Collective Representation

A collective representation is simply a shared phenomenon created by and through our thinking. Taken together, collective representations constitute nothing less than “the world we all accept as real” (Saving the Appearances 15). Because of idolatry, however, we seldom understand the real to be either collective or a representation; instead, the real becomes a matter of common sense. We seldom recognize the shaping role we play in creating the “real” world around us. We hardly seem ready to accept what is, for Barfield at least, the true common sense that

It is only because of the thinking that we do, and have done in the past, from childhood on, that when we look around us, we do not stare uncomprehendingly at a chaos of unrelated impressions, but perceive an ordered–a coherent world of beings, objects and events–a world which, to some extent at least, we can already say we know.(Romanticism Comes of Age 294)

“I believe it will seem very strange to the historian of the future,” Barfield observes in Saving the Appearances, “that a literal-minded generation began to accept the actuality of a ‘collective unconscious’ before it could even admit the possibility of a ‘collective conscious’—in the shape of the phenomenal world” (155).

Barfield’s understanding of collective representations own much to the questions raised by modern physics’ investigation into the ultimate building blocks of matter. The “really real,” the “particles” (as Barfield likes to call them) out of which all things are made, remain, he notes, “unrepresented”:

[It is well] to remember, when we leave the world of everyday for the discipline of any strict inquiry, that if the particles, or the unrepresented, are in fact all that is independently there, then the world we all accept as real is in fact a system of collective representations.
(Saving the Appearances 15)

But we do not live in the unrepresented.

Whatever may be thought about the “unrepresented” background of our perceptions, the familiar world which we see and know around us–the blue sky with white clouds in it, the noise of a waterfall or a motor bus, the shapes of flowers and their scent, the gesture and utterance of animals and the faces of our friends–the world too, which (apart from the special inquiry of physics) experts of all kinds methodically investigate–is a system of collective representations. The time comes when we must either accept this as the truth about the world or reject the theories of physics as an elaborate delusion. We cannot have it both ways.
(Saving the Appearances 13)

Barfield was very interested in the question of how given collective representations come to be accepted as reality, as “collective”:

As to what is meant by “collective”–any discrepancy between my representations and those of my fellow men raises a presumption of unreality and calls for explanation. If, however, the explanation is satisfactory; if, for instance, it turns out that the discrepancy was due, not to my hallucinations, but to their myopia or their dullness, it is likely to be accepted; and then my representation may itself end by becoming collective.
(Saving the Appearances 14)

Even allowing for the obvious—that “two people can make the same momentary mistake about the identity of an imperfectly seen object”‘ that “the generally accepted criterion of the difference between ‘I thought I saw’ and ‘I found it was'” is and always will remain; “that the former is a private, the latter a collective representation”—profound questions still remain:

How, then, if “they” are a whole tribe or population? If the “mistake” is not a momentary but a permanent one? If it is passed down for centuries from generation to generation? If, in fact, it is never followed by a “they found it was”? The difficulty is, that then the “mistake” is itself a collective representation.
(Saving the Appearances 24)

For Barfield, of course, the modern Western mind has, with its “sins of idolatry,” been guilty of just such a mistake.

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