Tuesday 26 June 2018

Bad habits of thinking - the self-imprisonment of modern consciousness. (From Owen Barfield)

One of Owen Barfield's best books is a four volume collection of public lectures published in 1979, called History, Guilt and Habit. The following I have excerpted and edited from the lecture entitled The Force of Habit, given in Vancouver, 1978.


What we perceive is inseparable from how we think - and from this many consequences follow...

One of them is discovering how differently mankind as a whole used to think in the remote past: the thoughts themselves were images rather than concepts. And this entails that the world they lived in then, was different from the world we live in today.

They perceived images rather than thought them - what we perceive as things, they perceived as images...

The difference between an image and a thing lies in the fact that an image presents itself as an exterior expressing or implying an interior, whereas a thing does not. When what begins by being an images becomes, in the course of history, a mere thing; we are justified on describing it as an idol. And a collective state of mind which perceives only things, and no images, may thus fairly be described as idolatry.

The world we perceive around us today is no longer a world of images, no longer an exterior expressing an interior, but simply a brittle exterior surface... which is not, however, the surface of anything.

Thus the quality of the world we live in is determined not only be what we perceive, but what we fail to perceive.

But this world of outsides with no insides to them, which we perceive around us and in which we dwell, is not something unshakably and unalterably given, but is the product of the way we collectively and subconsciously think. It is correlative to our mental habit.

It is this cut-offness, this imprisonment, to which many problems of today can be traced. For instance, the growing prevalence of mental disease, and the uneasy sense of guilt that has come to pervade our society and - still more - our sociology.

How much of this is really prison-sickness? Of course not many people actually think of themselves as in prison. They only feel it.

They feel it because virtually everything that is thought and written today - from science to literature and criticism, from sociology to aesthetics, from theology to politics, and in politics from extreme right to extreme left - is thought and written on the walls of that prison.

1 comment:

Chiu ChunLing said...

Or rather, 'concept' express our belief that what we perceive is all there is, while 'image' allows that there is more to a thing than we understand.

The primitive mindset, looking at an animal, accepts that the important parts of that animal are unseen and thus unknown. The modern mindset believes that the concept of the animal has been fully described by science (even if the observer is not a specialist in that knowledge) and that there is nothing, or at least very little, to that animal that is not understood "by science".

The primitive mindset naturally imputes an important difference between the dead body of an animal that can be cut up and eaten and the living animal, our languages are full of expressions of this difference, most basically in having a term for "meat" which is distinct from the terms for the live animal.

The prison arises because this failure to acknowledge the limits of our understanding makes us less able to correctly predict the world around us, because we rely less on true intuition about what the unseen is doing and more on flawed reasoning from concepts that are inherently false. This makes us less free, less able to choose actions with a practically reasonable idea of the likely consequences.

The prison is secured and becomes unbearable when we begin to apply our 'concepts' to each other, to see people as nothing more than meat, which inevitably leads all but the clinically sociopathic (and psychopaths) to see themselves in the same way. We are then not only less free in a pragmatic sense of being misled by false concepts, but are in denial that freedom is even a meaningful possibility.