We are well supplied with interesting writers, but Owen Barfield is not content to be merely interesting. His ambition is to set us free. Free from what? From the prison we have made for ourselves by our ways of knowing, our limited and false habits of thought, our ‘common sense’.
Our destiny is to become both conscious and free.
Barfield was writing for everybody and for all time — his core concern was nothing less than the divine destiny of each individual person and of all people collectively.
Barfield’s immediate relevance is profound; it is to solve the core problem of modern times – which is ‘alienation’: i.e. the deep sense of meaninglessness, purposelessness, and isolation from people and things.
The understanding which makes this possible is that history, the present and the future can be understood as aiming at both consciousness and freedom (where consciousness means awareness of our thinking and ourselves, and freedom refers to free will, or human agency).
Barfield’s scheme is that humans began as conscious-but-not-free; and we evolved — evolved in the sense of changing by unfolding according to a (divine) developmental plan — to become free but not conscious (which is where we are now, in modern times — unaware of meaning, purpose, relation) — and we ought to be aiming at the condition where we are both self-aware and fully-conscious. Engaged with (and participating in) reality as free agents.
Even more briefly, humanity began as conscious, became free; and is destined to become both — simultaneously.
Barfield proposes real, coherent, and clear answers to the most fundamental problems.
Owen Barfield is the father of modern consciousness studies.
Barfield discovered that the history of words correlates with the evolution of human consciousness. All words have a deeper meaning that fades over time, so we no longer perceive things as they truly are. Eventually we find ourselves as ‘subjects’ cut off from an ‘objective’ world around us.
Yet, contrariwise the language we use inescapably envisages the ‘objective’ outer world as imbued with ‘subjective’ meaning. So to see phenomena as they truly are requires not a reductive methodology, but the imagination.
This revolutionary way of seeing phenomena has done for our perceptions what quantum physics has done for matter. In the same way quantum physics released matter from the constraints of Newtonian physics, so, too, does Barfield release our perceptions from the constraints of Cartesian dualism.
Here is a radical change to the way we experience the world.
As a leading anthroposophist in the English-speaking world, Barfield was especially interested in the evolution of human consciousness, exploring its development through the history of language.
Thinkers and writers central to Barfield’s work include Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Rudolf Steiner. Although best known for his non-fiction, such as Poetic Diction and Saving the Appearances, Barfield also wrote poetry, fiction, and plays.
T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, Howard Nemerov, and Saul Bellow are among those who have praised Barfield’s writing, and Barfield is often described as having a prophetic, powerful mind.
A Very Brief Overview of Barfieldian Philosophy
- Human consciousness and language evolve simultaneously
- The Enlightenment and its corollary (scientific thinking) marked one of the major changes in the evolution of human consciousness and, consequently, in the way humans think and perceive the world around them
- In order to think scientifically, previous ways of thinking had to be effectively eliminated – and they were
- Due to scientific thinking, Western societies have entered into an unprecedented era of material wealth. This same thinking, however, has led to a correspondingly unprecedented number of mental health, environmental, social, and individual problems
- To address the problems facing our world, a new way of thinking is indeed emerging
- To open our perception to this new way of thinking, we must understand the physical and mental processes involved in thinking
- The power of our imagination will allow us to evolve to this new way of thinking and will open a means for us to develop an expanded science.
Spirit: what is not matter, but what is required for matter to form.
Imagination: the bridge between matter and spirit
reconnecting to spirit, the living unity
accessing core morality.
Primary tools of the Imagination:
Roughly before 800 B.C., it seems, most people connected with God and reality through myth, poetry, dance, music, fertility, and nature. Although it was a violent world focused on survival, there is much evidence that many people might have had healthier psyches than we do today. They knew they participated in what was still an utterly enchanted universe. This was the pre-existent “church that existed since Abel” that St. Augustine and St. Gregory spoke of. Barfield called this Original Participation.
Consciousness emerged worldwide with the Eastern sages, the Jewish prophets, and the Greek philosophers, all around 500 B.C. It was the birth of systematic and conceptual thought. In the East, it often took the form of the holistic thinking that is found in Hinduism, Taoism, and Buddhism, which allowed people to experience forms of participation with reality, themselves, and the divine. In the West, the Greek genius gave us a kind of meditated participation through thought, reason, and philosophy.
On the cusp of East and West, there was a dramatic realization of intimate union and group participation with God among the people called Israel. The people were being saved; participation was historical and not just individual. The confluence of the Eastern Semitic mind, Jewish religion, and Greek and Roman influence in Palestine created a matrix into which a new realisation could be communicated, and Jesus the Jew soon offered the world full and Final Participation in his own holistic teaching, which allowed him to speak of true union at all levels.
Unfortunately the monumental insights of the period that formed all of us in foundational and good ways began to dry up and wane, descending into the extreme headiness of some Scholastic philosophy (1100 – 1500), the antagonistic mind of almost all church reformations, and the rational literalism of the Enlightenment. Although the reformations were inevitable, good, and necessary, they also ushered in the Desert of Nonparticipation, as Barfield called it, where no one belonged, few were at home in this world, and religion at its worst concentrated on controlling its own members.Barfield, foresaw the coming of a new Consciousness, when the best of each era will combine and work together: the prerational, the rational, and the transrational. We live in such a time! In this consciousness, we can now enjoy intuitive and body knowledge, along with rational critique and deeper synthesis, thus encouraging both intelligent and heartfelt participation “with our whole heart, soul, mind and strength,” as Jesus puts it (Mark 12:30).