Monday, 11 December 2017

An Introduction to Owen Barfield

I am currently working on putting together a book on Owen Barfield: this is a draft of what might be the introduction:

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...  

...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.

Read the whole thing at the Owen Barfield Blog. 


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