Monday, 12 December 2022
Understanding Owen Barfield, despite Owen Barfield's comments!
One of the difficulties about understanding Owen Barfield, is that he did not really understand himself!
I mean that Barfield did not really understand the nature of his own philosophical work; and thereby said some misleading things about it.
Barfield's major work was Saving the Appearances; and in his introduction to the 1988 edition of this book (which are Barfield's first published, and framing, words in the reprinted editions since then), Barfield tries to provide a helpful framework to avoid what he terms a misunderstanding, and a difficulty.
What Barfield regards as the 'misunderstanding' is that "some readers have treating the work as claiming to provide a complete metaphysical theory of the nature of reality. Not so".
(Leaving aside the weasel word "complete" - because nothing finite ever is complete...)
But Of Course Barfield is exactly providing a metaphysical 'theory' of reality! Metaphysics is that philosophy which deals in the fundamental nature of reality; and Barfield is claiming in StA that reality is inextricably consequential of both 'chaos' and consciousness; because chaos is meaningless and unknowable without consciousness.
Also, Barfield asserts that consciousness has changed through time; and therefore (says Barfield) reality itself (and not just perception of reality) has changed through time: "Nature itself [has] changed in the course of time in a mode not covered by the doctrines of biological evolution".
Furthermore; without consciousness (says Barfield) - there is no knowable reality - only chaos.
So that from Barfield's assumptions: it is incoherent to theorize about a world without consciousness.
Thus, a cosmology which - like both Big Bang and Steady State theories - speculates on the formation of a non-alive universe in the absence of consciousness is not so much mistaken as simply incoherent; as are similar speculations on the formation and evolution of an inorganic earth before the advent of Life.
Barfield's (drawing heavily upon Rudolf Steiner's - albeit not identical-with Steiner) is indeed a fundamentally different understanding of reality than anything in the Western or Eastern mainstream of philosophy or theology.
Therefore, whether Barfield acknowledges it or not: in StA he is indeed "doing metaphysics", and proposing a particular metaphysical description.
Barfield claims he "tried to preserve neutrality towards all such [metaphysical] speculations, by referring to objective reality (that is to say, reality insofar as it is independent of our awareness of it)... sometimes as 'the particles' and sometimes as 'the unrepresented'.
But this is not neutrality - because neutrality in metaphysics is impossible.
Barfield's conceptualization of 'objective' as 'unrepresented'/ 'particles' is itself a metaphysical division and definition.
Barfield then says: "The subject of this book is not the nature of reality; it is the evolution of consciousness".
This translates as Barfield saying he is not doing metaphysics, but is (implicitly) doing a kind-of 'science' that he claims to be independent of ('neutral' about) metaphysical assumptions.
So, Barfield's detailed account of the way that word-meanings have changed through human history; is claimed to be (in effect) 'empirical' and independent of metaphysical assumptions.
But this is false, because Barfield's understanding of the implications of meaning change being located in consciousness; and consciousness being inextricably a part of reality; are excluded by the implicit and unconscious metaphysics of mainstream linguistic history.
The changes of word meaning through history are interpreted using a very different and incommensurable significance than that which Barfield proposes - and the mainstream linguists would regard Barfield's interpretation as bizarre and obvious nonsense.
Likewise, astro- and geo-physicists would regard Barfield's assertion that their theories of the formation of the universe and of earth were incoherent - because excluding any "observing consciousness" from such theories - to be absurd nonsense.
Such physicists would almost certainly assert that their theories 'work' empirically, have been cross-checked by multiple mathematical analyses and physical observations - and that there is just No Problem.
The difference between Barfield and the physicists is precisely metaphysics: each is arguing from different basic assumptions concerning the nature of reality.
My understanding of Barfield is that he was Just plain wrong about what he was doing; just as Rudolf Steiner was wrong in The Philosophy of Freedom.
Barfield claimed to be doing 'science' and Steiner claimed to be doing epistemology; but in fact both were doing metaphysics: both were (in these works) putting forward a different way of describing ultimate reality from that which was mainstream.
This wrongness had an unfortunate effect in terms of obscuring the reader's understanding; because a convinced reader is given the false impression that Barfield and Steiner have 'proved' their arguments in a neutral fashion (which ought to be universally acceptable); rather than having provided a radically different framework for the structuring of arguments.
Furthermore, by failing to notice that they themselves are 'doing metaphysics'; Barfield and Steiner both leave out God as a primary explanation for their understandings of reality.
I have said before that it would be Much easier for the reader to understand Saving the Experiences if Barfield had set-out at the beginning that the 'evolution of consciousness' which Barfield describes is a divine plan, which aims at the incremental divinization of Man towards the level of God as creator.
Lacking this structuring and explanatory reference to God; Barfield's attempted-neutral description of the evolution of consciousness sounds like he is proposing a kind of 'law of nature' - a biological principle that sounds like a rival theory of the same kind as mainstream biological evolution by natural selection.
I believe the consequences of this confusion can be seen in most of mainstream Barfield scholarship since the 1960s; and this has been exacerbated by a failure to engage with the work of Rudolf Steiner. Yet, if we begin by stating Barfield's metaphysical assumptions as such, including the presence and role of God; it really is not difficult to understand - because then its validity does not hinge on understanding and following complex, multi-step arguments or evidence.