Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Owen Barfield (part 1: participation & correlation)

This will be the first of two parts of Barfield. (My preface, on Rudolf Steiner, is here.) As is my wont, I will combine exposition with excursion; not everything I say here is findable in Barfield’s texts. It should be more or less clear where he leaves off and I barge in, but after two decades of reading him, this isn’t always clear to me.

Barfield was first of all a philologist, and all his thinking has etymological roots. He noted the manner in which words tended to shift meanings, gaining and shedding connotations, with certain later accretions sometimes becoming central. His case that participation, in roughly Lévy-Bruhl’s sense, characterized human consciousness even into the Middle Ages (in an attenuated form), and that its last vestiges more or less evaporated for intellectuals with the scientific revolution (for "just folks," probably by the close of 19th century), is based in part on evidence we have for how words were used. This is surely one of the best indices we have of how our ancestors thought and—a more tendentious claim—how they experienced. As Ombhurbhuva noted in a recent comment, Barfield saw that the concrete meaning of a word was almost always the most ancient; the more abstract a definition, the more late it was. This is true, but it’s also important to note that the “extended” sense of a word is not exactly what we would call “figurative.” One of Barfield’s examples, which occurs in (I think) both Saving the Appearances and History in English Words, is the word “heart,” which does mean the beating organ in ones chest, but also “center, core”; or again, one step further, “most important.” Barfield would say that these senses are not, to the participatory mind, different; we only require an apparatus that distinguishes “metaphorical” from “literal” once participation has faded. In fact, the real grasping of a metaphor is, for Barfield, a “felt change of consciousness” in which one does not so much intellectually understand it as experience in a different mode, a heightened wakefulness which sees the sense of the metaphor. In a sense—I extrapolate—we experience metaphor as a momentary re-awakening of participation. This account of poetry, most fully spelled out in Barfield’s first book, Poetic Diction, comes from Barfield’s study of the Romantics (Barfield went on to write a seminal work on Coleridge, and one of his collections of essays is called Romanticism Comes of Age, a phrase which specifically connotes Anthroposophy); but its roots are in Plato and the claim that poetic inspiration is a kind of divine madness. It is also, curiously, surprisingly close in some ways to Davidson’s assertion that the meaning of a metaphor is simply the literal sense of its words.

Barfield does not mean that there was, anciently, no sense of what a metaphor was; but metaphor has a curious sense about it of both obviousness and of discovery; not however of ingenuity. As he puts it, the very meaning of “literal” and “symbolic” were different to the participatory mind. Even as late as the Medievals,
the ‘physical’ and ‘literal’ themselves were not what the ‘physical’ and ‘literal’ are to us. Rather, the phenomena themselves carried the sort of multiple significance which we today find only in symbols. Accordingly, the issue, in a given case, between a literal and symbolical interpretation, though it could be raised, had not the same sharpness as of contradictories. (Saving the Appearances, p 74)
This will be important later.

Barfield here is speaking of the “common man” in the Middle Ages, not the intellectual; the case he is illustrating is Erigena’s assertion that scriptural and dogmatic accounts of afterlife suffering (or reward) are symbolic in that such experiences are purely spiritual, and are “described physically for the benefit of simple understandings.” Already by the time of Aristotle, one can see the signs both of participation and of its unraveling. “The greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor,” Aristotle says (Poetics 1459a);
It is the one thing that cannot be learned from others, and a sign of genius, since a good metaphor implies being able to see similarity [ὅμοιον θεωρεῖν].
The emphasis here is mine. This “cannot be learned” should be compared to Plato’s insistence that his doctrine could not be communicated in writing, “
for it does not at all admit of verbal expression like other studies, but, as a result of continued application to the subject itself and communion therewith, it is brought to birth in the soul on a sudden, as light that is kindled by a leaping spark, and thereafter it nourishes itself. (Letters VII 341c-d).
What is seen, according to Aristotle, is resemblance or similarity, ὅμοιος, just as the [pseudo?]Platonic Epinomis says, as I have cited before, “As such a man reflects he will receive the revelation of a single bond of natural interconnection between these problems.”

This “revelation” is repeatedly maintained to be “beyond words,” ineffable, describable only by symbol. Conversely, every symbol (in this sense) carries a connotation of revelation, because the very experience of participation which it calls up is in excess of discursive thought per se. However, the term “revelation” here has not got the Hebraic sense of a supernatural communication or a transcendent reality breaking in. It is, one might say, wholly immanent. (This too is important later on, when we consider Levinas’ critique of participation, and compare Barfield with Meillassoux.) The Hebraic legacy, however, is not absent in Barfield. He argues that participation waned under the double impact of the Greek-inspired rise of rational critique of superstition, and the Hebraic moral critique of idolatry. I’ve said a good deal about the former and will say more. About the latter, Barfield comments with characteristic brevity and pointedness: “This is about the unlikeliest thing ever to have happened.” (S.A. p 109.) The origins of the Second Commandment have been the subject of long scholarly debate, but Barfield’s point that it is a strange and apparently aberrant meme is strong. His weaving together this Biblical theme with the Greek is of course in the long tradition of dialectic between Athens and Jerusalem which is, still, the systole and diastole of Western thought, and is that which makes the thrust of his account far more than an entertaining fancy for the intellect.

Besides philological evidence, Barfield based his notion of participation from an argument about the nature of experience. He draws upon Kant to some degree for this argument; but more primarily on 20th-century physics, the commonly-held “reductionist” scientific account of what matter is. Considering a macroscopic object, a tree or a table or a tennis-court, Barfield says:
Recollect all you have been told about matter and its ultimate structure, and ask yourself if the tree is ‘really there.’ I am far from affirming dogmatically that the atoms, electrons, nuclei, etc., of which the wood, and all matter, are said to be composed, are identifiable objects…. But if the ‘particles’…are there, and are all that is there, then, since the particles are no more like a tree than the raindrops are like the thing I call a rainbow, it follows, I think, that just as a rainbow is the outcome of the raindrops and my vision, so a tree is the outcome of the particles and my vision and my other sense-perceptions. Whatever the particles themselves may be thought to be, the tree as such is a representation. And…. a tree which is ‘really there’ is a collective representation. (S.A., pp 16-17.)
In other words, Barfield was an unashamed correlationist. Indeed, he seems to have stopped just short of inventing this term:
Whatever may be said or thought about a microscopic or sub-microscopic reality, it must be admitted…that the macroscopic world is not independent of…awareness[,] but on the contrary is correlative to it. (S.A. p 6.)
This is not an off-hand remark, but a refrain; it is enough to make me suspect that Meillassoux read Barfield and that there must be some exposition in L'inexistence Divine. Again:
Just as ‘the particles’ then (the name here chosen for all that is conceived to exist independently of consciousness), have also been called the unrepresented, so, whatever is correlative to the appearances or representations will here be called the represented. (S.A. p 41)
Indeed, Barfield’s arguments are, in places, so close to the mirror-image of Meillassoux’s as to make reading Saving the Appearances back to back with After Finitude a slightly uncanny experience. I will say more about this next post.

From having established the implication of consciousness in the construal of the world (and it’s important to stress that Barfield seems to regard this as unproblematic, though of course it has surprising ramifications which he intends to spell out) Barfield goes on to argue that the fact that we do not anymore experience this as a lived reality already shows that something has shifted between us and our ancestors. This difference is that we are detached from our collective representations, and they were connected. In sketching the process by which we have become progressively more detached, Barfield gives a sort of rough taxonomy of thinking. Given any experience, Barfield says, there is more than one thing one can do. One can first of all simply participate in it. The word “participate” of course already means that one is in some manner construing it, but it does not entail any further ratiocination. For this, Barfield uses the term figuration; and what one thus “figures” is a representation. Thus from the welter of smells, sights, and sounds, emerge coffee, the ocean, a church bell—what one might call the intentional object. Secondly, one can think about these representations, though not qua representation, simply qua coffee, ocean, bell. This is the sort of thinking we usually do; it is both the thinking I do when I clean up my apartment (“Arrgh, look at all these books! Not enough space on the shelves, not enough walls for the shelves!”) and what the scientist does when rolling spherical weights down a ramp or comparing bacteria cultures in Petri dishes. Such thinking Barfield calls alpha-thinking to distinguish it from beta-thinking, which term denotes thinking about representations qua representations, about the nature of them to our own minds; about perception and about thinking itself.

It is important thing to note that citizens of the modern “liberal” West, ancient Greeks, and members of a contemporary “primitive” tribe, all engage in what Barfield calls alpha-thinking. This is simply thinking about collective representations; it does not presuppose that the representations which are its subject-matter are either participated or non-participated. Thus Lévy-Bruhl’s “natives” thinking about the araras parrot, while conscious of participating in its parrothood, if I can put it that way, are doing alpha-thinking as much as the American ornithologist for whom the parrot is a very different object. By the same token, alpha-thinking and beta-thinking do not differ in being different kinds of thinking, Barfield says, but only in terms of their object; the latter is thinking about thinking, and in principle can also be done by anyone. However, both forms of thinking have effects. Historically, alpha-thinking, as a function of our consciousness, was not neutral; it construed the representations themselves, and the way it construed them, as the centuries passed, was more and more as an ultimate—that is, not as something construed at all. This is to say that as the function of “aboutness” loomed larger in alpha-thinking, participation waned; so that the very representations that are the matter of alpha-thinking in the late 19th century are different from those of the medieval world or those of Homer.
But a representation which is collectively mistaken for an ultimate—ought not to be called a representation; it is an idol. (S.A. p62)
This is why Barfield subtitled Saving the Appearances, “A Study in Idolatry.” By “idol,” he meant a representation that was made by us but felt to be independent. To construe phenomena as precisely unconstrued is to make them into objects. “Object” of course is too common a word to be a dead giveaway, but my sense is that Barfield may be read as anticipating (though not decisively refuting) Harman or Bryant’s Object-Oriented version of speculative realism just as he certainly seems to have foreseen more than one of Meillassoux’s maneuvers. I will treat of this in the next post.


  1. What you say about Barfield and correlationism raises the question about the deep sources of ancient forms of realism and the general shape of the answer to the question: What is the nature of the object such that the mental aspect of our interaction with it does not differ from its reality? As has been said, we see through our ideas and the default assumption is that this 'gauze' is not a distorting medium. We participate directly in the life of the object.

    Does Barfield hold that focusing on the representation in the Lockean way is a sterile form of life preventing the reality of the object from manifesting itself? One thinks of the Zen concept of 'tzujan' or selfso-ness.

    Clearly I must read Saving.

  2. o~~ My (corrigible) impression is that Barfield might say that original participation, at least in the "common" person, was anciently conscious, but unaware that it construed (or, as you say, distorted) its objects. Indeed, one might say that the awareness of this distorting effect went hand-in-hand with the critique of the very idea of participation, the rise of the dream of the objects unproblematically presented. While Barfield clearly has a correlationist bias, I think his notion of participation may be salvageable, e.g. via the Latourian move that sees every interaction as a kind of construal.

    Barfield acknowledges that Locke's distinctions have made for a certain progress. He thinks that original participation either needed to be, or at least was inevitably going to be, let go. He sees the scientific revolution (with its roots in Greece), paired with the parallel (but very different) Hebrew critique of the idols,as a kind of purification, after which a sort of new and improved participation can flower. Perhaps this "final" participation would be aware of the way it "distorted," and able to course-correct, as it were.

    How much this might intersect with such Zen accounts of thusness is not quite clear to me. I think he thinks of thusness as the unrepresented, and towards the end of SA there are speculations that the unrepresented itself might become phenomena.

    Saving the Appearances is an essential read for anyone interested in perennialism. It isn't just a rehash of Guenon and Schuon--it starts independently of them and it goes in new directions--but it's coherent and (potentially) of a piece with this strain of philosophy.

  3. This is an absolutely crazy coincidence. I'm a Barfieldian in some respects and read After Finitude in just the same way as you did. I thought I was the only one on the internet that knew of Barfield but had interest in contemporary philosophers. Most "friends of Barfield" are talking about Michealic beings and whatever else and not coming down to earth with folks that just find his ideas intriguing, interesting enough to meditate on and develop. One can be dispassionate about these subjects as well despite their "weirdness."

    Anyway, I thought the first few chapters of Meillassoux's book could be read as a direct response to Barfield whether Meillassoux knew of him or not. And vice versa, I think Barfield's arguments are a direct challenge to what Meillassoux argues. If I ever get the chance, I plan to write an essay pitting the two against each other. Barfield will win though!

    Why? Well, the fundamental problem with Meillassoux starting point is his unquestioned acceptance of the "arce-fossil" as exclusively material. Meillassoux's arguments are very strong against correlationists that share his assumption and predilection for materialism - and the history of the world it entails - but not for others who reject it. His argument is similar to the argument that there cannot be a non-reductive physicalism. Many physicalists don't want to be associated with the seemingly absurd theories of hardcore reductionists and eliminativists so they try to tightrope a materialism that does "justice" to the mental. However, Jaegwon Kim has convincingly argued that this cannot be done. Similarly, many correlationists do not want to contradict or want to seem in conflict with the standard scientific accounts of the history of our universe and thus attempt a "two-step" philosophy in order to square the implications of what they're saying with standard accounts. Quentin Meillassoux deftly shows that this cannot be done, forcing the correlationists who share his assumptions and understanding of realism to either abandon their correlationism or state plain and accept the consequences of what they're saying.

  4. For Barfield's part, the correlationists that feel the sting of Meillassoux arguments are
    suffering from what he calls the "Residue of Unresolved Positivism." http://davidlavery.net/barfield/encyclopedia_barfieldiana/lexicon/rup.html
    That is, they have logically abandoned positivism and even materialism but they have not gone far enough - they still harbor beliefs that prevent them from truly moving beyond it.

    If they were to truly be free of RUP they would reject the idea that the arche-fossil existed in only a material sense and argue forcefully, as Barfield does, that mind preceded matter. Or, at the very least, correlative to its development. It's here that we can note a certain lack of imagination in Meillassoux arguments when we pit him against Barfield. Barfield, after all, is convinced of the evolution of consciousness and has no problem arguing that selfconsciousness, for example, is a [i]late[/i] development for humanity as a whole. So if self-consciousness is a late development, what was before? How could one still remain a correlationist when ceding the emergence of consciuosnes or mind? But is the concept of consciousness or mind regulated only to self-consciousness? Obviously not, otherwise the concept of the unconscious, subconscious, or even self-consciousnes would not make much sense. That is, there are degrees of consciousness. The mistake of Meillassoux is to think that a correlationist must argue in such a way as to suggest that the world is correlated to a self-conscious perceiver and not to consciousness as such.The arche-fossil itself may exist without self-conscious perceivers but by that fact alone is not thereby independent of mind altogether.

    If the correlationist were to take this tact, Meillassoux's argument does not have much of an effect. It would, however, force the correlationist into some rather deep and radical waters which many simply are not prepared to traverse - it would involve no less than a new intepretation of the "facts" the physical sciences. Meillassoux's argument works precisely because he aligns himself with science and most people today assume that to align themselves with the scientific spirit is to accept scientific materialism. Thus, he can readily and accurately charge correlationists with talking out of both sides of their mouths so long as they want to accept as uncritically as he does the arche-fossil in a purely material sense - in so far as it is assumed by all parties that matter preceded mind, Meillassoux will have the upper hand on most of his targets. Barfield, however, does not accept this and takes the debate to a much higher level. Albeit, as his custom, he can be dismissed out of hand so OOO can go on like they are currently ( taking for granted many things Barfield calls into question). But it need not be the case.

  5. chenroy,

    thanks and welcome.

    Barfield's was ahead of Meillassoux, no question, but of course precedent-mongering is not my point. I have however been somewhat surprised that few others seem to be as struck by it as myself. Of course, it may simply be that there are not many who are interested in both thinkers, but (as you yourself confirm), I am certainly not so idiosyncratic.

    I do think that Meillassoux is aware that there is an Idealist response to his critique, or rather, that Idealism in a certain sense escapes it, since Meillassoux distinguishes between strong correlationism and idealism. I am actually less sanguine on this point myself. Barfield is hard to read here, and I am not sure I follow him While, at least in StA, he is explicit in not making a metaphysical argument along Berkeley's lines, it's clear that his position derives from his reading of romanticism (though he wants to see it "come of age," and thinks that failing this it will just turn decadent), and the connection between romanticism and idealism, esp. in Coleridge, is clear enough in outline.

    I don't know how evident it is, but insofar as I am a fellow-traveler among Speculative Realists, you see me trying to wend a middle course between Harman's pan/polypsychism (which I think does have some interesting possible overlap with Barfield's idealism) and Meillassoux insofar as he actually has respect for correlationism and wants to push it further (til it inverts), rather than Harman's near-disdain. In any case, I am very glad you see the point about Barfield making the arche-fossil not a bug but a feature.

  6. Indeed, Barfield is very tough. I don't discuss him much precisely because I'm still working through much of his ideas - many supplemental readings. However, on this arche-fossil point he's pretty explicit in World's Apart that it need not be self-conscious man. The only caveat being that Barfield does seem to argue that man has been evolving from the very beginning - i.e unconsciously. As if a child in the womb of nature. In the same way a child develops from unconscious fetus to a self-conscious being, Barfield suggests that humanity as a whole has been developing from an unconscious state to a self-conscious one.

    I'll try and say some more things later on in the week. Your second post seems fantastic. Too many "friends of Barfield" are uncritical or mute on certain points, becoming proselytizers rather than philosophers. Good to see someone else wrestling with his ideas.