quoting Coleridge from a manuscript note)

knows only of distance and nearness . . . in short, the relations of unproductive particles to each other; so that in every instance the result is the exact sum of the component qualities, as in arithmetical addition.

As opposed to the inert elements of mechanistic making, the vital – we come back to that word – organic text cannot separate parts from whole, or whole from parts. As well, the parts – again, inasmuch as they can be called "parts" – speak to the peculiar nature of whole and the whole speaks to the peculiar nature of the parts: a petal from a plant can only be understood within the context of the plant as a whole (including its genetic development and growth); and the growth of the various parts of a plant can only be understood within in whole's interaction within its environment (and with itself). I will risk over stating the point by quoting Abrams:

Imaginative unity is an organic unity: a self-evolved system, constituted by a living interdependence of parts, whose identity cannot survive their removal from the whole.


Now, it may have occurred to some readers that I have been in the above attempting (to different degrees of success) to maintain a language that spoke of two independent theories of invention, two theories that each in itself intended to encompass the whole of invention. However, as is still the case within literary theory, Coleridge recognized that the two theories were not equal in that measure. While the mechanistic theory attempts to explain the whole of artistic invention, Coleridge recognized that organic theory did not wholly exclude from the understanding of artistic invention mechanistic theory. The organic theory of invention explained only the organic element of invention, that part which to Coleridge was missing from mechanistic theories. That is, Coleridge recognized that there are texts that are primarily organic in nature, and there are texts that are primarily mechanistic in their nature (and thus legitimately mechanistic in their creation). Contrary to what many critics and theorists of the contemporary mechanistic side may wish, the relationship between those theories of thought and being that develop into and through post-structuralism are not – just as with the above – directly opposed to metaphysical, centric theories (which are within the analogy mechanistic theories). Theories of organicism (today, of free play) do not claim to eliminate the purpose or usefulness or validity (to the extent they are valid) of metaphysical or hermeneutic or whatever theories of the text. It is key to understanding the above that the two theories – the mechanistic and organic – are not, for Coleridge, or those that followed him, mutually exclusionary. Organic theory recognizes mechanistic invention. However, the relationship is not equal: generally, theories of mechanistic invention tend to refuse organic theory. (That unilateral antipathy is both inherent to and to a degree necessary to the nomic systems that function through "mechanistic" ideas.)

On this point I want to quote Abrams at length, as he does well in developing this relationship as understood by Coleridge, and my summarizing and paraphrasing would only serve to weaken the presentation:

Mechanism is false [said Coleridge], not because it does not tell the truth, but because it does not tell the whole truth. 'Great good,' he wrote in his notebook, of such revolution as alters, not by exclusion, but by an enlargement that includes the former, though it places it in a new point of view.' Coleridge's fully developed critical theory, therefore, is deliberately syncretic, and utilizes not one, but two controlling analogues, one of a machine, the other of a plant; and these divide the processes and products of art into two distinct kinds [. . .].

Again and a gain, Coleridge uses his bifocal lens to discriminate and appraise two modes of poetry. One of these can be adequately accounted for in mechanical terms. It has its source in the particulars of sense and the images of memory, and its production involves only the lower faculties of fancy, 'understanding,' and empirical 'choice.' It is therefore the work of 'talent,' and stands in a rank below the highest; its examples are such writings as those of Beaumont and Fletcher, Ben Johnson, and Pope. The other and greater class of poetry is organic. It has its source in living 'ideas,' and its production involves the higher faculties of imagination, 'reason,' and the 'will.' Hence it is the work of 'genius,' and its major instances are to be found in the writings of Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, and Wordsworth. For while talent lies 'in the understanding' – understanding being 'the faculty of thinking and forming judgments on the notices furnished by sense' – genius consists in 'the action of reason and imagination.' As part of what it learns from sense-experience, talent has 'the faculty of appropriating and applying the knowledge of others,' but not 'the creative, and self-sufficing power of absolute Genius.' The 'essential difference' is that between 'the shaping skill of mechanical talent, and the creative productive life-power of inspired genius,' resulting in a product modified 'ab intra in each component part.' (175-76)

Though, and importantly to a greater understanding, I (and those thinkers that follow Coleridge, through and including the post-structuralists) would remove from my own explanation the ideas of quality and value found in the phrase "stands in a rank below the highest"; that is, except for when limited to the comparison of "if you are trying to make a creative work, then a mechanicistically invented work will be less successful than an organically created one." (Which probably is inherent to Coleridge's words as he is talking about poetic – creative – invention.) The reverse is also true: "if you are trying to make a work for which the mechanical approach is the more pragmatic – for example, a text intending to discuss geology – then an organically invented work will be less successful than a mechanistically created one." Though, as with the example of the Formula 1 car, above, there is no small degree where organic creation cannot be excluded. Nietzsche speaks of how the great essayists tend to have an drawer of poetry they keep hidden from others, for they recognize that great mechanistic writing yet requires an organic strain within it, and in pursuit of that they develop their organic side – their intuitive, creative side – within their playing in poetry (even if the results are not, ultimately, valuable works of literature). Accordingly, so also is the reverse true: great organic writing requires fundamental knowledge in mechanical writing. To use the old saw, you have to know grammar before you can be creative with grammar. The organic theory of the mind does not replace the mechanistic theory. It only recognizes that the mechanistic theory is insufficient to understanding – there is more to life and writing than rationality.


Continue to Part II