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Owen Barfield: The Evolution of Consciousness

This is Appendix A of
The Future Does Not Compute: Transcending the Machines in Our Midst, by Stephen L. Talbott. Copyright 1995 O'Reilly & Associates. All rights reserved. You may freely redistribute this chapter in its entirety for noncommercial purposes. For information about the author's online newsletter, NETFUTURE: Technology and Human Responsibility, see

Owen Barfield was born in London in 1898, produced his first scholarly book (History in English Words) in 1926, published the decisively important Poetic Diction in 1928, and, by his own testimony, has continued saying much the same thing ever since. It is certainly true that his work—ranging all the way to and beyond History, Guilt, and Habit (1979)—exhibits a remarkable unity. But it is a unity in ceaselessly stimulating diversity. Many will testify that they have never seen him explore a topic except by throwing an unexpectedly revealing light upon it.

Barfield is identified, above all else, with his numerous characterizations of the evolution of consciousness. As a philologist, he pursued his quarry through the study of language—and particularly the historical study of meaning. I have already quoted his remark that "the full meanings of words are flashing, iridescent shapes like flames—ever-flickering vestiges of the slowly evolving consciousness beneath them." History in English Words is one of the relatively few attempts in our language to tell the history of peoples as revealed in these flickering word-shapes. Poetic Diction—and, to one degree or another, almost every subsequent book Barfield wrote—teases out of language the underlying nature of the evolution of consciousness.

Following the publication of his early works, Barfield was forced by personal circumstances to spend several decades as a practicing lawyer. Never completely ceasing his scholarly pursuits, he resumed them with extraordinary fruitfulness after his retirement in the 1960s. In addition to writing such magisterial and liberating works as Saving the Appearances and Worlds Apart, he spent terms as visiting professor at various American institutions, including Drew University, Brandeis University, and Hamilton College. Two of his most accessible books (History, Guilt, and Habit and Speaker's Meaning) consist of lectures delivered during these appointments.

Barfield was a member of the Inklings, an informal literary group that included C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Charles Williams. While he never achieved quite the same popular success as these friends, many regard his work as the more deeply seminal. His influence in scholarly circles has been all the more remarkable for its quiet, unobtrusive, yet profoundly transforming effect.

It is Barfield's conviction that how we think is at least as important as what we think. This makes reading him more than a merely intellectual challenge. Nobel laureate Saul Bellow has written:

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." These, he convincingly argues, have produced a "world of outsides with no insides to them," a brittle surface world, an object world in which we ourselves are mere objects. It is not only what we perceive but also what we fail to perceive that determines the quality of the world we live in, and what we have collectively chosen not to perceive is the full reality of consciousness, the "inside" of everything that exists. /1/

I cannot attempt to summarize Barfield's thought in even one of the many disciplines within which he has so productively exercised his iconoclasm. But the following, all-too-arbitrary, and by no means systematic collection of notes on a few topics may help readers open an acquaintance with one of the century's most incisive thinkers, while also directing them to the appropriate sources for a more thorough familiarity.

The following selections present a mix of direct quotation, paraphrases, and my own, freely constructed summary statements. I fear that some degree of misrepresentation is inevitable, and here acknowledge that all such misrepresentation originates solely with me. /2/

The Origin and Development of Language

Languages, considered historically, bear within themselves a record of the evolution of human consciousness. (This is a theme in virtually all of Barfield's works. But see especially Poetic Diction /3/, Speaker's Meaning, and Saving the Appearances.)

* * * * * * *

The idea that the earliest languages were "born literal"—exhibiting purely material meanings that were subsequently extended to the immaterial through metaphor—is confused and self-contradictory. "What we call literalness is a late stage in a long-drawn-out historical process." Anyone who tries to retain the supposed literalness of scientism "is either unaware of, or is deliberately ignoring, that real and figurative relation between man and his environment, out of which the words he is using were born and without which they could never have been born." ("The Meaning of `Literal,'" in The Rediscovery of Meaning and Other Essays)

* * * * * * *

The meanings of words constantly change. "All mental progress (and, arising from that, all material progress) is brought about in association with those very changes." Radical progress requires challenging one's fundamental assumptions, and the most fundamental assumptions of any age are implicit in the meanings of its words. Changes in meaning occur through discrepancies "between an individual speaker's meaning and the current, or lexical, meaning." (Speaker's Meaning)

* * * * * * *

Words can expand in meaning—so that they become more encompassing—or they can contract in meaning. Historically, the latter process has dominated, so that, for example, a single word combining the meanings, "spirit," "wind," and "breath" in a unified manner subsequently splits into three separate words, each with a more restricted meaning. Narrower meanings conduce to accuracy of communication, and result from rational analysis. Broader meanings support fullness of expression, and result from imaginative synthesis. Communication deals with the how, and expression with the what. "Perfect communication would occur if all words had and retained identical meanings every time they were uttered and heard. But it would occur at the expense of expression."

* * * * * * *

The expansion of meaning through poetic synthesis requires a strong, inner activity. The contraction of meaning tends to occur passively, through the "inertia of habit." (Speaker's Meaning)

* * * * * * *

When we investigate actual languages, we find them becoming more and more figurative the further back we look. What are now material meanings once had an immaterial component ("matter" itself goes back to a Latin word for "mother"), and what are now immaterial meanings once had a material component (a "scruple" was once a sharp pebble—the kind, Barfield remarks, that gets into your shoe and worries you). Originally, that is, all words—all meanings—were exteriors expressing interiors in an indivisible unity. This unity was simply given by what Barfield calls "figuration," and was not consciously constructed. Our own use of metaphor is made possible by the fact that this unity has fallen apart; it is no longer given, but must be grasped consciously—as it is whenever we apprehend an inner meaning shining through an exterior "vehicle" and construct a metaphor to convey this insight. (Poetic Diction; Speaker's Meaning)

* * * * * * *

The historical passage from figure to metaphor marks the dissolution of the given, inner/outer, immaterial/material unity. This unity was not a unity of language only, but of man's participation in the world (or, equally, the world's participation in man). With its dissolution, various antitheses arose for the first time: inner and outer; man and nature; words of immaterial meaning and words of material meaning; subject and object; what a word meant and what it referred to; and even sound and meaning. The rational, or analytic, principle operates to sharpen these antitheses; imaginative synthesis overcomes them. (Poetic Diction)

* * * * * * *

Early language reflected a unity of perceiving and thinking. This was correlative to a lack of freedom: when the thought is given in the percept—when the thought comes from without—one is not free in one's thinking. The world itself lives upon the stage of one's consciousness.

In our own experience, perceiving and thinking are separate. Perceiving (and not, incidentally, thinking) is subjectively qualified. You and I will see the same object differently, depending upon our point of view. (We correct for this through thinking.) But if perceiving is subjectively qualified, it must have been a rather different experience before the subject and object fell apart—that is, when the subject was not yet what it is today. As the history of language bears out, a kind of thinking was already present in this early experience of perceiving, and vice versa.

For Locke's picture of Adam at work on the synthetic manufacture of language we have to substitute—what? A kind of thinking which is at the same time perceiving—a picture-thinking, a figurative, or imaginative, consciousness, which we can only grasp today by true analogy with the imagery of our poets, and, to some extent, with our own dreams. (Poetic Diction; Worlds Apart)

* * * * * * *

Language is a living and creative power, from which man's subjectivity was slowly extracted. The function of language is to create that esthetic "distance" between man and the world "which is the very thing that constitutes his humanity. It is what frees him from the world."

He is no longer a peninsula pushed out by natural forces. He is a separated island existing in a symbolic universe. Physical reality recedes in proportion as his symbolic activity advances. He objectivizes more and more completely. But the symbols were the product of his own inner activity in the first place and they never really lose that character, however completely his very success in objectifying them may make him forget the fact. Forever afterwards, in dealing with things he is, as Cassirer puts it, "in a sense conversing with himself." (Worlds Apart)

* * * * * * *

Languages today possess only the faintest traces of the one-time unity of sound and meaning. Those willing to look "may find, in the consonantal element in language, vestiges of those forces which brought into being the external structure of nature, including the body of man; and, in the original vowel-sounds, the expression of that inner life of feeling and memory which constitutes his soul." All this is consistent with the testimony of the ancients that the primordial Word was responsible for creation.

Still today, the invisible word is spoken with a physical gesture, even if that gesture has for the most part contracted into the small organs of speech. One can at least imagine how the gestures of speech were once made with the whole body. This was before man had become "detached from the rest of nature after the solid manner of today, when the body itself was spoken even while it was speaking." (Saving the Appearances)

* * * * * * *

"It was not man who made the myths but the myths, or the archetypal substance they reveal, which made man. We shall have to come, I am sure, to think of the archetypal element in myth in terms of the wind that breathed through the harp-strings of individual brains and nerves and fluids, rather as the blood still today pervades and sustains them." ("The Harp and the Camera," in The Rediscovery of Meaning and Other Essays)

Meaning and Imagination

[This section is abbreviated, since the same topic is touched on in chapter 23, "Can We Transcend Computation?" See especially the sections, "The polar dynamic of meaning," and "So, then ... what is meaning?"]

* * * * * * *

Imagination is the activity by which we apprehend the "outward form as the image or symbol of an inner meaning." ("The Rediscovery of Meaning," in The Rediscovery of Meaning and Other Essays)

* * * * * * *

"Mere perception—perception without imagination—is the sword thrust between spirit and matter." It was what enabled Descartes to divide the world into thinking substance and extended substance. But something more than mere perception occurs when we look at or listen to a fellow being: whatever our philosophical predispositions, we in fact read his body and voice as expressing something immaterial. We can, moreover, attend to nature in the same way, although such a reading of nature has been progressively eliminated from our habits during the past few hundred years. Strengthening the activity of imagination is the only way to heal the Cartesian sword-thrust. ("Matter, Imagination, and Spirit," in The Rediscovery of Meaning and Other Essays)

* * * * * * *

From classical Greece to the modern era there has been a broad transition in esthetics from a passive psychology of inspiration (mania, or divine madness, or possession by a god or muse) to an active one of imagination. This can be seen as

the transition from a view of art which beholds it as the product of a mind, or spirit, not possessed by the individual, but rather possessing him; to a view of it as the product of something in a manner possessed by the individual though still not identical with his everyday personality—possessed by him, whether as his genius, or as his shaping spirit of imagination, or his unconscious mind, or whatever name we may prefer to give it. His own, but not himself. (Speaker's Meaning)

* * * * * * *

The imagination has to do with a certain threshold. "When we think of an image or a symbol, we think of something that is impassably divided from that of which it is an image—divided by the fact that the former is phenomenal and the latter nonphenomenal." And yet, there is an all- important relation between the two. This relationship is one of expression, and our grasping of it imaginatively depends (unlike the older inspiration, which entailed a kind of possession) upon the exclusion of any "supernatural" crossing of the threshold. ("Imagination and Inspiration," in The Rediscovery of Meaning and Other Essays)


"Participation is the extra-sensory relation between man and the phenomena."

* * * * * * *

The world as immediately given to us is a mixture of sense perception and thought. While the two may not be separable in our experience, we can nevertheless distinguish the two. When we do, we find that the perceptual alone gives us no coherence, no unities, no "things" at all. We could not even note a patch of red, or distinguish it from a neighboring patch of green, without aid of the concepts given by thinking. In the absence of the conceptual, we would experience (in William James' words) only "a blooming, buzzing confusion." (Poetic Diction; Saving the Appearances)

* * * * * * *

The familiar world—as opposed to the largely notional world of "particles" which the physicist aspires to describe—is the product of a perceptual given (which is meaningless by itself) and an activity of our own, which we might call "figuration." Figuration is a largely subconscious, imaginative activity through which we participate in producing ("figuring") the phenomena of the familiar world. (A simple analogy—but only an analogy—is found in the way a rainbow is produced by the cooperation of sun, raindrops, and observer.) How we choose to regard the particles is one thing, but when we refer to the workaday world—the world of "things"—we must accept that our thinking is as much out there in the world as in our heads.

In actual fact, we find it nearly impossible to hold onto this truth. In our critical thinking as physicists or philosophers, we imagine ourselves set over against an objective world consisting of particles, in which we do not participate at all. In contrast, the phenomenal, or familiar, world is said to be riddled with our subjectivity. In our daily, uncritical thinking, on the other hand, we take for granted the solid, objective reality of the familiar world, assume an objective, lawful manifestation of its qualities such as color, sound, and solidity, and even write natural scientific treatises about the history of its phenomena—all while ignoring the human consciousness that (by our own, critical account) determines these phenomena from the inside in a continually changing way. /4/ (Worlds Apart; Saving the Appearances)

* * * * * * *

One way figuration is distinguished from our normal, intellectual thinking about things is that it synthesizes unities at the level of the percept. Figuration gives us the unanalyzed "things" of our experience (raising us above the "blooming, buzzing confusion"), and is not at all the same as synthesizing ideas about things. (Poetic Diction; Saving the Appearances)

* * * * * * *

Our language and meanings today put the idea of participation almost out of reach, whereas the reality of participation (if not the idea) was simply given in earlier eras. For example, we cannot conceive of thoughts except as things in our heads, "rather like cigarettes inside a cigarette box called the brain." By contrast, during the medieval era it would have been impossible to think of mental activity, or intelligence, as the product of a physical organ. Then, as now, the prevailing view was supported by the unexamined meanings of the only words with which one could talk about the matter.

The Evolution of Consciousness

We fail today to distinguish properly between the history of ideas—"a dialectical or syllogistic process, the thoughts of one age arising discursively out of, challenging, and modifying the thoughts and discoveries of the previous one"—and the evolution of consciousness.

The comparatively sudden appearance, after millennia of static civilizations of the oriental type, of the people or the impulse which eventually flowered in the cultures of the Aryan nations can hardly have been due to the impact of notion on notion. And the same is true of the abrupt emergence at a certain point in history of vociferously speculative thought among the Greeks. Still more remarkable is the historically unfathered impulse of the Jewish nation to set about eliminating participation by quite other methods than those of alpha-thinking [that is, of thinking about things]. Suddenly, and as it were without warning, we are confronted by a fierce and warlike nation, for whom it is a paramount moral obligation to refrain from the participatory heathen cults by which they were surrounded on all sides; for whom moreover precisely that moral obligation is conceived as the very foundation of the race, the very marrow of its being. (Saving the Appearances)

* * * * * * *

An analogy may help. The changes in our ideas about, say, the economics of transport and commerce over the past several centuries have no doubt resulted in part from the impact of idea upon idea. But another cause of these changes lies in the altered nature of transport and commerce themselves. That is, the thing about which we form ideas has evolved. (Speaker's Meaning)

When it comes to human consciousness, we tend to forget the second possibility. Yet, here in particular we should expect this possibility to predominate. "Ideas [about human consciousness] have changed because human consciousness itself—the elementary human experience about which the ideas are being formed—the whole relation between man and nature or between conscious man and unconscious man—has itself been in process of change." (Speaker's Meaning; Saving the Appearances)

Thus, the transition from a psychology of inspiration to one of imagination (see above) reflects a changing relation between man and the sources of what we now call creativity. What once came from without must now be taken hold of from within.

* * * * * * *

The balance in figuration between what is given to us from without and what we contribute from within has changed radically over the course of history. For earliest man, nearly all the activity of figuration came from without—which is another way of saying that the "inside" of things was experienced more "out there" than "in here." (Which also implies that "out there" was not quite so out there as it has become for us.) The perceiver was directly aware of the beings constituting this inside—an awareness we badly misinterpret if we take it as an erroneous theorizing about things. Today, on the other hand, we contribute to the inside of things—we participate in them—from within ourselves, and we are largely unaware of the contribution. Our primary, conscious mode of thinking is a thinking about things. (Saving the Appearances)

"Whether or no archaic man saw nature awry, what he saw was not primarily determined by beliefs. On the other hand ... what we see is so determined." This is the reverse of what is generally supposed. (Saving the Appearances)

* * * * * * *

The participation of primitive man (what we might call "original" participation) was not theoretical at all, nor was it derived from theoretical thought. It was given in immediate experience. That is, the conceptual links by which the participated phenomena were constituted were given to man already "embedded" in what he perceived. As noted above, his perceiving was at the same time a kind of thinking; thinking occurred more in the world than in man. Perceiving and thinking had not yet split apart, as they have for us. Moreover, what was represented in the collective representations also differed for primitive man:

The essence of original participation is that there stands behind the phenomena, and on the other side of them from me, a represented which is of the same nature as me. Whether it is called "mana," or by the names of many gods and demons, or God the Father, or the spirit world, it is of the same nature as the perceiving self, inasmuch as it is not mechanical or accidental, but psychic and voluntary. (Saving the Appearances)

* * * * * * *

"For the nineteenth-century fantasy of early man first gazing, with his mind tabula rasa, at natural phenomena like ours, then seeking to explain them with thoughts like ours, and then by a process of inference `peopling' them with the `aery phantoms' of mythology, there just is not any single shred of evidence whatever." (Poetic Diction; Saving the Appearances)

* * * * * * *

"Interior is anterior."

Both ontogenetically and phylogenetically, subjectivity is never something that was developed out of nothing at some point in space, but is a form of consciousness that has contracted from the periphery into individual centers. Phylogenetically, it becomes clear to us that the task of Homo sapiens, when he first appeared as a physical form on earth, was not to evolve a faculty of thought somehow out of nothing, but to transform the unfree wisdom, which he experienced through his organism as given meaning, into the free subjectivity that is correlative only to active thought, to the individual activity of thinking. (Speaker's Meaning)

* * * * * * *

On the significance of memory:

Just as, when a word is formed or spoken, the original unity of the "inner" [that is, not yet spoken] word is polarized into a duality of outer and inner, that is, of sound and meaning; so, when man himself was "uttered," that is, created, the cosmic wisdom became polarized, in and through him, into the duality of appearance and intelligence, representation and consciousness. But when creation has become polarized into consciousness on the one side and phenomena, or appearances, on the other, memory is made possible, and begins to play an all-important part in the process of evolution. For by means of his memory man makes the outward appearances an inward experience. He acquires his self-consciousness from them. When I experience the phenomena in memory, I make them "mine," not now by virtue of any original participation, but by my own inner activity. (Saving the Appearances)

* * * * * * *

The possibility of a new kind of participation—what we might call final participation—was glimpsed by the Romantics when they concluded that "we must no longer look for the nature-spirits—for the Goddess Natura—on the farther side of the appearances; we must look for them within ourselves." In Coleridge's words: We receive but what we give / And in our life alone does Nature live. Original participation "fires the heart from a source outside itself; the images enliven the heart." In final participation, "it is for the heart to enliven the images." (Saving the Appearances)

* * * * * * *

We can understand the relation between final and original participation only when "we admit that, in the course of the earth's history, something like a Divine Word has been gradually clothing itself with the humanity it first gradually created—so that what was first spoken by God may eventually be respoken by man." (Saving the Appearances; Worlds Apart)

Science and the Future

Modern science began with the conscious exclusion of so-called "occult" properties—those qualities imperceptible to the physical senses. Subsequently, the remaining, physically observable qualities were divided into two groups—primary and secondary—depending on whether they were felt to reside in the world or in man. Eventually, it turned out that all qualities were "subjective," and the hardest sciences therefore devoted themselves solely to the quantitative, measurable aspects of the world. The phenomena, in their qualitative fullness, were ignored as subjective.

Before the Scientific Revolution, qualities were felt to reside both in nature and in man. Man, as a microcosm, was a reflection of the macrocosm. The dispositional qualities of the planets were also dispositional qualities of man. The four elements of nature were not exclusively objective, and the four humors of man were not exclusively subjective.

It is odd, then, to call the pre-Copernican world "anthropocentric."

We have just been seeing how the qualities formerly treated as inherent in nature have, as far as any scientific theory is concerned, disappeared from it, and how they have reappeared on the hither side of the line between subject and object, within the experiencing human psyche; how we conceive ourselves as "projecting" qualities onto nature rather than receiving them from her. Is that any less anthropocentric than the Aristotelian world-picture? I would have thought it was more so. ("Science and Quality," in The Rediscovery of Meaning and Other Essays)

* * * * * * *

The qualities of things, "which we classify as subjective, but which look so very much as if they actually belong to nature," are in fact "the inwardness of nature as well as of ourselves." Not that we consciously devise these qualities; our participation in them is largely unconscious. ("Science and Quality," in The Rediscovery of Meaning and Other Essays)

* * * * * * *

"What will chiefly be remembered about the scientific revolution will be the way in which it scoured the appearances clean of the last traces of spirit, freeing us from original, and for final, participation .... The other name for original participation, in all its long-hidden, in all its diluted forms, in science, in art and in religion, is, after all—paganism." (Saving the Appearances)

* * * * * * *

When man first begins thinking about the phenomena, he still largely participates in them. This thinking, therefore, becomes entangled in error and confusion, for it is an attempt to gain an objective stance before one has gotten free of the web of meaning by which one is bound to things. Over time, however, this kind of thinking is a primary means by which the disentanglement—the freedom from things—is achieved. (Saving the Appearances)

Effective manipulation of things (from surgery to computation) is one of the gifts of science, as is a habit of disciplined and accurate thinking. So also is the selfless and attentive devotion to nature that only became possible with our separation from nature.

* * * * * * *

On the other hand,

our very love of natural phenomena "for their own sake" will be enough to prevent us from hastily turning a blind eye on any new light which can be shed, from any direction whatsoever, on their true nature. Above all will this be the case, if we feel them to be in danger. And if the appearances are, as I have sought to establish, correlative to human consciousness and if human consciousness does not remain unchanged but evolves, then the future of the appearances, that is, of nature herself, must indeed depend on the direction which that evolution takes. (Saving the Appearances)

* * * * * * *

The notion of evolution, or development, has become central to many of the sciences—and rightly so. But this idea remains badly distorted by the peculiar conditions of its birth. The phenomena, or collective representations, during the middle of the nineteenth century (when Darwin wrote) were objects. "To a degree which has never been surpassed before or since," man did not consciously participate in these phenomena. At that time,

matter and force were enough .... If the particles kept growing smaller and smaller, there would always be bigger and better glasses to see them through. The collapse of the mechanical model was not yet in sight, nor had any of those other factors which have since contributed to the passing of the dead-centre of "literalness"—idealist philosophies, genetic psychology, psychoanalysis—as yet begun to take effect. Consequently there was as yet no dawning apprehension that the phenomena of the familiar world may be "representations" in the final sense of being the mental construct of the observer. Literalness reigned supreme.... For the generality of men, participation was dead; the only link with the phenomena was through the senses; and they could no longer conceive of any manner in which either growth itself or the metamorphoses of individual and special growth, could be determined from within. The appearances were idols. They had no "within." Therefore the evolution which had produced them could only be conceived mechanomorphically as a series of impacts of idols on other idols. (Saving the Appearances)

* * * * * * *

All real change is transformation. For transformation to occur, there must be an interior that persists as well as an exterior that is transformed. Otherwise, one would have only bare substitution. There would be nothing undergoing the transformation. Nineteenth-century atomism—which continues to dominate the popular imagination (and even the prosaic imagination of most scientists)—was in this way essentially a description of substitutions. It therefore could not grasp evolution as a transformative process.

But to speak of an interior that persists is to speak as much of beings as of things. That, perhaps, accounts for the popularity of impersonal terms like "pattern" and "gestalt." They shield us from what we prefer not to recognize. "We glimpse a countenance, and we say hurriedly: `Yes, that is indeed a face, but it is the face of nobody.'" (Unancestral Voice)

* * * * * * *

The move from a participated world to the nonparticipated world of nineteenth-century science carried man from an organic relation to the cosmos to a purely spatial, mathematical relation. The view of man as a microcosm placed at the center of the macrocosm (much as the heart was the center—but certainly not the mathematical center—of man) gave way to an arbitrary coordinate system, with the eye fixed at the origin. That perfect instrument of perspective, the camera, "looks always at and never into what it sees. I suspect that Medusa did very much the same." ("The Harp and the Camera," in The Rediscovery of Meaning and Other Essays; Saving the Appearances)

* * * * * * *

The classical physicist still viewed transformation in nature as essentially qualitative, and he sought the unchanging entities underlying the observed transformations. But this enterprise was called into question by later developments, including the formulation of the field concept, which "meant abandoning the old assumption that the laws governing large-scale phenomena are to be deduced from those governing matter at the microscopic level. [It was] at least as true to say that the behavior of the particle was determined by the field as it was to say that the nature of the field was determined by the behaviors of particles." The seemingly unavoidable insertion of a principle of randomness—unlawfulness—at the submicroscopic level was another jolt. (Unancestral Voice)

Such developments lead to questions about the role of models in physics. Must we either be content with unsullied mathematics, or else resort to "crude," constructional models (such as pictures of the atom as miniature solar systems)? A middle way may be indicated by what is known of the working of the imagination. In particular, three features widely recognized as belonging to the imagination may prove relevant to the physicist:

Imagination directly apprehends the whole as "contained" in the part, or as in some mode identical with it.
Imagination ... apprehends spatial form, and relations in space, as "expressive" of nonspatial form and nonspatial relations.
Operating ... anteriorly to the kind of perception and thought which have become normal for fully conscious modern man, [imagination] functions at a level where observed and observer, mind and object, are no longer—or are not yet—spatially divided from one another; so that the mind, as it were, becomes the object or the object becomes the mind. (Unancestral Voice)

Unfortunately, however, those who pursue physics and those who have investigated imagination typically have little to do with each other.

* * * * * * *

The radical, Cartesian split between mind and matter is more commonly complained of than escaped. A true escape would require that I become a different kind of human being.

To renounce the heterogeneity of observed from observer involves, if it is taken seriously, abandoning the whole "onlooker" stance, upon which both the pursuit of science and modern language-use in general are based; it means advancing to awareness of another relation altogether between mind and matter. If we had actually made the advance, we should have become naturally, unforcedly, and unremittingly aware that the mind cannot refer to a natural object without at the same time referring to its own activity. And this in turn would require an equally unforced awareness not only that scientific discovery is always a discovery about language, but also that it is always a discovery about the self which uses language. ("Language and Discovery," in The Rediscovery of Meaning and Other Essays)

* * * * * * *

Scientists are wont to boast of the objectivity of their discipline. There is good reason for this, but "is there any need to make quite such a song and dance about it?" Objectivity should pose no great difficulty when we're dealing with matters from which we feel wholly disconnected personally. "To put it rudely, any reasonably honest fool can be objective about objects."

It must be a different matter altogether, should we be called on to attend, not alone to matter, but to spirit; when a man would have to practice distinguishing what in himself comes solely from his private personality—memories, for instance, and all the horseplay of the Freudian subconscious—from what comes also from elsewhere. Then indeed objectivity is not something that was handed us on a plate once and for all by Descartes, but something that would really have to be achieved, and which must require for its achievement, not only exceptional mental concentration but other efforts and qualities, including moral ones, as well. ("Language and Discovery," in The Rediscovery of Meaning and Other Essays)

* * * * * * *

The line between unconscious figuration (by which "things" are made) and conscious thinking about things is not fixed and inviolate. Not only, in our thinking about things, do we progressively bring their constitutive thinking to consciousness, but also, our thinking about things sinks down, over time, into our unconscious manner of experiencing those things—that is, into our figuration. I may first have to learn that the sound I hear is a thrush singing; but, eventually, I will no longer hear a sound and then conclude that a thrush is singing, but rather will simply "hear a thrush singing." How I think has worked down into how I perceive. (Poetic Diction; Saving the Appearances)

* * * * * * *

A true science would lead us toward a more conscious figuration, whereby we would take responsibility for the world from the inside. The "particles" are abstract constructs filling in where we have not yet succeeded, via figuration, in producing phenomena. That is, the realm about which we theorize with talk of particles and such is the collective unconscious, and is contiguous, so to speak, with that other part of the collective unconscious from which the familiar world of collective representations arises through figuration.

But we have a choice. Instead of raising the unconscious to consciousness through an enhanced figuration, we can continue reducing consciousness—as manifested in the phenomena—to unconsciousness. As I noted above (n. 4), "by means of abstraction, we convert the world into the merely notional, or nonphenomenal"—that is, into "particles."

So far at all events as the macroscopic universe is concerned, the world itself on the one hand and the way we perceive and think it on the other hand are inseparable. It must follow from that that, if enough people go on long enough perceiving and thinking about the world as mechanism only, the macroscopic world will eventually become mechanism only. ("Science and Quality," in The Rediscovery of Meaning and Other Essays; Saving the Appearances)

* * * * * * *

"To be able to experience the representations as idols, and then to be able also to perform the act of figuration consciously, so as to experience them as participated; that is imagination."

Speaking through a character in his fictionalized treatise, Unancestral Voice, Barfield summarizes the development of language:

Language was, for him, an outstanding example of the past surviving, transformed, in the present .... You had to see the origin of language as the self-gathering of mind within an already mind- soaked world. It was the product of "nature" in the sense that the meanings of words, if you approached them historically, could all—or as nearly all as made no difference—be shown to be involved with natural phenomena. Moreover, interfusion of the sensuous (sound) with the immaterial (meaning) was still, even today, its whole point. Yet it was certainly not, in its earlier stages, the product of individual minds; for it was obviously already there at a stage of evolution when individual minds were not yet. He had no doubt of its pointing back to a state of affairs when men and nature were one in a way that had long since ceased. Even now, even in our own time, there was the mysterious "genius of language" which many philologists had detected as something that worked independently of any conscious choices. On the other hand, you could see that, as time went on, language did come to owe more and more to the working of individual minds. However you looked at it, you could not get away from the fact that every time a man spoke or wrote there was this intricate interfusion of past and present—of the past transformed, as meaning, with the present impulse behind his act of utterance.

* * * * * * *

"The appearances will be `saved' only if, as men approach nearer and nearer to conscious figuration and realize that it is something which may be affected by their choices, the final participation which is thus being thrust upon them is exercised with the profoundest sense of responsibility, with the deepest thankfulness and piety towards the world as it was originally given to them in original participation, and with a full understanding of the momentous process of history, as it brings about the emergence of the one from the other." (Saving the Appearances)


1. From dust jacket of Barfield, 1979.

2. Quotations from The Rediscovery of Meaning and Other Essays, Speaker's Meaning, Poetic Diction, Worlds Apart, Saving the Appearances, and Unancestral Voice used by permission of Wesleyan University Press.

3. I try to indicate one or two books in which each idea receives considerable treatment. The first publication listed after quoted material is the source of the quotation. In a few cases, where the given idea thoroughly pervades all of Barfield's work, I offer no citation at all. Unavoidably, given the unity of Barfield's work, there is something slightly arbitrary about many of the citations that are provided.

4. What enables us to switch between these two contradictory stances without acute discomfort is our long training in seeing the familiar world through a veil—a mathematical grid of abstraction. By means of abstraction, we convert the world into the merely notional, or nonphenomenal. In fact, the particles can be seen as the endpoint of this process. As a result, the qualities of things have by now become dim enough in our experience to lead philosophers to question whether they have any sort of reality at all.


Barfield, Owen (1986). History in English Words. Hudson, N.Y.: Lindisfarne Press.

____ (1963). Worlds Apart (A Dialogue of the 1960's). Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press.

____ (1965a). Saving the Appearances. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World.

____ (1965b). Unancestral Voice. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press.

____ (1966). Romanticism Comes of Age. London: Rudolf Steiner Press.

____ (1967). Speaker's Meaning. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press.

____ (1973). Poetic Diction: A Study in Meaning. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press.

____ (1977a). "Lewis, Truth, and Imagination." In Barfield, 1989.

____ (1977b). The Rediscovery of Meaning, and Other Essays. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press.

____ (1979). History, Guilt, and Habit. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press.

____ (1981). "The Nature of Meaning." Seven 2: 32-43. Available at

____ (1989). Owen Barfield on C. S. Lewis. Edited by G. B. Tennyson. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press.

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