Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 498

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As Barfield is keen to acknowledge, the most fundamental intellectual theme in Saving the Appearances has its roots in the literary and philosophical traditions of nineteenth century Romanticism. The idea that the human mind does not merely observe the outside world but, in perceiving, partly creates it as well echoes Coleridge and the thrust of the German Idealistic school that Coleridge had appropriated. In Poetic Diction, Barfield noted that his own theory of knowledge had been born of his experience with English Romantic poets, an encounter that led eventually to his What Coleridge Thought (1971). Earlier, his discovery of the work of the turn-of-the-century mystic and philosopher Steiner allowed him to test his own inferentially developed ideas on the role of the imagination in the historical evolution of consciousness against those of a thinker who claimed direct knowledge of sustained experience with a world that transcended the ordinarily perceived one. Steiner had elaborated his reflections on that experience into voluminous teachings on spiritual science or anthroposophy, which Barfield has described elsewhere as “nothing less than Romanticism grown up.”

Saving the Appearances seeks to examine within a historical context the notion of an evolving human consciousness, to show, as one commentator has put it, “that there is an interior aspect to evolution,” an appreciation of which is vital to intellectual and moral well-being. The clear implication of the book is that to study the historical development of Western thought up to the present is to study the various idols that have resulted, and continue to result, when phenomena—instead of being grasped as representations—are held to have an independent and objective existence. Barfield observes that “a representation, which is collectively mistaken for an ultimate—ought not be called a representation. It is an idol.” Iconoclasm, required of people individually and collectively, is the first step, he believes, on the way to final participation in nature. Breaking free of intellectual idolatry is rendered especially difficult, however, because of the currently prevailing materialist view of the world. That view is abetted by modern science, Barfield argues, through its failure to grasp its own epistemological opportunities and limits.

Saving the Appearances takes its title from a phrase invoked frequently by medieval philosophers as they sought to explain the nature of hypothetical thinking. It meant that a hypothesis was valuable insofar, and only insofar, as it explained or “saved” appearances—but was not on that basis to be regarded as true. By the seventeenth century, however, owing largely to the debate over the Copernican cosmic hypothesis, the phrase had acquired a new implication: that if a hypothesis saves all the appearances (that is, explains the phenomena), it is identical with truth. A new theory about the nature of theory had arisen; because of its historical context, it coincidentally diminished Western man’s appreciation of the representational element in phenomena. Barfield’s book sketches a hypothesis aimed at explaining all realities—including the representational ones—underlying phenomena. It aims at saving all the appearances.