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.


  1. Unfortunately, I find nothing remarkable about the idea that human consciousness as a whole is evolving. It seems to be the common conceit of every rising generation.

    What I observe is that there is always some minority of the population that really is willing to challenge the fundamental assumptions of the surrounding society, and a tiny minority of these choose to rely on divine sources of truth. As the population of the Earth grows while our technology for communicating with each other increases, this can make some of these aware of greater absolute numbers of those in their own time who share this source of truth relative to what is evidence from the records of previous eras.

    But I have two cautions to offer. One is that the shift in language and the loss of primary sources over time makes it appear that those who were in communion with God in past times are less than is actually the case. The other is that the absolute number of this minority can indeed grow with increase in the human population even while the percentage shrinks, and my experience is that this is invariably the case.

    The other issue is that the cautions do not really matter. "As for the rest, compare these two opinions: the first one states that the greater number of Catholics are condemned; the second one, on the contrary, pretends that the greater number of Catholics are saved. Imagine an Angel sent by God to confirm the first opinion, coming to tell you that not only are most Catholics damned, but that of all this assembly present here, one alone will be saved. If you obey the Commandments of God, if you detest the corruption of this world, if you embrace the Cross of Jesus Christ in a spirit of penance, you will be that one alone who is saved.

    "Now imagine the same Angel returning to you and confirming the second opinion. He tells you that not only are the greater portion of Catholics saved, but that out of all this gathering, one alone will be damned and all the others saved. If after that, you continue your usuries, your vengeances, your criminal deeds, your impurities, then you will be that one alone who is damned."

    What, indeed, can it matter whether there is some slight shift in the numbers of those who will seek God with the sincerity and faith necessary to find Him? It is nothing to you, what matters is only whether you, as an individual, are one of them.

  2. Very interesting introduction to Barfield's work, Bruce. Good luck with the book.

  3. @CCL - An interesting point, but I think that behind such speculations are a more important one about what kind of a world God created, and what we are supposed to do in it.

    @William - Thank you.

  4. I do hope that the Atonement of Christ can be applied even to those who have only the simplest faith. And I think that simple faith is still probably more abundant than all the efforts of the modern world to stamp it out would tend to suggest.

    But profound seems to me that moderns are more likely to counterfeit it than hold it sincerely. I've learned that, in terms of explicable mental aspects that are subject to communication in language, the most profound faith is externally indistinguishable from the simplest.

    And in the real test, final willingness to lay own's own life on the alter, there may really be no difference at all.

  5. @CCL - From the Barfield persepctive - simple faith would be that unconscious acceptance of children and the simple-minded - and perfectly appropriate and good in that context. It is not really 'free' because taken for granted.

    But simple faith is not an option for one who has entered adolescence, and experienced the intense self-awareness of our modern culture (the 'consciousness soul' era).

    To attempt a return to simple faith would be an attempt to become unconsicous, accepting, passive - but that which makes the attempt will always stand outside the process...

    Final Participation is the return to the immersive simplicity of childhood faith, but in the realm of primary thinking - that is, with the fullest consciousness and free agency.

  6. I think I see the point of what you're saying. If we, after becoming sophisticated and alienated, try to recapture our simple faith by merely refusing to think, then we shall fail. But if we accept our intellectual development and see it as a foundation for our faith, then we can experience faith again. It is no longer simple faith, because we will now see that it was always large and wise enough to encompass our mature thoughts.