What Barfield Thought

Originally published on Medium.

To take a broad sweep, the Inkling’s project revolved around the relation and tension between rationality and imagination. The Inkling’s were reacting against the hyper-rationality in England in their time, as exemplified through World War I and II, and taking cues from the Romantics to argue for the value of imagination. However, the argument was never for imagination instead of rationality, but the inter-relational dance between both rational faculties and imaginative faculties as two avenues in pursuit of truth. Of the four primary Inkling members, Owen Barfield provided the most developed theoretical treatment of the truth giving potentialities of imagination.

Barfield claimed he continually said the same thing throughout his life, “the same old Barfield, saying the same old thing.” However as editor G.B. Tennyson claims, “there was a subtle kind of truth in Barfield’s modest claim to have been writing the same book over and over: it lay in his consistency of vision, however, rather than in any sort of repetition.”1 In fact, Barfield, though he always approached the evolution of consciousness, wrote about the topic from many angles and in many forms. He wrote from the perspective of the poet in Poetic Diction, as a fictional dialog between university professors in Worlds Apart, and through a supramental entity in Unancestral Voice. His mature thought was published in Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry, which carefully lays out how consciousness has evolved and continues to evolve. This work provides a thorough articulation of Barfield’s philosophical theories and his conclusions from their implications.

In Saving the Appearances, Barfield argues consciousness has evolved along with the evolution of physical phenomena.2 Barfield dissects thinking into three separate acts: figuration, alpha thinking, and beta thinking. For Barfield, “as the organs of sense are required to convert the unrepresented (‘particles’) into sensations for us, so something is required in us to convert sensations into ‘things’”.3 That something is figuration. Figuration is the process by which the unrepresented becomes represented, and what is real is a collective representation. Alpha thinking describes what we typically mean by thinking, and beta thinking is thinking about thinking.4 While Barfield analyzes thinking in depth, it is collective representation, the beginning move of thinking, which is of interest.

Collective representation is key to the evolution of consciousness. Representation involves perceiving, but is greater than perception as it takes into account all of the knowledge and cultural understanding an individual has developed. Barfield says, “I do not perceive any thing with my sense-organs alone, but with a great part of my whole human being.”5 Representation then requires an embodied being situated in a context, and the context is a pre-requisite for transforming the unrepresented into the represented.6 When those representations are collective, we have stumbled upon the domain of reality. In his explanation of ‘collective,’ Barfield claims, “any discrepancy between my representations and those of my fellow men [sic] raises a presumption of unreality and calls for explanation.”7 This explanation does not always depend solely on other individual humans. If the other humans corroborating a collective representation are different in some way — Barfield points to myopia, dullness, or insanity — the representation of the intelligent individual may become the collective representation. He also claims the presumed intelligent, fully-abled human can determine a representation to be collective without the support of others through experience.8 However, both qualifications to his collective are problematic as the definition does not provide a way to determine when a representation can definitively be called collective. It leaves open the possibility for elitist, privileged representations which are determined by people in positions of power. While Barfield does not examine privilege in depth, he has identified an essential driving factor in collective representations. Much of what we take as reality actually consists of representations that are handed to us by those in power. They are not in fact collectively created, only collectively received. While we all receive collective representations as a consequence of growing up, learning to question or critically choose the collective representations is a hard-won skill and often relegated to those labeled academics, visionaries, or revolutionaries. Barfield compares collective representations to language, stating, “collective representations do not imply a collective unity distinct from the individuals comprising the social group.”9 This close relationship between language and collective representations is a leverage point for reimagining and directing the future of consciousness. Further, Barfield also makes as a requirement for collective representation sentience and, “at least one nervous system organized about a spinal cord culminating in a brain.”10 Barfield does not specify that he is referring only to humans and his description could apply to non-human beings who also have nervous systems and brains, such as animals or elves. This opens up more possibilities for redefining collectively representing the world.

Collective representation, as he explains it, leads to Barfield’s articulation of participation, a term he borrows from philosopher Lucien Lévy-Bruhl and sociologist Émile Durkheim. He traces the arc of Western consciousness over the past 3000 years as a move from original participation into idolization and, hopefully, into final participation. But participation is often operating without our conscious input, and he claims, “it is characteristic of our phenomena…that our participation in them, and therefore also their representational nature, is excluded from our immediate awareness.”11 This is true for all participation except final participation, which by definition requires consciously engaging our representations. Original participants see within their representations something of the same kind as themselves.12 Barfield places original participation from pre-history through the Middle Ages. This is a type of mythic thinking akin to philosopher Jean Gebser’s magical or mythic mutation of consciousness. In our time, we are still ignorant of our participation in phenomena, but we have what Barfield calls “mechanomorphic collective representations,” which have become idols.13 Idolatry tracks to Geber’s deficient metal mutation. He pinpoints the origins of this view, stating, “our collective representations were born when men [sic] began to take the models, whether geometrical or mechanical, literally.” 14 This literalness concealed the metaphoric nature of our representations. Barfield further explains, “a representation, which is collectively mistaken for an ultimate — ought not to be called a representation. It is an idol. Thus the phenomena themselves are idols, when they are imagined as enjoying that independence of human perception which can in fact only pertain to the unrepresented.”15 In creating idols, we build objects which have their own independent existence and relate to us as humans in a very particular way which is completely constrained by our representation of them as objects. In our representations as idols, we cut ourselves off from participation because we set up phenomena as other than ourselves. Barfield does not use the term ‘imagined’ in this quote lightly. He is pointing to our creation of idolic structures and how we have received these representations as how the world is, rather than how we have created the world for ourselves. Barfield is careful to state that he is not advocating a return to original participation.16 The antidote to idolatry is what Barfield calls final participation — what Gebser would call integral consciousness.

Final participation requires a conscious experience of our participation with phenomena to point towards truth.17 Barfield claims we currently recognize the potential for final participation in a limited form in the collective unconscious identified by C.G. Jung. Barfield states, “I believe it will seem very strange to the historian of the future, that a literal minded generation began to accept the actuality of a ‘collective unconscious’ before it could even admit the possibility of a ‘collective conscious’ — in the shape of the phenomenal world.”18 In his idea of a collective conscious,19 we actively recognize how our human thinking makes the world. As soon as we see there is no world-in-and-of-itself, but only a world buttressed by our collective manifestations of thought, we can begin to recreate a world which matches our goals and values. The key here again is the collective. When we point to systemic issues, we are pointing to the collective. When we lament our inability to make change, we are touching on the collective. When we gather to raise our voices in protest, we are speaking to the collective. We are often content to receive collective representations from those privileged and in power, especially if we benefit from those received representations. However, we have a duty to question and re-represent the world when the dominant representations are no longer representative of the full collective. Only by seeing the potency of final participation can we begin to move towards a new reality.

In Saving the Appearances, Barfield celebrates that the world is beginning to “hunger for iconoclasm.”20 However, instead of the artists of modernity moving towards final participation, art has instead become itself idolic. Barfield states, “We had come at last to the point of realizing that art can no longer be content with imitating the collective representations, not that these themselves are turning into idols. But, instead of setting out to smash the idols, we have tamely concluded that nothing can now be art which in any way reminds us of nature — and even that practically anything may be art, which does not.”21 Instead of this lukewarm submersion further into idolatry, Barfield claims, “the only possible answer to the idolatry which all our thinking is to-day infected, is the acceptance and conscious ensuing of that directionally creator relation to the phenomenal world.”22 His articulation of the directionally creator relationship relates closely to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s secondary imagination and Tolkien’s concept of subcreation. In short, Coleridge distinguishes primary and secondary imagination from fancy, which Barfield dedicated pages to in his study of Coleridge’s thought. Coleridge sees the primary imagination as, “the living Power and prime Agent of all human perception,” while the secondary imagination is, “an echo of the former, co-existing with the conscious will, yet still as identical with the former in the kind of its agency…it dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to re-create.”23 Tolkien also articulated a similar concept of subcreation, which he places within the realm of story making when, “a new form is made; Faerie begins; Man [sic] becomes a sub-creator.” Tolkien states, “What really happens is that the story-maker proves a successful ‘sub-creator.’ He makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is ‘true.’” He also laments that sub-creators likely all wish to be true makers.24 Barfield’s directionally creator relation is much closer to the secondary imagination than subcreation, though all three are of the same kind. Tolkien’s sub-creator requires a true creator, or God, while Barfield’s participation, like secondary imagination, stems from our always already relationality to the whole.

The question is how we move from idolatry through iconoclasm to final participation. Even in his earliest work, Barfield began pointing towards this shift in consciousness. In his work, Poetic Diction, which was written as a thesis for his B. Litt degree and first published in 1928, he explains the working of great poetry as a “’felt change of consciousness’, where ‘consciousness; embraces all my awareness of my surroundings at any given moment and ‘surroundings’ includes my own feelings. By ‘felt; I mean to signify that the change itself is noticed, or attended to.” 25 The felt change of consciousness elicited by great works of poetry is exemplary of final participation. Though he did not use the term in his early work, he points to a momentary acknowledgement of conscious participation through the lens of certain phrases. Consciousness change is possible through receiving poetic words, but becomes more present during the creation of poetic verse. Of the poet, he says, “Not only from one day or hour to another is there alternation of his mood: his whole consciousness oscillates while his pen is poised in the air, and he deliberates an epithet…And if the two moods must for ever remain incompatible, there is nothing to prevent us looking forward to a time…when, to use a mathematical expression, the frequency of these oscillations may have increased to infinity; at which point at last the poet shall be creating out of full self-consciousness.”26 Here Barfield is anticipating his more fully described final participation, a fully realized polarity between rationality and imagination which allows for the emergence of something new, the creative expression of humanity in words. In the appendix, he places poetry as the highest of all the arts above sculpture or painting. While he believes the felt change of consciousness applies to all forms of art production, poetry differs because, “consciousness is also the actual material in which she [sic] works. Consciousness is to her what their various mediums (marble, pigments, etc.) are to the other arts; for words themselves are but symbols of consciousness.”27 Barfield is here prioritizing consciousness over materiality, which anticipates his phrase “interior is anterior” in his later work.28 His writing in Poetic Diction compliments his mature work as it more fully captures the move towards final participation through the artistic endeavor. Between these two works, his words point to the theme that revolutionaries must become creators.

1. Owen Barfield and G. B. Tennyson, A Barfield Reader: Selections from the Writings of Owen Barfield, (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1999), ix.
2. Owen Barfield, Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry, 2nd ed. (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1988), 65.
3. Ibid., 24.
4. Ibid., 25.
5. Barfield, Saving the Appearances, 20.
6. Much more could be said here about situating the perceiver and could be discussed in light of Donna Haraway’s work. Barfield himself thought, “his capacity for bringing ideas down to earth is especially English and that his own Englishness has been essential to what he has done.” Barfield and Tennyson, A Barfield Reader, xxix.
7. Barfield, Saving the Appearances, 19.
8. Ibid., 20.
9. Barfield, Saving the Appearances, 33.
10. Ibid., 22.
11. Ibid., 40.
12. Ibid., 42–43.
13. Barfield, Saving the Appearances, 52, 62.
14. Ibid., 51.
15. Ibid., 62.
16. Ibid., 45.
17. Barfield, Saving the Appearances, 137.
18. Ibid., 135.
19. When Barfield uses the term collective consciousness, he is not using the term following Durkheim. Durkheim’s description of collective consciousness would more closely track to original participation than final participation.
20. Barfield, Saving the Appearances, 128.
21. Ibid., 131.
22. Ibid., 159.
23. Barfield, What Coleridge Thought, (San Rafael, CA: Barfield Press, 1971), 74.
24. J. R. R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” Tree and Leaf, (HarperCollins Publishers, 2012), Kindle edition.
25. Owen Barfield, Poetic Diction: A Study in Meaning, 3rd ed. (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1973), 48.
26. Barfield, Poetic Diction, 110.
27. Ibid., 182.
28. Owen Barfield, Unancestral Voice, (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1965), 16.