Friday 16 June 2017

Owen Barfield's Metaphysics

Owen Barfield, much like Rudolf Steiner before him, regarded himself as doing a mixture of 'scientific/ empirical' and epistemological research - but to understand him I believe we need also to know (or infer) the fundamental, metaphysical assumptions which underpin and make sense of the rest.

By scientific/ empirical I mean especially Barfield's work on 'philology - the history of word meanings and their transformations; and what that history implies about the societies using the languages. And by epistemological I mean the philosophy of how we know, the basis or justification for understanding.

But underneath both of these are the metaphysical assumptions about the way that reality is 'set-up' - its structure, meaning, purpose etc; including what is our own personal stake in reality: e.g. Why we should care about this stuff! Why it is important to us individually and in what way?


So Barfield describes the evolution of consciousness - how it began with disembodied, spirits in Original Participation - a diffuse, interpenetrating consciousness in which we were mostly unaware of our-selves as distinct and free.

Then the middling state (which we are still inside) during which our selves became separate, agent, and free - but at the cost of losing the awareness of other selves and everything else - until we are selves cut-off fro reality, without participation...

And the future state of Final (final because fully-divine) Participation in which we are both aware of ourselves as autonomous, agent and free - and also participating in the creation and knowledge of all other reality, including other selves and beings.

But what is missing from the above is an explanation of Why all this happens; what is it all For? Who (or what) was it that set up this vast evolutionary scheme - and what is it all intended to achieve?

If we are indeed aiming at Original Participation - then what then? What is Original Participation needed for, in terms of the basic general set-up of reality?


I think the answers to all of these are implicit, and in some brief passages explicit, in Barfield's work - but these aspects are easy to miss in the books and essays; they are not given great prominence - nor are they set out plainly as the basis of further argument. Exactly this is what I hope to do.

In this task I have been greatly helped by the work of William Arkle, a little-known spiritual philosopher of the generation after Barfield, whose work I know about due to having lived in the same Somerset village as a child.

Arkle's great importance was in recognising the need to be absolutely clear about these ultimate, underpinning Why?, Who? and What for? kinds of question for the modern Man. Such things used to be able to be taken from granted - as I suspect they were, pretty much, by Owen Barfield; but no longer.

Arkle saw that this deep level of explanation is in fact the single most important thing to get clear and explicit - such that we can grasp and understand it intuitively and personally; and indeed so that we can decide whether or not this is something we which to live-by, cooperate-in and work-for.

If we are not clear about this, then we will always feel a deep sense of confusion about our destiny and how it fits with the ultimate scheme of things.

Naturally there will always be a sense of mystery about the human condition and Man's place in it; but lack of any reasonable clarity - even thought necessarily simplified - seems to be proving lethal to many people (who have apparently just-about 'given-up' on anything more than merely getting-through to death as comfortably, or at least painlessly, as possible).

Therefore, I think there is a story to be told about the underpinning assumptions of Owen Barfield's main work.


I will try to explain this in more detail elsewhere; but in a nutshell I believe Barfield assumed that God, creator of reality, had the goal of raising Men up to the same kind of fully-divine consciousness that He possesses.

The reason that God would have such a goal is something I have not found in Barfield; but Arkle's insight is that it was a deep longing of God for friends; that his human children should (eventually) grow up and mature to become the fullest and highest possible friends on the same level (rather as a Father's ultimate and ideal goal might be for his children to become adults who, voluntarily and with the highest possible assent, become his loving friends and co-helpers in the unending work of creative endeavour).

Creation was made with this as its major purpose; and the way that it was to be achieved was by a very extended scheme of evolutionary unfolding, akin to the growth and development of living things; but with the added complexity that each Man must consent to every step on the way.

In a nutshell, the world is a place for experiencing and learning - and including experiencing and learning to love (this view is more explicit in Steiner, but I think Barfield would have endorsed it). 

This process has several related but not identical aspects - the evolution of the earth and surrounding regions, evolution of human society, and evolution of each individual human self; all of which are extended across a very long timescale (probably many thousands of years).

Because this is a plan, some aspects of the future can be prophetically known - but because of the increasing autonomy and agency of individual human selves, the results are not precisely predictable, and there is potential for greater or lesser delays and departures from the plan.

Because God is creator, and we are his children; we have the possibility of a direct, inner, intuitive understanding of what-is-going-on: Which is how Rudolf Steiner and Owen Barfield were able to know about it. 

Something of this kind (in approximate outline) is, I think, helpful - and for some people, such as myself, essential - in getting the full picture of Barfield's work.

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