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Owen Barfield’s thought in general is difficult to place within the usual categorical limits of history, philosophy, psychology, or aesthetic theory. At its center is Barfield’s concept of the role of imagination in the evolution of human consciousness, and the consequences of that evolution on human understanding of physical nature, philosophically conceived reality, time, and history. Implicit in this notion is his understanding of how consciousness itself works, how it formulates representations (ideas or images) of the outside world, how its participation in the outside world generates and completes that world’s felt reality, while realizing its own, and how awareness of the changing meaning of words reveals not merely semantic growth or decay but also the evolving mind of the past and of the world it possessed and partially created.

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These linked ideas—developed from primarily literary or linguistic models in his earlier works, such as Poetic Diction: A Study in Meaning (1928) and History in English Words (1926)—are focused primarily in Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry on two issues: the failure of post-Renaissance Western scientific thought to establish a consistent epistemology and the consequences of that failure for Western man’s understanding of the relation “between human consciousness on the one hand and, on the other, the familiar world of which that consciousness is aware.” Saving the Appearances begins from the premise that two things currently obscure that relationship, one an omission and the other an assumption. What is omitted is an effective awareness of the participation of the human mind in the creation and the evocation of the phenomena of consciousness—a participation which philosophy has been emphasizing at least since the work of Immanuel Kant, and to which science itself has been calling attention as it continues to detail the enormous difference between the actual structure of physical reality and its appearance. What is misleadingly assumed is that whatever the truth may be about the relation between man and nature, that relation is fixed and unchanging, “the same now as it was when men first appeared on earth.” The twenty-five tightly reasoned chapters of Saving the Appearances sketch provocatively what happens when that assumption is challenged and that omission remedied.

The first stage of the argument—occupying the first three chapters of the book—fixes the reader’s awareness on the evolutionary nature of this process of participation: That is, at various roughly definable historical periods, the dynamics of the process are seen to change, resulting in significantly different human perceptions of nature and man’s relation to it. In the course of the development of this idea, Barfield insists on two others: that the illusory assumption of a static relation between man and nature may be traced to historical causes; and that a dramatically different vision of man and nature results if one keeps steadily in mind and takes seriously the combined insight of science and philosophy regarding the gulf that yawns between physical nature and its appearance, and regarding the mind’s evolving role in bridging that gulf. The final three chapters examine the historical and theological consequences of this altered vision.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 101

Grant, Patrick. “Belief in Thinking: Owen Barfield and Michael Polanyi,” in Six Modern Authors and Problems of Belief, 1979.

Grant, Patrick. “The Quality of Thinking: Owen Barfield as Literary Man and Anthroposophist,” in Seven: An Anglo-American Literary Review. III (1982), pp. 113-125.

Mood, John J. “Poetic Language and Primal Thinking: A Study of Barfield, Wittgenstein, and Heidegger,” in Encounter. XXVI (August, 1965), pp. 417-433.

Reilly, R.J. Romantic Religion: A Study of Barfield, Lewis, Williams, and Tolkien, 1971.

Sugerman, Shirley, ed. Evolution of Consciousness: Studies in Polarity, 1976.

Tennyson, G.B. “Owen Barfield and the Rebirth of Meaning,” in The Southern Review. V (January, 1969), pp. 42-57.

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