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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1849

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Barfield begins by describing how and what the human mind knows of the physical world. The world “rainbow,” he notes, signifies a consciously shared representation, experienced as the outcome of the sun’s light striking particles of moisture and stimulating sight. The reality of a rainbow exists outside subjective consciousness, but the individual only knows it when he either experiences the word’s meaning or participates through the sense of sight in the outside phenomenon (light striking particles). Science has clearly demonstrated that all matter, a tree, for example, consists of “particles”—“the atoms, protons and electrons of modern physics . . . now perhaps more generally regarded, not as particles, but as notional models or symbols of an unknown supersensible or subsensible base.” In Barfield’s language, these particles are “the unrepresented.” If these particles are there and are all that is there, then, since the particles are no more like the thing called a tree than the raindrops are like the thing called a rainbow, it follows that the appearance of a tree is just as much a shared collective representation as is a rainbow. The whole non-ego, outside world—which science investigates, and which existed in the past—is a perceived system of shared or collective representations realized imagistically in consciousness by the mind’s participation in sense experience, and managed by language.

The mind’s conversion of sense contact with the unrepresented into conscious perception requires another process which Barfield terms “figuration.” One does not hear undulating molecules of air, one hears sound; one hears, for example, a thrush singing. To experience that perception it is necessary to hear not with the ears alone but with “all sorts of other things like mental habits, memory, imagination, feeling and (to the extent at least that the act of attention involves it) will.” Without figuration, the familiar world of collective representations would be closed to the mind. Figuration makes thinking possible. Barfield distinguishes two ways of thinking: “alpha-thinking,” that is, thinking about the phenomena that figuration produces as if they were wholly objective and independent of one’s perception—the sort of thinking science generally attempts—and “beta-thinking,” that is, thinking reflexively about the processes of thinking. Through “beta-thinking” one discovers, for example, that the phenomena are not totally outside and independent of oneself. The book’s subsequent investigation into the relation between mind and matter proceeds from this epistemological base.

Barfield’s term for the interaction of the two is “participation,” a rather difficult concept to grasp in his thought since he uses it to refer to a changing, indeed evolutionary, process that must be grasped analogically. Original participation, the sort experienced by the primitive mentality, is very different from that which is common in the modern West. Citing the findings of anthropology as evidence, Barfield argues that primitive alpha-thinking was substantially different because figuration at that time was different. The primitive mind does not dissociate itself from phenomena—does not, that is, perceive itself as distinct from them, as modern people habitually do. Such a mind, in its act of original participation, perceives representations as synthetic wholes from which the percipient is not distinct, wholes that includean awareness which we no longer have, of an extra-sensory link between the percipient and the representations. This involves, not only that we think differently, but that the phenomena (collective representations) themselves are different.

Barfield sees the evolution of collective representations that determines the evolution of thought and language as correlative to and reciprocal with the evolution of phenomena themselves. As a practical consequence of that view, he argues that one can have no accurate or expressible knowledge of the appearance of the earth before the arrival of man—since what was going on in the unrepresented at that time could not have been constructed into reality through a consciousness capable of figuration. The prehistoric evolution of the earth, as described for example in H.G. Wells’s The Outline of History (1920), “was not merely never seen. It never occurred.” If in one’s efforts to understand the past one naively projects backward into it the modern West’s collective representations, one is creating what Francis Bacon might have called “idols of the study,” and it is precisely the evolution of such idols that has made up much of the development of Western thought.

The history of consciousness in the West shows a gradual diminishing of original participation and a concomitant increase in self-consciousness; the mind becomes more and more isolated within a vacuum of meaninglessness and peers out longingly at inert phenomena that are conceived of not only as objective and independent realities but indeed as the ultimate and only realities. In the nineteenth century, the enormous power of Darwinian evolutionist thought accelerated this tendency, since it proceeded from sophisticated and disciplined alpha-thinking which never questioned the integrity of its own epistemological assumptions. So captivating was this idol of the study that its radiance blinded scientists in many fields of inquiry— in anthropology, for example, requiring the postulation of a primitive man whose blank consciousness faced and was informed by the same phenomena (collective representations) that modern people experience.

The historically real evolution of consciousness had, in fact, followed a much different course. There is, Barfield argues, sufficient philological evidence enshrined in the thought and art of earlier Western periods to demonstrate convincingly that forms of original participation, experienced as modes of knowledge, lasted into the late Middle Ages and perhaps well beyond them. Though how the process worked was a matter of dispute, philosophical thought from Aristotle to Saint Thomas Aquinas assumed that conscious knowledge meant assimilating the representational appearance of reality to grasp in some way the unrepresented— which is not to deny the increasing subjectivization of thought that was then occurring. Barfield believes that the chief difference between primitive (original) participation and the kind experienced in later ages is that in original participation the connection between self and phenomena is experienced directly, not achieved by beta-thinking of any kind. Such original participation was, however, susceptible to idol making of its own, for implicit in it was the sense that “there stands behind the phenomena, and on the other side of them from man, a represented, which is of the same nature as man.” The divine injunction given to ancient Israel held in check that tendency toward idolatry and moved the Jews away from the kind of original participation that fostered it. For Western man in general, however, the demise of original participation was a less dramatic process effected by the relentless evolution of consciousness toward a state of self-consciousness. By the seventeenth century, the Cartesian and empiricist split between subject and object had the effect of achieving the near-total isolation of the ego which seems so characteristically modern. The intellectual ground was prepared for the Darwinian idolatry of a later period.

At this point in his sketch of Western thought, Barfield cites the appearance of certain “symptoms of iconoclasm,” the chief of which was the Romantic movement in both its literary and its philosophical manifestations. He theorizes that extreme self-consciousness produced in the mind images of remembered phenomena “detached or liberated from their originals” and thus at the disposal of the human imagination, which might, if it chose, impart meaning to them. Romantic artists such as William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge so chose. Adopting thereby what Barfield calls “a directionally creator” relationship to nature, manipulating images of phenomena to half-create what they perceived and hence knew, they did, “pro tanto, with the remembered phenomena what their Creator once did with the phenomena themselves.” The movement, however, never achieved in Barfield’s view the full maturity it might have, for while Romantics such as Coleridge understood the way the mind participated in the evoking of reality, they failed to realize imaginatively the nature of man the creator, the relation between whose conscious and unconscious mind generates phenomena, through whom the Logos, the Divine Word, is disclosed. Coleridge may have known intellectually, Barfield implies, that the immanent life in nature—the ultimate unrepresented—was also in him; he may have known that the phenomenal world is man’s collective consciousness, but that knowledge was never experienced by him as it was by Wordsworth, who felt directly and realized in his poetry what Coleridge could better explain discursively.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s early scientific work, Barfield holds, reveals a disciplined imagination that had allowed him to create partially and give meaning to phenomena while simultaneously experiencing them directly. He was thereby enabled to make botanical and anatomic discoveries because his imagination had reached a point where it enhanced figuration itself, as a result making previously unperceived parts of the whole field of phenomena perceptible. This kind of participation Goethe applied to the task of finding pattern in nature, earning Coleridge’s commendation for having transferred the uses of the imagination from literature and art to science.

It is, however, in the thought of the mystic Rudolf Steiner, the founder of anthroposophy, that Barfield claims to have discovered the keenest insight into a systematic use or training of the imagination that may make possible “final participation” and the vanquishing of intellectual idolatry. Because of the esoteric nature of Steiner’s thought, though, Barfield’s efforts to secure for him a wider hearing have clearly put off more traditionally minded critics and students of philosophy.

At the historical point now achieved in the evolution of human consciousness, Barfield’s imagination discerns the possibility of fateful choices to be made. Western man may elect the course of increasing intellectual idolatry and continue, with greater and greater efficiency, to treat phenomena as if they had independent existence. Barfield’s prophecy is that such a course would lead mankind to a world chaotically empty, to a state of idiocy “in which fewer and fewer representations will be collective, and more and more will be private, with the result that there will in the end be no means of communication between one intelligence and another.” Another option, perhaps still available, is to profit from the insight of the Romantics and to model future imaginative thinking on theirs, following the lead of men such as Goethe and Steiner on the difficult journey to final, conscious participation in nature. This course assumes both that human beings are indeed capable through exercise of imagination of achieving “a directionally creator” relation to the phenomena of nature and that if such power is achieved it will be beneficently used. There are, Barfield warns, no guarantees of such an outcome. Conceivably, people might use such participation to move forward to a fantastically hideous world. In the eloquent coda which closes the book, the author leaves no doubt of the kind of choice he believes must be made, despite the dangers. The vision that beckons him is grounded in Barfield’s Christian belief and hope. Encouraged by the Scriptures to believe that as men and women we have been uttered by the Word, we feel, Barfield concludes, “the seed of the Word stirring within us, as imagination.” That stirring makes iconoclasm possible.


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