Le prix de l'individualité. Maine de Brian, Samuel Taylor Coleridge et la volonté: Deux postétités distinctes

  • Benjamin J. Bâcle

    Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


    This thesis is concerned with Maine de Biran’s and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s conceptions of will, and the way in which both thinkers’ posterities have been affected by the central role of these very conceptions in their respective bodies of thought. The research question that animates this work can therefore be divided into two main parts, one of which deals with will, while the other deals with its effects on posterity. In the first pages of the Introduction, I make the case for a comparison between two philosophers, and show how this comparison can bring one closer to truth, understood not in objective, but in subjective terms. I then justify my choice by underlining that, in spite of their many differences, Maine de Biran and Samuel Taylor Coleridge followed comparable paths, intellectually and spiritually, and came to similar conclusions concerning the essential activity of the human mind. Finally, I ask whether it is possible that this very focus on the human will may have contributed to the state of both thinkers’ works and of the reception of those works. This prologue is followed by five parts. In the first part, the similarities and differences between the two thinkers are explored further. In the second part, the connections between philosophy and singularity are examined, in order to show the ambivalence of the will as a foundation for truth. The third part is dedicated to the traditional division between subject and object in psychology, and its relevance in history and in moral philosophy. The fourth part tackles the complexity of the question of influence, with respect to both Maine de Biran’s and Coleridge’s cases, both thinkers being indebted to many philosophers of all times and places, and having to rely heavily on others for the publication, or the interpretation of their own works. The fifth part is concerned with the different aspects of the faculty of will, and primarily its relationship with interiority, as incommensurability, and actual, conditioned existence in a certain historical and spatial context. It ends with a return to the question of will and posterity and an announcement of what will be covered in the main body of the thesis. The main body is divided into three parts:‘L’émancipation’, ‘L’affirmation, and ‘La projection’. The first part is devoted to the way Maine de Biran and Samuel Taylor Coleridge extricated themselves from one epistemological paradigm to contribute to the foundation of another. It is divided in four chapters. The first chapter deals with the aforementioned change of paradigm, as corresponding to the emergence of two separate but associated movements, Romanticism and what the French philosopher refers to as ‘The Age of History’. The second chapter concerns the movement that preceded them, i.e. the Enlightenment, its main features according to both of our thinkers, and the two epistemological models that prevailed under it and influenced them heavily in their early years: Sensationism (Maine de Biran) and Associationism (Coleridge). The third chapter is about the probable influence of Immanuel Kant and his followers on Maine de Biran and Coleridge, and the various facts that allow us to claim originality for both thinkers’ works. In the fourth chapter, I contrast Maine de Biran and Coleridge with other movements and thinkers of their time, showing that, contrary to their respective thoughts, Maine de Biran and Coleridge could not but break free from the then prevailing systematic approach to truth. The second part of the thesis is concerned with the first part of its research question, namely, Maine de Biran’s and Coleridge’s conceptions of the will. It is divided into four chapters. The first chapter is a reflection on the will as a paradox: on the one hand, the will cannot be caused by any other phenomenon, or it is no longer a will; but it cannot be left purely undetermined, as if it is, it is then not different from chance. It thus needs, in order to be, to be contradictorily already moral. The second chapter is a comparison between Maine de Biran’s and Coleridge’s accounts of the origin of the will, where it is found that the French philosopher only observes that he has a will, whereas the English philosopher postulates the existence of this will. The comparison between Maine de Biran’s and Coleridge’s conceptions of the will is pursued in the third chapter, which tackles the question of the coincidence between the will and the self, in both thinkers’ works. It ends with the fourth chapter, which deals with the question of the relationship between the will and what is other to it, i.e. bodily sensations, passions and desires. The third part of the thesis focuses on the second part of its research question, namely the posterity of Maine de Biran’s and Coleridge’s works. It is divided into four chapters. The first chapter constitutes a continuation of the last chapter of the preceding part, in that that it deals with Maine de Biran’s and Coleridge’s relations to the ‘other’, and particularly their potential and actual audience, and with the way these relations may have affected their writing and publishing practices. The second chapter is a survey of both thinkers’ general reception, where it is found that, while Maine de Biran has been claimed by two important movements of thoughts as their initiator, Coleridge has been neglected by the only real movement he could have, or may indeed have pioneered. The third chapter is more directly concerned with the posterities of Maine de Biran’s and Coleridge’s conceptions of will, and attempts to show that the approach to, and the meaning of the will have evolved throughout the nineteenth century, and in the French Spiritualist and the British Idealist movements, from an essentially personal one to a more impersonal one. The fourth chapter is a partial conclusion, whose aim is to give a precise idea of where Maine de Biran and Coleridge stand, in relation to their century and to the philosophical movements and matters we are concerned with. The conclusion is a recapitulation of what has been found, with a particular emphasis on the dialogue initiated between Maine de Biran and Coleridge on the will, and the relation between will and posterity. It suggests that both thinkers have to pay the price of a problematic reception for the individuality that pervades their respective works, and goes further in suggesting that s/he who chooses to found his individuality on the will is bound to feel this incompleteness in his/her own personal life more acutely than s/he who does not. It ends with a reflection on fixedness and movement, as the two antagonistic states that the theoretician of the will paradoxically aspires to.
    Date of AwardJun 2011
    Original languageFrench
    SupervisorHelene Stafford (Supervisor) & Helene Stafford (Supervisor)


    • Maine de Biran
    • Samuel Taylor Coleridge
    • human will
    • will and self
    • posterity

    Cite this