Mis/ Understanding Barfield as therapeutic: the role of Christianity in Owen Barfield’s metaphysical system
Barfield explicitly stated that ‘Idolatry’ (or ‘literalism’) was the besetting sin of the modern era, and that the ‘one thing needful’ was therefore a symbolic apprehension of life. Much less emphasized and infrequently mentioned was Barfield’s (unorthodox) Christianity – which provides a mostly implicit framework for his writings. This essay will suggest that there are two levels of understanding Owen Barfield’s work – one with, and the other without, this Christian framework. Barfield’s greatest impact so far has probably been among non-Christians with an eclectic range of ‘Perennial philosophy’ approaches to spirituality, Anthroposophists, and those with a broadly ‘post-modernist’ attitude to objective reality such as post-Jungians. These thinkers have been crucial in supporting Barfield’s work during his life, maintaining his reputation since his death, and elucidating and clarifying Barfield’s distinctive ideas. But in setting aside his Christianity, a degree of misrepresentation is inevitable and the resulting understanding of Barfield’s achievement ends-up as being broadly psychological, sociological and ‘therapeutic’. In other words, Barfield is seen as essentially providing a kind of therapy, which has the potential to heal modern Man’s alienation. I will argue that this interpretation is correct but incomplete; and that when Barfield’s ideas are restored to their original Christian context he can be seen as essentially a theologian rather than a healer.
Examining the nature of evidence for Barfield’s Evolution of Consciousness
Barfield often stated that his core idea was the evolution of consciousness, and also that he arrived at this idea as a consequence of his study of the changing meaning of English words (as described in his earliest books Poetic Diction and History in English Words); this insight being later being confirmed by the work of Rudolf Steiner. In later works, Barfield made further logical arguments to support a ‘developmental’ model of evolution, beginning with a generalized consciousness and only later becoming focused into solid bodies and discrete selves. I will argue that in his life’s work, Barfield was in reality working at the most fundamental philosophical level of providing a new metaphysical basis for human life – and that therefore the ‘evidence’ he provided in support of the evolution of consciousness was not truly ‘evidence’ – because metaphysics is the framework that controls the nature of evidence; therefore there cannot be any empirical or observational evidence either to support or to refute a metaphysical system. What Barfield was instead doing was to provide an historical personal account of the development of his metaphysics, a variety of illustrations of the consequences of his metaphysics, and an examination of the completeness and coherence of his new metaphysics of evolution as contrasted with mainstream Darwinian Natural Selection. This clarifies the metaphysical scope and nature of both Darwin’s and Barfield’s evolutionary theories, and the comparison between them is therefore primarily to be seen as a life choice, rather than being a matter of evaluating the balance of evidence.