Consciousness

Though questions of the nature and evolution of consciousness lie at the heart of every word Owen Barfield wrote, he acknowledges the extreme difficulty of understanding the nature of consciousness at all. In a wonderful exchange in Worlds Apart, Barfield’s alter ego Burgeon admits the impossibility of the task:

Sanderson. We seem to be identifying consciousness—any sort of consciousness, however “mere”—with thinking—in the sense of reasoning. What about the consciousness of the lower animals? I doubt whether any of us would call that reasoning or even thinking.

Burgeon: . . . Let’s put the consciousness of animals into the fourth tray.

Brodie: Fourth tray?

Burgeon: A Civil Servant used to keep four trays on his desk to put his papers in. The first was marked Incoming, the second Outgoing, the third Pending, and the fourth Too difficult.
(Worlds Apart 48-9)

Barfield did not, of course, leave consciousness in the Fourth Tray. He reached some striking, tentative conclusions concerning it. He was certain, for example, that

When we speak… about consciousness, about the point at which consciousness arose and so forth, we are speaking not merely about human nature, as we call it, but also about nature itself. When we study consciousness historically, contrasting perhaps what men perceive and think now with what they perceived and thought at the same period in the past, when we study long-term changes in consciousness, we are studying changes in the world itself, and not simply changes in the human brain. We are not studying some so-called “inner” world, divided off, by a skin or a skull, from a so-called “outer” world; we are trying to study the world itself from its inner aspect.
(History, Guilt, and Habit 11)

He knew, too, that the assumption “that, because consciousness is contingent on a physical organism, it must be the product of such an organism” (Rediscovery of Meaning 31), though currently common sense, must be incorrect, for “[Consciousness] resembles a spark located within the brain much less than it resembles a diffused light focused into the whole body from without” (Language, Evolution of Consciousness, and the Recovery of Human Meaning).

And he was firmly convinced that the question of consciousness is much more than an abstruse epistemological dilemma, for

If civilization is to be saved, people must come more and more to realize that our consciousness is not something spatially enclosed in the skin or in the skull or in the brain; that it is not only our inside, but the inside of the world as a whole. That people should not merely be able to propound as a theory . . . but that it should become more and more their actual experience. . . . That, and also the overcoming of the total obsession there is today, with the Darwinian view of evolution—of consciousness or mind having emerged from a material, but entirely unconscious universe. Putting it very shortly, to realize, not simply as a theory but as a conviction of common sense, that in the history of the world, matter has emerged from mind and not mind from matter.
(‘Towards Interview’)

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