Alpha Thinking

A key Barfield concept, introduced in Saving the Appearances, alpha-thinking designates thinking about our representations in such a way as to remain “unconscious of the intimate relations which they in fact have, as representations, with our organism and minds” (Saving the Appearances 20). Alpha-thinking is thus “a system of thought which only interests itself in phenomena to the extent that they can be grasped as independent of consciousness” (Saving the Appearances 42).

Alpha-thinking, considered historically, is the increasing exclusion of participation in order to make phenomena more predictable and calculable. (“Is it not apparent to reflection,” he observes in Saving the Appearances,” that the validity of alpha-thinking, in so far as it is based on logic, rests on that very participation which it tends, by its operation, to destroy?” [Saving the Appearances 110].) Systematic alpha-thinking, Barfield notes, probably began with astronomy (Saving the Appearances 42), and science is alpha-thinking in its most advanced stage. The philosophical tenet known as “naive realism” takes alpha-thinking to be all-in-all; it is alpha-thinking taken to be common sense.

Though alpha-thinking, left to its own ends, produces idolatry, it is important to point out (see below) that Barfield never questions its long-term benefits for the evolution of consciousness.

With [the] ability to experience phenomena as objects independent of human consciousness, there has grown up our enormously improved power of grasping them in exact and quantitative detail. (Indeed, it was by shifting our attention to this detail that we gained that ability.) With this has come the progressive elimination of those errors and confusions in which alpha-thinking is inevitably entangled while, in its initial stages, it is still overshadowed by participation; that is, the vague but immediate awareness of “meaning”… And with this again, has come the power of effective manipulation on which our civilization, with its many works of mercy, is based. Surgery, for example, presupposes acquaintance with the human anatomy exact in the same mode that our knowledge of a machine is exact. (Saving the Appearances 166)

“Whatever sins of omission alpha-thinking may be guilty of,” Barfield is anxious to remind, using an allusion to Shakespeare’s The Tempest, “our debt to it is immense”:

We owe to it, up to now, our independence, much of our security, our psychological integrity and perhaps our very existence as individuals. When Prospero renounced his last enchantments and set sail for civilization, Ariel, it is true, remained with Caliban—but so did Setebos” (Saving the Appearances 59).

Copyright © 1997 — Owen Barfield Literary Estate.       Return to Top.