The Hedehog | The Archaeology of Consciousness | From Poetry to Prose | Original and Final Participation | Polarity and Creative Imagination | Idolatry | Conscious Responsibility | Towards Final Participation
Owen Barfield is not a name on everyone's lips. Even in the relatively small community of scholars who should know him, mention of Barfield usually brings looks of ignorance or, at best, dim recognition. "Oh yes. He's that fellow who was friends with C. S. Lewis, wasn't he?" Given some familiarity with Barfield's work, you might receive a more in-depth but not necessarily more enlightened remark, as I did when mentioning him to a university academic in a London pub. "Barfield?" he said. "You mean that Coleridge loony?"
With perceptions like this, is it surprising that a writer of books about the origin of language and the evolution of consciousness should be unknown to the general public? Hardly. But when that writer is one of the most interesting thinkers of the twentieth century, one can only comment, "More's the pity."
Owen Barfield - scholar, philosopher, poet, novelist, friend of C. S. Lewis, and interpreter of Rudolf Steiner - is, at 97, one of the most remarkable men alive today. Born in North London in 1898, Barfield fought in the First World War, lived through the Blitz, endured the tensions of the Cold War, and is now concerned about the increasing Balkanization of the globe. In terms of intellectual and cultural history, his career has been a chronology of twentieth century thought. Early books, like History in English Words (1926) and Poetic Diction (1927), were written in the suffocating atmosphere of logical positivism, when philosophy as a 'love of wisdom' was abandoned for a sterile hair-splitting of syntax. Barfield's belief in language as an archaeological record of "the evolution of consciousness," and as a means of translogical insight, was as at odds with the reigning Zeitgeist as you could get.
More books followed, as did stints in various American universities as visiting lecturer. Worlds Apart (1963), a heady Platonic dialogue, took the fragmentation of modern thought as its theme. In Unancestral Voice (1965), Barfield's fictional alter ego, Burgeon, discovers a super-intelligent entity, the Meggid, residing in his unconscious mind. Through a series of conversations, the Meggid introduces Burgeon/Barfield to the system of thought with which Barfield, in those circles in which he is known, is associated: Rudolf Steiner's Anthroposophy. In these works, as in the books that followed - Speaker's Meaning (1967), What Coleridge Thought (1972), The Rediscovery of Meaning (1977), and History, Guilt and Habit (1979), and also in his collection of anthroposophical essays, Romanticism Comes of Age (1944) - Barfield makes the argument for the supremacy of imagination as both a creative agent and a pathway to knowledge that would become his trademark.
So when I had an opportunity to visit Owen Barfield and talk with him about his life and work, I jumped at the chance. It's not everyday one gets to spend an afternoon with a walking history of twentieth century thought.
As anyone who has read his books knows, the focal point of all of Barfield's work is the "evolution of consciousness." Not ashamed to admit he's what Isaiah Berlin would call a 'hedgehog' - one of those who, unlike the fox, know only one big thing - Barfield will tell you that all his books are about the same thing. He said as much during my visit to The Walhatch, the residency estate in Forest Row, East Sussex, where Barfield lives. Comparing his work to that of his friend, C. S. Lewis, Barfield remarked: "There's an early Lewis and a late Lewis; that's why he's interesting to scholars. They can mark the stages of his development. There's none of that with me. I never developed. As an accurate but perhaps unkind critic remarked, I've been saying the same thing for fifty years. The only difference now is that it's seventy years, not fifty."
But repetition isn't always a drawback - especially when what you say is as interesting as what Owen Barfield says. During the hour or so I spent with him we talked about his life and work, Rudolf Steiner, the challenges facing a spiritual life in the modern age, and what he saw coming at the end of the twentieth century. Though supremely lucid, witty, and in good health, it's not surprising that Barfield tires easily; a casual chat seemed more appropriate than a rigorous interview. Sitting in a massive arm chair, white-haired, thin, and clutching a smoldering pipe, a sagacious, bespectacled Owen Barfield seemed happy to receive a visitor, especially one eager to discuss ideas. What follows is a brief introduction to Barfield's philosophy, sprinkled with some comments he made during my visit.
The Archaeology of Consciousness
The basic idea behind the evolution of consciousness is, as Barfield briefly put it in Romanticism Comes of Age, "the concept of man's self-consciousness as a process in time." Compare this with the notion of the "history of ideas." In the standard history of ideas, an ancient Greek and a postmodern American have very different ideas about the world, but both perceive the world the same way - with the understanding that our ideas, informed by modern science, are closer to the truth. There's no difference between the consciousness of the ancient Greek and ours, only between the concepts "inside" it. When we open our eyes, we see the same world. It's just that we have better ideas about it.
For Barfield this is totally wrong. Not only do their ideas about the world differ, but the world the ancient Greek saw and the one we see are not the same. The kind of consciousness we enjoy - if that's the right word for it - is very different from that of the ancient Greek - or the Greek of late antiquity, or a person from the Middle Ages, or even one of the early Modern Age. Not only our ideas about things, Barfield tells us, but our consciousness itself has evolved over time. And if we are to take seriously the contention of philosophers like Immanuel Kant - that the world we perceive is a product of our perceptual apparatus - then a world produced by different consciousnesses at different times will be, well, different.
One of the most fascinating conclusions Barfield draws from this is that all ideas about the pre-historic world, from paleontological textbooks to popular depictions like Jurassic Park are, at the least, questionable. "They project a picture of that world as it would be seen by a consciousness alive today. We have no way of knowing what that world looked like to a different consciousness because we have no record from a consciousness of that time. We can only speculate." To the contention that we have the palaeontological record Barfield replies, "It's nevertheless our consciousness that discovers fossils and organizes them into the schemata of ancient life."
But if we can only speculate about the nature of reality before the rise of consciousness, there is another record, one we find not by digging through ancient earth, but by scrutinizing ancient texts. This is language, the study of which, according to Barfield, is "a kind of archaeology of consciousness." As he writes in
History in English Words:
. . . in language . . . the past history of mankind is spread out in an imperishable map, just as the history of the mineral earth lies embedded in the layers of its outer crust. But there is this difference: whereas the former can only give us a knowledge of outward, dead things . . . language has preserved for us the inner, living history of man's soul. It reveals the evolution of consciousness.
And whereas the orthodox view of evolution has a pre-existing, external world much like our own, made up of distinct, independent, impermeable objects, the record left us by language, Barfield argues, suggests something different.
From Poetry to Prose
"The standard understanding of the evolution of language," Barfield told me, "is that all words referring to something spiritual or abstract have their origin in literal meaning. So when we refer to a 'spirit' enlivening the physical body, what we are talking about is something like breath. We find this in the Hebrew ruach and the Greek pneuma. Or, as he wrote in Poetic Diction:
. . . it is a commonplace. . . that, whatever word we hit on, if we trace its meaning far enough back, we find it apparently expressive of some tangible, or at all events, perceptible object or some physical activity. . . . Throughout the recorded history of language the movement of meaning has been from the concrete to the abstract.
The result of this is the insight, voiced by thinkers like Emerson and Nietzsche, that modern language, with its abstract terms and nuances of meaning, is, as Barfield writes, "apparently nothing . . . but an unconscionable tissue of dead, or petrified, metaphors." The further we dig into language, the more metaphors we find.
But there's something wrong with this, Barfield says. Etymologists, like the famous Oriental scholar Max Müeller, believed that early humans began with very simple, literal words and phrases for tangible, perceptible things. Then, with the "dawn of reason" (itself a metaphor), our ancestors began to use these phrases "metaphorically," to describe inner and outer experience. If we take this theory to its logical conclusion, Barfield argues, "the result should be that today, after millennia of metaphor building, we should all be spouting poetry whenever we speak." And likewise, we should, being so much more sophisticated, find poetry from earlier times rather less poetic. Neither of which, of course, is true. Homer still thrills like nothing else. Müeller and his followers erred, Barfield believes, by adopting an unquestioned Darwinian approach to the history of language. Just as simple organisms became more complex over time, so too language evolved, from simple "root" words denoting tangible "things," into our highly abstract and metaphorical speech. "The only problem with this, is the evidence from language itself," Barfield argues.
What the history of language tells us, Barfield says, is that "our ancestors didn't use language as Müeller believed, because they didn't see the same world as Müeller did. Müeller projected the world as perceived by late-nineteenth century European man into the past. That's why the only account of the history of language he could give was one that followed Darwinian ideas of progress." The kind of world ancient man saw - and our ancestors continued to see until fairly recent times - Barfield believes, was one in which human consciousness "participated." At that stage of the evolution of consciousness, the distinction between "self" and "the world" was not as rigid as it is today. What Müeller misunderstood as metaphoric was early man's ability to see the "inside" of things, just as we now are aware of our own "inside" - our minds. Accounts of nature spirits; folk tales and myths about fairies, nymphs, and sylphs; legends of gods walking the earth, are all rooted in this "participatory consciousness." This was the kind of world (and consciousness) that poets like Blake, Coleridge, and Goethe believed in and at times felt. It was also the kind of consciousness described by Rudolf Steiner. Barfield calls it "original participation."
Original and Final Participation
"Original participation," according to Barfield, is a "primal unity of mind and nature, with no separation between inner and outer worlds." At that point, nature, he believes, was as subjective, as inward, as we are. But what happened is that gradually "unconscious nature" became localized in human consciousness. If we think of "unconscious nature" as a vast ocean, and the initial separation of human consciousness as wavelets lifting themselves up from the surface, we'll have an idea of what Barfield means. Gradually this process continues, with an increasingly tenuous link between our new "self" consciousness and its "unconscious" source, until we arrive at our present state: a completely other "outside world" with separate islands of inwardness housed within our individual skulls. At this point we are as far away from "original participation" as we can get.
But although some bemoan our exodus from the garden, this estrangement from our source was absolutely necessary, Barfield tells us. The path of evolution, he says, isn't a straight line; it is much more like a U. The left hand of the U traces the path from "original participation" to our current estrangement from nature. By the nineteenth century and the rise of a completely materialist "explanation" of the world, including the most "immaterial" thing we know, consciousness, we had reached the bottom of the U. Now we are just beginning to make our ascent back up, this time on the right hand of the U. This is the essential difference. Because now we can begin to "participate" in "the world" not passively - as we had as "primitive" humans and as animals do today - but actively, by becoming conscious of the power of our imagination in creating "the world." (And if we need an example of the difference between active and passive participation, we need merely recognize the difference between our dreams, in which we passively encounter a series of strange symbolic experiences, over which we have no, or extremely little, control, and the consciousness of an artist or poet focused intently on his work.) We had to leave the security of "original participation" in order for consciousness to take the next step in its evolution. Having hit bottom on the evolutionary curve, we are beginning our ascent to what he calls "final participation," a conscious participation in the cosmos.
Polarity and Creative Imagination
The idea of an evolution of consciousness, though unorthodox, is not as strange today as it may have seemed when Barfield first presented it. Since then it's been argued by several thinkers, notably the philosopher Jean Gebser in The Ever-present Origin, and the Jungian theorist Erich Neumann in The Origin and History of Consciousness. But Barfield's take on it is peculiar, and perhaps his most startling idea is a reversal of the standard materialist account of mind's emergence from matter. Rather than a fluke product of material evolution, Barfield argues that consciousness itself is responsible for "the world." That's why there's no answer to questions about the "origin of language" when asked from the orthodox position. Asking about the origin of language, Barfield says, is like asking about "the origin of origin." Language didn't come about as a way to imitate, master, or explain nature, as it is usually assumed, because "nature" as we understand it didn't exist until language did. According to Barfield, the polarities mind/world and language/nature are the result of splitting up "original participation." To understand language, Barfield tells us, we must imagine ourselves back to a stage at which human consciousness hadn't yet separated from its unconscious background. At that point there was no "nature" and no "consciousness" - at least not as we understand it. "Nature," Barfield tells us, didn't exist until human consciousness came into its own. The "world" we see is the result of millions of years of work by the human mind.
The fact that we are unaware of our "participation" in the world accounts for our alienation from nature, as well as our mastery of it. The "idols" of the subtitle to Saving The Appearances are the "collective representations" - the phenomena of the physical world - as they are understood by modern science; that is, as completely unrelated to the imagination. Modern science, developing during consciousness's "flight from nature," in Rudolf Steiner's phrase, is "idolatry" because it's forgotten the source of the phenomena it studies. Indeed, in behavioral psychology, linguistic philosophy, and various other "materialist" disciplines, idolatry goes so far as to deny the very existence of that source. Having shaped a fascinating, complex, and seemingly infinite "world," consciousness loses itself in it, a situation described in Hindu and Buddhist teachings as "falling into Maya."
But while Hindu and Buddhist thought advise an escape from Maya, Barfield, working in the Romantic tradition, proposes a less austere strategy. If the phenomenal world is shaped by some part of the mind of which we aren't conscious, then to avoid "idolatry," we need to become conscious of that power.
. . . if appearances are correlative to human consciousness and if human consciousness evolves, then the future of the appearances, that is, of nature herself, must indeed depend on the direction which that evolution takes. (Saving the Appearances)
Altering slightly a much hackneyed phrase, the fate of the world isn't in our hands, but our minds.
When Barfield wrote Saving The Appearances several developments threatened to steer the evolution of consciousness in undesirable directions. Logical positivism and linguistic philosophy had emptied language of meaning. Science, with its increasing fragmentation of nature and itself into smaller and smaller parts, could offer no vision of wholeness. Nearly half a century later not much has changed. To think of our "postmodern condition" and to read Barfield is chilling. The "accelerating increase in that pigeon-holed knowledge of more and more about less and less," which "can only lead mankind to a sort of 'idiocy'. . . with the result that there will in the end be no means of communication between one intelligence and another," will sound ominously accurate to anyone familiar with today's universities.
But not only science and philosophy bode ill for the "future of nature." The arts too are implicated. "Imagination," Barfield says, "is not simply synonymous with good." Given the accelerated pace of evolution, he warns that without some form of moral guidance, unrestrained imagination can let loose a riot of fantasy and obsession, not all of a wholesome character. Given our ability to "morph" reality or to "virtu- ally" create it, the wedding of imagination and technology can result in something like Star Trek's "holodeck," which our hunger for raw sensation and aesthetic shock will use to fashion environments like Naked Lunch. If that is the case, then Barfield's warning of our moving into a "fantastically hideous world" may prove uncomfortably timely.
Towards Final Participation
Talking of the Internet, Barfield remarked wearily that "something that is supposed to bring people together seems to be doing quite the opposite," creating self-enclosed fantasy worlds, where people "indulge in sexual eccentricities without ever meeting another human being." At ninety-seven, you might excuse him for being not quite "with it," but little of import passes Barfield by. From hackney cabs to space shuttles, he's seen it and had something to say about it. So I asked him the inevitable: what did he think was in store for us as we approached the millennium?
"Well," he said, plunging a match into his Holmesian pipe, "I'm an optimist in the long run, but a pessimist in the short. The ecological situation is really quite bad. And society is more fragmented than ever, even with this 'information age' we never hear the end of. I'd like to think we'll avoid a catastrophe, but I don't know. . . . But I'm certain we're moving into a new stage of consciousness, as Steiner said. People are beginning to feel a sense of unity. What we need is the time for this to spread, for more people to become aware of it."
Sitting in Barfield's living room, looking at the rows of books by his friends - T. S. Eliot, Charles Williams, J. R. R. Tolkien, and, of course, Lewis - I was glad for once to be in the presence of a flesh and blood wise old man, and not only a psychic archetype. Meeting the person behind ideas you have been excited by for years gives a sense of the living past that is the essence of tradition. It also makes one feel the importance of keeping that past alive. Closing out a century saturated in materialism and hooked on a culture of violence and nihilism, we need Owen Barfields more than ever before.