Friday, 26 November 2021

Owen Barfield's epistemological terminology of 'consciousness', contrasted with Rudolf Steiner's epistemology of 'thinking'

Owen Barfield regarded himself as a disciple of Rudolf Steiner - in a not-altogether healthy way; because it exerted a constraining effect on his potential and caused Barfield to leave out - unexplained - considerable aspects of his world view. 

Instead Barfield, at a certain point, would merely recommend his audience to 'read Steiner'; which is, for most people, way too much to ask; since locating and extracting the undoubtedly gold insights from Steiner's voluminous dross of error and nonsense is the work of several years hard labour...

I speak as one of not-many of Barfield's great admirers who actually have put-in these years of work. Having done so; I was rather surprised to find that Barfield makes a very noticeable change to Steiner's terminology from The Philosophy of Freedom (insights from-which form an essential basis to Barfield's schema as expressed in (for example) Saving the Appearances, Unancestral Voice, Speaker's Meaning and History, Guilt and Habit.

How do we attain knowledge of reality, and is such knowledge indeed possible? This question forms the basis of that branch of 'modern' (post-medieval) philosophy called epistemology

However, the modern attempt to make epistemology fundamental (as does so much 19th and 20th century philosophy) is actually an error, and has gone nowhere. 

Nowhere; because epistemology takes-for-granted the primary level of philosophy, which is metaphysics: that discourse which tries to describe our most fundamental assumptions about the nature of reality

Thus, both Steiner and Barfield fail to describe their primary assumptions about reality before they embark describing their model of knowledge - which has the effect of giving these models a rather arbitrary, take-it-or-leave it quality. 

(For instance, both Steiner and Barfield ought to describe what they assume about God before they describe what they believe about knowledge; since for them both the possibility of knowledge depends on a personal creator God who has certain attitudes towards Men.) 

Nonetheless, since I share broadly the same metaphysical assumptions as Steiner and Barfield, I regard their models of knowledge as very useful - which is all that can reasonably be asked of any simple model of reality; especially one that aims at a time-less hence 'static', cross-sectional description of reality. 

The following is a comparison of the terminological equivalents of the epistemological models of Steiner and Barfield: 

Rudolf Steiner

Percept + Concept = Thinking

Owen Barfield

Perception + Thinking = Consciousness

The potential confusion when reading these authors is that they use thinking to mean different things: Steiner's thinking is the end result of our perceptions of the world being understood and interpreted by concepts. 

But for Barfield, thinking is (more or less) what Steiner means by concepts': the processes by which we understand and interpret perceptions  - or 'images' in the case of ancient Man, whose perceptions came packaged with meanings. 

Steiner thus talks a lot about 'thinking' of a particular kind (e.g. 'pure' thinking, or 'heart-thinking') as being the main aim of modern Man; the destined path ahead. This thinking (says Steiner) can be cultivated by meditative exercises which are intended to (but actually do not!) promote the desired kind of thinking. The desired kind of thinking is itself True Knowledge - and this is therefore Steiner's epistemology.

By contrast; Barfield talks about the destined and desirable future state of Consciousness; which is self-aware, active and chosen (rather than unconscious, passive and automatic): he calls this Final Participation; and for Barfield this is True Knowledge - as well as the proper aim of created Man (because Final Participation is to join with God in the work of creation).

After struggling to 'get' this for a few years; I think the above equivalence is broadly correct; and might be helpful to those who wish to read both Steiner and Barfield.   


Brief Outlines said...

I understand it quite differently: Percept plus concept together form the reality of a thing. Thinking is above both because it mediates the two. Ergo, thinking is ultimate reality, and to think is to participate in a slice of creation itself. Barfield articulated this participation from the point of view of the phenomena, while Steiner articulated it via epistemology.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Brief - I don't think I disagree with what you have said - in other words, it seems to me that we are saying the same thing in different ways.

But I may be wrong

Do agree that Barfield's discussions of 'consciousness' refer to broadly the same phenomenon as what Steiner means by thinking? It is striking how there is a different focus in these two terms.

In particular, Barfield does not talk much about concepts, and tends to go from perceptions to thinking.

Also - do you agree that Steiner's phase coming *after* the consciousness soul (which he seldom names but sometimes call the Imaginative Soul) is much the same as Barfield's Final Participation?

(Barfield mostly uses 'consciousness' to include the subconscious - but advocates that, through time and with evolution, more of the subconscious should become conscious.)