Posted November 15, 2007
Owen Barfield is remembered today mainly as the friend of C.S. Lewis – who called him ‘the wisest and best of my unofficial teachers.’ Barfield’s own contributions to the understanding of the history of Western thought have not been as widely recognized. A solicitor by profession, Owen Barfield was a sometime member of the ‘Inklings,’ along with others including J.R.R. Tolkien and Charles Williams. Lewis, Tolkien and Williams all labored in the vineyard of the Christianized imagination. For Charles Williams, only those who possess imagination can really grip the action in the drama of life. In viewing imagination as a form of ‘Power’ or ‘Realization,’ Williams’ esoteric-occult novels veer into a moral ambiguity which is contained in the exalted tension of his amorous and subtle Christianity. But the idea of ‘justification by imagination’ has forcibly entered our cultural nexus without this Christian tension, where, as a purely secularized theory of art – or even nowadays, of government – it has been destructive.
Barfield’s work in the imagination was of more philosophical kind. As he once put it – “Imagination is not, as some poets have thought, simply synonymous with good.” The truths he quested for in language, philosophy, philology, history, and science were framed in short, dense argumentative books of philosophical meditation. His first, Poetic Diction, published in 1928, was dedicated to Lewis with the motto ‘Opposition is true friendship.’ The two friends argued at length over the role of the imagination, which Barfield believed could lead to truth, but Lewis said should be viewed as a way of meaning.
Barfield’s preoccupations with the imagination arose out of his experience with poetry which, he says, can lead to ‘a felt change of consciousness’ and to ‘the making of meaning which makes true knowledge possible.’ The most detailed part of Poetic Diction comprises the historical study of the uses of particular words by particular poets. “Today,” he remarks, “a man cannot utter a dozen words without wielding the creations of a hundred named and nameless poets.” The emphasis on historical study attracted the attention of the historian John Lukacs, who called Barfield “the most important philosopher of the 20th century” and whose concept of historical consciousness is consonant with Barfield’s historical-evolutionary perspective.
Barfield’s most important book is Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry, which appeared in the US in 1965. Whereas previously he had before devoted his attention to the historical study of language and of poetry, in Saving the Appearances he argues on the basis of the historical study of science. But once again he was met the fate of being overshadowed, this time because of Thomas Kuhn’s book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which had taken the intellectual world by storm in 1962. This book made an important contribution to the historical study of science by addressing the role of the larger community in fostering or providing hospitality to certain ideas. Unfortunately it was adopted by people who wanted to dethrone the idea of the objectivity of standards of truth. Adherents of cultural studies and social constructivism used this first shoot of the participatory idea as a battering-ram against science and scholarship. As James Franklin put it in the New Criterion (2000) “… the worst effect of Kuhn … has been the frivolous discarding of the way things are as a constraint on the theory about the way things are.”
I doubt there are many thinkers in the history of this world whose followers have all been beyond reproach. There are an infinite number of ways in which ideas may be misused. Liberals err when they downgrade standards in favor of participation, and conservatives likewise err when they exalt objectivity in order to deride participation. In such a situation one is apt to echo the biblical saying – the very stones cry out! What can reconcile objectivity and participation? Has anyone tried? If so, who? And how is it to be done? And why is it important?
The term ‘saving the appearances’ has its historical genesis in astronomy. The ‘appearances’ of classical astronomy accounted for the celestial movements; the question of whether these theories or conjectures were literally true was not so much at issue. This question had to wait for the Scientific Revolution – indeed it was that revolution, and much of Barfield’s exposition is devoted to the explication of the mental background both before and after this salient “transposition of the mind.”
Saving the Appearances examines the development of science primarily as the story of man’s changing relationship to Nature, especially with respect to man’s awareness of participation. Which is to say, Barfield is an evolutionist but not a Darwinian, and his view of evolution is closer to what some might call “religion,” although it is very far in certain respects from what most people think about when they think about religion. Barfield’s evolutionary change-agent is the Logos, which has an “objective” side (the phenomena) and an interior or subjective one (consciousness) with both sides correlative one to the other.
Science emphasizes the fact that the world it investigates – the atomic physical structure of matter – is not the same as the familiar world we are accustomed to. In fact this investigated world is radically other. “It depends upon what ‘is’ is,” said our former President Clinton, in one epigrammatic mouthful summarizing the gulf that has widened between the received world and the investigated world. This widening gulf has brought the whole area of predication into question—of saying that something ‘is.’ For if the real world is only energy or matter in motion, all that appears in the received or commonly experienced world is chance, happenstance, disconnected spectacle or the result of force. It doesn’t have any necessary logic to it. It’s not inherent to the circumstances nor necessary to the outcome. Nothing participates in anything else; nothing participates in Being. Thus to make the statement, “A horse is an animal,” is suspect. For how can a horse participate in animal-hood, indeed what is animal-hood but a mental construction or imposition of ours?
On the other hand, modern philosophy since Kant has attempted to come to the rescue of the realness of the world by stressing the participation of human beings in the creation, or rather evocation, of the phenomena. It is a way of saying that what we think is there is not really there, but we can do nothing otherwise than suppose it to be there. It’s a big supposition, and our cultural heritage was not built upon so fragile a basis. Nor may it be able to persist with such meager provender for long. As Barfield once observed, “In the long run, we shall not be able to save souls without saving the appearances, and it is an error fraught with the most terrible consequences to imagine that we shall.”
Barfield states that his purpose in writing Saving the Appearances was to draw attention to the consequences arising from “the hastily expanded sciences” of the 19th and 20th centuries. The more we go back into the past, the more human utterance and testimony about the world has a mythological character. We believe that the received world is not real; our ancestors believed in the super-reality of the received. Nevertheless, it is obvious with our ancestors no less than with us that people everywhere engage with and participate in transforming sensations into ‘things,’ and this transforming activity is taught, imitated, and passed on through language and culture in a multitude of ways, whether as mythology, storytelling, science, or philosophy, etc.
This is the participatory premise, and it is basically the common sense theory of perception. But it raises problems. There are several options for an honest dealing with these problems – the multitude of way for dishonest dealing with it we will not explore at the moment. Let us review some of these options:
(1) We can acknowledge that the relation between man and nature has undergone vast changes, and that what ancient people testified about the world was indeed true, not just of their perception and thought, but what they perceived and thought about, that is, of the world itself. Therefore, what they say in regards to the creation of the world by God and the actions of angels and spiritual beings in the world, etc., should be seriously taken into account. In order to gain a true picture of the world, the modern picture of evolution would have to be counterbalanced by the testimony of the ancients regarding Creation. That is to say, we would have to take not only their words but also their phenomena into account when embarking on any description of the world prior to the entrance on the scene of ‘our’ phenomena, that is, circa the 1600’s. This is the fullest accounting, and it would demand a radical revisioning of our view of human history and of almost all of our ordinary opinions.
(2) We can deny that there has been any change in the relation of man and world, or consciousness and phenomena, and that things have always been more or less what they are today. It follows, therefore, that our way of viewing things is the only right way. However, denial at this highly conscious level (it happens all the time subconsciously and dishonestly) would be pretty strenuous, since it would involve throwing out almost our entire culture heritage, or at least certainly any deeper relation to it or participation in it (e.g. religious worship.) This is the de facto position taken by Richard Dawkins and others popularizers of atheism. This strategy basically says that our ancestors were crazy. Thus Julian Jaynes, in The Origin of Consciousness and the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, who wrote that “the gods were amalgams of admonitory experiences, made of meldings of whatever commands had been given to the individual.” In other words, the ancients were possessed – insane!
(3) Maybe it is we ourselves – post-Scientific Revolution, post-Cartesian men – who are crazy. (And which of us has never had this thought?) But this is also difficult, for it would involve dispensing with the real gains of modern science. No many people would volunteer for this option, and it has never really been an option in the Modern Age.
(4) If we acknowledge the reality of our phenomena, and deny that either we or our ancestors are insane, how did our perceptions arise? Did they evolve out of the perceptions of earlier human beings or were they just invented? This whole area of differing cultural perceptions and value judgments (or not) has become a huge area of contemporary discourse, and it certainly relates to the issues in the evolution of consciousness pioneered by Barfield.
Thus we find questions and riddles at whatever end we try to grab the stick, and somehow we get the feeling that the stick is shaking us—and that we are in its grip, not the reverse.
Modern physics tells us that the normal, familiar world that we take for granted is comprised of atoms, particles, waves, or just ‘energy.’ To be sure, even these words are cumbersome; they are just ways we have of trying to picture something that cannot be pictured. They comprise the ‘unrepresented’ background of our perceptions. But, if this ‘unrepresented’ background is all that is believed to exist independently of our perceptions, what is the foreground, what is the ‘represented’ or the ‘appearances’ of the world? Trees, houses, cars, faces of people, the singing of birds, this paper – in other words, the received or familiar world. If the phenomena of the world are ‘energetic’ in essence, but this essence is nonpicturable and nonrepresentational, then the world we picture, live in, talk about is, in fact, what he calls “a system of collective representations.” These ‘collective representations’ are the result of our activity, however far back in the past the process may have gotten started and however long the time involved in the transmission of learning about these things is that we call society or culture.
Barfield uses the term figuration to mean the activity that converts sensations into things, that is, as the work of the percipient mind in constructing the world of recognizable and nameable objects, the ‘familiar world.’ It should be said at the outset that Barfield is not going with this where the post-modernists have been going with it – e.g. that “The world is a huge collection of communally-evolved customs of interpretation” (Don Cupitt) or like President Clinton’s statement about the ‘is,’ quoted earlier. Such views are symptomatic of the fact that, for people today, the first glimmerings of participation are apt to be accompanied by confused thinking. Indeed, Barfield comments, “It is characteristic of our phenomena… that our participation in them, and therefore their representational nature, is excluded from our immediate awareness.”
When we gain the first dawning awareness of participation, we are apt to forget our long learning and mutual living with them. It was through the labor of being – our own, and theirs. Our own awareness of them is the testament to their real existence, as their existence is the testament of ours. The world is more than communally-evolved customs because we are dependent upon it for our very being. It is easy to forget the water of life when you are not thirsty. Forgetfulness slides over into habits, habits into taking for granted, taking for granted into not noticing how perceptions and thoughts arise, and sooner or later you end up with real epistemological consequences.
Some years ago I stumbled across a quote which perfectly expresses the alienated character of our appearances, and of how much has been forgotten of the “labor of being.” From Memory’s Ghost by Philip J. Hilts, the passage is a quote from the psychologist Robert Ornstein:
"...There is no color in nature, no sounds, no tastes. It is a
cold, quiet, colorless affair outside us…It is we who transform molecules… these
things are dimensions of human experience, not dimensions of the world
outside…We don’t actually experience the outside world—we grab at only a very
refined portion of it, a portion selected for the purposes of
To preface this remarkable passage with the words “There is…” for the purpose of declaring a magisterial “There is not…” to everything we experience in the world is certainly an act of philosophic contortionism. It does not follow that because I am aware that the human contribution to that trilling sound I hear tells me bird — which by the way is only a way of saying this is its name — that this ‘bird’ is merely a “dimension of human experience.” This is a picture of joyless and unbridgeable subjectivism. It is further remarkable for a psychologist to have written it. Apparently he accepts the existence of a self without argument while omitting to mention that learning the names of things and experiencing them is how we acquire a self in the first place.
It is probably true that we do not pay attention to our figuration, which most of the time has receded into mere habit. And for that matter even a molecule is the result of an historical development, and is therefore ‘participated’ to some extent, so that calling a bird a molecule just postpones the reckoning with participation and only adds a whole new layer of obfuscation. But this is a very silly example of the tricks that are resorted to in the name of a science that has not decided whether its mission is to eliminate participation or to understand the natural world. That we have reached such a point of absurdity is in large part the purpose of Saving the Appearances to show and, if possible, begin to disentangle.
Barfield emphasizes that the major difference between our phenomena and those of our forebears was that primitive or ancient man was aware of participation, whereas we are not aware of it – or at least, if we are aware of it we tend to disown it – just as in the example above. It is characteristic of our phenomena that they are seen as being wholly independent of us, wholly extrinsic – “clothed with the independence and extrinsicality of the unrepresented itself. But a representation, which is collectively mistaken for an ultimate—ought not to be called a representation. It is an idol. Thus the phenomena themselves are idols, when they are imagined as enjoying that independence of human perception which can in fact only pertain to the unrepresented.”
These are strong words, but they are not too strong when you recollect the nature of the modern landscape that we have created in America and are in the process of creating all over the world. Especially is this the case over the suburbanized landscape which more and more resembles a hideous excrescence of disjoint parts strung out into an extensionless void. If we do not cultivate the sustainable quality of care in our thinking, how can we expect to see it in our buildings and landscapes? The degradation of the modern landscape is the witness of the degraded quality of our inner lives and the alienated and ‘extrinsic’ character of our appearances.
Darwinistic evolutionary science arose in the 19th century, when the older medieval participatory consciousness had faded. It took for granted the purely extrinsic nature of the appearances and then attempted to treat these appearances much as astronomy treated the celestial objects, thus giving birth to a mechanistic picture of evolution. Barfield remarks that had such a science developed earlier, or even perhaps later, after 20th century physics did much to undermine materialism, we might have had a science of evolution worthy of the name –”man might have read there the story of his coming into being… of his world and his own consciousness.”
Participation is whatever in perception that is more than just sensation — ‘the extra-sensory link between man and the phenomena.’ The participatory element is supplied by our thinking and figuration and whatever elements of cultural and individual memory, language, imagination and symbolical faculty comprise our passage through the world. Many errors and much silliness might be avoided if we were to consider thinking in relation to some other of these elements, particularly two of its close etymological relatives: thanking and ‘thinging.’ Thanking, thinking, and ‘thinging’ (the making of ‘things, i.e., what Barfield calls figuration) derive from a common root. Let us look at each of these:
Under THANKS we have religion, the concept and action of grace. The heritage of thanking, gratitude, appreciation, the saying of grace, the murmur of prayer, form the foundations of the soul and build the act of thinking, and indeed, make it even possible. Before there is thinking there is a catechism, and a catechism is the art of building a structure for the soul so as to enable an opening. Thanking presupposes a structure; one has to learn how to become open. For no one can think who does open himself, and the paradigm of the opening is the communion made possible between God and man through religion. This is the sacred heritage of humanity, and precedes the appearance of individualized, and later abstract thought by many generations – by thousands of years, in fact.
It may be asked, and many are asking now, whether religion is still needed today. Who has need of a paradigm of opening when the modern world, its science, its art, its media, is so obviously self-sufficient, so obviously advanced in technique, so brilliant in its aspirations and achievements, and there is so much money to be made? Maybe a paradigm of opening would be a retarding force… religion as opiate of the masses, the consolation of weak intellects, the sleeping-pill of the feel-goods and the do-goods and the pretend-to-be-goods. Criticism of religion is often made and is sometimes justified, but on the other hand secular modernity has not reached the end of its lease, and there are peculiar signs of historical stagnation, of spiritual barrenness or intellectual decadence, behind all the glitter of our civilization. So perhaps the paradigm of the opening is not so antiquated after all. It may perhaps be related to a mysterious faculty for creativity in history.
Under THINKING there is no need to repeat the history of philosophy, poetry, and culture. Everyone has his or her own story, his or her own way of connecting to it, adding on to it, or escaping from it. But it cannot be an abstract story, not if it is to have any life in it, and that life is the THINGING, the realm of the phenomena, the ‘things’ that we say that are. Our thinking, ultimately and eventually, becomes thinging – the circumstances, the look and feel of things, the history. Yet we do not really perceive the entire picture, because it happens over a long period of time. Our thinking is a sort of vacuuming — roaring around the world re-ordering, classifying, using, calculating, strategizing, building, conquering… Maybe our thinking is actually this noise, and we are not really very much aware of the THANKS feeding it or the THINGS issuing from it – or of the ‘thanks’ and the ‘things’ feeding and issuing from past and previous interchanges with thinking over a long period of history, with which we are also in a perpetual exchange.
So from the hysterical rants of the modern atheists to the unreal mathematized abstractions of economists and cosmologists, our modern cognition has become the counter-image of ancient participation. Whereas the ancient gesture was the opening, the modern gesture is the clenched fist, the frown, the circumscribed problem – carefully defined, carefully delineated so that extraneous considerations need not apply. It lacks grace but makes up in accuracy. Only there is something wrong with the way this equation is stated, for grace and accuracy belong to the world equally – the true living world, the human world, the given world of mankind and living nature as well as to the divine world.
So that perhaps the phrase “a gain in accuracy” is not quite the right formulation. But there has been an increase of individual self-consciousness, as well as of social power and control, that has come about through the gradual usurpation of Logos and its degradation into mere “intellectualism.” To the extent that this development in time of self-consciousness – which Barfield terms the “evolution of consciousness” — is to the good, it has supported attainment of greater freedom, more independence and self-knowledge. Everything has its place, purpose and power. But the other hand, where this decline of Logos to intellect and depletion of participation to selfhood has issued into a glorification of power for its own sake, then there is something that may be judged, there is something that must be warned against. It can be called an occult transgression, or wrong use of a natural development. It steals from Nature unlawfully – it steals and it does not sustain or restore or reintegrate. This stealing or “theft of Logos” is the great sinful secret of the Modern Age, and lies at the root of almost all its manifestations. As, for example, Simone Weil once put it, the idea of the dignity of labor is the only idea we have not borrowed from the ancient Greeks. But it is from such an idea that we can begin again to construct a notion of the labor of being and of a new form of participation.
But in the meantime, it is only the sheer weight of the so-called masses that provides the countervailing force against the giddy spin of this occult transgression of the mental elites. Whether the masses will in time gain the ability to think, and I mean along the lines that I am suggesting – thinking accompanied with thanking and ‘thinging’ — a new whole and fully participated thinking – on that the future of the world depends.
And this kind of thinking is a participated thinking, concerning which Barfield remarks: “The plain fact is, that all the unity and coherence of nature depends on participation of one kind or another. If therefore man succeeds in eliminating all original participation, without substituting any other, he will have done nothing less than to eliminate all meaning and coherence from the cosmos.” So it is quite right to speak of the world’s future in the context of the development of human thought. Knowledge of this correlation of consciousness and phenomena, the mutual coexistence of thoughts and things, is an urgently needed course-correction for today. We urgently need a new “saving the appearances” – not for the heavens but for the earth.