Thursday 23 March 2023

Four reasons to read Owen Barfield - even if you already know Rudolf Steiner

It seems to be a fault of Anthroposophists seriously to read only Rudolf Steiner himself, and secondarily those who explain and expound Steiner's own views. 

But if Steiner himself is taken seriously, then he was establishing a 'way' (a Spiritual Science) rather than a body of information:

"Anthroposophy is a path of knowledge, to guide the Spiritual in the human being to the Spiritual in the universe". Anthroposophical Leading Thoughts, Number 1 - my emphasis. 

Therefore it should be expected that those who engage most deeply with Steiner will potentially be able to produce original and valuable work, by going either wider or deeper than the Master - and thus, in principle, be worth reading. 

We can then ask: why read Owen Barfield specifically? 

What does Barfield offer that he does better than Steiner? 

1. Flavour

Barfield's writing has a very different flavour than Steiner, since they have very different personalities. Some who dislike the taste of Steiner will enjoy Barfield. 

2. Prose

For an English speaker, it is relevant that Barfield wrote in English, and in a clean and elegant prose style; whereas Steiner wrote in a 'Victorian' style of German that is (apparently) rather dry and pedantic in the original, and in translation often reads awkwardly. Barfield's prose is always concise and focused; while Steiner (especially in the lectures) is often rambling and discursive.  

3. Quantity and Quality 

Steiner wrote, and had transcribed from lectures, a truly overwhelming quantity of work; of widely variable levels of quality and interest; whereas Barfield published a more manageable body of work. While Steiner at his best is better than even the best of Barfield; Barfield's average level of quality and relevance is significant higher than Steiner's average.    

4. Themes

Barfield wrote in depth and detail about several matters that Steiner covered less well or not at all. For instance, Barfield wrote a lot, and with many example and references, about the development of language and especially of words. 

Barfield discussed the nature of modern (post-Einstein-ian) science and post-genetics Neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory; and the implications for science and society more generally. 

Barfield also rooted his critique in the modern Western condition as it developed after the 1914-18 World War and up to the 1980s; aspects such as alienation, existentialist disaffection, radical politics, and the sexual revolution, and destruction of the environment - especially by buildings, noise and pollution. 

So there are plenty of good reasons to read Owen Barfield, even for someone who is already familiar with Rudolf Steiner. 


Monday 6 March 2023

Going beyond Barfield's focus on the romantic imagination

Plenty of people, of many types, have the kind of positive, enjoyable - even joyous or blissful - imaginative experiences that get called things like epiphanies or peak-experiences.

These might typically happen in deep conversation with friends, in beautiful places, or in response to literature or music. These could be called "romantic imaginative" experiences. 

I certainly had many such moments as an adolescent and young adult; and I also regarded them as very important in my life; in the sense that I sought and cherished them, and felt that they had significance. 

But this was not enough! - and such moments did not have a sufficiently powerful effect on my life; I did not learn from such experiences, they did not transform my life, they did not give my life personal purpose or meaning. 

I always felt as if on the cusp of a breakthrough that never came - and meanwhile my life was essentially just like everybody else's; and becoming more so with each year. 

But, I did not have any explanation as to why such things were important: what made them important, whether the importance was just for me - or maybe had general significance. 

Much of this was that my basic assumptions about life and the universe denied any overall purpose and meaning for things-in-general - so it was not really possible for my individual life to have these. 

In other words; lacking a metaphysical explanation (in terms of primary assumptions about the nature of reality) that explained the purpose and meaning in Life-in-general; I lacked an explanation for the value of joy/ epiphanies/ peak-experiences. 

But even for those who do have a metaphysical explanation for the value of Life Itself, will not get real value from specific romantic imaginative experiences, unless they have a metaphysical explanation for the value of joy/ epiphanies/ peak-experiences within that general context.

And this is what many/ most Christians lack. Their Christian understanding is such that they cannot explain to themselves what it is that romantic imagination contributes to their own life; and therefore they typically undervalue it - maybe even denying it has any ultimate significance.

It was the nature of Owen Barfield's contribution to the study of romantic imagination that he provided just such an explanation - although he claimed (wrongly) that his explanation was 'epistemological' rather than 'metaphysical'

Barfield explained this in terms that Romantic Imagination was a form of 'knowledge' or knowing. (It is easier, I find, to understand this as know-ing - something dynamic happening here and now; rather than a know-ledge - something statically achieved concerning something fixed and bounded.)

Yet, I think we need to move beyond imagination as the focus, of concern to intuition. Imagination is experienced as coming from outside us, like an inspiration of knowledge; whereas intuition is about what is within us.

While imagination has connotations of passively receiving something from without; intuition recognizes that we do and must actively participate in the creation of knowledge

By this account; the experienced romantic imagination of joy, epiphany, peak-experiences; is a step towards our active investigation of reality by means of intuitive discernment, and the active exploration of our fundamental needs for knowledge, guidance, validation. 

What I mean is that romantic imagination is something that happens-to us, and its value is thus limited; but intuition can be understood as an active engagement with divine creation, something that we decide and will from our-selves. 

Therefore, I think it is more important that we have a metaphysical understanding of intuition; than of imagination - and that is what I have tried to attain by my reflections on primary-thinking, heart-thinking, and direct-knowing

Which is, I believe, the mode by which Barfield's Final Participation may be attained in this mortal life - albeit intermittently and temporarily.