Saturday 10 December 2022

Barfield misunderstanding Barfield...

One of the difficulties about understanding Owen Barfield, is that he did not really understand himself! 

I mean that Barfield did not really understand the nature of his own philosophical work; and thereby said some misleading things about it. 

Barfield's major work was Saving the Appearances; and in his introduction to the 1988 edition of this book (which are Barfield's first published, and framing, words in the reprinted editions since then), Barfield tries to provide a helpful framework to avoid what he terms a misunderstanding, and a difficulty

What Barfield regards as the 'misunderstanding' is that "some readers have treating the work as claiming to provide a complete metaphysical theory of the nature of reality. Not so". 

(Leaving aside the weasel word "complete" - because nothing finite ever is complete...) 

But Of Course Barfield is exactly providing a metaphysical 'theory' of reality! Metaphysics is that philosophy which deals in the fundamental nature of reality; and Barfield is claiming in StA that reality is inextricably consequential of both 'chaos' and consciousness; because chaos is meaningless and unknowable without consciousness. 

Also, Barfield asserts that consciousness has changed through time; and therefore (says Barfield) reality itself (and not just perception of reality) has changed through time: "Nature itself [has] changed in the course of time in a mode not covered by the doctrines of biological evolution".

Furthermore; without consciousness (says Barfield) - there is no knowable reality - only chaos

So that from Barfield's assumptions: it is incoherent to theorize about a world without consciousness

Thus, a cosmology which - like both Big Bang and Steady State theories - speculates on the formation of a non-alive universe in the absence of consciousness is not so much mistaken as simply incoherent; as are similar speculations on the formation and evolution of an inorganic earth before the advent of Life.  

Barfield's (drawing heavily upon Rudolf Steiner's - albeit not identical-with Steiner) is indeed a fundamentally different understanding of reality than anything in the Western or Eastern mainstream of philosophy or theology. 

Therefore, whether Barfield acknowledges it or not: in StA he is indeed "doing metaphysics", and proposing a particular metaphysical description. 

Barfield claims he "tried to preserve neutrality towards all such [metaphysical] speculations, by referring to objective reality (that is to say, reality insofar as it is independent of our awareness of it)... sometimes as 'the particles' and sometimes as 'the unrepresented'. 

But this is not neutrality - because neutrality in metaphysics is impossible. 

Barfield's conceptualization of 'objective' as 'unrepresented'/ 'particles' is itself a metaphysical division and definition.  

Barfield then says: "The subject of this book is not the nature of reality; it is the evolution of consciousness". 

This translates as Barfield saying he is not doing metaphysics, but is (implicitly) doing a kind-of 'science' that he claims to be independent of ('neutral' about) metaphysical assumptions. 

So, Barfield's detailed account of the way that word-meanings have changed through human history; is claimed to be (in effect) 'empirical' and independent of metaphysical assumptions. 

But this is false, because Barfield's understanding of the implications of meaning change being located in consciousness; and consciousness being inextricably a part of reality; are excluded by the implicit and unconscious metaphysics of mainstream linguistic history. 

The changes of word meaning through history are interpreted using a very different and incommensurable significance than that which Barfield proposes - and the mainstream linguists would regard Barfield's interpretation as bizarre and obvious nonsense. 

Likewise, astro- and geo-physicists would regard Barfield's assertion that their theories of the formation of the universe and of earth were incoherent - because excluding any "observing consciousness" from such theories - to be absurd nonsense. 

Such physicists would almost certainly assert that their theories 'work' empirically, have been cross-checked by multiple mathematical analyses and physical observations - and that there is just No Problem.  

The difference between Barfield and the physicists is precisely metaphysics: each is arguing from different basic assumptions concerning the nature of reality. 

My understanding of Barfield is that he was Just plain wrong about what he was doing; just as Rudolf Steiner was wrong in The Philosophy of Freedom

Barfield claimed to be doing 'science' and Steiner claimed to be doing epistemology; but in fact both were doing metaphysics: both were (in these works) putting forward a different way of describing ultimate reality from that which was mainstream. 

This wrongness had an unfortunate effect in terms of obscuring the reader's understanding; because a convinced reader is given the false impression that Barfield and Steiner have 'proved' their arguments in a neutral fashion (which ought to be universally acceptable); rather than having provided a radically different framework for the structuring of arguments. 

Furthermore, by failing to notice that they themselves are 'doing metaphysics'; Barfield and Steiner both leave out God as a primary explanation for their understandings of reality. 

I have said before that it would be Much easier for the reader to understand Saving the Experiences if Barfield had set-out at the beginning that the 'evolution of consciousness' which Barfield describes is a divine plan, which aims at the incremental divinization of Man towards the level of God as creator.

Lacking this structuring and explanatory reference to God; Barfield's attempted-neutral description of the evolution of consciousness sounds like he is proposing a kind of 'law of nature' - a biological principle that sounds like a rival theory of the same kind as mainstream biological evolution by natural selection.   

I believe the consequences of this confusion can be seen in most of mainstream Barfield scholarship since the 1960s; and this has been exacerbated by a failure to engage with the work of Rudolf Steiner. Yet, if we begin by stating Barfield's metaphysical assumptions as such, including the presence and role of God; it really is not difficult to understand - because then its validity does not hinge on understanding and following complex, multi-step arguments or evidence. 


Jack said...

You're absolutely right. He ought to have had more confidence in himself. I get the feeling he thought his own work was second rate, i.e. just short of the "greats" like Hegel or Steiner or Tolkien, etc. There is now a fairly large audience that would be accepting of his metaphysics and appreciative of his insights. I posted elsewhere recently that physical laws were not the same thousands of years ago, that the idea of universal physical laws/constants extending infinitely back into the past is a mere hypothesis, and that there is much more truth in the ancient myths than our present intellectuals are willing to accept. I said the distant past is a land of mystery and mist. I had a lot of comments to that post. Someone described it as "based and consensus reality pilled". Barfield actually gives intellectual meat to these bones.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Jack - Rupert Sheldrake has also talked about changing laws and constants.

But to talk of physical laws as if primary realities is really an obsolete metaphor/ model for science: a kind of half understanding IMO (what Barfield termed Residual Unresolved Positivism). We need a far more radical change to our understanding of science, I feel.

Francis Berger said...

I recently read StA for the first time, but I did not pick up this seemingly obvious and crucial point until you drew my attention to it.

Concerning Barfield's omission of God as a primary explanation for reality and the evolution of consciousness as divine plan, he does seem to allude to something of that nature from time to time within the book, but he is certainly not explicit about it.

For example, in Ch. XXIV, he writes: "Original participation fires the heart from a source outside itself; the images enliven the heart. But in final participation -- since the death and resurrection -- the heart is fired from within by the Christ; and it is for the heart to enliven images."

I've noted this passage before for the simple reason that it does seem to contain, at the very least, a faint essence of God as a primary explanation of reality and the e.o.c in time as a divine plan to raise men towards divinity -- but that's about as explicit as Barfield gets(at least as far as my one and only reading of the book has ascertained).

Speculation time. If the e.o.c is a crucial part of God's divine plan to raise men toward creative divinity, then it qualifies as theosis. Is it possible that thinkers like Barfield and Steiner might have felt subconsciously hemmed in by Western Christianity's lack of focus on theosis and thus fell back upon conventional western approaches of neutrality and doing a "kind of science"?

I mention this because thinkers in the east, Russian thinkers specifically, felt more at home making these sorts of explicit declarations and connections. I am not implying that this made the eastern theologians/philosophers more penetrating or insightful (they often weren't), but these thinkers certainly felt more at home when it came to the topic of theosis and historical development, e.o.c, man's destiny, etc. Some of that is attributable to culture/theology; some to the shallower penetration of science in the 19th century.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Frank - wrt Barfield's (and Steiner's) motivations...

I think Steiner was trying to appeal to Theosophists (he only invented his own society of Anthroposophy towards the end of his life) who were often pro-Hindu and somewhat anti-Christian. While he made it clear that Christ (in his unique fused-two-child version) was essential, and the primary event of evolutionary history; he very seldom mentioned One God who was behind creation (in fact, I cannot recall a single reference in the dozens of Steiner sources I have read - but there are even more I have not!)

Instead Steiner talked nearly all the time about the (ninefold, 3X3) hierarchy of angels, and their various roles. In other words, it was nearly all about the proximate fulfillment of God's plan, and almost never about the explicit nature of that plan or its divine purpose.

With Steiner, it was almost as if he wanted Jesus Christ without God the Father; and insetad a polytheistic background.

Barfield was a Church of England member, and keen on the Trinitarianism of that denomination; which (following Coleridge, and fitting with Steiner) he developed into a metaphysical principle of Trinitarian Threefoldness that he applied to almost everything.

Why Barfield didn't talk about discerning 'what God wanted' from creation - I don't know; except that there was and is a very strong taboo against that kind of thing in mainstream churches - which is why Arkle (who began in the CofE) makes such a big point of repeating the need for it.

Another thing that both Steiner and Barfield miss, so far as I can tell, is to talk about resurrection as the goal for Men. Both seem to assume that embodiment is temporary, and Man's destiny is to return to spirit. How this is squared with the Gospel teachings of Jesus, I don't know - but the superiority of eternal incarnation over the spirit state was an idea that did not seem to reach explicit consciousness until after being articulated by the Mormon Prophet Joseph Smith - and is still unpopular.

Francis Berger said...

@ Bruce - Very helpful and thought-provoking. Thanks!