Essays, Book Chapters, and Monographs
on Owen Barfield and His Work
Thomas J. J. Altizer
Review of Worlds Apart
and Saving the Appearances
We are living in a time which gives promise of ushering in a whole new period of thought and understanding, a time marked both by the abandonment or transformation of many of the most basic foundations of Western civilization and by the collapse of traditional boundaries between the various forms of Western thought and experience. One of the most interesting contemporary thinkers is the recently deceased [sic] Owen Barfield, an English lawyer and philological scholar, whose Saving the Appearances (London, Faber and Faber, 1957) is just beginning to make an impact in this country. Worlds Apart is a sequel to Saving the Appearances, and it takes the form of a weekend dialogue between the narrator (Barfield under an assumed name), a theologian, a young rocket research engineer, a physicist, and a retired schoolmaster (who is a disciple of Rudolf Steiner and the real hero of the book). The participants are gathered together in an effort to bridge the established gap between the various intellectual disciplines, and while it cannot be said that Barfield succeeds in effecting such a hoped-for mode of communication, he does succeed in creating a fascinating link between a mystical form of theology and the natural sciences. A dialogue in Socratic form at the center of the book sets forth Barfield's real argument: that modern mathematical science has in large measure sacrificed the "appearances" (the pure data of the senses) to hypotheses of reason which violate the senses, an argument that is most effectively brought to bear upon the idea of pure matter, as Barfield attempts to reduce to absurdity the thesis of the orthodox theory of evolution that lifeless matter was the first stage of the evolutionary process, and to establish Steiner's mystical thesis that nature is man's unconscious being.
However, Worlds Apart is not fully meaningful apart from its far more important predecessor Saving the Appearances. First, let it be said that Barfield embodies the finest virtues of the English thinker, a delightful and gracious style, a fully coherent and logically forceful mode of thinking, and a mastery of history that grounds itself in the essentials while ignoring both the irrelevant and the merely pedantic (all of which virtues are absent in his master Steiner). To establish his argument, Barfield asks his reader to subsist between human consciousness and the familiar world of which that consciousness is aware, thereby gradually leading him to a realization of the fallacy of the scientific assumption that the psychological nexus between man and nature is unchanging. Moreover he deftly presents a "sketch" of the history of human consciousness, revolving about a new theory of human "participation" in nature as an historical process, and leading to a revolutionary understanding of the origin, the present predicament, and the destiny of man. Fundamentally, there are three stages in this process: (1) original participation, the primordial state as reflected in mythical symbols of paradise when consciousness was extended and unindividualized; here there is an awareness of participation, a primary reflection that the unrepresented behind the phenomena are of the same nature as the subject of consciousness; (2) modern participation, a participation that is unique insofar as it establishes an unbridgeable chasm between subject and object, man and the cosmos; here the subject of participation is excluded from the subject's awareness, therefore he has no understanding of the representational nature of phenomena (i.e., he does not realize that the phenomenon of the world is a system of human collective representations); and (3) final participation, an ultimate form of man-centered participation when man will become the Messiah of nature by bringing to a new and total realization the identification of man, nature, and God.
A crucial foundation of Barfield's argument is his distinction between the three different ways in which the mind relates itself to collective representations: (1) figuration, the process by which mere sensations are constructed by the percipient mind into recognizable objects; (2) alpha-thinking, a thinking about representations which treats them as being independent of ourselves; and (3) beta-thinking, a thinking about the nature of collective representations as such, and therefore about their relation to our own minds. The historical argument of Saving the Appearances lies in its portrait of the transition from original to modern participation, i.e., in the rise to dominance of alpha-thinking in which there is an absence of participation. While alpha-thinking does not become fully incarnate in consciousness until the scientific revolution (our collective representations were born when the thinker began to take intellectual models literally), science itself is a product of the fusion of Greek thinking and Hebraic faith--the one affecting an intellectual liberation from original participation, the other condemning it as paganism or sin. At this point Barfield introduces his own understanding of idols and idolatry. Alpha-thinking temporarily set up the appearances of the familiar world as things wholly independent of man.
It had clothed them 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.
What we know as appearances are "idols," they have no "within" (this is one of the many points at which Barfield's thought parallels Teilhard de Chardin's). But far from simply condemning such idolatry Barfield recognizes it as an essential and necessary stage of the evolution of consciousness.
The latter portion of Saving the Appearances is largely theological in form, although it bears very little resemblance to the traditional discipline of theology. The mission of Israel is identified as a withdrawal from participation so as to prepare humanity for that day when it would be totally isolated from the world and yet called to the task of realizing a new unity with the world (our time). Only the Incarnation can explain the new and final participation lying upon our horizon: "In one man the inwardness of the Divine Name had been fully realized; the final participation, whereby man's Creator speaks from within man himself, had been accomplished." The Word become flesh so as to make possible in the course of time the transition of all men from original to final participation. Biblical scholars will be offended at the non-historical manner in which Barfield interprets the Kingdom of God as a symbol of final participation, but Saving the Appearances may well point to a liberation of the biblical scholar from an idolatrous understanding of the Bible as a literal text. Indeed, this a book that offers a true liberation to the theologian. If nothing else it should teach us that a total isolation of Creation from Incarnation, of salvation from the cosmos, is an idolatry whose only possible justification can be its preparation for an ultimate coincidence of the apparent opposites. I believe that this book is potentially one of the very seminal works of our time.