Wednesday, 11 April 2018

The new/ return-to animism and anthropomorphism: clarifying the key concepts from Steiner and Barfield

For the past couple of years I have understood the essence of Rudolf Steiner and Owen Barfield in relation to thinking, and during that time I have striven to re-express these more simply in order to make them more widely known. But it has been hard to achieve this goal, and my estimate of my own success has not been great. 

For example the vital idea of 'polarity'. If you follow the previous link you will see some of my attempts at explicating polarity. However, I have come to realise that root problem relates to polarity being a metaphor derived from physics (i.e. from magnetism) - often with mathematical (e.g. geometric) aspects. And this makes it difficult to apply to the situation of human reality.

So Coleridge, for example, argued cogently and (to me) convincingly 200 years ago that we must have a logic based on polarity - but it is terribly difficult to grasp what he meant by this, and how we would go about such a change, and what positive difference it might make... William Blake seemed to express much the same conviction as Coleridge in some of his poems - especially the early aphorisms... but again it's a big jump from appreciating poetic 'paradoxes' to changing the structure of mainstream thinking.

But is, instead, we use biological metaphors and analogies to explain the same essential situation, then it is much more comprehensible. So, if we do our philosophy in terms of life, development, growth etc - then we find that we don't need a special concept of polarity. A living being generates contrasts and differences that can be distinguished (as we validly and usefully distinguish the several organs of a body, such as the heart); yet these distinctions are not separable (as we cannot separate the heart from the rest of the body, without killing both).

In fat, a thoroughgoing animism, or anthropomorphism, seems to be the best solution to many difficulties. And this has the added advantage of fitting with our own childhood experiences as well as the evolutionary-developmental-history of human consciousness. We can see that our task is to return to the simple, childlike animism and anthropomorphism - but this time not unconsciously and because we know no differently, but deliberately and in full awareness of what we are doing.  

In a sense; Coleridge, Steiner and Barfield all knew this and explicitly said this; but they did not follow-through with the task of ejecting physics and mathematics from their explanatory schemata and replacing them with the child-like way of thinking of reality as alive, conscious, purposive - and with the relations between entities understood as relationships between beings.

Or consider the way that Steiner and Barfield describe the evolution of consciousness through various stages - and the possible future of the Imaginative Soul/ Final Participation. We seem to see a mechanical universe going-through various phases towards a predetermined outcome (and Steiner, especially, attaches all kinds of mystical-numbers of years to these phases and the way they play out - with predictions stretching millennia into the future).

How much clearer it is to state that the evolution of consciousness happens because God wants it to happen and influences the world accordingly; but only insofar as each Man chooses (from his agency) to ally himself with God's plan. Man's destiny is therefore what God hopes will happen, it can be achieved only incrementally, but each individual must choose to cooperate; and might well choose to oppose.  

Animism and anthropomorphism are only 'childish' in a bad sense insofar as the child knows nothing different than them (and much the same applies to Men in simple, tribal hunter gatherer societies). Modern Man knows many different ways of thinking - especially the simplified-modelling of reality with mathematics and the sciences; and every model is partial and distorted and of ultimately unknowable generalisability... all of the explanations of mathematics and science are at bottom only simplified models that may, or may not, be useful for some specific purpose and situation.

Yet reality is as it always was. There is nothing childish about recognising that we were correct about the ultimate nature of reality when we were children and before Men had civilisations - after all nothing has ever disproved it!


TheDoctorofOdoIsland said...

"However, I have come to realise that root problem relates to polarity being a metaphor derived from physics (i.e. from magnetism) - often with mathematical (e.g. geometric) aspects. And this makes it difficult to apply to the situation of human reality."

For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things. If not so, my firstborn in the wilderness, righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness nor misery, neither good nor bad. Wherefore, all things must needs be a compound in one; wherefore, if it should be one body it must needs remain as dead, having no life neither death, nor corruption nor incorruption, happiness nor misery, neither sense nor insensibility. Wherefore, it must needs have been created for a thing of naught; wherefore there would have been no purpose in the end of its creation. Wherefore, this thing must needs destroy the wisdom of God and his eternal purposes, and also the power, and the mercy, and the justice of God.- 2 Nephi 2:11-12

It does sound very similar.

- Carter Craft

Bruce Charlton said...

@Carter - Yes, I think it was a poetic way of expressing the same insight. As you probably know I regard Mormon theology as a part of the same impulse as Romanticism, a second phase of divine inspiration, probably intended to be/ hoped to be complementary...

It could have been the completion, perhaps - if not for the aggression and persecutions directed against it (by the exercise of human agency) which (necessarily, I think) threw the church into a long term defensive stance. This continues - such that the nature of Mormonism is a closed book to other Christians, never mind the secular majority.