Basics of Barfield: Four Pieces

Owen Barfield was a companion of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, sometimes called “the first and last Inkling” because of his varied career and long life. He had an extraordinarily agile mind that mostly found expression in philology and philosophy rather than the fiction that was the domain of the more popular Inklings like Lewis, Tolkien, and Charles Williams. Here follows a distillation of some key points from Barfield’s work.

First piece: Language is a forensic record of human consciousness

Human consciousness changes over time. A modern person from New York does not think like a 15th-century English aristocrat, who does not think like a 15th-century Javanese rice farmer, none of whom think even remotely like a 5th-century BC Babylonian astrologer. Some of the differences are cultural, but some differences are more than that.

The development of human thought and consciousness leaves a forensic record in our language. As we develop new concepts and new ways of interacting with or perceiving the world, we also develop vocabulary and expressions to say what we’re thinking.

A simple example of this language/consciousness interplay would be our words for colors. When we don’t have a word for a color, we literally have a harder time seeing it. As soon as we name it, it becomes easier to see. So you have a forward-thinking individual who sees something most people can’t see, gives it a name, and starts teaching other people to see it. If it catches on, your language gets a new color word.

Second piece: Original participation

Ancient languages worked from the outside in. The Hebrew word ruach meant “wind” first, then “breath” — the wind inside the body — and then finally “spirit.” The Greek pneuma and the Sanskrit prana worked the same way. Modern languages, on the other hand, work from the inside out. There’s a whole class of words that have come into existence in modern language that never existed before, as we have come to see the outer world in terms of what goes on inside us.

Originally, human beings saw themselves as immersed in the world, participating in it by taking its qualities into themselves. Thus, in the ancient world, a tribe would name itself after an animal and seek to take on the animal’s traits. Modern people project their traits outward onto the world.  Ancient man would be the bear tribe, channel the spirit of the bear, eat the bear’s heart to gain the bear’s courage; in modern times, we have Smokey the Bear, who walks upright, talks, wears clothes, and carries a shovel. The man no longer seeks to be like the bear; rather, he makes the bear more like himself.

Original participation is nearly dead. We simply can’t see the world in those terms anymore. People who are born into the few societies where the last vestiges of original participation remain can see the world that way, but someone who’s grown up in a modern society has language — and therefore consciousness and categories of thought — that preclude original participation. We can mimic it in a way, but we can’t really go back there. There’s an unbridgeable gap between a modern Wiccan and one of the Druids who tried to assassinate St. Patrick.

But if we are cut off from original participation, we have not yet reached final participation. We can project ourselves onto the world in a psychological sense — hence the cartoon bear wearing pants. But that’s all it is; a portrayal, a fantasy. We do not really participate in the world, and so we are stuck in limbo between original and final participation. We can neither take the world into ourselves to transform us, nor transform ourselves in a way that alters the world; we are cut off from the world, separate from it.

Third Piece: The Twofold Cord

Barfield held that reality is a melange of matter and spirit, inseparably tangled together. Under original participation, nobody saw these as separate things. The idea that the ancient animist believes in a tree spirit would come as a surprise to the animist, who just thinks of it as a single being, a tree– as alive as you and I are. Likewise rocks, animals, and so on. There’s a series of necessary steps to get from there to where we are.

  1. Differentiate matter and spirit.
  2. Focus on matter for the purpose of investigating matter thoroughly.
  3. Come to believe that only matter is real.
  4. Learn that matter is really condensed energy…and that it interacts with and responds to consciousness at the quantum level.
  5. Ooops…

First, we have to differentiate between matter and spirit. The ancient Hebrews started this in Genesis — God formed man from dirt, and breathed the breath of life into him. Man is a melange of these two elements, which are separable only in death — the body returns to the earth, and the spirit returns to God who gave it, as Ecclesiastes says. But while the two elements are not separable in any real way, they certainly are distinguishable. One can talk about them as two things, and this is the first step.

The next step is made by Descartes. Having distinguished objective matter from subjective consciousness, he unravels the two-ply rope of reality for the purpose of an in-depth examination of matter, rigorously excluding any hint of consciousness or the subjective. This is the beginning of the Scientific Revolution, and it gives unparalleled results.  

The third stage is mistaking the Cartesian principle of investigation for a metaphysical reality. People come to believe that anything not subject to scientific examination — i.e., anything not matter — isn’t important, and then that it isn’t even real. At this point, everyone believes that matter is composed of small but solid particles, like a lego building is made up of smaller lego bricks.

The final stage dawns when advances in atomic science show that matter is mostly empty space, gains momentum when Einstein proves that matter is really highly condensed energy, and comes into full bloom when quantum mechanics shows observation changing the behavior of fundamental particles. We have chased our examination of matter as far as we can, and it has bent back round to consciousness.

Meanwhile, the parallel investigation of consciousness, the deep delving into the subjective, has not really been done (particularly in the West). 

Fourth Piece: Final Participation

Barfield saw that in order to continue growing, we would have to undertake that parallel examination of consciousness, and then deliberately re-entwine the two strands to get a fuller understanding of reality. That fuller understanding leads to final participation, in which humanity grows from merely projecting ideas onto the external world to actively interpreting the world in a way that conforms it to the interpretation. Enamored of various techniques for doing this, Barfield missed his opportunity to see what the Bible says in this area. 

The first thing Scripture shows us is that there is a height of authoritative interpretation to which we cannot rise. The world comes pre-interpreted by its Maker; we are invited to explore and interpret under God, not in place of Him. He has invited us to create within His world, but we cannot simply make our own private world. We are not the Creator; we are not imposing our own world on undifferentiated chaos. There are limits we cannot cross.

Second, Jesus showed us in His earthly ministry what final participation can look like. Blind eyes saw, demons fled, the storm was stilled. He commissioned His followers to go out and do two of those things (heal and cast out demons), and set the shaping of the natural world before them as a possibility: “If you had faith as a mustard seed, you could say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.” Maybe deadly hurricanes make landfall because we haven’t the faith to steer them. 

Third, Jesus fulfills the hope of final participation. He is the human being who, uniquely, can consummate Barfield’s hope by ascending the heights reserved for the Creator. By Him all things were made; all things are now upheld by the word of His power; all things come to coherence and completion in Him. 

If you’re interested in digging further into Barfield’s thought, I recommend Saving the Appearances and The Rediscovery of Meaning. His dialogic novel Worlds Apart is a tough read, but very valuable.

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