[See here for part 1]
Barfield believed not only that human experience had evolved from a consciously participatory stage, through a stage in which participation was progressively waning from consciousness, to its current condition in which it is attenuated or even barely vestigial; he also thought that signs indicated that it would come, indeed might be already coming, to a next phase in which participation would re-awaken, but would depend more upon the will, upon intention and freedom. This is part of his inheritance from Steiner, who developed an account of the stages of life, a kind of secret history of the species, ascending up steps on the great chain of being. But for Steiner, this was not just a history of the human spirit, but of the world. Barfield too held that his reconstruction of the history of participation had ramifications for an account of history per se, human history and indeed natural history.
Now if you compare this timeline with the one I've tentatively suggested, you’ll note that Barfield treats participation as having faded considerably later—as late as the 19th century—than I tend to assume (I think the process started happening as early as the invention of the city-state, certainly by the end of the Bronze Age, that the prescient in Plato’s and Herodotus’ generation already had a sense of what was happening, that Plutarch’s story of the cry that went up, Great Pan is dead, and the falling-silent of the oracles, is in some measure about the end of participation.) This is not necessarily an inconsistency, since I also maintain that there was a movement, of which express philosophy was a part, to keep access to the participatory experience open; also because Barfield tends to be thinking of the experience of the “common man,” the group Nietzsche calls the “herd,” whereas I am thinking of his “exceptions” (which are busy chipping away at participation in the name of “progress”) and the few who are carefully sieving the bathwater. Still, these details remain to be sorted. If there is a history, and even a teleology (and I am not convinced that there isn’t), figuring out these threads will be part of the effort to make it intelligible.
These are significant details, but what I want to concentrate on here is something else. I closed the last post on the note that, on Barfield’s account, the evolution of consciousness had slowly turned the collective representations from consciously participated realities into what he calls idols, or, also, objects. Barfield does not think that participation has ceased (or indeed that it could); only that it has become unconscious. Like a number of others (Morris Berman comes to mind), he argues that the scientific revolution has occasioned (or is it only an index of?) a shift not only in our thinking but in our actual experience. Speaking of this shift, Barfield says:
If…a man of the Middle Ages could be suddenly transported into the skin of a man of the twentieth century, seeing through our eyes and with our ‘figuration’ the objects we see, I think he would feel like a child who looks for the first time at a photograph through the ingenious magic of a stereoscope. ‘Oh!’ he would say, ‘look how they stand out!’ (Saving the Appearances p 94)This “standing-out” is figurative, of course, but Barfield is not the only one to have referred to it. A reader of Harman will recall that his ontology “splits” the object into two: a real object, withdrawn into itself, abjuring all contact; and a sensual object, rushing to meet every other, leaping forward to present its phenomenal aspects. Thus it might seem that what Barfield means when he speaks of idols, Harman means when he says “sensuous object.” But note that it is not the rushing forward, but the withdrawing back, the vacuum-sealed nature of the object “in itself,” that seems closer to what Barfield means when he speaks of the object “as an ultimate.” Indeed, Barfield might even have said (though here we again enter on extrapolation) that it is precisely the “tearing apart” of the object that is the last refusal of participation by thought; a paradoxical destruction of the object in the name of granting it autonomy.
I would not go so far, myself; and it is possible that Barfield would not either, for as we have seen, he also affirms the existence of something with which consciousness collaborates, “the unrepresented” (or to use the Epicurean term by which he also calls it, “the particles”), in the construal of collective representations. Moreover, there is something acknowledgedly problematic about “the unrepresented” in Barfield’s thought. (From a Lacanian perspective, one might say, well yeah: it’s the Real.) In the preface to the second edition, Barfield acknowledges:
the need was to express in language the view that our immediate awareness is a system of representations of something of which we are not immediately aware, but to which the representations are correlative—and to do so without characterizing or identifying the something, and therefore without predicating anything of it beyond its place in the system. To refer to it as ‘the represented’ would be misleading because that might mean simply the representation itself. On the other hand to refer to it as the unrepresented might admittedly be confusing, since it is dealt with throughout as though its whole function is precisely to be represented. It is thus apparently a contradiction in terms. I see the difficulty, but I have seen no way around it. (S.A. p7)This is a difficulty of the presentation of Barfield's thinking, not what he is thinking about, but it is worth stopping over. One of the snags we hit here, of course, is what is expressed in the words, “its whole function is... to be represented.” It is not a foregone conclusion that Barfield means something inherently or irreducibly “anthropocentric” here, as if his in-itself somehow has an ontological telos involving the minds of human beings. But it is hard to avoid this impression (and after all, when you adhere to a philosophy called “Anthroposophy,” chances are there’s some anthropo involved.) I have reservations about this aspect of his thought.
“A long time coming,” some of you might be thinking, those of you who started getting impatient with Barfield when I noted he wore “correlationism” (not that exact word, but damn near close enough) as a badge of honor. But this is just what interests me about Barfield; far from trying to skirt the difficulties of a correlationist stance, Barfield embraces and seems to push them to their limit. This makes him a strange inversion of Meillassoux, to whom I now come.
Meillassoux’s After Finitude begins, as many will already know (and if you don’t, and you care about philosophy, you owe it to yourself to read this book; elegant, eminently readable, succinct, funny, engaging, infuriating in places), first with a description of correlationism, and then a sort of reduction: the argument from the “ancestral.” This is Meillassoux’s word for whatever transpired in the physical universe before the advent of humanity.
Consider the following ancestral statement: ‘Event Y occurred x number of years before the emergence of humans.’ The correlationist will in no way intervene in the content of this statement….he will simply add—perhaps only to himself, but he will add—something like a simple codicil…: event Y occurred x number of years before the emergence of humans—for humans. …[C]orrelationism postulates that there are at least two levels of meaning in such a statement: the immediate, or realist meaning; and the more originary correlationist meaning, advocated by the codicil. What then would be a literal interpretation of the ancestral statement? The belief that the realist meaning of the ancestral statement is its ultimate meaning….[T]he retrojection which the correlationsit is obliged to impose upon the ancestral statement amounts to a veritable counter-sense with respect to the latter: an ancestral statement only has sense if its literal sense is also its ultimate sense..If one divides the sense of the statement, if one invents for it a deeper sense conforming to the correlation but contrary to its realist sense, then far from deepening its sense, one has simply cancelled it. (After Finitude pp13-17)Now, I said before that when reading Barfield, one comes across the assertion that “consciousness is correlative to phenomena” so often that one starts to think Meillassoux has read Barfield. (Saving the Appearances was published in 1957; Apres la finitude in 2006.) I don’t actually assert that this must be so, but Barfield, while he is not meeting Meillassoux’s arguments head-on, is certainly formulating them (so expressly that it feels, frankly, a little uncanny to read) a full half-century before Meillassoux formulates them; only Barfield seeks to make a virtue of what Meillassoux would reject:
A history of the “world,” as distinct from a history of the unrepresented, must clearly be a history of phenomena, that is, of collective representations. But before this part of the subject is approached, it will be well to consider briefly the bearing of this truth on what is sometimes called pre-history. I mean, in particular, the history of the earth before the appearance on it of human beings. …the prehistoric evolution of the earth, as it is described for example in the early chapters of H.G. Wells’ Outline of History, was not merely never seen. It never occurred. Something no doubt occurred, and what is really being propounded by such popular writers, and so far as I am aware, by the text-books on which they rely, is this[:] that at that time, the unrepresented was behaving in such a way that,if human beings with the collective representations characteristic of the last few centuries of western civilization had been there, the things described would also have been there.“Not quite,” indeed. To Meillassoux’s question, “Did the accretion of the earth happen, yes or no?” Barfield already, 50 years earlier, gave the answer Meillassoux finds so maddening, “Yes and no.” But not for the reasons Meillassoux thinks the correlationist must have. For in fact, Barfield asserts, that it is not a Kantian or para-Kantian dialect but science which compels this answer:
This is not quite the same thing. (S.A. p37)
We have chosen to form a picture, based very largely on modern physical science, of a phenomenal earth existing for millions of years before the appearance of consciousness. This same physical science tells us that the phenomenal world is correlative to consciousness. (S.A. p135)We may quarrel with Barfield’s understanding of “modern physical science.” He was not himself a physical scientist, and in any case the science he relied upon was that of the first half of the 20th century—though little has changed since then as far as the sub-microscopic realm is concerned; we are still faced with a détente between relativity and quantum mechanics. (It is also important to note that Barfield is not talking about the famous or infamous Copenhagen interpretation according to which certain quantum parameters have no specific values unless measured; he means simply that of Eddington’s two tables—the one that is solid enough to eat or write at and the one that is mostly empty space—the first one is phenomenal, which means very strictly an appearance, i.e., an appearance to someone.) Or we may quarrel with Barfield’s application of these findings to his retrospective scenario. In any case, he certainly cannot be accused of having either evaded, or been nonplussed by, the issue Meillassoux raises. Meillassoux says that the correlationist recasts the ancestral statement in a way that bleeds it of meaning, while obscuring this fact. Barfield rejoins that it is the “literal” ancestral statement that is obscure, because it conceals that it depends upon particular collective representations.
For those hypothetical ‘human beings with the collective representations characteristic of the last few centuries of western civilization,’ we might choose to substitute other human beings—those, for instance, who lives one or two or three or more thousand years ago. We should then have to write a different pre-history altogether.(S.A. p 37. My emphasis.)This dovetails with another of Barfield’s points, which I mentioned in the previous post: namely, that the very recourse to interpretive categories, any division of interpretation into a “literal” any another, is itself changed in the degree to which the consciousness making the distinction is conscious of participation or not. Barfield does not mean (I think) that such a reconstruction of pre-history (in terms of “our” representations) is nonsense; only that it is a model, and not “the truth.” One can parse this in terms of revisability, but Barfield means more than just that scientific accounts are open to modification; he seems to mean that there could be could be co-existent accounts, say “participatory” and “non-participatory” accounts, that were somehow equally valid. This is obviously a very complex and very problematic argument, but it can’t be rejected out of hand.
The critic has a different route open; one might instead counter that the core sense of the scientific statement has to do not with phenomena at all (no secondary qualities), but only, as Meillassoux argues, what can be entirely mathematicized. But in this case, he is referring to what Barfield means by “the unrepresented:”
[A]long with the recent tendency to implicate the observer again in the phenomena, there goes the tendency of physicists to give up alpha-thinking about phenomena and occupy themselves as mathematicians, only with the unrepresented. (S.A. p43)In other words, the mathematical formalization prized by Meillassoux, Badiou, and others, is already acknowledged by Barfield to pertain to what is behind the phenomena. If Barfield is recasting scientific reductionism, wresting it to mean something else than its “literal” meaning, he is doing so quite self-consciously. Now the fact does remain that Barfield, as an avowed correlationist, strains to think the correlation itself; but he clearly must hold that this correlation pertains before there is any conscious organism. This causes him to back into a kind of idealism:
The phenomena attributed to these millions of years are…in fact, abstract models or ‘idols of the study.’ We may compromise by calling them ‘possible phenomena’….but…it is highly fanciful, if not absurd, to think of any unperceived process in terms of potential phenomena, unless we also assume an unconscious, ready to light up into actual phenomena at any moment of the process. (S.A. p135)I take this to show that while Barfield does begin from a reductionist starting-place, he clearly pushes reductionism against itself.
One final word before I close this post—too soon to remotely do Barfield justice, but still, I hope, having shown him to be pertinent not only to the thinking-through of the relevance of participation, but to a number of current metaphysical debates. Barfield is a deceptively “popular” sounding writer. His man-in-the-street style (as close as was possible for his subject) and his brevity should not be mistaken for a lack of sophistication. Barfield may have believed some odd things, but he didn’t hold them in any simple-minded way.
Still, what shall we say of his anthropocentrism, and his Anthroposophy? Meillassoux makes it clear that one of the great motives for his work is not just to combat mistaken (as he sees it) philosophy, but the practical results of these mistakes—results that cannot fail to arise, since “fideism is merely the other name for strong correlationism” (A.F. p48);
So long as we continue to believe that there must be a reason why what is, is the way it is, we will continue to fuel superstition, which is to say, the belief that there is an ineffable reason underlying all things. Since we will never be able to discover or understand such a reason, all we can do is believe in it, or aspire to believe in it. (A.F. p82).This polemic of course is what motivates Meillassoux’s campaign against the notion of the limit of thought. One might think that he’s found a perfect target in Barfield, whose stranger positions are not spelled out in (and perhaps not entailed by) the arguments set forth in Saving the Appearances, but can certainly be glimpsed there. I have little to say about this, except that I believe that the quest for a raison d’etre for L’etre itself is not likely to be conjured away by recourse to equations. Barfield himself is quite explicit:
It would be rash to assume that there is no other approach than the mathematical one. Who can affirm, and on what evidence, that we may not also learn to approach the unrepresented by way of enhancing our figuration [as Goethe did], so as to make it a conscious process, as well as by the path of mathematical hypothesis? For sensation and figuration are the—at present—unconscious moment in which we actually meet the unrepresented (or at least encounter its resistance) in experience, as opposed to applying alpha-thinking to it afterwards. (S.A. p153)This (ultra- or perhaps meta-Romantic) resistance to the Badiouan equation of matheme with reality, presumably, illustrates why I at any rate consider the musico-mathematical excurses of Plato, writing at a moment when the fading of participation seems to have become apparent, very significant. Plato does make use of the matheme, but always in a way that makes clear that he knows it is a construal, that it is a means of approximation. To a reader of Lacan, this can’t but intersect in provocative ways with Barfield’s recourse to the category of the unconscious. Barfield is (I think) thinking this along lines more or less like those of Schelling, especially the unfinished World-Ages project, which has a great deal in common with Barfield’s (and Steiner’s) sketch of the history of consciousness. (I don’t know how much of Schelling Barfield was familiar with, but he knew Coleridge backwards and forwards.) What one sees here, I think, is the incipient makings of a way out of Barfield’s anthropocentrism. This is a tendency that remains strong in him, and would need to be far more thoroughly critiqued than I’ve done here. But it is obvious that any “unconsciousness” that is imagined in the context of Meillassoux’s ancestral has to blow anthropocentrism right open. Here Harman’s polypsychism offers a helpful angle, as well. For if, a la Latour or Harman, every interaction, and not just those between human beings and the world, involves a mutual construal between parties, then in some sense an incipient psyche (or as Harman might say, an “inside”) is always potentially available. Barfield’s human-centric attitude then becomes simply a function of where he puts his emphasis (he is tracing the specific history, and perhaps destiny, of the human); a legitimate emphasis, but not where we are obliged to put ours, as we avail ourselves of the resources of his thought.