Saving the Appearances Critical Essays

Owen Barfield


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

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...

(The entire section is 1849 words.)