Coleridge’s Daoism? Joseph Needham, Dominican Sinology, and Romantic Pantheism

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Joseph Needham’s masterwork, Science and Civilisation in China (1954-), reveals that Chinese cosmology shares attributes with Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s pantheism, and particularly his Orientalist expression of that creed in a series of letters from 1797. These resemblances provoke questions about Needham’s reading of Coleridge, and also about the extent of Coleridge’s exposure to ideas that were not commonplace in the European sinology available during his lifetime. In 1793 Coleridge read Domingo Fernández Navarrete’s memoir, An Account of the Empire of China (1676). The Dominican friar outlines the nature of the universe as understood in a Chinese tradition that commenced in Daoist texts such as Laozi’s Dao De Jing. Navarrete’s work is remarkable because the Jesuit scholarship that dominated European sinology included no published translation of Daoist texts and no comparable survey of Chinese cosmology. To introduce the Chinese concepts to European readers, Navarrete alludes to relevant discussion among diverse Western thinkers. Many of the authors Navarrete cites interested Coleridge, most notably the friar Giordano Bruno and including also Augustine, Empedocles, Lucretius, Lactantius, Origen, and Thomas Aquinas. Salient topics in Coleridge’s thought have equivalents in Navarrete’s treatment of Chinese cosmology, such as the nature of a universal substance and whether this implies a deterministic universe, the existence of spirits, the dualistic conception of Nature as natura naturans and natura naturata, and the relationship between individuality and multeity. Chinese cosmology itself, and the debates it provoked among sinologists, offers a range of analogues both for Coleridge’s religious interpretation of Benedict de Spinoza’s Ethics and his anxieties about that reading. These connections are evidence that scholars should substitute a plural where Thomas McFarland’s landmark study leads us to consider Coleridge and the Pantheist Tradition as a singular.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)205-220
Number of pages16
JournalThe Wordsworth Circle
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2020


  • Romanticism
  • China
  • Literary studies
  • Orientalism
  • philosophy
  • Missionaries

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