Posted on: May 22nd, 2024 Beyond Representation: Barfield on Participation & History (Saving Appearances #2)

Note: this piece is part of a larger series on Owen Barfield’s Saving the Appearances. For the first installment see here. Also for a youtube discussion of it see here.

In chapters IV through VI of Saving the Appearances, Owen Barfield discusses how his four stages of representation (perception, figuration, alpha-thinking, and beta-thinking) give rise to a distinctive view of history and what philosophers in the wake of Plato call “participation.”

Chapter IV, “Participation,” involves a discussion about “contemporary primitive” and “historically early” man, in other words people, groups, & tribes, for example native American tribes (who believe in such realities as mana and waken [page 32]) as well as totemic peoples. Barfield sides with the non-English sociologists such as Levi-Bruhl and Durkheim, who oppose those earlier, English sociologists such as Taylor (who wrote a book called Primitive Culture [page 29]).

The question of this chapter is: What led the these culturally “primitive” groups to worship totems, to attribute reality to non-physical, mystical forces such as mana and waken, etc.? What led them to embue nature with what we moderns would call “supernatural forces”?

Taylor’s view—which no doubt is the “default view” that (functioning in the mode of ideology, I’d argue) is dominant in the commonly held assumptions of most people in, say, the U. S.—is that such primitives engaged in the same kind of discursive reasoning as we modern western people do (that is, that they engaged in alpha-thinking); this is why they held such “irrational” and “mystical” beliefs as alluded to above. In other words, they were seeking an intelligible cause for certain natural phenomena (earthquakes, tsunamis, etc.), and the result of their inquiry was (supposedly) that these were due to “spiritual forces.”

Against this view, Levi-Bruhl and Durkeim want to say that, no: it’s not the case that these people think like we do (in this alpha-thinking kind of way rehearsed above, which reasons from cause to effect, for example) Rather, while seeing with the same eyes as we have, “they do not perceive with the same minds.” To translate this into Barfield’s distinctive vocabulary, they are practicing a different figuration. Not a different alpha-thinking (pace Taylor), but a different figuration.

What is the main difference between their figuration and ours? There are two. First, they experience an extra-sensory connection with the phenomena. Second, they are consciously aware of it. They are consciously aware (unlike us) of their active participation (i.e., of this extra-sensory connection) in the phenomena. (One more difference between them and us: they are not Kantians. That is they do not assume the phenomena are “inside of them.” No: they assume that they are “outside of them.”)

Three additional quick notes about chapter IV. First, Barfield makes it clear, by way of his use of “attention” (page 30) that he is a phenomenological thinker. Second, Barfield thinks that the “totemic stage” he is treating in this chapter is “pre-mythical” (that is, myth for Barfield is already an early form of alpha-thinking). Third, he makes it clear that figuration is “pre-thought” and that it is recognition (page 34).

Moving now to Chapter V (“Pre-history”). The upshot of this chapter, exactly as the title states, is the way we think about the history of the cosmos prior to the emergence of human beings onto the scene. (Note that Barfield here is presupposing the truth of something like Darwinian evolution.) To project our own distinctive mode of thinking, or mentally interacting with the world (which, by the way, is alpha-thinking, since we moderns are habitually and characteristically unaware of figuration) onto the way the cosmos would have appeared to human beings, say, ten billion years ago, is the same mistake as that of Taylor, above. That is, if we are not justified in our assumption that “primitive” peoples (Sioux indians in North America, for example) see or recognize the world as we do, then we are not justified in privileging our own way of seeing over that of other peoples, in our putative description of, say, stellar evolution or the formation of the Atlantic ocean or the Amazon river (events which are purported to have taken place before the emergence of sentient beings on the evolutionary timeline).

Further, Barfield states (rather radically) that any description of such processes—his example is H. G. Wells’ Outline of History—necessarily “never occurred” (37) because there were no human beings (or, to be more precise, sentient beings) to constitute the phenomena. (There are no phenomena, by definition, independent of consciousness; there is only the “unrepresented.”)

He concludes the chapter by turning the tables on Francis Bacon (39). Bacon haughtily derides the idolatry of medieval thought: the idol of the cave, the idol of the tribe, etc. Yet, the situation of our idolatry, Barfield argues, is far worse than that which Bacon criticized: the nature and limits of our (new) idols has not been forgotten; the situation is far worse: they have never even been noticed. (What are our idols? From the context it seems like the answer is: the notional, mathematical models of modern physics.)

In Chapter VI Barfield claims that what distinguishes our phenomena from that of “original participators” is that we are not (we are no longer) aware that we are participating.

He also posits a new term: the “represented,” by which I think he means Platonic form. This is “whatever is correlative to the appearances or representations” (41).

Barfield states that a shift takes place at “the end of the nineteenth century” (43): this is when a certain scientific project (studying “the phenomena to the extent that they can be grasped as independent of consciousness”) ran out of steam. What gave rise to this last gasp? The “implication of the observer” back into the (observed) phenomena. (He must be talking about things like Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and the developments leading up to the double-slit experiment of 1927.)

Two final points in this chapter: 1) “Systematic alpha-thinking” began historically with Greek speculation about astronomy (43–4). There are good reasons (regularity among them) why they would assume that, unlike “sub-lunar phenomena,” the celestial bodies were independent of their consciousness. 2) We can see the evolution of consciousness in the “linguistic fossils” of such terms as λογος and νους. To project our assumptions about the meaning of these terms back onto ancient writers such as Plato, Aristotle, or the Bible is to fundamentally misunderstand these writers/texts.

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