Biographia Literaria Questions and Answers
by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

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In Coleridge's Biographia Literaria, about fancy and imagination he writes "the difference between the two is the same as the difference between a mechanical mixture and a chemical compound." Elaborate.

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In Coleridge's Biographia Literaria, Coleridge makes the assertion that the meanings of "fancy" and "imagination" can not be used synonymously but rather are two distinct words that carry two distinct definitions and implications. Coleridge uses the example of chemistry to make this assertion through speaking about how fancy and imagination carry a magnitude of differences that is similar to what a chemical compound does to a mechanical mixture.

In chemistry, two elements can be mixed while still containing their own separate identities and features and can be physically separated. However, if two elements are chemically combined, the result is a chemical compound that retains some features of the two elements, cannot be physically separated, and gains a unique identity as a specific compound.

Clearly, there are immense differences between chemical compounds and mechanical mixtures. Therefore, Coleridge uses this scientific example to emphasize the immense and important conceptual difference he finds to exist between "fancy" and "imagination" as concepts.

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Coleridge, in this famous work of criticism, argues that fancy and imagination are actually two separate entities, rather than being either synonymous or words used to describe differing intensities of the same object. The above quote therefore supports this view by arguing that the two terms are, in their very essence, essentially different one from the other and cannot be compared. Note how Coleridge elaborates on this difference between fancy and imagination:

Repeated meditations led me first to suspect... that fancy and imagination were two distinct and widely different faculties, instead of being, according to the general belief, either two names with one meaning, or at furthest the lower and higher degree of one and the same power.

To Coleridge, therefore, one of his central arguments in this work of criticism is that the two terms "fancy" and "imagination" are separate entitites and that they are not synonymous in any way. He goes on to develop his own definition of both of these terms later on in this text, but the quote given above seeks to provide a practical analogy of how these two terms are different in their very nature and therefore cannot be confused one for the other.

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