Monday, 11 December 2017

Owen Barfield's evolution of consciousness - empirical philology or metaphysics?

It seems clear from accounts of those who knew him, confirmed by surviving filmed evidence, that Owen Barfield was a genuinely modest man. Of course, he had the solid, inner confidence that is essential to a genius; but this inner confidence did not come-out in personal interactions, where he was self-effacing and conciliatory. Much the same applies to his writings - which seek common ground rather than confrontation. This was, of course, a virtue; yet there is a consequent tendency to underestimate the depth, scope and originality of Barfield's achievement.

Furthermore, Barfield's writings are extremely careful, precise and balanced to the point that it is sometimes unclear what exactly are his own views. The prose is lucid and aphoristic; stimulating - yet, perhaps from not wishing to over-state or exaggerate, from not wishing to antagonise or dominate - Barfield did not always do justice to himself. He had a tendency to over-prepare the background; to explain and deal with objections, and to surround his assertions with qualifications and distinctions; to such a degree that by the time we eventually get to read his own actual beliefs - they are easy to miss. His considered views are typically articulated without much emphasis, or repetition, or re-explaining - so concisely that they can seem ambiguous.

In introducing my interpretation of Owen Barfield, his modesty can serve as a springboard; because it is the man's modesty that has, I believe, led to a general misunderstanding of the nature of his achievement. And therefore it has led to the potential value of a book which focuses on Barfield's philosophical understanding, states that understanding somewhat baldly, and accepts that understanding as a basis for development -  rather than re-rehearsing the arguments  

One source confusion was Barfield's tendency to present his Big Idea - the evolution of consciousness - as being an outcome of his work as a philologist: that is, he has that his work as an empirical 'scientist' of language development led to a conviction of the evolution of consciousness.

Barfield's early work was on the nature of language, and especially the history of words; and he never ceased to reference this research and his conclusion that it demonstrated the evolution of consciousness. It is a part of Barfield's modesty that he presents his philosophical views as a consequence of this diligent study of precise word-meanings. 

Yet, in a strict sense, it is not (as a matter of principle) possible to discover the evolution of consciousness from an examination of the changing meaning of words. There are, indeed, several possible reasons why there might be discernible patterns of word change, and the most parsimonious explanations would avoid making the radical assumption that they were caused-by a qualitative and directional change in the ways that Men perceive the world and conceptualise it.

Barfield has said that he inferred that an evolution in consciousness was what drove the changes of meaning. But for this to be the case, evolution must be understood as a developmental-unfolding of human consciousness across hundreds and thousands of years of history - and this invites the question why would this happen? What provides the push and direction of such a development?

Barfield does not see the change of consciousness as a response to (for example) cultural change, neither does he understand it as happening due to laws of language change, nor as a random genetic drift; instead he sees the change of consciousness as purposive - he sees consciousness as changing in accordance with a plan.

But this interpretation steps outside of science and empirical operation. Because we need to ask: Where did that 'plan' come from? Well, Barfield would say it came from God - it is in accordance with God's plan for the evolutionary-development of Mankind, and individual Men, towards divinity.

I don't think that Barfield could have deduced the evolution of consciousness from the change in language unless he had already in-place a world view that regarded as possible and plausible a purposive, indeed divinely-destined, development of consciousness across an historical timescale. Once one believes that there is a God, that this God has the purpose of bringing men up to his level of consciousness, and that evolutionary process is the kind of way that God works... then the patterned changes of language that Barfield discovered are indeed absolutely consistent with this set of assumptions.

The above example illustrates one of the ways in which I have reinterpreted Owen Barfield, in distinction from how he modestly self-presented during his life. In reality, Barfield's work is of colossal ambition and scope! - it present nothing less than a comprehensive revision of the basic assumptions that we make about the nature of reality.

In other words, Barfield was working at a level much deeper than philology: he was a metaphysical philosopher engaged in redescribing modern Man's basic assumptions concerning the nature of reality; and Barfield underpinned his metaphysics with a radical Christian theological reinterpretation of the nature and purpose of God's relationship with Man and creation.

I suppose that if Barfield were confronted with the above passage, he would quietly but firmly agree that he was - indeed - essentially working in metaphysics and theology; and would then modestly point-out the large extent of his debt to Rudolf Steiner; that much of Barfield's philosophy can be seen as built-upon the foundations of Steiner's early philosophical books culminating in The Philosophy of Freedom (1894).

And debt is real and vital; despite a few differences, and that Barfield's work leaves-out the great bulk of Steiner's enormous output of 'spiritual science'. Yet it also seems to be true that Steiner's work served more as a confirmation and clarification of Barfield's pre-existing intuitions than a primary source of them.

In the end, it seems necessary to acknowledge both that Barfield's ideas are built-on those of Steiner; and also that Barfield is his-own-man - and for many or most people Barfield could justify the status of serving as one of a handful of truly important philosophers of the twentieth century; one whose work is of potentially-life transforming, life-enhancing value.