Increasing numbers of serious and intelligent people have been surprised by Owen Barfield. Perhaps only once in a lifetime does one meet a mind whose power reflects back onto the discoverer with self-transforming results. Barfield's works are now having this effect on many, for he has accomplished what few thinkers ever do: he rediscovers ancient possibilities of knowing and being and subsequently returns us to the ordinary world in a new way--from within. Strangeness pervades the ordinary and gives it new life.
Barfield's career spans the bulk of our century, which he is equipped better than most to understand. Born in London in 1898, he served in the Royal Engineers during World War I and later was graduated from Wadham College, Oxford. From 1931 to his retirement in 1959, he was a practicing solicitor. Throughout his life he has read avidly in diverse fields: language, literature, historical semantics, comparative religion, and the history of science. His family background gave him a deep appreciation for music and the arts but also a skeptical mistrust of institutional religion and its dogma: "I was brought up definitely without religious beliefs and there was in fact something of a bias against them." His subsequent life, however, brought the domains of critical intellect and creative spirit ever closer together. Barfield has managed to understand the origins and development of rational self-consciousness throughout virtually the whole of Western history, and he has explored it in ways that have a direct bearing on the possibilities of unified knowledge and, perforce, a unified world.
In two important early books, History in English Words (1926) and Poetic Diction: A Study in Meaning (1928), Barfield lucidly studies the relationship between consciousness and language, and he does so with both historical and literary acumen. Drawing upon the semantic histories of common words on the one hand, and on his own experience of words in reading and composing poetry on the other, he reveals that consciousness itself, as observed in the footprints of language, has undertaken a vast journey, a journey beginning in an undifferentiated unity of knower and known and moving into ever greater separation until, in the last century, the split between subject and object became a fundamental axiom, a doctrine felt as fact. In Barfield's view, this journey is double-edged. It has emptied the outer world of spirit and life and has given birth to a powerfully de-humanizing scientism: yet it has also, by virtue of its very distancing, allowed us to look back into the past to our roots. The scientific spirit, it seems, had to carve up and serve the outer world before it could discover the inner. But in this last great inward turning, intellect has discovered language. We can now study the past from without through things, or from within through words, but
whereas the former can only give us a knowledge of outward, dead things--such as forgotten seas and the bodily shapes of prehistoric animals and primitive men--language has preserved for us the inner, living history of man's soul. It reveals the evolution of consciousness.
Barfield has illuminated this far-reaching idea throughout his career as conversationalist, author, lecturer, and teacher.
In books such as Saving the Appearances (1957) and Speakerís Meaning (1967), Barfield approaches evolution in a new way. He argues convincingly that while some form of biological evolution now seems indisputable, the mechanico-physical explanations of Darwinism and neo-Darwinian thought are not only untenable but in fact destructive, for they assume a world of chance mutation in which a material mechanism alone causes change. Human consciousness is explained as a mere spin-off or epi-phenomena of random arrangements of matter. And we arrive thus as naked apes in a world of omniscient molecules! We require a view of evolution that will include insides as well as outsides, one that seeks, in Barfield's words,
to establish the position that contemplation of humanity, and particularly of its languages, discloses a past evolution of consciousness, distinct from and additional to a history of ideas; that full realization of this fact could lead to rectification of our modern inadequate and one-sided perception of nature, on which contemporary science is based; that such realization, besides requiring personal efforts, depends on precedent acceptance of the idea; which in its turn entails abandoning the uniformitarian hypothesis that underpins the Lyell-Darwin model of evolution determined by physical and biological laws, themselves exempt from evolution.
A careful student soon discovers that the seemingly ineradicable sense of "outness," of the primacy of external, material reality, is itself a result of a shift in consciousness, of evolution turned inside out. Contemporary man has forgotten that he participates mentally in the configuring of the world, that his feelings of isolation and outness have resulted from several centuries of increasing inwardness and thus are not "fact" or "reality" but rather a historically determined set of representations and therefore subject to change.
Cultural representations, moreover, are subject not only to perception but also to feeling and will. To Barfield perception and feeling can be distinguished but finally not divided. We have a cognitive and emotional stake in the world we live and breathe in. If one style of consciousness has imprisoned us, the will to change it can free us by fostering new habits of perception and thinking. The possibility of such "systematic imagination," however, remains concealed to those who feel that the mind is trapped in a physical body and looks out on a merely physical world. Barfield has long attempted to uncover what is concealed in modern consciousness. His debt to Rudolf Steiner and anthroposophy can be viewed as an effort to restore the meaning of the much abused word, occult, which he argues "signifies not more than what a more conventionally phrased cosmogony would determine as 'non-phenomenal,' 'noumenal,' 'transcendental.'" Instead of condescending to the occult, Barfield's serious reader must contemplate what is concealed is consciousness:
all qualities are occult, inasmuch as they are not accessible to passive sensation alone. There has to be an element of feeling in the perception, which is ruled out by the presuppositions of the scientific method. That is why science has become all quantities.
Barfield challenges us to revive a qualitative experience of phenomena, to find and tirelessly nourish the occult links between inner and outer, spirit and matter.
If we are to move toward what Barfield calls final participation--a self conscious rapport with the whole phenomenal world--we must first discipline ourselves. We must understand what self-consciousness has meant culturally: scientism, secularism, humanism. We continue to produce heart valves, razor blades, and computers with even greater precision, even as we drift farther into a nightmarishly emptied world whose body we can pierce and measure but whose soul increasingly eludes us. Barfield has taught us how to find and live within this world soul, and for this we should be grateful and hopeful. He gives us no illusions about where we have been and challenges us to consider what we and the world will become.