Tuesday, 30 October 2012

More Fantastically Obscure Biographiana Coleridgeana

I'll be going through the Biographia in some detail, I'm afraid, for the next few weeks, and obscure tid-bits and commentary thereupon is liable to dominate the Europrog for a while.  Sorry about that; I appreciate that it's very niche stuff. Still, it beats getting the shit kicked out of me by infuriated SFF fans because I've reviewed a book in less than positive terms.  A vanishingly small readership is a happy readership!

Today I'm troubled by the footnote at the end of Chapter 3, in which Coleridge recalls being 'dishonoured at Cambridge for preaching Deism, at a time when, for my youthful ardour in defence of Christianity, I was decried as a bigot by the proselytes of French Phi-(or to speak more truly Psi-)-losophy...'

Now, ‘Phi-(or to speak more truly Psi-)-losophy’ is a thin sort of joke: the Greek roots of the word ‘philosophy’ mean ‘lover of wisdom’; Coleridge replaces the philos (‘lover’) with the Greek psilos which mean ‘bare; stript of hair or feather, smooth; bald; tenuous’ [Liddell and Scott] creating a new word, ‘stripped or bald wisdom’.

Oddly, Coleridge himself seems to have misunderstood his own joke. He explained it in a letter to a German friend, J H Bohte, February 1819 [Collected Letters, 4:922] like this: ‘from the Greek psilos, slender, and Sophia, Wisdom, in opposition to Philosophy, the Love of Wisdom and the Wisdom of Love, a thing still in some repute among your Country men but long obsolete in England.’ But ψιλος certainly doesn’t mean ‘slender’, and certainly does mean ‘bald, stripped, naked’. More interestingly, in several Platonic dialogues ‘psilos logos’, ‘bare or naked speech’ is used as a way of distinguishing prose from the ‘clothed’ speech of poetry [eg Menexenus 239C], and in Plato’s Theaetetus [165A] the ‘psiloi logoi’ are the mere forms of abstract argument, stripped of supporting evidence. My sense is that Coleridge knew what ‘psilos’ meant when he wrote this footnote in 1809, but his memory played a trick with him in 1819 when he wrote to Bohte; though it’s not possible to prove it. If I am right, however, then Coleridge’s point here is not merely to attack ‘French’ philosophy as meagre, but more specifically to engage it Platonically as too dialectically abstracted, too removed from specific example.

See?  Fascinating, no?

No. You're right.