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Coleridge's theory of life


Romanticism grew largely out of an attempt to understand not just inert nature, but also vital nature. Romantic works in the realm of art and Romantic medicine were a response to the general failure of the application of method of inertial science to reveal the foundational laws and operant principles of vital nature. German romantic science and medicine sought to understand the nature of the life principle identified by John Hunter as distinct from matter itself via Johan Friedrich Blumenbach's Bildungstrieb and Romantic medicine's Lebenskraft, as well as Röschlaub's development of the Brunonian system of medicine system of John Brown, in his excitation theory of life (German:Erregbarkeit theorie), working also with Schelling's Naturphilosophie, the work of Goethe regarding morphology, and the first dynamic conception of physiology of Richard Saumarez. But it is in Samuel Taylor Coleridge that we find the question of life and vital nature most intensely and comprehensively examined, particularly in his Hints towards the Formation of a more Comprehensive Theory of Life (1818), providing the foundation for Romantic philosophy, science and medicine. As one source states, this work is "a key document understanding...the complex relation between Romantic literature and science."

The Enlightenment had developed a philosophy and science supported by formidable twin pillars: the first the Cartesian split of mind and matter, the second Newtonian physics, with its conquest of inert nature, both of which focused the mind's gaze on things or objects. For Cartesian philosophy, life existed on the side of matter, not mind; and for the physical sciences, the method that had been so productive for revealing the secrets of inert nature, should be equally productive in examining vital nature. The initial attempt to seek the cause and principle of life in matter was challenged by John Hunter, who held that the principle of life was not to be found nor confined within matter, but existed independently of matter itself, and informed or animated it, that is, he implied, it was the unifying or antecedent cause of the things or what Aristotelean philosophy termed natura naturata (the outer appearances of nature).



The name of Coleridge is one of the few English names of our time which are likely to be oftener pronounced, and to become symbolical of more important things, in proportion as the inward workings of the age manifest themselves more and more in outward facts.]
The tendency having been ascertained, what is its most general law? I answer—polarity, or the essential dualism of Nature, arising out of its productive unity, and still tending to reaffirm it, either as equilibrium, indifference, or identity.
...first, that two forces should be conceived which counteract each other by their essential nature; not only not in consequence of the accidental direction of each, but as prior to all direction, nay, as the primary forces from which the conditions of all possible directions are derivative and deducible: secondly, that these forces should be assumed to be both alike infinite, both alike indestructible... this one power with its two inherent indestructible yet counteracting forces, and the results or generations to which their inter-penetration gives existence, in the living principle and in the process of our own self-consciousness.
a Power, acting in and by its Product or Representative to a predetermined purpose is a Function…
The first product of its energy is the thing itself… Still, however, its productive energy is not exhausted in this product, but overflows, or is effluent, as the specific forces, properties, faculties, of the product. It reappears, in short, as the function of the body.
What Coleridge was after was definitely not animism or naive vitalism based on vital substance, or mechanical philosophy based on material substance. He was trying to find a general law...that explicates its self-regulating internal power.
By Life I everywhere mean the true Idea of Life,… the tendency to individuation… [which] cannot be conceived without the opposite tendency to connect, even as the centrifugal power supposes the centripetal, or as the two opposite poles constitute each other, and are the constituent acts of one and the same power in the magnet…. Again, if the tendency be at once to individuate and to connect, to detach, but so as either to retain or to reproduce attachment, the individuation itself must be a tendency to the ultimate production of the highest and most comprehensive individuality. This must be the one great end of Nature, her ultimate object, or by whatever other word we may designate that something which bears to a final cause the same relation that Nature herself bears to the Supreme Intelligence.
In its productive power, of which the product is the only measure, consists its incompatibility with mathematical calculus. For the full applicability of an abstract science ceases, the moment reality begins.
This productive or generative power of life exists in all manifestations of life. These manifestations are the finite product of the dynamic interaction of infinite and non-destructible forces, but the forces are not extinguished in the product - they take on a different role, namely that of functions. Thus, the very nature of the “given” is contained in its manifestations such that the whole is contained in all the parts.
But as little can we conceive the oneness, except as the mid-point producing itself on each side; that is, manifesting itself on two opposite poles. Thus, from identity we derive duality, and from both together we obtain polarity, synthesis, indifference, predominance. (BL)
We have been thus full and express on this subject, because these simple ideas of time, space, and motion, of length, breadth, and depth, are not only the simplest and universal, but the necessary symbols of all philosophic construction. They will be found the primary factors and elementary forms of every calculus and of every diagram in the algebra and geometry of a scientific physiology. Accordingly, we shall recognise the same forms under other names; but at each return more specific and intense; and the whole process repeated with ascending gradations of reality, exempli gratiâ: Time + space = motion; Tm + space = line + breadth = depth; depth + motion = force; Lf + Bf = Df; LDf + BDf = attraction + repulsion = gravitation; and so on, even till they pass into outward phenomena, and form the intermediate link between productive powers and fixed products in light, heat, and electricity.
If we pass to the construction of matter, we find it as the product, or tertium aliquid, of antagonist powers of repulsion and attraction. Remove these powers, and the conception of matter vanishes into space—conceive repulsion only, and you have the same result. For infinite repulsion, uncounteracted and alone, is tantamount to infinite, dimensionless diffusion, and this again to infinite weakness; viz., to space. Conceive attraction alone, and as an infinite contraction, its product amounts to the absolute point, viz., to time. Conceive the synthesis of both, and you have matter as a fluxional antecedent, which, in the very act of formation, passes into body by its gravity, and yet in all bodies it still remains as their mass...
By an easy logic, each of the two divisions has been made to define the others by a mere assertion of their assumed contrariety. The theorist has explained Y+X by informing us that it is the opposite of Y-X: and if we ask, what then is Y-X, we are told that it is the opposite of Y+X! A reciprocation of good services....I turn to a work by the eminent French physiologist, Bichat, where I find this definition: Life is the sum of all the functions by which death is resisted....that is, that life consists in being able to live!...as if four more inveterate abstractions could be brought together than the words life, death, function, and resistance.
the productive power, or vis naturans, which in the sensible world, or natura naturata, is what we mean by the word, nature, when we speak of the same as an agent, is essentially one (that is, of one kind) with the intelligence,which is in the human mind above nature."
but for the confidence which we place in the assertions of our reason and our conscience, we could have no certainty of the reality and actual outness of the material world.
Naked and helpless cometh man into the world. Such has been the complaint from eldest time; but we complain of our chief privilege,our ornament, and the connate mark of our sovereignty. Porphyrigeniti summus! …Henceforth he is referred to himself, delivered up to his own charge…
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